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Everything You Need To Know From Thunder Exit Interviews

by Darnell Mayberry Published: June 23, 2012

News, notes and nuggets from Saturday’s six-hour marathon session that the Thunder referred to as “exit interviews.”

  • In the words of Nazr Mohammed, Sam Presti has the gift and the curse right now. Presti has a stacked roster, but is now entering a critical summer in which he has the first crack at signing a bulk of his talent to contract extensions. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor are all eligible for extensions to their rookie deals. Coach Scott Brooks is up for a new contract, too. Call it a contract quandary. It’s an important summer, one that could shape the franchise for the foreseeable future.
  • With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins all signed to long-term, high-dollar contracts, everyone wants to know how the Thunder will preserve its core under salary cap constraints in the backyard of small market Oklahoma City. A funny thing happened today. When nobody else has seemed to have the answers to those questions, the players that will decide the fate of the franchise put the onus on themselves to make it work.
  • First, we heard Harden hint at being willing to take less money. Then, we heard Maynor suggest the same and say everybody has to sacrifice. It was a shocking development, statements you don’t ordinarily hear among professional athletes. They’re putting the team before their pockets, at least publicly they are. But in doing so, it put the pressure squarely on them to each do their part to keep this puzzle together.
  • We’ll see how their tunes change when free agency opens in a week.
  • Harden when asked essentially if money or winning is more important: “This is something special here. A dynasty could be, is being built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. The other stuff, you can’t buy it.”
  • Maynor chimed in on the contract quandary by saying one word will solve the riddle. Sacrifice. “If we really want to continue,” Maynor said. “It feels like we got something special here. I feel like if guys sacrifice to get something done then everybody will be here still.”
  • Asked if he thinks his teammates have that selfless mentality Maynor said “Yeah, I feel like guys got that mentality. I think the main thing is we all play basketball because we love to do it. So we’re trying to win. And I think this is a good spot to try to do that.”
  • Maynor said he doesn’t think his injury would derail his extension talks. “I’m working hard enough to be able to talk about stuff like that,” he said.
  • Maynor on what he will tell his agent: “I want to be here. It’s very important to me. Whatever we got to do to get it done, we need to make it happen. I enjoy being here, and I want to be here longer.”
  • Maynor: “This is a different type of NBA team. It really feels like college.”
  • Brooks on his contract talks: “I’m sure in the next couple of days we’ll sit down and get together.”
  • Westbrook on whether he has spoken to Harden and Ibaka about their contract talks: “I haven’t talked to the guys about that. I was kind of letting the season die down first. But I know those guys want to be a part of this organization. They want to stick around.”
  • Westbrook said he wants to see Brooks come back. “Since I’ve been here we’ve gotten better each and every year. He’s learning right along with us. We’re all learning to get better and become better. Hopefully we can have everybody back and come back and try to do the same thing.”
  • Durant on Harden and Ibaka’s upcoming contract negotiations: “They know they’re a big part of what we do here. They know how much we value them as people first and as players. They know how much the city loves them. But we’re just going to let them do what they do. My job is to be a great teammate and a great friend to them. If they ever ask me for any kind of support, it’s always going to be there. If they ever ask me for advice, I’m always going to be there to talk to them. I’m going to let that take care of itself and hopefully it works out for the best.”
  • Westbrook on Brooks’ contract extension dragging out. “That’s how things go. You kind of (see it) get dragged out, dragged out, and then it gets done. It wasn’t never a panic for me. I know it’s just kind of how negotiations work…That’s kind of how the lockout was, just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk until finally we come to an agreement.”
  • Brooks acknowledged today that Perk was playing with a partially torn groin: “Most players might have shut it down and called it a season, but he fought. We wouldn’t put our players in a position that would endanger their career, but he was able to play through a lot of pain.”
  • A subtle sign of how the Thunder is maturing can be heard in how players now acknowledge the importance of experience. They didn’t last year after losing in the Western Conference Finals. They still had a youthful naivety and stubbornness about them. Now, they know how significant experience is in the playoffs. Said Durant: “Experience really is the best teacher and really does matter at that time. It was a great lesson for us.”
  • KD on 4,000 fans going to the airport yesterday to greet the team: “It was just amazing to see how many people supported us, especially after a loss. In most cities, that would never happen. That makes us want to get back there and try to win it for them even more.”
  • Brooks on his late-game speech: “At that point, the game was over. Not that I conceded and said we can’t come back from a 25-point deficit with three or four minutes left. But there’s messages that you can send throughout the game, throughout the season. I thought that was an important message to send.”
  • Harden has taken a beating by fans for his Finals failures. But you have to give the guy credit for this much. He’s stood up and answered tough questions like a true professional about his disappointing Finals performance. He did so again today. “It’s tough,” Harden said. “Shots didn’t fall. The shots that felt good, that usually go in, didn’t go in. They were hitting back rim or rimming in and out. It starts to take a toll on you. You start to think about it a little bit. Like I said, it’s a learning experience. Even if your shot’s not falling, you can’t get down on yourself. Even though I put the work in every single day, you just got to have that confidence.”
  • Harden with more on how his confidence was affected in the Finals: “I think any basketball player who feels good about their shot and puts the work in every single day and then shots don’t fall in the game you start to think about it a little bit. But I can do other things on the court, not just shoot the ball but find other ways to impact the game. I think that’s one of the things I’ll have to come in with next season. If I’m not making shots in one game in particular, find another way to impact the game. That’s something I have to think about this summer.”
  • Brooks on LeBron James’ performance in the Finals: “It wasn’t natural what he was doing on the court. You don’t see that often. He was at a special level that I’ve never seen before.”
  • Brooks on Ibaka’s hands: “He’s definitely worked on that part of his game. It’s not like he’s Fred Biletnifokk or anything, but he doesn’t have bad hands. He has hands that should and will get better.”
  • Brooks said Ibaka needs to become a larger part of the offense. “His mid-range game is as good as anybody on our team,” Brooks said. “We just have to do a better job of finding him opportunities.”
  • Ibaka: “I’m going to try to work on my offensive game. I think it’s something for my team that we need. If I can do better, if I can get better on my post game, I think it’s better for my team. We will get better.”
  • Brooks said the team will “definitely” look at putting in a zone defense next year (Hallelujah!). As he’s said in the past, Brooks wanted his players to focus on solidifying man-to-man principles before moving on to a new scheme. “It’s a progression on everything we do. You can’t expect how hard it is at times. I would love to have everybody be at the master’s level of every play, every position, everything that we can throw at them. But everything we do, it’s step-by-step. There’s no question that every team has an ability to run a zone. But you have to be able to defend man-to-man before you take the next step. I think we can take the next step.”
  • Several players weighed in on the pros and cons of the zone defense. I’ll put together a piece on that sometime before the start of next season.
  • Westbrook on what he was able to take out of the Finals: “Just the feeling. I think all the guys know what that felt like to walk off the court and not being champions. I think that’s going to push a lot of guys. I know it’s going to push me to come back better. It’s going to push everybody else to come back better players.”
  • Westbrook on what he wants to improve on: “A lot. I could go down a list for myself. It’s not one particular thing. I’m just going to come back and try to just be better, just be a better leader, just a better player overall, defender, just come back and try to do it all to make sure we come back with the same mind-set and be hungrier next year.”
  • Durant on the Finals loss: “That was a great lesson for us. Sometimes you learn a lot from failures. That’s going to fuel us. We’ve tasted a little bit of the Finals and of course we want to get back.”
  • Durant said he plans to continue to work on his body and “try to get as strong as I can.” Also wants to be a better playmaker and score easier.
  • Durant on Thunder-Heat becoming a rivalry: “I hope so. I would enjoy that. That would be fun to make that Heat-Thunder rivalry.”
  • KD: “I enjoy competing against LeBron James. I enjoy trying to kill him every time down.”
  • Durant: “We just got to stick to doing what we do. The same path. We don’t have to make any major changes. We don’t have to get a whole new team in here. We just got to stick to what we’ve been doing these last few years. We’ve been growing the right way.”
  • It’s worth noting that after each of his four seasons in OKC, Durant has wanted to keep the same team he had. With all due respect to Chucky Atkins and Robert Swift, it’s a good thing Durant is taking the shots and not calling them.
  • Durant on the Thunder’s title hopes this year: “We wanted this one. We never accepted us being too young or us waiting our turn. We wanted this one. But it looks like we’re going to have to wait a little bit longer.”
  • Durant couldn’t commit to getting more rest this summer after the Olympics. “I might pick up a ball and go hoop tomorrow…My hobby is playing basketball.”
  • KD: “The Olympics is something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid. I just can’t wait until it starts up.”
  • Durant on Westbrook’s improved leadership: “Russell was great this year at helping everybody out, being more vocal, controlling his emotions a little bit more and just leaving it all out there for the team. You see one of your main guys doing that, you don’t have nothing to do but follow it.”
  • Durant on why he wanted this year’s championship: “I really wanted it for the team and the city, first off. But the thing about me after that (I wanted it for) all the people that always told me I was too young, too skinny, I would never make it, I’m over-hyped. Because of stuff like that, I wanted to get there and I wanted to win it just to kind of show people I could do it and I could lead a team to a (title). Unfortunately, they still can talk about me in that way and throw the rings jokes out there.”
  • Gonna be very interesting to see how the narrative on Durant starts to change. He is now the best player without a championship. I asked him about it for a piece I’ll be penning soon. He says he’s prepared for it.
  • Nazr Mohammed, who will be an unrestricted free agent, said he “would love to be back” and is “hoping to be back.”
  • Mohammed also conceded that it’s time for Cole Aldrich to step up. “If I was in his position, I’d want to get on the court,” Mohammed said. “I feel that that’s the next progression. You’ve got to give him a chance and see what you’ve got. That’s the way the game is. If you’ve got the choice of investing in a guy 14 years in the game or a guy in his third year, you’ve got to go with the guy in his third year and see what he’s got.”
  • Nazr said the Finals trip could do two things to a young team like the Thunder: 1) hurt OKC because the players could think it’s easy, or 2) It’s the beginning of something “really, really good.” Mohammed said he thinks the Thunder is on track for the latter. The first, he said, doesn’t appear to be a problem. “With this group, that’s not a worry at all because they understood the hard work that it took to get there.”
  • Nazr said he thinks Harden’s tough Finals series will fuel him. Asked how he envisioned Harden coming back next year, Mohammed said “better than ever.”  “He’s a tough guy,” Mohammed said. “He wants to succeed, he wants to do well. So I think next year is going to be an unbelievable year for him, because he’s going to look at this and say ‘OK, I’ve got something to prove.’ That’s great for him.”
  • Mohammed on the Thunder losing the Finals in five: “It was 4-1, but it was the closest 4-1 you could have ever thought about. The four games that they won, at least three of them we could have easily been on top.”
  • A glaring difference between the Thunder’s performance in the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals: assists. Oklahoma City averaged 21.2 assists against the Spurs and just 13.4 assists against the Heat. “It’s hard to replicate the way we moved the ball against San Antonio, because we got such great one-on-one offensive players and we’ve got great facilitators,” said Mohammed. “As a player, for 82 games to sit your game on the sideline is tough to do. Not many guys can change their game completely just to try something else just to move the ball.”
  • Nick Collison said the next level for this team is all upstairs. “For us, that level comes mentally,” Collison said. “We’ve done really well. We’ve come such a long way. But the next step for us I think is being able to sustain longer periods of that mental sharpness to where the only thing in our mind is playing this possession the best way for our team. The more we can get to where that’s just who we are the better we’ll be.”
  • Still no answers as to why Collison didn’t play more in the Finals. Brooks always provides stock answers about how he has three guys he can go with. So I asked Collison. Of course, he took the high road. “We played a lot of small lineups with one big on the floor, and those two guys (Perkins and Ibaka) have played great for us this year,” Collison said. “They’ve been really vital to what we’ve done, and coach has a lot of faith in them. He has a lot of faith in me. He’s got a lot of faith in all our guys. There’s just not a ton of minutes available to the three of us when we’re playing one at a time. That’s what we went with.”
  • Collison elaborating: “I don’t think matchups or game plans is what lost us the series. I think Miami beat us, first of all. They played great. And we didn’t play at as high of a level as we needed to throughout the whole 48 minutes of each game.”
  • I hate questions to players about fans. I wish every reporter who parted their lips to ask a player a question about a team’s home fans could just be fired right there on the spot. Seriously. How many times have you ever heard a players say ‘Our fans suck. They’re the worst in the league.’ Doesn’t happen. With that said, Collison went beyond the cliche of “we have the best fans in the league” and provided some actual insight into how Thunder heads help the team. “The lack of negativity that we have to deal with here from outside that a lot of cities do helps us, too, especially in our growth and with young players, all players, but particularly in the last three or four years. If you’re also dealing with constant negativity from the city or you don’t feel that loyalty that everyone is on board it’s more difficult. It’s not impossible. People deal with it all the time. But I think it is an advantage for us that we’ve kind of have that unwavering support.”
  • Collison on the off-season: “It’s a lot shorter. It’s almost July, which is crazy. We used to be done in mid-April. I mean, it’s like a really different feel.”
  • Collison on what he wants to bring back next year: “I want my mind-set to be a little more aggressive. I’ve become a better shooter and I want to look to that more. I don’t want it to be where I’m only shooting it when I’m feeling good. I want to be like, that’s what I do. I think that can help us.”
  • Harden on the Finals: “It’s a different season. Obviously, the regular season and the postseason is different. But then that Finals is a different season. It’s another level that you have to play at, not just physically but mentally. You got to think the game at another level as well.”
  • Harden said he wants to work on his right hand and his pull-up and mid-range game among other things.
  • Harden said he’s looking forward to having Maynor back on the court next year and added that he could use his playmaking abilities. Harden also said he doesn’t think it’ll be difficult integrating Maynor back into the second unit. “We’re both playmakers,” Harden said. “I can sit back and he can make plays as well, too.”
  • Thabo Sefolosha on the experience factor in the Finals: “It was probably a pretty big factor. I felt like the first two games, especially, we weren’t quite ourselves. We played a little bit tense. We weren’t loose enough, loose the way we like to play. So I think it was a factor in the whole series.”
  • Somewhat lost in this season is the fact that Thabo shot a career-high 43.7 percent on 3s. It’s one development that, if it continues, could really benefit the starting lineup going forward (assuming Brooks doesn’t move Harden into the first string). “I was pretty confident with my shot this year,” Sefolosha said. “When I had an opening, I was shooting it.”
  • You can definitely see flashes of firepower in Sefolosha’s offensive game, whether its shooting or slashing. How much more he has to offer and how many opportunities will be there for him going forward are the questions. Sefolosha, though, is eager to show more. “I would like to be a little bit more involved offensively, but, again, you can’t complain with the team that we have and the talent that we have,” he said. “I understand my role and I want to fulfill that role for the team.”
  • Sefolosha is not yet committing to playing with the Swiss national team. He said his main concern is the health of his foot, which he said is not 100 percent but was good enough to permit him “to play the whole playoffs without being too bothered by it.”
  • Maynor said the season was pretty tough on him. “But just being around these guys made it better,” he said. “For us to make that big playoff run made it a whole lot better. I was coming in here every morning excited to see them, excited for games. But on the same end, it was a little bit frustrating because I couldn’t get out there and help.”
  • Maynor said he will remain in Oklahoma City to complete his rehab. He said he continues to be on schedule to return by the time training camp starts.
  • Maynor with a headstrong statement about his return: “I’m not going to be behind, I’ll tell you that. I’m working hard this summer. I’ve been working hard since I got hurt.”
  • Maynor said above all else the championship run helped the team mature more and understand what it takes. “Since I’ve been here, it’s always been hard work every day,” Maynor said. “But sometimes, it’s more than just talent. I think maybe that’s what got Miami over the hump. It was more than just talent in that series.”
  • Being injured, Maynor said, helped him digest a ton about the game from a different perspective. Still, Maynor said he feels he has to actually participate in a Finals series to really know what it’s like. “It’s a different feeling just sitting there and not being ready to play,” Maynor said. “It’s got to be nerve-racking. I would want to live that out myself.”
  • Maynor said he wants to be a starter someday but then immediately circled back to that all-so significant ‘S’ word. Sacrifice “Of course I want to be a starter in this league,” Maynor said. “But at the same time, wherever I’m at I want to enjoy it while I’m playing basketball. Sometimes it’s not about that. Sometimes it’s, like I said, about that word sacrificing. That’s basically what I’m about. I just like to win and enjoy doing it.”
  • Maynor on anticipated pressure to win next season: “I think we’re going to be held to a lot of expectations. Everybody is going to expect us to be back in the Finals. But it don’t come easy.”
  • Reggie Jackson said this season had “a bunch of ups and downs” but said he enjoyed it. His demotion midway through the year obviously could have been tough on him. But he handled it like a champ every step of the way and spoke about it with class when asked about it today. “You can’t really be bitter,” Jackson said. “It was Eric’s spot in the beginning. I filled in, and then they felt like the best move was to get Derek Fisher. I feel like it was a good move, too. We made the Finals. Unfortunately, we didn’t win it all. But I got to learn from a great veteran.”
  • Aldrich and Jackson are probably the only two players from this year’s roster that will play in summer league.
  • And finally, the moment all hardcore Thunder heads have been waiting on. Aldrich on the secret to his signature monster putback dunks: “Just continue to keep on moving, because when somebody just keeps on moving it’s hard to box somebody out.
  • Not meeting with the media today: Daequan Cook, Royal Ivey, Lazar Hayward, Fisher and Perk. Team officials said Fish and Perk were excused because of illness. Perk is expected to speak to reporters Sunday. Fisher might do his thing Monday or Tuesday.

-DM-

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by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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