Thursday, December 31, 2009

Staying sharp during a layoff

Happy New Year...

Returned from 66ers practice a short time ago and asked 66ers head coach Nate Tibbetts how he is keeping his team focused during a stretch when they play just two games in 12 days (going 1-1 in Reno last weekend).

"It has been tough with the schedule, both the lack of games and the holidays," he said. "In practice, the guys have been getting a little more competitive, and I think we have to competing in practice. It's been quiet for a bit, but we're getting ready to play four games in six days so we'll need to be sharp. I told the guys during the break that it was an important time to regroup and rest and come out ready to play, starting this weekend."

Guard Cecil Brown also chimed in on the long stretch of not playing.

"We’re trying to build off what we've done so far this season and keep moving forward,” Brown said. "Our practices have been pretty intense and the coaches are making sure we keep improving."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

RGV ups the West Conference ante with Conroy acquisition

With Tulsa currently trailing West Conference leader Rio Grande Valley by two games, the Vipers made a key move earlier today, trading center Kurt Looby to Albuquerque for the rights to guard Will Conroy. He will definitely fill the scoring void left by Mike Harris, who was called up by Houston, and should be in town tonight for the Vipers' game against Austin.

RGV was already a talented team with Antonio Anderson, Joey Dorsey, and Garrett Temple, plus Ernest Scott coming off the bench (Scott has been a thorn for the 66ers ... and plenty of other teams ... from behind the arc). Conroy will add another dimension to the Vipers' game and definitely makes them even more dangerous.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Amazing game unfolding

Watching the third overtime of the Ft. Wayne-Iowa game. Great matchup. Iowa, one of the best teams in the D-League, comes to Tulsa four times while the 66ers will not visit Iowa (gotta love the scheduling). Two of those visits come at the end of January in what could be a critical bit of scheduling for the 66ers, including three home games in the final four days of the month.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Thunder presence

With Byron Mullens returning to the starting lineup for the 66ers tonight, and D.J. White making his first appearance of the season for Tulsa and getting the start at guard, the 66ers definitely have an Oklahoma City Thunder feel in the opener of a two-game series at Reno. So far, White has made his presence felt, with a team-high 10 points thus far.

It's the 3-point shooting that is making the big difference at this point, as Reno has eight long-distance makes while Tulsa is just 2-of-6 from behind the arc.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Will Shakur make it to the All-Star Game?

Yes, it's a few weeks away, but thoughts for me today turn to the D-League All-Star game. Taking a look at the guards in the West Conference, there's a lot of talent out there, and a lot of prolific scorers. Knowing that, it may be tough for Tulsa's Mustafa Shakur to break into the All-Star Game lineup ... yet there may not be a more valuable player right now for the 66ers than Shakur. He is one of the big reasons why Tulsa is surprising at 6-5. While 18.9 points (ninth among guards in the West) and 6.7 assists (third among guards in the West) are the statistical figures, Shakur brings leadership to the table as well.

Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts has told all who will listen how pleased he was that Tulsa could draft Shakur, and that Shakur is an NBA-style point guard. He's not just saying that because of numbers. He's saying it because of the all-important little things (stressed by Tulsa and OKC Thunder coaching staff members) that Shakur does on a nightly basis.

Will these things be noticed by the voters? Here's hoping. If an All-Star Game lineup is based on something other than just stats and more on the value a player brings to his team, Shakur deserves to go to Dallas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More on this year vs. last year

There are two current players who were on the Tulsa 66ers last year ... Moses Ehambe and Steven Hill. Yesterday was spent asking both of them about how things have changed for the team in the span of a year.

Hill was very succinct with his answers...

"The mindset is really to develop, that's the point of this league. The emphasis has been to work on individual skill, especially after practice and win games. It really seems like an NBA setting, from weight training to practice plans, and everything is really well put together and organized."

Let's not forget how important it is for the 66ers to have the Thunder as a more prominent player this season. Last year, Thunder management concentrated on finishing the move from Seattle and really establishing the team in its new home city. This year, the Thunder can shift its focus up the Turner Turnpike toward Tulsa.

The Thunder are improved in the early stages, as are the 66ers. It's no coincidence as both teams have the same philosophy ... playing defense and doing the little things right win games.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Taking a look at last year vs. this year

Just returned from the last 66ers practice before the Christmas break. Sat down for a few minutes with Moses Ehambe to discuss the difference between this year and last year. Tulsa is 6-5 after 11 games this year while the 66ers were 3-8 at a similar point last season. Ehambe is one of two current Tulsa players (Steven Hill is the other) to be with the 66ers both seasons.

Ehambe told me the locker room chemistry is good, just like last year, but it's the mental mindset of the team that has changed the most.

"We have more of a team approach this year," Ehambe said. "No one on this team is thinking 'I have to get mine' or thinking only what they have to do to get to the next level. We also have a lot more confidence this year. We know we can play with and beat the best teams in the D-League."

Ehmabe points to a visit from Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks as a real turning point for the team.

"When he came to our practice, he told each of us to not get complacent," Ehambe said. "The Thunder already have Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. They're looking for people who are making the extra pass, hustling to get a rebound, and playing solid defense."

Defense has been preached by the 66ers and Thunder coaching staffs since the opening day of practice and it shows. In Tulsa's last outing, defense made the difference as Tulsa rallied from an 11-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to win in overtime. Tulsa held the Vipers to 5-of-27 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, while limiting the West Conference leaders to nearly 16 points below their season average, even with the overtime period.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Keeping an eye on Reno-RGV tonight

Should be an interesting matchup tonight as Reno and Rio Grande Valley square off in the D-League's only game of the night (8:30 ET). Both teams play a direct role in Tulsa's future. Reno is the destination for the 66ers right after Christmas for the first of five visits to the Bighorns (no, Reno doesn't come to Tulsa ... a scheduling quirk that's disappointing) for back-to-back games. Rio Grande Valley, 2-2 against Tulsa this year, is still one of the class teams of the West and doesn't face the 66ers again until mid-March.

Reno is right behind 6-5 Tulsa in the standings at 4-4 so a Bighorn win would push Reno just ahead of the 66ers. Rio Grande Valley, however, is 3-0 at home this season.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Washington plays a big role in Tulsa's win

It was a little surprising to hear of Keith Clark's trade to Los Angeles for Deron Washington, but the third overall pick in the 2009 D-League draft proved his worth on Saturday night, scoring six of his 11 points in overtime to lead Tulsa to a 94-89 win over Rio Grande Valley. Tulsa (6-5) has won four of its last five games.

Wild ending to a wild game

Tulsa's Mustafa Shakur missed a 15-footer with 2 seconds left to keep the game tied at 83. Rio Grande Valley's Michael Harris has single-handedly kept the Vipers in the game, scoring all of his team's 11 points in the fourth quarter, but missed a free throw with 14.5 seconds left that, in hindsight, could've provided the visitors with the winning points.

And...Garrett Temple missed a long jumper at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, the first of the season for both teams.

Fourth quarter explosion

With 4:16 left in the game, Tulsa is on an 18-2 run to open the fourth quarter. The 66ers, struggling in the third quarter to find any offense, has put the defensive clamps on Rio Grande Valley in the final period. Tulsa leads 79-74.

Highs, then lows

One night after setting a new season high with 108 points scored, the Tulsa 66ers just established a season low in first-half points, hitting just 38. It certainly could've been worse, as the 66ers hit seven points in the half's final 90 seconds, including two consecutive baskets from Steven Hill as Tulsa grabbed a 38-37 lead at intermission.

Vipers out of synch

Antonio Anderson keeps imploring his teammates to pick it up, but Rio Grande Valley just isn't responding. The West Conference leaders seem out of sorts and haven't scored in the last six-plus minutes.

The maturation of Larry Owens

Owens has come into his own during this two-game homestand with Rio Grande Valley. After 27 points on Friday night, he has six of Tulsa's first 11 points tonight and is taking the ball to the hole with authority.

Friday, December 18, 2009

66ers have season-best night in win over Vipers

Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts and the parent Oklahoma City Thunder have preached defense to the 66ers since training camp opened. You could tell on Friday night that the message had been received loud and clear.

Tulsa improved to 5-5 on the season with its season-best offensive output of 108 points in a 108-90 win over West Conference leader Rio Grande Valley. But the offense may not be the biggest story to come out of the Convention Center. If you look inside the box score, you'll see that Tulsa pieced together runs of 13-2 in the first half of 19-2 to open the second half. Those two runs encompassed a span of nearly 10 minutes when the potent Viper offense mustered just two total baskets. Two.

Yes, Larry Owens looked good stroking a season-high 27 points and Cecil Brown looked smooth as well hitting 9-of-14 from the floor on his way to 22 points. However, Tibbetts knows it was defense that made the difference for Tulsa on Friday night.

"I was proud of how our starters came out and set the tone after halftime," said Tibbetts, who saw his team hit a season-best 51.8 percent of its field goal attempts while RGV made just over 40 percent. "We came out with great energy and got some important stops early. We went into halftime losing the rebounding war, but we turned that around quickly."

Tulsa edged the Vipers on the board 49-46 and forced 19 turnovers. Defense wins.