Durant, Westbrook too much for Cousins, Kings


Durant, Westbrook too much for Cousins, Kings


SACRAMENTO (AP) Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are no longer just a young team happy to make the playoffs, they are convinced they are legitimate NBA championship contenders this season."We're growing up, We hold ourselves to a higher standard now," said Durant, who leads the NBA in scoring this season.It was another strong effort for Durant, who had nine of his 32 points in the fourth quarter against Sacramento in Oklahoma City's 120-112 win over the Kings on Monday night.Russell Westbrook had 30 points and nine assists for the Thunder, who beat the Kings for their fifth straight victory.Oklahoma City (55-26) has clinched the Northwest Division and will be seeded no worse than fourth in the playoffs. The Thunder trail Dallas by a game and the Los Angeles Lakers by a half game.The Thunder, who had an emotional road win Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers, are 16-3 since losing to the Memphis Grizzlies on March 7.They conclude their regular season Wednesday at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, while Dallas meets New Orleans.Despite the strong finish over the past six weeks, Durant said it won't mean much once the playoffs begin this weekend."It's very important (how we finish), but we also know that what we did in March and April is all out the door once the playoffs start," said Durant, who made four free throws in the final 41 seconds to secure the victory.The Thunder will head into the playoffs with Kendrick Perkins handling the middle. Since arriving in a trade with Boston on Feb. 24, he has brought a toughness and defensive presence to a team that lacked it a year ago."I see this team really starting to play together," said Perkins, who had six points, three rebounds and blocked two shots."We're starting to think defense first. We keep improving and we have a bunch of guys who are hungry. They like to win and take losing hard."Despite a dismal record and a possible move to Anaheim looming, the Kings (24-57) played inspired before a boisterous crowd of 15,683 that at times showed its verbal support by chanting to keep the team in Sacramento.Rookie center DeMarcus Cousins made 18 of 21 free throws and had a career-high 30 points and nine rebounds for the Kings, who have dropped six straight to the Thunder. Marcus Thornton had 21 points and nine rebounds, Beno Udrih also scored 21 and Jason Thompson added 16."(The move) is not something I'm thinking about, I'm a Sacramento King," said Cousins, whose free throws made and attempted were both records for a rookie in the Sacramento era. "The only thing I'm thinking about Wednesday is finishing this season with a bang. Like I said, I'm a Sacramento King."Serge Ibaka, who moved into the starting lineup when Jeff Green went to Boston, had 14 points, eight rebounds and six blocks for the Thunder, who trailed by six points at the half.James Harden scored 10 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter when the Thunder converted 16 of 17 free throws to hold off the Kings."It was great to come in here and get a win on the road in back-to-back games," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "This is not an easy place to play. They have been playing good basketball. We knew that we were going to be in a good game tonight."If the Thunder win and the Mavericks lose, Oklahoma City moves into the third slot because it defeated Dallas 2-0 in the season series. The Lakers have two games remaining, including the season finale in Sacramento."The Lakers was a big win, but it was even bigger to come in here tonight and keep it going," said Westbrook, who added six rebounds, two steals and a block."We're ready to go once the playoffs start. We're older and know what to expect this year."The Kings quickly opened a 10-point lead early in a high-scoring third quarter that was both physical and fast paced.Scoreless in the opening half, Ibaka scored 12 points in the third and Westbrook had 11. Durant's 3-pointer just before the buzzer gave the Thunder an 87-83 lead.The Thunder went on a 7-1 run to open the fourth and built the lead to 101-89 by the 8:55 mark. Inspired by their fans, the Kings kept the game within reach.The Kings cut the lead to 114-110 on Thornton's 3-pointer, but Westbrook answered with a jumper with 55 seconds left to put the Thunder ahead by six.The Kings played without last year's rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans, who sprained his left ankle in Sunday's victory over the Golden State Warriors. Evans said he would play against the Lakers.Notes: The Kings are 11-29 at home and must defeat the Lakers on Wednesday night to avoid tying the worst home record in franchise history. The Kings went 11-30 in 2008-09. ... Thunder backup center Nazr Mohammed made all five shots and had 10 points, five rebounds and five fouls in 18 minutes.

Burns getting his points, but other Sharks d-men are not


Burns getting his points, but other Sharks d-men are not

SAN JOSE – Brent Burns has resumed his place among the NHL’s highest scoring defensemen. His nine points (3g, 6a) puts him first among all blueliners, and ties him for second overall in the league scoring race with six others.

For the rest of the Sharks’ defense corps, though, the points haven’t been there just yet. Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s overtime score on Tuesday was the first goal by a Sharks defenseman that employs the use of a razor on a regular basis, while he and the four others on the back end have combined for just three assists in seven games.

While that lack of production is reflected in the team’s goals-per game average – 2.26, 26th in the NHL – coach Pete DeBoer isn’t all that concerned. He attributes it more to being unlucky than anything else.

“We’ve put a lot of pressure on the other team five-on-five. The puck has bounced, or we just haven’t finished,” DeBoer said. “We’re getting some chances. Most nights we’re out-chancing the other team, and usually that’s a formula for success for us.”

The Sharks have been a strong team in terms of possession, as the coach indicated. They are averaging 32.4 shots per game, fourth in the NHL, and are second in the NHL in shot attempt percentage in close games (56.3 percent).

Still, they could have more. Vlasic, Justin Braun, David Schlemko, Paul Martin and Brenden Dillon have a combined 51 shots on goal, but they’ve also had 48 attempts that have been blocked. In fact, Braun and Martin both have had more attempts blocked than have that made it through to the goalie.

“Five-on-five we haven’t really been getting the tips or the dirty goals around the net that come off shots, but that starts with us getting it through,” said Braun, who has seven shots, but 12 that have been blocked. “The more shots we can get towards the net the better chance we’ll have for the forwards to bang some home, and go from there.”

David Schlemko is also scoreless through seven games, but he managed six shots against the Ducks on Tuesday and has 17 for the year (with 13 blocked). Other than Burns, he’s been the Sharks’ most effective defenseman at getting the puck through.

Brenden Dillon (nine shots, eight blocked) and Paul Martin (five shots, 10 blocked) have one assist each.

Martin indicated that it gets harder and harder every year to get shots through, as more teams commit to getting in lanes. The Sharks also make it a point to put the puck on Burns’ stick as much as they can, considering how much of a weapon he is. Both are factors in those low point totals.

“A lot of times we key on making sure that [Burns] gets the puck. But teams do a better job each year at getting in lanes and blocking shots and fronting pucks and packing it in [around the net],” Martin said. “It’s harder to get pucks through to the net than it used to be.”

The primary role of the defense, of course, is to defend. Except for some notable lapses against the Rangers and Red Wings, the Sharks have been doing that fairly well, holding the opposition to just 24.9 shots per game, second in the NHL.

As long as they keep that up, and Burns continues to produce, the Sharks will be in a good position to win on a nightly basis.

“We’re defending well,” DeBoer said. “That’s our team defense, and that starts with us controlling the play, playing in the other team’s end [and] putting pressure on the other team. I think that’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on all the way back to the beginning of last year.”

Raiders enjoying change of scenery in Florida, but focused on football

Raiders enjoying change of scenery in Florida, but focused on football

SARASOTA, Fla. – The Raiders hope central Florida is a home away from home. They’re treating this week in picturesque Sarasota as a normal practice week, with freedom to roam after practice and meetings and meals.

While that makes it sound like Raiders can take advantage of this beautiful beach town and the Ritz Carlton amenities, that isn’t exactly true. While there have been dinners and trips to the hotel’s beach club, most have become familiar with the quarantined event space housing most non-practice activities.

“I looked out this morning and realized there was actually water close by,” head coach Jack Del Rio said with a smile. “It only took me three days to realize that. We’re just going about our business really. Happens to be a beautiful city, but the work’s the same. Put the last game behind you, get ready for the next. Understand what they like, what they’re good at, who their strong players are. Who are some guys that are not as strong? We want to make sure we attack them, things like that. It’s very normal in terms of the preparation and the way we’re going about our business.”

The Raiders have a fixed routine through the heart of his practice week. They have morning meetings as always, with a walk thru conducted in a hotel ballroom. Then they eat and head out to the famous IMG Academy, located 16 miles north in Bradenton. Their first full practice was conducted Wednesday afternoon. 

The school/training space has some famous alumni and trainees including Cam Newton, Tim Howard, Andre Agassi and Amar’e Stoudemire.

A few Raiders have trained there as well. Amari Cooper participated in a national 7-on-7 tournament there, and three offensive linemen did pre-NFL draft work at a massive facility that also acts as a school for athletic children.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s pretty nice,” Crabtree said. “I just don’t when all those guys go to school. It seems like it’s sports year round. That’s a nice facility and that’s good.”

The Raiders hope to mimic a typical game week, but it’s not always easy. This still feels like a road trip, though it’s a pretty nice one with perfect weather and a postcard’s backdrop.

“It’s just a change of scenery. I feel like we’re just enjoying it,” Crabtree said. “It’s beautiful. Sarasota, this is nice. Taking it all in and at the same time, we’re working every day. You can’t beat this weather. You can’t beat this scenery, the Ritz, you can’t beat none of this. I’m just taking it all in, enjoying it and playing ball.”

Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith compared this experience to training camp in Napa where a team really comes together, though it comes with a bit less stress.

“As far as team bonding goes, this has been a great experience,” he said. “It’s better than camp because we’re not fighting for jobs and things like that. This is our group, and we’re focused on getting ready to play."

There are ancillary benefits to a long Florida trip as well.

“I love it, man. The weather’s nice and there’s no state tax here,” Carr said with a laugh. “That’s always a good thing for the people that live here. (laughter) It’s been awesome. The people here have been great.”