Thursday, January 7, 2010

Five things we learned in Boise

Shortly after the Tulsa 66ers dropped a 101-97 decision to Albuquerque on Thursday afternoon, head coach Nate Tibbetts was still upbeat.

"When you have good effort, you're pleased. For two games here at the Showcase, we played hard."

It was a simple statement, but shows in a way how far the 66ers have come this season. Last year, Tulsa dropped numerous close games and each one seemed to deflate the 66ers a little more. This year, Tibbetts and his crew can point to positives and look ahead.

At 10-7, Tulsa is in the thick of things in the West Conference standings. With a week off to rest before Austin comes to town for what could be a key game, Tibbetts and his squad will look to work on the ever-present "little things" to make the team better.

So what are the main takeaways from Boise?

1. Tulsa is better. It's an obvious statement, but it's also a sentiment that is being shared around the league. One scout sitting next to me told me there's no question Tulsa is the most improved team in the league. The players are more active on both ends of the court and the concept of teamwork has been grasped.

2. Latavious gathered plenty of attention. Overhearing so many scouts and reading so many blogs and Twitter updates, Latavious Williams was one of the stars that everyone had to see in Boise. One even said that seeing Williams was worth the trip to Boise. An interesting comment, considering Williams was absent the entire fourth quarter against Albuquerque and also sat the bench during crunch time in Tuesday's win against Utah. Still, despite the late disappearance, Williams grabbed 11 rebounds on Thursday, tying a season high. "He's quite a specimen," one scout told me. "And he has so much room for improvement."

3. Cecil Brown is clutch. He hit the big shots against Utah, and started the fourth quarter against Albuquerque with a 3. "Cecil always seems to hit a big shot or two for us during a game," Tibbetts said.

4. Defense wins ... or at least impresses. When Tulsa put the clamps on Albuquerque's Carlos Powell, holding him to four points in a 34-minute stretch, it was a manifestation of Tulsa's improvement. Defense is a priority for the 66ers and the parent Oklahoma City Thunder, and Deron Washington's defense (as well as others who rotated through) on Powell was impressive.

5. Mustafa Shakur is the real deal. Tulsa's point guard drew praise for his big fourth-quarter play and 24 points in the Utah win, and had plenty of scouts scribbling notes about him on Thursday. A 17-point, five-assist game was nice, but he missed all three field goal attempts in the fourth quarter and didn't score in the period. That will happen, and for Shakur, it's a rarity when he falls off the scoring radar. There's no doubt he raised his stock this week in Boise.

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