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...