The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 7, 2012

Thunder show progress in improving their passing

From The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — All season long, cutting down on turnovers was right at the top of coach Scott Brooks’ list of areas where he wanted the Oklahoma City Thunder to improve.

The results are finally starting to come.

The Thunder finished the regular season with the league’s worst numbers in both passing categories, recording the fewest assists while committing the most turnovers. But they’ve been trending in the right direction for about two months now.

In a first-round sweep of defending NBA champion Dallas, Oklahoma City averaged 17.5 assists and only 12.8 turnovers, about three less than its season average.

“I hate to relax and take a deep breath because our guys are aggressive and a lot of times they get very excited about getting into the paint and making plays happen,” Brooks said Monday.

“It feels good that the last series we did a good job of taking care of the basketball.”

Over the past two months, the Thunder have had more turnovers than assists in only four of their 32 games — including the playoffs. Before that, Oklahoma City had more turnovers than assists in 16 of its first 38 games.

After that ragged start, the Thunder reduced its turnover average by one per game — from 17.8 to 16.8 — while producing nearly four more assists, from 15.7 up to 19.5.

It still wasn’t enough to climb out of the crater they dug in the league statistics, but the improvement was evident against the Mavericks.

“We really focused on spacing — not that we’ve never talked about that — and ball movement. Not that we’ve never talked about that, either,” Brooks said. “But a lot of things clicked in that Dallas series.

“Sometimes when you play a team that plays that way, you kind of learn from them, and Dallas is one of the best passing teams.”

Brooks couldn’t pinpoint what made the difference against the Mavs, who forced Oklahoma City into 17.8 turnovers per game in four regular-season meetings but five less than that in the postseason.

“For some strange reason, it worked,” Brooks said. “We kept it simple, our spacing — we weren’t guys on top of each other trying to grab the ball from each other. We were really spacing the floor, and our bigs were doing a great job of running into screens.

“It’s always (that) our turnovers are not just the ball handler. It’s everybody involved, including myself.”

After taking off Sunday, the Thunder had an optional workout Monday. Brooks said nearly all the players were there, although reporters weren’t allowed to see any part of the workout.

He hadn’t yet seen starting center Kendrick Perkins, who is considered day-to-day with a strained muscle in his right hip. Brooks said Perkins “probably” would not have played if the Thunder had needed a Game 5 against the Mavericks on Monday night.

“I just know that the next couple of days, he’s going to continue to get worked on by the medical staff and I have a lot of respect for what they do,” Brooks said.

Oklahoma City planned to hold a regular practice Tuesday to start its preparation for facing either the Los Angeles Lakers or Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. The Lakers lead 3-1 and have their first chance to end the series Tuesday night in L.A.

Brooks said he planned to treat a couple of his practices this week as though they were games to keep the players sharp and mentally engaged during their longest layoff of the season.

“You’re going to have to play very good basketball to beat the Lakers or to beat Denver,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t really matter who we play. As long as we play at the level we’re capable of playing, we’re going to give ourself a chance to win.”

Part of that is spreading the ball around, and not passing it to the other team too many times. Brooks said his review of one of the Dallas games showed Oklahoma City getting nine 3-point attempts from the corner, which he considered a sign of better ball movement.

“There’s been games where we take a month to get nine corner 3s,” he said. “Kevin (Durant) and James (Harden), sometimes they think there’s a beehive over there. They don’t want to get close to it.”