Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Heading into the end of 2010, what I like about the 66ers right now

Taking in the entire year of 2010 (including last season), this has been the best year in the history of the 66ers franchise. With just one game left in the calendar year (Thursday at Austin), let's take a look at what is working right now for Tulsa.

At 8-6, and having won five of their last seven games, there's plenty to choose from, but I'll focus on just three things right now.

1. Jerome Dyson.
He hasn't started any of the 11 games in which he has appeared thus far, but there's no question that he brings a spark off the bench. He's a versatile scorer (13.4 points per game) who hustles and makes things happen. He's been a pleasant surprise ... and he's hit in double-digits scoring in nine of his last 10 appearances.

2. Latavious Williams on the boards.
It's no surprise that Williams is rebounding well. After all, he did that last year, including setting a new single-game record. This year, he's even more of a monster on the boards, averaging a team-leading 8.6 per game. His 21-rebound game against Fort Wayne was a site to watch. He's getting better and better under the boards, and that should be a scary thing for the rest of the D-League.

3. Winning without OKC help. Other than some spot appearances by Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich, there hasn't been much in terms of Thunder players suiting up for the 66ers. Many said that was the key to Tulsa's success last season (see the numbers for D.J. White, Kyle Weaver, Mullens, etc., from last season) but the 66ers are winning on their own this year. It's a solid team under the watch of the Thunder and will only get better should Mullens or Aldrich return to Tulsa sometime this season.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

66ers win over Fort Wayne with free throws and a historic rebounding night

Latavious Williams rewrote his own record on Thursday night, grabbing a team-record 21 boards and scoring 12 points as Tulsa won in overtime over Fort Wayne, 100-93.

That was impresssive to be sure, but don't overlook what Tulsa did at the free-throw line. The 66ers hit 28-of-30 attempts, including all 24 tries in the fourth quarter and overtime to earn a win on what 66ers head coach Nate Tibbetts called, "a night when neither team had its best stuff."

Seven 66ers scored in double figures as Tulsa won its third straight game to improve to 6-4.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Byron Mullens back in Tulsa

Oklahoma City Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti announced that the team has assigned Byron Mullens to the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League.

Last season, Mullens appeared in 27 regular season games with the 66ers, the proud affiliate of the Thunder, and posted averages of 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in 31.5 minutes per contest. He received a 2009-10 All NBA D-League Honorable Mention at the conclusion of the season.

Mullens will be in uniform Friday night when the 66ers travel to South Dakota to take on the Skyforce at the Sioux Falls Arena.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Aldrich returns to OKC ... what does that mean for Tulsa?

Oklahoma City Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti announced yesterday that the team has recalled center Cole Aldrich from the Tulsa 66ers.

Aldrich appeared in five games (five starts) for the 66ers and averaged 7.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots in 27.4 minutes.

So what does that mean for the 66ers? Marcus Lewis saw a drop in his minutes with Aldrich around, so look for him to be back on the court more. Also, with Latavious Williams returning from injury, he'll be looked to more and more on the glass.

Aldrich's departure leaves the 66ers as a height-challenged team (Lewis, Williams, and Ryan Reid are all 6-foot-8 and the tallest players on the team) so keeping opponents off the boards and out of the paint will be key for Tulsa.

The 66ers play next on Friday night at Sioux Falls.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mustafa Shakur's return to Tulsa

It was a strange sight on Sunday night inside the Tulsa Convention Center. Mustafa Shakur ... in red ... running the other team's offense against the Tulsa 66ers.

During Tulsa's magical playoff run last season, Shakur ran the offense to precision from his point guard position. On Sunday night, Tulsa fans saw Shakur once again work his magic, but this time for the other team in Rio Grande Valley's 117-105 decision over the 66ers.

Shakur finished with a typical "Mustafa line" ... 17 points, six rebounds, six assists.

"We're fortunate to have him," said Rio Grande Valley head coach Chris Finch. "He does a lot of things for us and, once we get our team settled around him, I think he's going to be able to do even more. He has a great chance to crack through to the next level."

Shakur was called up by the Oklahoma City Thunder last season after scoring 19.2 points and dishing out 6.9 assists per game. After this year's D-League draft, Shakur was traded to the Vipers in exchange for Robert Vaden, who was selected by Rio Grande Valley in the first round of the draft.

"It wasn't a complete shock when I heard I was traded," Shakur said after Sunday night's game. "Once it happened, it hit me that I was really going to have to start all over. I knew I had to go to a new place and learn a new system."

And how did it feel to go to one of Tulsa's D-League rivals?

"Ironic," Shakur smiled. "But it's been a blessing. I've played for two teams where the NBA franchises are very involved in the teams."

Shakur described Sunday night's game as "bittersweet," knowing he'd be playing against his former coach (Nate Tibbetts) and former teammates Larry Owens, Latavious Williams, Marcus Lewis, and Zabian Dowdell.

"It was a bittersweet night," Shakur said. "I'm glad we got the win, but it was playing against an organization that has done so much for me."

It was also a different kind of night for Tibbetts, watching his former point guard drive, dish, and score like he did so many nights last year inside the Tulsa Convention Center.

"He's a great guy and a great person and we certainly wish him nothing but the best," Tibbetts said.

As for Shakur's future, he believes being a leader will be the key to advancing to the NBA.

"I know I have to work on my leadership and continue to lead the young guys," the former Arizona guard said. "I also have to show some more continuity in my game."

Shakur was one more game against his former team this season, with the Vipers scheduled to return to Tulsa on March 26.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Aldrich assigned to 66ers

Oklahoma City Thunder has assigned center Cole Aldrich to the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League, it was announced today by Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti.

Aldrich has appeared in five games this season for the Thunder, averaging 1.0 points and 2.2 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game.

Aldrich represents the 16th assignment by a Thunder player to the Tulsa 66ers. Over the past two seasons Thunder roster players have appeared in more than 100 D-League contests with the 66ers.

Friday, November 19, 2010

66ers open season tonight at Bakersfield ... what to watch

The Tulsa 66ers begin their quest for the NBA D-League championship tonight in Bakersfield where they'll meet the Jam in the first of back-to-back games this weekend. Tulsa will be looking for better luck than it had last season in Bakersfield when it dropped both games.

Just four of Tulsa's 10 players were with the 66ers last season, meaning life on the road in the D-League could be a new experience for the majority of the players.

"We've been talking about how we're going to approach things on the road," Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts said. "These are guys who have played on big-time college programs in front of big road crowds. We're going to emphasize bringing energy and effort every night."

One of the players who will set the example for the newcomers is 6-foot-7 forward Larry Owens, the former Oral Roberts University star who started all 50 games for the 66ers last season. Owens averaged 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season, then played for the D-League Select team in the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League.

Tulsa's other returnees include former ORU center Marcus Lewis, point guard Zabian Dowdell, and forward Latavious Williams, who finished 13th in the D-League in rebounding last season as a rookie, averaging 7.7 boards per outing.

"It's valuable to have those four guys on our team because there's a comfort level there from last season," Tibbetts said. "They know our philosophy and know what to expect from these road games."

Here are three things to watch in this weekend's series...

1. Does Tulsa have a lack of height? When the 66ers cut 7-footer Josh Lomers in the last round of cuts, that left rookie Perry Stevenson as the tallest Tulsa player on the roster at 6-9. Will that be a problem for the 66ers facing Bakersfield's 6-11 Luke Zeller and 6-10 Drew Naymick? We'll see.

2. Tulsa is the hunted, not the hunter. Last year the 66ers weren't expected to do much and surprised everyone with a strong season. This year, Owens, Williams, and the 66ers are well known throughout the league. Will that additional expectation play a role?

3. How will the rookies play? Tulsa traded for Robert Vaden and he's expected to be a scoring force this season. "Tweety" Carter is expected to help Dowdell at the point and Stevenson may be depended upon for some big minutes (and rebounds) inside. How will they play, and what kind of chemistry will evolve on this team?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

66ers make a trade after the draft

I didn't blog last night because I felt something was in the works. At the 66ers draft party last night, you could just get the feeling when Rio Grande Valley took Robert Vaden with their first-round pick that he would eventually come into Tulsa's hands. After all, Vaden was familiar with the Thunder system after spending some time in it this summer.

Today, Vaden came back to the Thunder family .. and the 66ers. The 66ers acquired Vaden, a guard and the seventh overall pick in 2010 D-League Draft, from the Vipers in exchange for guard Mustafa Shakur..

Additionally, the 66ers obtained a 2011 first round draft pick from the Springfield Armor in exchange for guard Scottie Reynolds. Tulsa selected Reynolds with its 13th pick in the first round of the 2010 D-League Draft. This was big news as Reynolds, the All-American from Villanova, was arguably the biggest "name" available in the draft.

After being selected by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 54th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Vaden’s draft rights were acquired by the Oklahoma City Thunder. He spent the 2009-10 season playing overseas in Italy for Aget Imola. Vaden appeared in 29 games and averaged 16.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 35.7 minutes per game.

Vaden, 6-5/215, enjoyed a successful collegiate career at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he became the fastest player in UAB history to score 1,000 points (50 games).

Information on some of Tulsa's other draft picks...

Looking to add some size, Tulsa picked former Kentucky forward Perry Stevenson with its second-round pick. The 6-9 forward played in 34 games for the Wildcats last season.

In the third round, the 66ers went even bigger when they tabbed Josh Lomers, a 7-footer out of Baylor. Lomers averaged 6.6 points and 3.7 rebounds for the Bears last season.

Tulsa spent its fourth-round pick on Devin Sweetney, a 6-6 wing who played for St. Francis (Pa.). In his four seasons for the Red Flash, he was a member of the Northeastern Conference All-Freshmen Team and was named All-NEC last season after posting 16.9 points and 7.4 boards per game.

In the fifth round, Tulsa selected Mamadi Diane, a 6-6 guard/forward from Virginia. He Played professionally in Spain for the 2009-10 season, averaging 11.3 points and 22.5 minutes in 26 games for CB Penas Huesca of the LEB, the second Spanish basketball league.

Tulsa's final three draft picks were Brandon Brooks (sixth round, Alabama State), Marlon Jones (seventh round, Oklahoma City), and Michael Sturns (Holy Family).

Monday, November 1, 2010

D-League Draft happens tonight

I'll be at the Tulsa Convention Center tonight to cover the 66ers' draft. The team drafts 13th in the 16-team draft, which will go in serpentine-style.

I'll be blogging tonight, giving you updates on Tulsa's newest players as the draft goes from 6-8 p.m. CT.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

66ers draft position announced

The Tulsa 66ers received the 13th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Development League Draft via lottery at the League’s annual coaches meetings in Dallas Tuesday evening. The draft will be held on Nov. 1.

Additionally, the 66ers will select 20th, 45th, 52nd, 77th, 84th, 109th, and 116th.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A first glance at the 66ers schedule ... the good, the bad, the ugly

While the Tulsa 66ers' 2010-11 schedule has been out for some time, I waited until today to really take a look at it because tonight will be the first 66ers-related activity of the season as the Preseason Bash is held at Dave & Buster's from 7-9 p.m. If you're in the area, free appetizers will be served tonight and the first 40 guests to arrive will receive free $5 game vouchers.

Here are a few of the highlights from my perspective...

The season opens with back-to-back games in Bakersfield on Nov. 19-20. Despite the Jam's subpar record last season, that was a tough place for Tulsa to play and will be a tough place to open with consecutive games.

The first home games of the season? Who better than Iowa to come to Tulsa on Nov. 26 and 27? The 66ers and Energy had an amazing playoff battle last season, including a crazy, emotion-filled deciding game in Des Moines. These will be two big tests for the 66ers in front of what should be a good crowd over Thanksgiving weekend.

Tulsa meets new D-League franchise Texas on their home court on Dec. 4 in what could be the start of a good rivalry (you know how Texas and Oklahoma teams love each other, and how the Thunder and Mavericks will be jockeying for Western Conference bragging rights this season). The next night, Tulsa returns home to face Rio Grande Valley for the first time since the Vipers took the championship on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

Tulsa's next action will then be two games at Sioux Falls, meaning five of the 66ers' first nine games will be against opponents they faced in the playoffs last season. Talk about an early test!

The 66ers have just three home games in January, including a stretch of just two over the final three weeks of the month. The tables turn in February, however, as the 66ers will be home for all but one game (and that one road game is a short trip to face Texas).

Tulsa gets the final five games of the season at home, during what could be a push for playoff seeding. Those final five will not be easy as they include Austin, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and the last two of the season against Dakota.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

RGV edges Tulsa for title

In a contest where Rio Grande Valley couldn’t buy a 3-pointer for much of the game, Craig Winder found a bit of luck from long range at the wrong time for the Tulsa 66ers.

Winder banked in a 3-pointer as time expired, giving the Vipers a 94-91 victory over the 66ers and handing Rio Grande Valley a 2-0 series victory and the 2010 NBA Development League championship. Winder’s winning shot capped a 7-for-30 night from behind the arc for the Vipers, but was the second in the last two minutes for the Viper guard.

Winder’s winning shot capped a 7-0 run to end the game for the Vipers, who trailed Tulsa 91-87 after Marcus Lewis nailed a pair of free throws with 1:38 to play. Tulsa had just two field goal tries to end the game, but Wink Adams missed a 3-pointer and driving layup as the 66ers couldn’t add to their lead.

Trailing 82-80 with 5:11 to play, Tulsa’s Larry Owens took over the contest. Owens would score the 66ers’ next nine points, giving Tulsa an 89-84 lead with 2:17 to play. Owens finished the night with a team-high 25 points, including 11 points in the final stanza.

Owens also sizzled on the defensive end, posting six rebounds, four blocked shots, and three steals. He also forced the Vipers’ Mike Harris into a turnover with 27.6 remaining, preserving a 91-91 tie before Winder’s heroics.

While Harris was foiled on that play, he was once again a nemesis for Tulsa. The D-League’s Most Valuable Player finished with game-highs in points (26) and rebounds (16).

In a game that saw 19 lead changes and 12 ties, Tulsa was able to control the pace throughout the contest, frequently frustrating the high-octane Vipers and their sellout crowd.

Tied with 2.1 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Tulsa’s JaJuan Smith connected on a 3-pointer to give the 66ers a 67-64 edge after three periods. Smith nailed another 3-pointer on Tulsa’s first fourth-quarter possession to push the 66er lead to six points, its largest of the contest.

Smith would finish with 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the field, part of a Tulsa bench effort that also included Latavious Williams with 14 points and eight rebounds. In all, Tulsa’s bench outscored their Vipers’ counterparts, 34-27.

Monday, April 26, 2010

66ers looking to bounce back in Game 2

The Tulsa 66ers are hoping that history repeats itself when Tuesday night’s Game 2 of the NBA Development League championship series tips off in McAllen, Texas.

Last week, the 66ers rallied after losing the first of a three-game series at home against top-seeded Iowa to take the next two games in Des Moines and capture a spot in the finals. This week, Tulsa will have to win two games on Rio Grande Valley’s home court to secure its first-ever D-League championship. The 66ers find themselves down 1-0 in the series after Sunday’s 124-107 home loss to the Vipers.

“This week, we’ll draw upon the experience we gained in Iowa,” said Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts. “We just have to keep our heads up and bounce back.”

In order to bounce back Tuesday night, Tulsa will have to overcome the statistically toughest home court in the league. Rio Grande Valley tied the mark for all-time best home court records this season with a 21-4 record at State Farm Arena, including a 3-0 mark against the 66ers.

“They will have a loud atmosphere, but we’ve played in loud places during the postseason,” said Larry Owens, who led the 66ers with 21 points on Sunday. “We have to play our game and stay focused. We’re not going to lay down. We have confidence in ourselves. We just have to play smarter.”

In Game 2, Tibbetts and his team will have to figure out a way to slow down Rio Grande Valley’s Will Conroy and Michael Harris. Conroy posted a triple-double in Sunday’s win with 14 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists, while Harris, the league’s Most Valuable Player, came through with a game-high 24 points despite being plagued by foul trouble.

“Those guys present a tough matchup any time they’re on the floor,” Tibbetts said. “They’re tough to guard and do a good job of making things happen.”

Tulsa is hoping to have Cecil Brown available for Tuesday night’s game. Brown was supposed to be in the starting lineup on Sunday, but was scratched late because of a lingering ankle injury, leaving the 66ers with just eight available players. Latavious Williams started in Brown’s place and finished with 13 points and a team-high 13 rebounds.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

D-League Finals, here we come

The Tulsa 66ers have proven that life on the road in the D-League postseason is not so bad.

Tulsa improved to 3-1 away from home in the postseason with a huge 127-122 victory at Iowa in Game 3 of the semifinals. The eighth-seeded 66ers now await the winner of Austin-Rio Grande Valley.

I talked to Coach Nate Tibbetts after the game, and all he could say was how proud he was of his team's team effort. Seven of the nine 66ers scored in double figures, and once again, different players led the way at different times during the game. Tulsa was aggressive and didn't get rattled when all hell seemed to break loose in Des Moines in the game's final minutes (Stinson ejected, then going after the refs ... crowd control posted everywhere ... bad radio announcers (oh wait, that was throughout the game) ... flagrant fouls).

Tulsa hits 44-of-51 from the charity stripe (amazing figures) and outrebounds the Energy 46-42. Those were big keys for the 66ers.

More to come...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What went right for Tulsa on Sunday

No Mullens, Shakur, or Weaver? No problem.

In a gut-check performance for the 66ers, Tulsa hit 56 percent of its 3-point attempts and went off for 43 points in the third quarter, stunning top-seeded Iowa 117-106 on Sunday evening in Des Moines.

Without its three Oklahoma City Thunder assignees and only nine players on the roster, Tulsa had seven players score in double digits in a balanced attack. Wink Adams, who did a great job in relief of Shakur on Friday night, led the 66ers with 24 points. He was 9-for-14 from the field, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range.

Larry Owens was Larry Owens ... reliable, tough, and a leader. Moses Ehambe was dead on from long range. Latavious Williams continued to prove he's become one of the best rebounders in the league with 10 points and nine rebounds. Deron Washington provided energy while chipping in 20 points.

The biggest thing we learned on Sunday night? Tulsa has heart and top-seeded Iowa, the team with the best regular-season record in the D-League, will have a tough time closing out the series, even if it is at home.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

After Game 1 loss in Tulsa, can the 66ers regroup?

The answer is yes, but it's going to take a complete turnaround from Friday night's performance against Iowa to make it happen during Game 2 in Des Moines, set for Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. CT.

Here are five key elements to Sunday's Game 2...

Defense -- Tulsa, which has prided itself on defense often throughout the season, needs to come out of the tunnel in Des Mounes showing the defensive intensity it displayed in the fourth quarter on Friday night. When Tulsa had its defense cranked up, it made a difference. The 66ers shot 12-for-25 in the final period thanks to some turnovers and quick baskets, and outscored the Energy 37-30 over the game's final 12 minutes to almost pull off the comeback.

Mustafa Shakur's foot -- The All-Star point guard played just the first half on Friday night before being pulled with a foot injury. 66ers officials said Shakur missed the second half for precautionary reasons, so we'll see how he feels for Sunday's game. Shakur had just two points on 1-for-7 shooting before being injured. Wink Adams did a nice job picking up the slack at point guard in Shakur's absence. After not playing in the first half, Adams finished with seven points and ran the 66er offense with precision in crunch time.

Controlling Curtis Stinson -- The Iowa All-Star made some big shots and grabbed some big rebounds on Friday. He's a great player ... but a guard getting 17 rebounds? Tulsa has to play better defense and keep Stinson away from the basket, even when he doesn't have the ball.

Marking the D&D boys -- Denham Brown and Darian Townes were HUGE on Friday night, combined for 48 points and 21 boards. Townes was a non-factor the last time Iowa came to town (five points in two games off the bench) while Brown wasn't even on the team. The two looked unstoppable at times on Friday night, and Tulsa can't let that continue.

Latavious -- The boy has grown into a man. He looked intense on Friday night, going 4-for-7 from the field and grabbing five boards in just under 14 minutes of playing time. Maybe his athleticism would help Tulsa in the battle for rebounds with more time on the court.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Times, dates set for Iowa-Tulsa series

Game 1...Friday, April 16...Tulsa Convention Center (Tulsa, OK)...7 p.m. CDT
Game 2...Sunday, April 18...Wells Fargo Arena (Des Moines, IA)...4 p.m. CDT
Game 3*...Tuesday, April 20...Wells Fargo Arena (Des Moines, IA)...7:00 p.m. CDT

* – If necessary

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tulsa moves on with win in Sioux Falls

The Tulsa 66ers were happy to get their first-ever playoff win in Tulsa on Thursday afternoon. Now the 66ers can add their first-ever playoff series victory to the history-making season.

Thanks to a 111-101 victory over Sioux Falls on Sunday night, Tulsa advances to the second round of the NBA D-League playoffs to face the top-seeded Iowa Energy. The eighth-seeded 66ers and Iowa split four games this season, with all of them played in Tulsa.

A 20-point run by the 66ers played a huge role in Sunday night's win, but don't overlook the performance of Latavious Williams off the bench. The rookie, who didn't score in the first two games and never saw the court in Game 1 in Tulsa, had 13 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, including two big putbacks in the fourth quarter. He scored eight of his 13 points in the final quarter as Sioux Falls couldn't make a final push.

Kyle Weaver and Mustafa Shakur, assigned to Tulsa from the Oklahoma City Thunder, led Tulsa with 27 and 23 points, respectively, while Larry Owens continued his stellar season with 21 points.

Dates and times for the Tulsa-Iowa series have not been announced.

Friday, April 9, 2010

DJ White recalled from 66ers before Game 2 in Sioux Falls

If Tulsa is to sweep Sioux Falls in the first round of the NBA D-League playoffs, the 66ers will have to do it without DJ White.

White was recalled after scoring 21 points and grabbing five rebounds in 29 minutes of Tulsa's 119-109 victory over Sioux Falls in Game 1 on Thursday afternoon.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Game 1 goes to Tulsa, 119-109

Notre Dame had the Four Horsemen. Tulsa had their own version of that on Thursday afternoon as Tulsa took a 1-0 lead in the first round of the D-League playoffs with a 119-109 home win over Sioux Falls.

Oklahoma City Thunder assignees Byron Mullens, Mustafa Shakur, Kyle Weaver, and DJ White had 90 of Tulsa's 119 points, and each took turns leading the 66ers attack on Thursday. Perhaps the most impressive was Weaver, who ended with a game-high 30 points, including going 5-of-6 from 3-point range. Weaver's only miss from 3-point land was a chuck with under 30 seconds left as the shot clock was almost at zero.

Shakur looked good driving and dishing while Mullens and White looked solid patrolling the paint. But Tulsa looked good overall, turning the ball over just 10 times on the day.

Among those in attendance today was Thunder GM Sam Presti, who continues to make appearances at 66ers games to monitor his assigned players. I asked Presti after the game how long Weaver and White would be with the 66ers, and he wouldn't give a firm answer, saying that it would be on a game-by-game basis. With the Thunder heading toward the playoffs and the 66ers taking the first game from Sioux Falls, it may be a balancing act to make sure the Thunder are well-stocked for the last week of the regular season while getting valuable playing time for Weaver and White.

Game 2 is set for Friday night in Sioux Falls.

The Thunder/66ers make a statement with assignments

With DJ White and Kyle Weaver joining the 66ers from the Oklahoma City Thunder less than 24 hours before the 66ers' opening game against Sioux Falls, it proves that the Thunder franchise is serious about making waves in the NBA D-League postseason.

White and Weaver will join fellow Thunder assignees Mustafa Shakur and Byron Mullens in the starting lineup against the Skyforce. If you missed my article on Mullens in this morning's Tulsa World, click here to read it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tulsa ... the team nobody wanted to play

Funny how a team that seemed to be struggling at times toward the end of the season became the team that no one else in the D-League playoffs wanted to face in the postseason.

The first-round matchups for the NBA D-League Playoffs were chosen Sunday. The Iowa Energy chose to face Utah in the first round, then Rio Grande Valley picked Reno and Austin selected Dakota. Stuck with no other option as the fourth seed, Sioux Falls gets to face Tulsa, which enters the postseason as the eighth seed. So much for the eighth seed being the "weakest," huh?

Tulsa and Sioux Falls faced each other five times in January, with Tulsa holding a 3-2 edge in the series, including a 2-1 record in Tulsa and 1-1 in Sioux Falls.

More to come on the playoffs as the week goes on...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Thoughts heading into the Iowa series

I had a chance to talk to Tulsa 66ers head coach Nate Tibbetts yesterday about Wednesday's big win over Austin and the big games toward the end of the season with Iowa (Friday and Saturday at home) and Reno (Sunday on the road).

Kevin: What does the win in Austin on Wednesday night do for this team?
Nate: Certainly it gives us a little momentum. Any loss at this point is tough with us trying to make a push into the playoffs. A big comeback win like that gives us confidence.

Kevin: Your bench really led the comeback in the fourth quarter. How important is it to have everyone contributing like they did on Wednesday night?
Nate: I think that does two things. First, it gives our bench confidence. Second, it shows our starters that if they're not ready to play, we have guys behind them who can play. In the fourth quarter Wednesday night, our starters were on the bench giving those guys support. That was good to see.

Kevin: With Iowa already clinching the top seed for the upcoming playoffs, what do you expect from the Energy this weekend?
Nate: We expect their best effort. If we're going to make the playoffs, we're going to have to play and beat the best teams in the D-League to get there.

Kevin: Have you talked to the team much about the importance of these final three games?
Nate: We haven't talked much about playoff scenarios. We explained the playoff picture a week to 10 days ago, but we haven't talked about it much since. We know we have to keep winning. That's the bottom line.

Kevin: Is there any scenario where you wouldn't have to play the makeup game in Reno on Sunday night?
Nate: I don't think so. I think we have to play that game. The situation (postponing the game from Monday to Sunday because of weather in Reno) is unfortunate but I'm glad we got somewhere safely. It is what it is. It makes us play three games in three nights, but they have to play three in three nights as well. Unfortunately, their three games are all at home.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Moses leads a miracle comeback in Austin

Leave it to a man named Moses to lead the Tulsa 66ers to a miracle comeback.

Down by as many as 23 points in the third quarter, Moses Ehambe ignited a Tulsa flurry in the fourth quarter as the 66ers outscored the Austin Toros 42-18 in the final period to notch a 109-104 victory over Austin. The win was big for Tulsa's playoff chances as the 66ers improved to 26-21 overall and moved a full game of idle Reno in the hunt for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Ehambe finished with a season-high 29 points off the bench and led Tulsa on a 19-4 run to end the game. He had just five points at halftime, but finished 8-of-11 from 3-point range and also hit three big free throws in the game's final seconds to ice the win.

Until Tulsa's 19-4 run began, it appeared the 66ers would not recover from a first quarter that saw the Toros jump out to a 30-16 lead at the end of the period. Austin led by as many as 23 points in the third quarter before Tulsa began its late comeback thanks to four consecutive 3-pointers from Ehambe.

Tulsa comes home to play consecutive games on Friday and Saturday for need-to-win games against Iowa, the team with the D-League's best record.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shakur signed, sealed, and delivered

The Oklahoma City Thunder have signed current Tulsa 66ers guard Mustafa Shakur for the rest of the season and he will likely be assigned to Tulsa to finish out the current NBA Development League season.

Shakur, who was signed to a 10-day contract by the Thunder earlier in the season, has started and appeared in 43 games for the 66ers, averaging 20.4 points and 7.1 assists per game. Shakur was selected to the NBA D-League All-Star Game in February.

Weather throws a wrench in Reno's plans

It seemed to be setting up well for Reno to have the 66ers come to town the day after finishing up against Albuquerque on Tulsa, but the weather wouldn't cooperate, keeping Tulsa away. It gives Tulsa an extra day before travelling to Austin (a team losing at home to L.A. as I write this), while the Reno game has been moved to Sunday.

What does that do to the 66ers? It makes the Iowa games even more important now, and puts a bit more of the mystery on them. What will Iowa do when they come to Tulsa -- play to win or play to rest for the playoffs?

But, before anything, the 66ers have to win in Austin to get the week off on the right foot.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Five big games ...

With Tulsa clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot, the 66ers control their own destiny as they play the final five games over the season over the next week. Three of those final five games are at home, but none of these final games are easy by any stretch. Let's take a look at the schedule.

Albuquerque (today at home) ... Maybe (on paper) the easiest game of the remaining schedule for the 66ers, today (like the rest of the games) figures to be a must-win for Tulsa. The 66ers won by 20 on Friday night and hope to keep the defense in high gear today. The Thunderbirds aren't the same offensive presence without Carlos Powell (now playing overseas) as they were when they beat the 66ers at the D-League Showcase, but Tulsa only needs to look back to the Bakersfield game to see that there's no time for slip-ups now.

Reno (Monday, at Reno) -- Here's hoping Coach Tibbetts and the guys like Reno, because this is their fifth game in Nevada this season. Tulsa and the Bighorns have split the previous four games. Reno has won four straight games, including two wins over a very good Maine squad, so the Bighorns are on a roll. They're also just percentage points behind the 66ers for the eighth playoff spot so a Tulsa loss means Reno controls their own fate while a Tulsa win puts some much-needed cushion between the two teams.

Austin (Wednesday, at Austin) -- Austin will be playing its second game in two nights as the Toros are hosting Los Angeles on Tuesday. As the current 3 seed, Austin has plenty to play for as Sioux Falls is trying to catch them for the third seed and is currently just two games back in the loss column. Tulsa holds a 3-2 edge in the series, but is just 1-2 against the Toros in Austin.

Iowa (Friday and Saturday at home) -- How's this for an intriguing way to end the season? Barring a collapse, Iowa will enter the two-game set as the D-League's top-seeded team ... and could even have clinched the #1 seed before pulling into Tulsa. It's possible that Tulsa could have much to play for in its final two games against the Energy while Iowa may have nothing to gain or lose. Could Iowa be willing to save its strength for the playoffs? If so, that could that be a huge plus for Tulsa. Also, if Iowa gets the top seed and Tulsa makes the playoffs, this could be a first-round playoff matchup as well ... so would that factor into the Energy's plans? Time will tell.

But that's down the road. The week-long test begins today with Albuquerque. One game at a time...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

He's baaaaaack....

Just in time for tonight's game against Bakersfield, All-Star point guard Mustafa Shakur will be back with the Tulsa 66ers.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Looking at a pair of losses in Boise

Two losses in Boise and four consecutive losses come at a bad time for the Tulsa 66ers as they battle for one of the final spots in the D-League playoffs. Now standing at 23-20 with seven games to play, Tulsa needs to find some answers quickly.

Some random thoughts...

With the losses of DJ White, Kyle Weaver, and Mustafa Shakur, this is certainly a different 66ers team than the one that took the floor three weeks ago. Now the burden of leadership falls to Larry Owens, who led the 66ers in scoring on Saturday night with 22 points in Tulsa's 110-95 loss. Owens will be looked to more and more in the final seven games.

DeVon Hardin will also need to become more of a force in the paint in the stretch run. Hardin started strong in Sunday night's game with eight points in the first quarter, but then didn't score in the rest of the contest.

Latavious Williams continues to make strides, and that will be a big boost for the 66ers. His 25 points and 15 rebounds on Friday night were impressive numbers. He continues to grow and learn, and he followed that with 14 points on Saturday night.

Moses Ehmabe hit 50 percent of his 3-pointers (8-of-16) in Boise.

The best news of all? Five of Tulsa's final seven games are at home, with the next three (Thursday against Bakersfield and Friday and Sunday against Albuquerque) being paramount as those two teams have losing records.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Shakur heads down the turnpike. Now what?

Congratulations to Mustafa Shakur for earning a well-deserved call-up to the Oklahoma City Thunder. There's no question Shakur deserved the 10-day contract, and here's hoping he'll get a chance to prove his value to the Thunder very soon.

While I sat watching the Thunder game against Charlotte tonight and listened to the announcers glow about Shakur, I started thinking about who would guide the 66ers as the point man. Two weeks ago, the 66ers had Shakur and Kyle Weaver. Now they're both wearing Thunder uniforms.

A hint may have come today when the 66ers inked Wink Adams. He certainly has the stats, as the 6-foot guard averaged 14.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals in 133 games over four seasons for UNLV. Adams was named to the 2008-09 All-Mountain West Conference First Team and All-Mountain West Tournament MVP during his senior season. More recently, he played in Turkey, where he averaged 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals in 18 games. In addition, Adams participated in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in 2009 as a member of the New York Knicks.

Is this the answer at point guard? What about Cecil Brown? Is he 100 percent after his ankle injury? Will he run the offense at times? If you look at the 66er roster, there are only three guards listed, with Moses Ehambe joining Adams and Brown. Ehambe is much more a shooting guard than point guard. Deron Washington has spent some time at guard as well, but falls into the same category as Ehambe (shooter predominantly).

As the 66ers enter into a big two-game stretch at Idaho this weekend, there will be questions at the point. At this time of the season, that may not be a good thing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Catching up with Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks

Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks paid a visit to Tulsa on Monday, March 8, to take a first-hand look at three of his players (Byron Mullens, Kyle Weaver, and DJ White) in action for the Tulsa 66ers. I had the chance to talk to Coach Brooks after the game to get his impressions on his players as well as the 66ers, a team that has won four straight and nine of its last 11 games to improve to 23-16.

Kevin Henry: After watching the game tonight (a Tulsa win over Fort Wayne), what were your overall impressions?
Scott Brooks: I think they looked great. Nate (Tibbetts, Tulsa head coach) has done a terrific job. It's never easy to integrate guys into your lineup during the season, but he's done a great job. Watching tonight, you could tell it's been a smooth transition and he has his team playing hard. Nate is a talented coach with a very bright future.

KH: What impressed you the most tonight?
SB: The defense. I'm very impressed that Fort Wayne didn't score for nearly eight minutes in the fourth quarter.

KH: Defense is a high standard for you and for everyone in the Thunder organization, isn't it?
SB: Absolutely. I liked their defense tonight, especially in the fourth quarter. The guys were really getting after it. I like this team and their spirit. There was a lot of excitement in the building tonight.

KH: How important is it for you as a coach to have an affiliate team like Tulsa that is so close to Oklahoma City?
SB: It's great, especially when you have guys who need to be sent down because of injury or to get some additional playing time. While they're here, these guys get to develop their games. Playing in games and playing in practice are two different things. When guys have missed time, they need game reps. This gives them the opportunity to get those reps. It's also a benefit to be so close because, on a night like this, I can come over and watch them play. There aren't too many coaches in the NBA who can say that. It's a nice opportunity.

KH: What were your impressions of your three players on assignment?
SB: I think they're all getting better thanks to the game reps and hard work.

Note: Since this interview, White has been recalled by the Thunder.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mustafa shines again in the first half against Fort Wayne

It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Tulsa and Mustafa Shakur is having another great game. All is right in the world.

Shakur had a team-leading 12 points and nine assists in the first half as Tulsa holds a 52-51 lead at intermission.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Interview with D-League president Dan Reed

I recently had the chance to interview Dan Reed, the president of the NBA Development League (D-League). Following are his thoughts on the present and future of the league.

Kevin Henry: How would you describe the current state of the D-League?
Dan Reed: The state of the D-League is very positive. Attendance is up during a time when a lot of sports are finding their attendance down. We have a national TV contract with the VERSUS Network which gives us a fantastic platform across the nation. We’ve seen the fastest rate of call-ups this year in our league’s history with 20 so far (there were 12 at this same point last season). We have 80 former D-Leaguers playing in the NBA right now, and that’s about 20 percent of the rosters. Things are very positive.

KH: You mentioned the deal with VERUS. Combine that with the NBA Futurecast and you have to be happy with two strong media outlets that promote the league throughout the country, correct?
DR: Absolutely. We’re very focused on media growth. We have some other deals that we’ll be rolling out shortly as well. We want to continue to let people know the best players in the world outside of the NBA play in the D-League. People who watch our product walk away impressed and eager for more.

KH: Such as is the case with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Tulsa 66ers, do you think you’ll see a trend in the future of more NBA teams owning and operating their own D-League franchise?
DR: We’ve certainly seen it become more prevalent, and we know the Dallas Mavericks will be owning and operating the Frisco franchise next season (joining Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston, and the L.A. Lakers as teams who directly run D-League squads). I think a lot of NBA teams are looking at how these teams are using their affiliates and how it is benefitting them. Look at what Oklahoma City has done this season by sending Byron Mullens, Kyle Weaver, and DJ White to Tulsa. They have all played well, gotten some confidence, and received playing time. I know Sam Presti (general manager of the Thunder) strongly believes that this will help the Thunder.

KH: This season, direct affiliates have an advantage by being able to send four players to a D-League team rather than just two that can be sent to D-League teams that are shared by NBA franchises. Is that a carrot that could help more NBA teams take direct control of an affiliate?
DR: That’s a rule change we implemented this year after hearing feedback. We didn’t want teams with just one NBA affiliate to be restricted. It is a benefit for those teams to be able to send down more than two players.

KH: You mentioned the new franchise in Frisco, which seems to give Tulsa another geographic rival. Are geographic rivalries important to the D-League?
DR: The more reasons you can give fans to become involved, the better. Many fans enjoy the rivalries that close geography brings. From a travel standpoint, it’s also great to have teams close together.

KH: At the start of the calendar year, there were several D-League players who left to play in Europe, including Tulsa’s Zabian Dowdell. What are some of the benefits you see to a player participating in the D-League rather than playing overseas?
DR: As I said earlier, 20 percent of the players on current NBA rosters played in the D-League. That’s four times more than any other league from anywhere in the world. The fastest way to get to the NBA is through the D-League. You know that every night, you’re going to be playing in front of NBA scouts. If they like what they see and you’re playing well, you could be called up immediately. If a team likes you, you could be playing for them the next night. That’s instant gratification. I think people can look at our track record and see why players who want to play in the NBA should play in the D-League.

KH: You also have players from the NBA Draft playing in the D-League, like Friday night when Byron Mullens and Hasheem Thabeet met in Tulsa as the only two centers drafted in the first round of last year’s NBA draft.
DR: I think that’s pretty neat to have the top two centers in the draft facing off. I think it speaks to both Memphis and Oklahoma City to see the benefits of playing these young players in the D-League rather than having them just sit on the bench. It’s a great matchup. Will we see more of this in the future? I think NBA executives are becoming more and more comfortable with making assignments to the D-League. They know that having players get court time is far better than having them sit on the bench.

KH: Where do you want to see the D-League in three or four years?
DR: I want to see the continued evolution of what we’ve been doing. We doubled the number of teams in the D-League over the last three to four years. I don’t think we can do that again, but I would like to see our league have sustainable growth. Our primary goal is to continue to cultivate talented players and coaches for the NBA.

KH: Any thoughts on the upcoming collective bargaining agreement that will take effect in 2011-12?
DR: We’re closely following what will happen. The last collective bargaining agreement (in 2005) allowed NBA teams to send players to the D-League on assignment. We believe the next round could be a real boost for us, but it’s premature to talk too much about it. However, we are very bullish on the possibilities because the D-League system has worked well.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What we learned about Dakota in the first half

** Hasheem Thabeet can block shots and rebound (he has six boards at the break). So far, he doesn't look like an offensive juggernaut, but he is a presence in the middle and can alter shots.

** Dakota started the game hitting 1 of its first 14 shots as Tulsa shot to a 12-3 lead. Since then, the Wizards offense has been tough to slow down.

** Cheyne Gadson is having a nice homecoming. The former Oklahoma State player has eight points off the bench on 4-of-5 shooting for the Wizards.

** Mustafa Shakur is having his typical solid game, 13 points and attacking the basket (even with Thabeet in there).

** When Moses Ehambe is on, there's not a more deadly shooter in the league. He's 2-of-2 in the first half off the bench for five points.

Looking at the Thunder-66ers connection from a different perspective

Normally in the NBA Development League, when the relationship between a parent club and an affiliate team is discussed, it's only looked at in terms of the on-court product. Today, with "Thunder Night" in the works for Friday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at the inner workings of the Tulsa 66ers-Oklahoma City Thunder relationship. Specifically, the marketing and sales aspects were of interest to me. With that in mind, I interviewed Brian Byrnes, the senior vice president of sales and marketing about how Oklahoma City views its ties with Tulsa ... from a different standpoint.

Incidentally, "Thunder Night" will include the Thunder Girls and Thunder drummers, as well as a matchup of former first-round draft picks in Oklahoma City/Tulsa center B.J. Mullens and Memphis/Dakota center Hasheem Thabeet.

"Thunder Night" takes place on Friday night when Tulsa and Dakota square off at the Tulsa Convention Center.

Kevin Henry: Personally, you have to be excited about Thunder Night. You're one of the people really behind the idea.
Brian Byrnes: We have an ownership interest in the team and we see Friday night as a great opportunity for the Thunder to spread its wings throughout the state. Tulsa is truly a developmental team for us. Players in Tulsa are involved in the same things the Thunder players are involved with, everything from coaching strategies to nutrition to offseason analysis. We are constantly challenging ourselves to make sure things are the same in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

KH: Certainly everyone in Oklahoma City keeps track of the basketball being played, but you're keeping track of the intangibles as well.
BB: We have a constant interest in our brand and we want to use the 66ers as an extension of our brand. It's important to us to be able to bring our brand to the entire state of Oklahoma.

KH: You're seeing a lot of people making the drive from Tulsa and other parts of the state to support Oklahoma City, correct?
BB: We're impressed with how many people are making the commitment to seeing the Thunder and they're breaking down any geographic barriers to come to Oklahoma City. We're excited about that, but not surprised. The people of Oklahoma proved they could support an NBA team (when the New Orleans Hornets moved to OKC during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) and they continue to show they can support an NBA team.

KH: Speaking of the drive to OKC, many Oklahomans make long drives during college football and basketball season to support their state teams. Is there a difference in asking people to support a college or pro event?
BB: There's a great history of people in Oklahoma driving to OU and OSU to support their teams. Really, we're not asking them to do anything different than what they're already used to doing.

KH: During Thunder games, I'm seeing more and more promotions for the Tulsa 66ers, right?
BB: Absolutely. It's really about communication, and we want the Thunder fans to understand what is going on with the 66ers. We also want our fans to know that the 66ers players and coaches are part of the Thunder family.

KH: What's your main goal for fans attending games, whether it's Thunder or 66er games?
BB: We want them to have a quality experience. We have them to have a social experience that engages them. We always want our fans to have good experiences and see our teams as teams that can provide a safe, affordable environment. The more we can market that, the more barriers we can break down.

KH: What do you see as the biggest marketing challenge with the Thunder in Tulsa?
BB: First, I think the biggest challenges also present the biggest opportunities. That being said, I know that there has been a long history between Tulsa and Oklahoma City ... and it hasn't always been the friendliest. I think the Thunder can be a common denominator between the two communities and bridge some of the problems there may have been in the past.

Professional basketball ... and being professional

While a lot of attention was being paid to the Thunder trio in town (Byron Mullens, Kyle Weaver, and DJ White) last night, there’s another piece of the pie maybe being overlooked … the players who are giving up minutes for the three OKC assignees to play.

At this level, basketball is a business and with the Thunder as the parent club, it’s imperative that Mullens, White, and Weaver get plenty of game time to improve and come back from injuries. But for players like Deron Washington, Moses Ehambe, Latavious Williams, and Marcus Lewis, it’s an interesting time. Williams and Lewis didn’t see the floor last night against Austin, while Washington and Ehambe (both of whom have been starting until recently) saw reduced minutes. I asked Coach Nate Tibbetts about that last night after the 100-88 victory over the Toros.

“Sure it changes everything when you get new guys in here, but the guys in Tulsa have handled it well and I think they’ll continue to handle it well,” Tibbetts told me. “They know it’s part of being in the D-League, but this is also a great group of guys we have here in Tulsa.”

I glanced over to the bench a few times last night and saw nothing but support coming from guys who weren’t on the floor. Professional basketball takes professionals to play it, and the 66ers last night showed there are professional guys on the lineup from top to bottom.

A quick take on the game last night …

Last night, White certainly made it feel like no time had elapsed since early January when he was dominating the paint for the 66ers at the D-League Showcase in Boise. His 27 points was impressive, as was his 10-for-10 shooting performance to start the game.

Tulsa wanted to show its defense last night and it did, holding Austin to less than 39 percent shooting from the floor.

“I thought we did a very good job defensively,” Tibbetts said. “We tried to focus in on preventing rebounds and their transition game, and I think we did that.”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Big games on the horizon ... starting with Austin on Thursday night

Looking to snap a two-game losing streak and climb in the West Conference standings, Tulsa can do both on Thursday night when the Austin Toros come to town. Austin's visit to the Convention Center comes two nights after Austin posted a 95-87 victory in Austin.

The 66ers welcomed back Thunder designated players B.J. Mullens and Kyle Weaver prior to Tuesday night's battle deep in the heart of Texas, and both responded with solid games. Weaver had 15 points and 10 boards while Mullens scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Their combined 18 rebounds helped Tulsa own a 44-39 rebounding advantage over the Toros.

Tulsa needs to find its stride quickly on Thursday and jump out to the fast starts it saw in its last two home wins over Maine and Springfield. The Austin game starts an important set of four home games in five days for the 66ers, and perhaps none of the four games are more important than Austin on Thursday night. A win could set the tone for the homestand and remind the 66ers they can play with any team in the league.

How does Tulsa do that?

1. Be more aggressive. Tulsa shot just 14 free throws on Tuesday night while Austin had 38 attempts.

2. Cut down on turnovers. Tulsa had 22 on Tuesday night, including seven from very reliable point guard Mustafa Shakur.

3. Find the chemistry. Weaver and Mullens are back. Chris Richard is gone again after being signed by the Bulls ... again. Working Mullens into the lineup isn't as hard as finding a spot for Weaver. Deron Washington seemed to have a rough night on Tuesday after being supplanted in the lineup by Weaver. Washington and Ehambe were potent against the East teams in Tulsa. Here's hoping they find their stride again when they return to Tulsa.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mullens, Weaver coming back to the 66ers

Just in time for tonight's game against Austin, the Oklahoma City Thunder have assigned center B.J. Mullens and guard Kyle Weaver to the 66ers.

Mullens, the 24th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, has appeared in 12 games for the Thunder this season and posted averages of 1.2 points and 0.8 rebounds in 4.4 minutes per game. This will be Mullens second assignment to the 66ers this season. In his previous NBA D-League stint, Mullens appeared in 11 games (11 starts), and recorded four double-doubles while averaging 15.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in 32.7 minutes per contest.

Second year guard Kyle Weaver appeared in three games for Oklahoma City earlier this year before missing the last 43 contests recovering from shoulder surgery. Last season, Weaver appeared in 56 games (19 starts) for the Thunder and averaged 5.3 points to go along with 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 20.8 minutes per game. He also appeared in two games, both starts, for the 66ers and averaged 17.0 points, 9.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks during his assignment.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Get ready for a wild week

With just two games over the span of two weeks, it’s been a time of rest and recovery for the Tulsa 66ers. Now the schedule goes from low-key to fast-paced.

Starting with a home game on Springfield on Thursday night, Tulsa will play eight games in a 12-day span. It’s a stretch that will test a 17-14 Tulsa team that currently sits six games out of first place in the West Conference. Two of those games are against the Austin Toros, a team that sits ahead of Tulsa in the standings.

“Every game is important, but home games are extremely critical right now,” said Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts, who will watch his team play five of the upcoming eight games at the Tulsa Convention Center, including a home-and-home with Austin. “The break has been good for us. It’s given us a chance to focus on film and work in the weight room. It’s also given us time to really work on the basics and get healthier.”

Health has been a concern for the 66ers of late, with guard Cecil Brown missing time with an ankle injury and forward Latavious Williams missing most of a 113-107 win over Maine after aggravating a shoulder injury. Tibbetts said Brown is still a week or two away from returning, but Williams and his 7.1 rebounds per game should be back to full strength for Thursday night.

Mustafa Shakur continues to lead the 66ers in scoring (20.1 points per game) and assists (6.7 per contest). Larry Owens, coming off a season-high 37 points against Maine, joins Shakur as the only players to start all 31 games for Tulsa this season.

“Since the D-League Showcase in early January, Larry was been playing with more confidence,” Tibbetts said. “He’s a tough matchup for a lot of teams because he can shoot or put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. He’s developed into one of the better players in the league.”

Tibbetts called the 66ers’ most recent win over Maine a “real confidence-builder,” and Tulsa’s confidence is growing during a three-game win streak.

Tulsa scored a season-high 35 points in the first quarter and jumped out to a 21-point first-half lead on its way to the decision over Maine. A big part of Tulsa’s early success came thanks to Owens, who had 23 points in the first half and a critical driving basket with 1:27 to play that helped the 66ers subdue a late Red Claw comeback.

“I was trying to be physical and patient to start the game. I wanted to only take good shots and not rush them,” Owens said. “When you get in a groove, the team puts its energy toward you and that’s what happened early in the game.”

Owens is now averaging 15.8 points and 36.4 minutes per game.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tulsa beats Maine, but some troublesome numbers stand out

Every once in a while, you'll see a player who gets in the zone. He hits a shot or two, and suddenly everything begins falling for him. It's pretty amazing when it happens, and Larry Owens found himself in the zone in the first half of Thursday's game against Maine.

Owens scored 23 of his 37 points before halftime as the 66ers looked like world-beaters at times on their way to a 113-107 matinee win on Kids Day at the Tulsa Convention Center. Of course, in a six-point win, there were also times that Tulsa looked like it might give up a big lead to Maine ... but it never happened, even when the Red Claws clipped the lead down to five points with less than a minute to go.

What made the difference on Thursday? Defense. As Nate Tibbetts told me after the game, his team clamped down on Maine with some tenacious defense. The league's leading scorer, Morris Almond, was held to 20 points in his Red Claw debut ... but maybe even more impressive was the fact that, of Almond's four fouls, three were offensive. Deron Washington did a nice job on Almond and when Washington wasn't there, there were plenty of 66ers to fill in the gaps. Maine had 22 turnovers in the game.

Owens was all smiles after the game, talking about how the team's energy was funneled to him in the first half as he was in the zone. He told me he'd celebrate today, but knew it was back to practice and business as usual tomorrow as the 66ers have a little bit of time before their next game (Thursday at home against Springfield).

So all is well, right? The 66ers beat a team that's among the best in the league, and were up by as many as 25 points during the contest, so that's good, right? Absolutely ... but there were threee potential problem spots in the box score after the game.

1. Playing minutes. Cecil Brown wasn't available. Latavious Williams dinged his shoulder early in the game and missed most of the contest. Rodney Webb was tending to personal/family matters and unavailable. Steven Hill, in his first game back from injury, wasn't ready to contribute a great deal on Thursday. Translation ... by the time the second quarter was in full swing, Tulsa had just six players available in the rotation.

Owens never came out of the game and Shakur was only out for a little more than two minutes. Along with Moses Ehambe and Deron Washington, they were part of a quartet that played more than 40 minutes on Thursday. The injury bug has bitten Tulsa hard lately, and here's hoping a week of non-play will help the depth situation.

2. Rebounds. With Williams on the bench, and Hill and DeVon Hardin each working their way back from injury, Tulsa was soundly outrebounded 51-34. Tibbetts is constantly preaching the importance of winning the battle of the boards, and depth will help with this number if the injuries aren't too long-lasting.

3. Second-chance points. Maine held a 26-3 advantage in this. Of course, when you have the kind of rebounding edge that the Red Claws held, it makes sense. Still ... 26-3?

Absolutely a huge amount of props to the 66ers for winning this game, despite the difficulties. Now 66er fans can hope that a week of rest will restore depth to a lineup that sorely needs it.

So far, so good on an early Thursday

Tulsa just put together its best first quarter of the season with a 35-point explosion. The 66ers lead Maine 35-21 and Deron Washington and Larry Owens look sharp for the kids in attendance on Kids Day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Previewing Maine

It's hard to think that the Tulsa 66ers could've drawn a much tougher opponent to open the second half of the season than the Maine Red Claws. Not only did Maine enter the All-Star break as one of the most talented teams in the D-League, the Red Claws acquired the league's leading scorer, Morris Almond, in a trade with the struggling Springfield Armor (begging me to ask the question of Springfield -- what in the heck were you thinking?)

My friends at Ridiculous Upside did a great article on the talent assembled in Maine right now. Read it by clicking here.

When I asked Coach Nate Tibbetts at practice on Tuesday about the stockpile of players in Maine, he just smiled.

"Yeah, they're talented, but we have to concern ourselves with us. We have to focus on what we do, not what opponents do."

Part of Tulsa's focus coming out of the All-Star break was shaking off the cobwebs from the layoff. It's also an interesting time in schedule when Tulsa will play just two games in a 12-day span before launching into a mad dash toward the end of the season with 18 games in 40 days.

"We've had good practices since the break. Teams can sometimes be sluggish after the break, but our guys really pushed through that," Tibbetts said. "When we start playing so many games in such a short amount of time, we're not going to have much time in the practice gym, so we need to practice well now."

It's still unclear if the 66ers will have Cecil Brown for the Maine game. The guard sprained his ankle in the second-to-last game before the All-Star break and didn't play in the first half's final game. He was hobbling at practice on Tuesday on the sidelines.

"He's day-to-day right now," Tibbetts said. "Deron (Washington) and Moses (Ehambe) really stepped up at guard when Cecil was out. I like that they're continuing to put pressure on me for more minutes because of their play."

With an 11 a.m. start on Thursday, it may be an early start for the fans and officials, but Tibbetts and his team are fine with the time.

"We practice every day at 11, so the time is no big deal. We had a good road trip and we're happy to be back home. We have to be ready to compete, no matter when or where we play."

Tulsa enters the game 16-14 while Maine brings a 19-11 record to Oklahoma.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sitting down with Mustafa Shakur

Mustafa Shakur was the only Tulsa 66er selected to the NBA D-League All-Star Game that was played Saturday afternoon. Shakur represented well, with 10 points (shooting 4-for-6 from the field), four rebounds, four assists, and a game-high four steals.

I had the chance to talk to Shakur before All-Star weekend and asked him about what he expected in Dallas, as well as his thoughts on the 66ers’ season so far. Tulsa entered the All-Star break at 16-14 and 6.5 games behind West Conference leader Rio Grande Valley.

Kevin Henry: So what were your thoughts when you heard you had been selected to the All-Star team?
Mustafa Shakur: I was really excited. It’s such an honor to be selected by the coaches and fans. I thought I had played myself into the game, but as it got closer and closer to nomination announcement time, I started getting a little nervous. Tulsa has provided a great opportunity for me, and the coaching staff and my teammates have supported me all season.

Henry: Is point guard the best position to play in an All-Star game?
Shakur: It’s always easier for point guards and guys who run the floor to get baskets in an All-Star game. Yeah, I think it’s a little easier for guards. I played in McDonald’s and Adidas All-Star Games, and I remember it being just a fun experience.

Henry: You’ve had a solid season so far (19.8 points and 6.7 assists per game). We’ve talked a couple of times this season and you’ve always told me you’re not looking to score but rather to create. Yet you’re the team’s leading scorer.
Shakur: If the opportunity presents itself, I’m going to score. I’m not always looking for the basket but if I drive and the other guys are covered, I’m going to take a shot.

Henry: Did the All-Star break come at the right time for Tulsa?
Shakur: Absolutely. It was the perfect time. We have a lot of guys banged up right now (Cecil Brown and Deron Washington are nursing foot/ankle injuries while DeVon Hardin is being worked back into the rotation slowly after his injury). I think we’re going to come out of the break rejuvenated and ready to make a second-half push.

Henry: Was it hard on you as the point guard and team’s floor leader toward the end of the first half with all of the injuries and roster changes?
Shakur: I think it taught me of a level of professionalism that I needed to have. Guys are going to change and get injuries in the D-League, just like they do in the NBA. You have to adjust on the fly, and that’s something that we’ve had to do this season.

Henry: What are you looking for in the second half of the season?
Shakur: I think we need to take things one game at a time. We have some big games in the second half, but we can’t look past any of them right now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tulsa finishes the first half strong

No Cecil Brown? No problem for the suddenly surging 66ers as Tulsa earned its second win in as many games in Los Angeles with a 102-90 win on Wednesday afternoon.

Tulsa jumped on the D-Fenders early, screaming to a 17-4 lead to open the game and never looking back as the 66ers improve to 16-14 on the season heading into the All-Star game in Dallas.

Five Tulsa players finished in double figures. Mustafa Shakur had a typical All-Star performer outing with 26 points, but maybe the key was the play of Moses Ehambe off the bench. Not much has been made about Ehambe mow coming off the bench for the 66ers, but the former Oral Roberts player has taken the change in stride. In today's win over L.A., Ehambe hit 4-of-6 from 3-point range on his way to finishing with 22 points off the bench.

Deron Washington seemed to show few ill effects from an injured foot, playing almost 39 minutes and scoring 18 points. Now we'll see how Washington's foot feels heading into the dunk competition in Dallas. Will he participate? Time will tell, but Washington told me yesterday he would decide after today's game.

Latavious Williams posted double-digits in rebounds for the third time in the last four games by grabbing a game-high 12 boards. Williams took time out of his schedule to talk to me about what the first half of the season has been like for him, and I've posted the interview on Ridiculous Upside. You can click here to read it.

And let's not forget the play of Larry Owens and DeVon Hardin. Owens is truly becoming Tulsa's silent assassin, doing his work under the radar every game. Today's 17 points including shooting 7-of-11 from the field. Hardin had his best game since coming back from an injury with 11 points.

Shakur told me the other day that the 66ers couldn't wait to get to the All-Star break and get a few days off to nurse some injuries. Riding a two-game winning streak and grabbing three of five victories during the West Conference road trip will help those injuries not hurt as much.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Catching up with Deron Washington ... and his injured foot

After Deron Washington's impressive return to Los Angeles on Monday, I wanted to catch up with him and ask him about his plans for All-Star weekend, including his participation in the dunk contest. His answer surprised me.

"I'd say right now, there's a slim chance I'm going to participate," Washington admitted. "I hurt my foot in Utah, and then hurt it again in Bakersfield. I'm trying to let it rest as much as I can, and I'll decide after the game Wednesday (in Los Angeles) if I'll be able to be in the dunk contest."

While Washington's foot may keep him out of the dunk contest, he didn't let it bother him against the D-Fenders on Monday night. Washington came off the bench to have 16 points and eight rebounds in Tulsa's 101-100 win. He even played some guard after Cecil Brown went down with an injured ankle.

"The foot felt pretty good last night," Washington said. "I knew we were short on guards so I needed I would need to help out. Right now, everyone is helping bring the ball up the court it seems."

And how did Washington like being back in L.A.?

"It felt good to be back. It was good to talk to some of my friends. We were having some fun. There may have been a little motivation for me to do well against L.A., but it was good to see my friends."

Washington has now been with Tulsa for 20 games, averaging 9.7 points per game. After a surprise trade from L.A. (in exchange for Keith Clark), Washington said it took him about three weeks to settle into the Tulsa lifestyle, but he's glad to be in the Midwest ... and glad to be getting playing time for the 66ers.

"As long as I'm on the court, I'm happy," Washington said. "I'll take the minutes anyway I can get them, bringing the ball up the court or playing in the post."

Now we'll see how Washington responds in his second game in L.A. ... and how his injured foot will respond to another test before All-Star weekend.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tulsa passes its gut check test

After a heartbreaking loss in Bakersfield on Saturday, the Tulsa 66ers desperately needed a win tonight in Los Angeles. That's exactly what the 66ers got tonight in a 101-100 nailbiter at the Staples Center.

It was looking way too familiar to 66ers fans tonight as Tulsa built a big lead and saw it melt away, just like Saturday night in Bakersfield. However tonight, Tulsa was able to hold on to its lead, despite being outscored 32-21 in the final period.

I mentioned in my last blog how Deron Washington would want to make it a return to remember in his first trip back to Los Angeles, and he did just that tonight. In a little less than 35 minutes of play, Washington had 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench.

Latavious Williams had what is becoming a standard night for the budding star, grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds to go along with 15 points. Mustafa Shakur? Another solid performance with 21 points. Williams and Shakur are becoming players who can be counted upon night after night. It's the production off the bench that is becoming more and more critical to Tulsa's success.

Tulsa and Los Angeles square off again on Wednesday night.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The one that got away ... and the two games that are critical ahead

With a record of 14-14 and West Conference leader Rio Grande Valley seemingly unstoppable, Tulsa's two games at Los Angeles this week could be pivotal to the 66ers' season.

With three games down on a five-game trek through the West Conference, Tulsa is 1-2 so far ... and the last loss at Bakersfield could be one that will haunt Tulsa. On paper, it was a game Tulsa should've won with the Jam entering the game with a 7-21 mark, including just 3-9 at home. On paper, the two games against the D-Fenders are winnable as well, with the D-Fenders standing at 9-15.

Look for Deron Washington to want to make a good impression on his former teammates as it will be his first game against Los Angeles since being traded to Tulsa in December. Also look for Latavious Williams to continue asserting himself as the paint as he continues to see his playing time go up.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Richard heading to Chicago

Tulsa 66ers forward Chris Richard has been signed by the Chicago Bulls to a 10-day contract. Richard has played in nine games for the 66ers during the 2009-10 season for the 66ers, averaging 10.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per contest, while shooting 62.3 percent from the field.

Originally selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round of the 2007 NBA Draft (#41 overall), he has appeared in 52 NBA games. The Lakeland, Florida native owns career averages of 1.9 points and 2.6 rebounds per contest.

Personally, I'm a little surprised by the callup. Richard has been a slow bloomer with Tulsa and really didn't seem to capture his form from last year ... yet. It definitely leaves the 66ers short on big men (no pun intended). Look for Marcus Lewis and Latavious Williams to really have to step it up on the boards now.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shakur and Washington head to Dallas

The official release from our friend Ryan Williams, the media guru for the 66ers...

Tulsa 66ers point guard Mustafa Shakur has been selected to compete in the NBA D-League Haier Shooting Stars competition and forward Deron Washington has been selected to compete in the Slam Dunk competition, the NBA D-League announced today.

Shakur is one of 12 NBA D-League stars participating in the Haier Shooting Stars competition, which makes its first appearance at NBA D-League Dream Factory Friday night presented by Haier. Four teams of three compete in a two-round timed shooting event that features six numbered shooting locations of increasing difficulty, with each team attempting to make all shots in numeric order in the fastest time. Each team will select a specific player rotation to follow throughout the competition. Each shot must be made before the next player begins shooting in succession. Teams have up to two minutes to complete the entire shooting course and the team that completes all six shots in the least amount of time is declared the winner. In the case of a tie, a shoot-off will be used to determine the winner.

Washington is one of four first-time Slam Dunk competitors that will take to the floor to showcase their best high-flying skills in a battle for slam dunk supremacy. The competition consists of two rounds of two dunks each with the top scores from the first round advancing to the championship round.

The NBA Development League Dream Factory Friday Night presented by Haier, an innovative skills competition modeled after the popular NBA All-Star Saturday Night, returns for the third consecutive year to Center Court at NBA Jam Session presented by adidas on Friday, Feb. 12, at 10:00 p.m. ET, and will stream live on from 10-11p.m. ET. This year’s event includes a Slam Dunk Competition, a Three-Point Competition featuring an all “money-ball” rack and the inaugural NBA D-League’s Haier Shooting Stars. Players must be on an active NBA D-League roster to compete in any event.

NBA D-League action in Dallas continues on Saturday, Feb. 13, when the fourth-annual NBA D-League All-Star Game tips off on Center Court at NBA All-Star Jam Session presented by adidas at 2 pm CT. Shakur and 19 other NBA D-League top prospects as selected by fans and the NBA D-League’s 16 head coaches, will showcase their skills as the game will be broadcast live on NBA TV at 2 p.m. CT.

Now for my take ... thank the heavens Shakur was recognized by fans and coaches for his play this season. No doubt the former Arizona guard deserves the nod. At 19.6 points and 6.9 assists per game, Shakur is the straw that stirs the 66ers drink. With a West Conference so depp with guards, there was some concern if Shakur would be selected, but he was simply too good this season to not be in Dallas.

Washington will wow some folks in the dunk contest. I've seen plenty of him in pregame and he has the athletic ability to drop some jaws during the competition. He's a good choice, and I would think he's one of the favorites to bring the trophy back to Tulsa.

A quick congratulations to two Tulsa 66ers

More will come on this later, but big congratulations to Mustafa Shakur for being named to the West Conference All-Star team and Deron Washington for being tabbed as one of four to participate in the dunk contest. The competition consists of two rounds of two dunks each with the top scores from the first round advancing to the championship round.

Nice job gents!

More later...

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A tough home loss to Sioux Falls ... what happened?

Reggie Williams from the Sioux Falls Skyforce came up and was looking over my shoulder at the final box score. I told him he'd played a good game and really tore it up in the fourth quarter. He just shook his head.

"I can't believe I fouled out," Williams said. "I think that's the first time I've ever fouled out of a game."

Williams had to look hard to find a blemish on his performance on Sunday afternoon after he and Raymond Sykes carried the Skyforce in the fourth quarter on their way to a 113-106 win. It was a big win for Sioux Falls, who came into the game 1-10 on the road and losers of their last seven away from South Dakota, and there were two big reasons for their win.

1. The run. With Tulsa holding a one-point lead late in the third quarter, Sioux Falls put together a 15-3 run to seize control. Tulsa would never get back within three points the rest of the way, thanks in large part to Sykes and Williams. Tulsa couldn't keep Sykes off the boards as he had 12 points and six rebounds in the fourth quarter. Williams, meanwhile, did what he always does ... score. He finished with a game-high 25 points, including 11 in the final period. Put Williams and Sykes together and they combined to hit 23 of the Skyforce's 35 points in the fourth quarter.

2. Free throws. Looking for a stat that jumps out? How about Sioux Falls shooting 44 free throws (making 34) and Tulsa shooting just 24 (making 18)? That's a 16-point difference at the charity stripe.

"They were aggressive throughout the game and they were rewarded for it," Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts said.

Sioux Falls was also aggressive on the boards, outrebounding Tulsa 45-37. How about the Skyforce's Greg Stiemsma's line on the night? Eight points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, and four assists ... a nice set of stats for the big man.

Now it's off to the road for the 66ers, starting with a pair of games against the Utah Flash. Tulsa is 2-1 against Utah this year.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Looking back at Iowa and ahead to Sioux Falls

While talking to Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts earlier today, I asked him if Tulsa's 111-87 win over Iowa on Friday night was a measuring stick type of win for him and his team. When you beat the best team in the league (only the sixth time all year they had been beaten) and hand them their worst loss of the season, it's an appopriate time to see exactly where your team is, correct?

"From a player's standpoint, I think it showed once again that we can play with anyone in the league, including the premier teams," Tibbetts told me. "We have to come out, compete, and give ourselves a chance to win. When we do that, our team is moving in the right direction."

Tulsa will try to keep moving in the right direction against a Sioux Falls team that they have beaten three out of four meetings this season, including a 2-0 mark at the Tulsa Convention Center. Those two road losses to open 2010 are just part of a 1-10 road record amassed by the Skyforce this season.

Keeping Sioux Falls struggling on the road will mean that the 66ers will have to try to contain forward Reggie Williams, who comes to Tulsa as the D-League's fifth-leading scorer at 25.8 points per game. Williams has been tough on Tulsa this season, scoring 31 points in each of the two games in Tulsa and exploding for 43 points in an overtime loss to Tulsa at Sioux Falls.

DeVon Hardin is back in the lineup for the 66ers after an injury and will make a difference down low against Williams and D-League shot blocking sensation Greg Stiemsma.

"We have to bring DeVon along slowly," Tibbetts said. "His presence in the paint is huge for us."

Speaking of the paint, Latavious Williams is becoming more and more of a force on the glass. His 18-point, 18-rebound effort in Thursday night's loss had the league buzzing, and he added nine more boards in Friday night's win.

"He's worked hard in practice all year, but he has really ramped it up lately," Tibbetts told me. "It's good to see him have that success because he's worked hard for it. It's all about learning how to be a pro basketball player, and Tay is learning more and more every day."

One more note about Sunday's game ... it is Tulsa's last one at home for a while and marks the beginning of a stretch when the 66ers will only play twice in Tulsa in February (single games against Maine and Springfield). Home court has to be an advantage for Tulsa on Sunday, even if the ice and snow keep the majority of fans from making the game.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Things to watch tonight in Sioux Falls

As the Tulsa 66ers look to move to 4-0 on the season against Sioux Falls tonight in South Dakota, here are three keys to the game.

1. The inside play. Chris Richard looked better last night, grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds for Tulsa. However, there were some troubling signs. Sioux Falls outscored Tulsa 66-48 in the paint and outdid Tulsa in blocked shots 7-4 (with Greg Stiemsma having five blocks for the Skyforce). Tulsa and Sioux Falls were even in terms of rebounds last night, and it was Richard grabbing the inside boards and Mustafa Shakur harnessing the long rebounds (he had eight) that paced the 66ers.

Make no mistake that Sioux Falls will look to pound the ball inside to Stiemsma and Keith Brumbaugh tonight.

2. Shakur's play. Tulsa's point guard carried his team when they needed it most last night, including scoring eight of his season-high 32 points in overtime. Will Shakur be able to keep up the pace or will his shoulders be tired tonight? If he can drive and score, then dish off when covered, Tulsa will find success. He is the catalyst of this team and is currently Tulsa's best shot to be a D-League All-Star.

3. Quality minutes. With only eight players going last night for the 66ers, there can be no weak links. Everyone stepped up last night, contributing at different times and in different ways. It's going to take that kind of mentality to pull off another win tonight in Sioux Falls. The old saying, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" is very appropriate for Tulsa right now.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Inclement weather makes a change in the schedule

After Tulsa's big overtime win on Friday night, the 66ers didn't expect the Skyforce to have another shot at them so soon ... but Mother Nature had other plans.

Due to inclement weather in the Dakotas, the Tulsa 66ers will remain in Sioux Falls and play the Skyforce tomorrow night at 7 p.m., rather than travel to Bismarck and face the Dakota Wizards. The Los Angeles D-Fenders will remain in Bismarck this weekend and will play the Dakota Wizards on Sunday at noon.

More thoughts on this later, but if folks who observe the D-League don't know how valuable Mustafa Shakur is to the 66ers, they need to take up another sport. Shakur carried a team (with only nine players) who desperately needed a win tonight on his back. Nice job Mustafa.

D-League All-Star voters ... put him in the All-Star game!

Thoughts heading into Sioux Falls tonight

Head coach Nate Tibbetts returns to South Dakota tonight as the 66ers begin an important two-game swing through the Dakotas. Tibbetts spend the last four seasons with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, including two as their head coach, so there will be plenty of familiar faces tonight when the 66ers match up with Sioux Falls. However nice the homecoming might be, I'm sure Tibbetts is much more concerned about seeing his Tulsa team get back on track than shaking a few hands and talking about the good old days.

Sioux Falls has a bit of revenge in mind as Tulsa won two games at the Convention Center to start the year, but this is a different 66ers team than the Skyforce saw when they came to Oklahoma ... and Sioux Falls has a missing piece back in its puzzle as well. Greg Stiemsma was injured and did not play in either game for Sioux Falls, and Tulsa heads north without D.J. White in the middle. In addition, Tulsa is only traveling nine to the Dakotas with Zabian Dowdell no longer on the Tulsa roster. Nothing official has come from the 66ers yet, but plenty of social media sites are reporting that Dowdell has left the 66ers to join Unicaja in Spain, part of an exodus of D-Leaguers heading overseas in the last couple of weeks.

Can Tulsa win on the road with nine players this weekend against what should be a stronger Sioux Falls team? Absolutely, but it's going to take the 66ers rediscovering their chemistry (see my previous post) and Chris Richard returning to his old form in the middle.

Stay tuned...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Five things Tulsa has to work on this week before heading to the Dakotas

Tulsa 66ers head coach Nate Tibbetts told me after Sunday afternoon’s loss to Erie that his team needed to return to the gym this week and find their chemistry. The 66ers did look to be in a bit of a funk this weekend, which certainly didn’t help as a tough Erie team came to town for a double-header. Erie left town with two wins in two games and Tulsa was left scratching its collective head to figure out exactly what happened.

In my opinion, five things contributed to the two losses this weekend … and they are things that Tulsa will need to correct before heading to the Dakotas for a pair of games this weekend.

1. Chemistry. Coach Tibbetts is right … the team just didn’t seem like the team that won six games in eight outings heading into the Erie series. The home games against Austin and Erie were the first time all season that Tulsa had played without an Oklahoma City Thunder assignee, and it certainly appeared that the team missed the presence of D.J. White (and/or Byron Mullens) this weekend. Chris Richard was signed on Thursday and thrust into action, but he has some more work to do to become the Chris Richard who was an All-Star game selection for Tulsa last season before his injury. Whether it’s learning the Thunder offense or blending in with almost completely different players from last year, Richard needs to be more of a force this weekend in the Dakotas. A Tulsa team with a strong inside presence is a better Tulsa team.

2. Injuries. Tulsa played Sunday afternoon’s game against Erie with just seven players. With big men DeVon Hardin and Steven Hill unavailable (actually Hill is not currently on the roster, but you sense he could be brought back any time), Erie certainly seemed to have its way on the boards at critical moments. Also, Cecil Brown’s groin injury on Saturday night was huge. Brown is one of Tulsa’s best clutch shooters, and he and his 13.5 points per game average was certainly missed. Zabian Dowdell was dressed and sat the bench on Sunday for unspecified reasons, taking away another 66ers playmaker.

3. Shooting. There will be times that shots just won’t fall, and that’s what happened this weekend. Credit a strong Erie defense for an all-around solid game on both days, but Tulsa had its chances both days to come away with a victory. The shots just wouldn’t drop in the end, even though Mustafa Shakur and Larry Owens both had good looks at the basket for game-tying 3-pointers on Sunday.

4. The killer instinct. Both games this weekend, Tulsa took a fourth-quarter lead and had a chance to deliver a knockout punch, but couldn’t hit the shot, get the rebound, or make the pass when it had to do it. It’s the first time this season that Tulsa had been out of synch when it had the opportunity to take the game away from the opposition. The 66ers have to rediscover how to make the critical plays in critical situations this weekend. Some of it comes from confidence, and a frustrated Tulsa team seemed to have its confidence shaken at times this weekend.

5. Individual defense. The 66ers and the parent Thunder are emphatic about defense, and there were times that it just wasn’t there this weekend. Tulsa needs to rediscover its defensive intensity and play the solid man defense that has been lacking at times in the last four games dating back to the Utah win at the D-League Showcase in Boise. I have a feeling Coach Tibbetts will remind his players of that this week in practice.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A pretty simple formula equals a Tulsa loss

When the ball doesn't go in the hole, you're not going to win a lot of games. For Tulsa, Saturday night was the first time in eight games that the 66ers hadn't hit 50 percent or better from the field. It was an uphill battle from the start as Tulsa missed 16 of its first 22 shots. The end result? A 97-91 victory by visiting Erie.

Tulsa finished hitting just 40.8 percent from the field ... but that's a marked improvement in the second half from the 30 percent the 66ers were shooting at intermission.

Let's face it ... teams have games when they're going to shoot poorly, and this was one of those for the 66ers. It happens. It's a fact of basketball that it will happen. However, don't overlook the early injury to Cecil Brown as a big factor in Tulsa's shooting woes. Brown, who Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts says always hits a big shot in every game, appeared to pull his groin less than four minutes into the game and never returned. He didn't score in the contest, and his 13.5 points per contest were sorely missed by Tulsa on Saturday night.

Despite the cold shooting night, Tulsa battled back from a 14-point deficit to take an 87-86 lead on Deron Washington’s follow dunk with 3:35 to play. Erie, however, would finish the game on an 11-4 run, including hitting five of six free throws in the game’s final minute, to ice the victory.

"I can't fault our effort, especially in the second half," Tibbetts told me after the game. "We gave ourselves a chance, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed to make if we were going to win the game."

Basketball memories in the D-League are very shortlived with back-to-back scheduling. Tulsa will need to erase Saturday night quickly if they're going to earn a split with a streaking Erie team that has won five of their last six games.

Tulsa-Erie preview

I was glad to be able to chat via e-mail with Erie's Matt Hubert from Blog Talk BayHawk to size up this weekend's double-header between Tulsa and Erie at the Convention Center. You can read my thoughts on the 66ers and on the weekend's series by clicking below.

click here to read the entry from Blog Talk BayHawk

Friday, January 15, 2010

Looking back at Austin and ahead to Erie

With a schedule that features just two home games in the month of February, there's no question that the Tulsa 66ers have to take care of business at home in January. That's exactly what they did last night against Austin, posting a 103-95 decision over the Toros.

Four thoughts about last night's game...

1. Despite being outsized, Tulsa held its own in the paint, barely being outrebounded by Austin 43-40. Coach Nate Tibbetts and his staff has stressed the importance of rebounding all week and you could tell that the players have listened. It's also not such a bad thing to have a smaller lineup as Tulsa's guards were able to grab rebounds and push the ball up the court last night against the Toros.

2. Mustafa Shakur saved the best for last. Struggling through three periods, Shakur had 14 of his team-high 22 points in the fourth quarter, including six big free throws in the game's final 62 seconds. Shakur also scored 14 of Tulsa's 27 points in the final period. Despite a relatively forgettable night, Shakur controlled things down the stretch for the 66ers and looked solid when the team needed a leader.

3. Deron Washington made a difference. Tibbetts called him a spark after the game, and the description is a good one as Washington paced Tulsa's aggressive tone in the second half with several drives to the bucket. He just missed on a fourth-quarter reverse dunk that would've sent the crowd into a frenzy.

4. Speaking of the crowd, it was a season-high 4,298 inside the Convention Center last night. You could tell the Tulsa players and coaches appreciated the crowd as they stayed around after the game to exchange high-fives and chat with fans. Tibbetts told me afterwards how much the loud crowd meant to the team.

Four thoughts about Erie, who comes to Tulsa for games on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

1. Tulsa has to keep John Bryant away from the basket. Bryant is a 6-foot-11, 300-pound center who has used his size to do plenty of damage in the paint this season. Bryant is averaging 13.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest, good enough for fifth in the league.

“Erie is a well-coached, hard-nosed team and they have a great big guy in John Bryant,” Tibbetts told me. “We have to meet him in the lane early, because once he gets under the basket, you really can’t move him out of there.”

2. Shakur and Dowdell have to keep an eye on Cedric Jackson. Jackson is coming off a 31-point performance in a win over Fort Wayne.

“Jackson is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Tibbetts agreed. “Overall, Erie has a lot of good young players. I think we’re in for a pair of grind-them-out, tough games.”

3. Will the three-guard starting lineup make another appearance? Looks like it's a very real possibility. With a smaller lineup, Tibbetts tweaked his starters before Thursday’s game against Austin, starting three guards. Dowdell and Cecil Brown started alongside Shakur, with Larry Owens and Chris Richard manning the blocks.

“I was very happy with the way our lineup played against Austin,” Tibbetts said. “I thought Larry really set the tone for us in the first half. He was playing the four position instead of his normal three, but he’s a versatile player and that’s one of the things that makes him such a good player.”

Tibbetts told me the new lineup isn't a knock against Moses Ehambe (who had started every game for Tulsa prior to Thursday) or Latavious Williams. It's just a chance to get some guys off the bench some starts.

4. Williams continues to impress when he's in. Six rebounds and a blocked shot in 12 minutes last night? A typical stat line for Williams, who isn't get a ton of playing time, but is making a difference when he's in there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thoughts at halftime

A few random thoughts as I peruse the box score...

1. Austin has 19 free throw attempts while Tulsa has just two in the first half. Luckily for the 66ers, Austin has only hit 9-of-19 from the line.

2. To paraphrase Dennis Green, Dwayne Jones is who we thought he was. His nine points and 10 rebounds in the first half show he's as good as advertised.

3. Malik Hairston definitely makes this a better team. Coach Nate Tibbetts told me yesterday that he thought Hairston was one of the best wing players in the league, and he's flashed that brilliance at times in the first half.

4. It may take some time for Chris Richard to get back in the flow. He's just taken one shot and has just three rebounds.

5. Marcus Lewis is playing and making a difference, with three boards in eight-plus minutes.

6. Latavious Williams still has some crazy rebounds-per-minute averages, with a team-high five boards in just under nine minutes in the first half.

Why Marcus Lewis may be the X-factor tonight

Before the 66ers resigned Chris Richard earlier today, the biggest question heading into tonight's West Conference showdown was ... How would the 66ers slow down the rebounding machine known as Dwayne Jones, who is averaging a league-high 15.1 boards per game for the Austin Toros?

On the surface, Jones' trip into Tulsa tonight seems to come at a bad time for the 66ers. Oklahoma City has recalled both Byron Mullens and D.J. White (both big men who were averaging double digits in rebounds) so the two biggest Tulsa guns are now in Oklahoma City.

After practice yesterday, I sat down with Tulsa head coach Nate Tibbetts and asked him how he planned to account for Jones. He mentioned two names ... Steven Hill and Marcus Lewis. Now granted, things have changed dramatically since yesterday. Richard was signed and Hill has been released because of an injury, but Lewis is still there ... and an enigma in some ways.

The rookie out of Oral Roberts hasn't seen much playing time lately. At the D-League Showcase, Lewis didn't play against Utah and saw just three minutes of court time against Albuquerque (where he posted no points and one rebound). He played a combined 22 minutes in the two wins to start the calendar year against Sioux Falls, meaning he's averaging a little more than six minutes per game in 2010. Yet, on Wednesday, Tibbetts spoke very highly of Lewis and his chances to make a difference against Austin.

"He's prepared himself for games like this by working hard in practice," Tibbetts said. "He's a tough guy and he works hard every day to get better. Sometimes rookies don't get a lot of playing time in this league, but he's one of the guys who'll be given a chance to step up against Austin."

Lewis, Richard, and Latavious Williams will have their hands full against Jones, who has a knack for getting on the boards. If Lewis can help to neutralize Jones or at least control him, it'll be his biggest contribution of the season thus far.