Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant appears headed toward his second straight start in the annual NBA All-Star Game, based on initial results of this year's fan balloting released Thursday.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Durant lead the Western Conference after the first balloting returns, while Orlando's Dwight Howard and Miami's LeBron James lead the Eastern Conference.
Bryant's 690,613 votes lead Western guards, while Durant's 633,538 votes lead forwards.
Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul is the next guard at 540,173 and former Oklahoma standout Blake Griffin of the Clippers is second to Durant among forwards with 394,264 votes. The Lakers' Andrew Bynum paces Western centers with 496,597 votes.
OKC's Russell Westbrook is fifth among the guards with 107,197 votes and Kendrick Perkins is sixth among the Western centers at 41,579.
This year's All-Star Game will be played Feb. 26 at Amway Center in Orlando at 7 p.m.
Scribbled on the locker room grease board inside New Orleans Arena on Wednesday night were the instructions "Recovery 11-1" and "No basketball!"
"Recovery 11-1" was the time of day OKC players were to receive medical treatment at the team's practice facility on Thursday to help recover from their grueling five games played in six nights, all of which were victories.
The exclamation mark at the end of "No basketball!" was a Thunder official's futile attempt to make sure players did not – repeat, did not – pick up a basketball in any way. The thought of this actually not occurring was laughable because OKC players habitually have done some kind of basketball work every off day so far this season.
Director of team operations Marc St. Yves playfully was asked if he was going to hide the basketballs so players couldn't find them. "Yeah, right," St. Yves responded. "All 72 of them?"
By 1 p.m. Thursday, six Thunder players had been spotted with ball in hand on the practice courts.
After a sluggish start that featured little defense and even less offense early in the first quarter against the New Orleans Hornets, the Thunder plodded its way back from a 10-point deficit and finally captured its first lead at the 8:08 mark of the second quarter.
"Our guys always seem to figure it out," said OKC coach Scott Brooks, who credited the second unit for stabilizing his team's defense. "That's why you need a team. You need a team to come in and come through for the whole crew. I thought the second quarter was a big part of our (95-85) win tonight."
THE BIG EASY
Durant finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and three assists against New Orleans, a team he often abuses.
Last season, Durant averaged 29.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists against the Hornets. Three seasons ago, he averaged 31.3 points, which included tying a career high with 47.
THUNDER FAN CLUB
New Orleans coach Monty Williams is enamored with the Thunder and heaped praise prior to Wednesday's contest.
"They have experience," Williams said after his team's shoot-around. "They have young guys who aren't young. They're talented. They just come at you in waves. There's no drop-off when they bring their bench guys in. They have the best scorer in the league (Durant), the best sixth man in the league (James Harden) and maybe one of the most improved point guards (Westbrook). They have a deadly combination with championship experience in Perkins, hungry guys like (Serge) Ibaka. (Nick) Collison is probably one of the most underrated bigs in the league. You could probably sit here and talk about their team all day."
Williams is a defensive-minded coach, which explains why New Orleans ranks third in rebound differential (plus-6.1), fifth in scoring defense (91.4) and 11th in opponent shooting percentage (.435).
The Hornets would play even more aggressive defensively if the rules allowed.
"With the rules now, it's hard to take guys out," Williams said when asked if it's possible to take players like Durant and Westbrook out of the OKC offense. "Back in the day, you could muscle up a guy, grab him a little bit more, frustrate him with your hands. You touch a guy now it's a flagrant foul, so you have to be as physical as you can within the rules."
In mid-sentence, Williams' mind wandered back to his scouting report against the Thunder.
"I'm more concerned with Daequan Cook coming off the bench and hitting a couple of 3s; (Thabo) Sefolosha, disrespect him and he knocks down shots; Collison (and his) timely offensive rebounds. They've got a young point guard (rookie Reggie Jackson), I had no idea he was that good until I watched him three games ago."
Yup, more from Williams: "It's tough when you play against a guy like Durant because his range is out to 30 feet. Sometimes he makes shots that you have to say, 'Oh well.' That's tough for your defense. He and Harden tend to deflate your defense with their shot-making ability."
OKC will hold a full practice at 11 a.m. Friday in preparation for Saturday's 7 p.m. game inside Chesapeake Energy Arena against New York, which had won four straight entering Thursday's game at Memphis.
Then a three-game Thunder road trip arrives with a 7 p.m. contest Monday at Boston on Martin Luther King Day and at Washington on Wednesday. On Saturday, the Thunder will play its final game at New Jersey because next season the Nets move into the $1 billion Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which is part of a $4.9 billion sports arena, business and residential complex.
Williams said former Putnam City High School standout Xavier Henry, who was traded from Memphis to New Orleans in a three-team deal earlier this month, is roughly a week away from returning to the lineup while recovering from torn ligaments in his ankle.
Henry is participating in shootarounds and practices. "To put a guy out there that has not gone through camp, you are asking for another injury," Williams said.