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.