Former Oklahoma basketball coach Kelvin Sampson is in his second season as coach Kevin McHale's lead assistant with the Houston Rockets, who play the OKC Thunder in Game 6 on Friday night at Toyota Center in Houston.
Q: You've been mentioned as a candidate for head coach openings with the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Bobcats. Can you share any news with us about those situations?
Sampson: “Not really. I've told (Rockets general manager) Daryl (Morey) and those guys I'm not going to do anything during this series, so I don't really have anything to say. I haven't talked to anybody and I'm not going to talk to anybody until this series is over, one way or the other.”
You work closely with James Harden in practice. What things do you talk about primarily?
“For James, it's just (about) making sure he makes the right decisions offensively. He's so good, he can dominate. Making sure he's not making the home run pass. Against this team (OKC), the more movement we have — including him — the harder we are to guard because of the way they switch (defensively). … When we're moving, we can use that switching against them.”
Scouting reports on the Thunder?
“I pick his brain about the Thunder. You'd be surprised at the question I ask about them. He's been really helpful for us with that. Most of the questions he asks me are about his defense or his offense. ‘Do you think I should do this? What about this?' … Guys like James, sometimes he needs people around him that will tell him what he needs to hear versus what he wants to hear.”
Michael Jordan had his “Flu Game” in the playoffs and had 38 points against Utah in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Did Harden have his “Flu Game” in Game 5 with 31 points and making his first seven 3-pointers at OKC despite having strep throat and skipping morning shootaround?
“He was pretty good, wasn't he? I'm a little upset with him that he went through shootaround (before Game 6).”
You were known for emphasizing defense at OU, yet you're coaching the second-highest scoring team in the NBA. What's that been like?
“It's been fun to watch. Your core principles, you always believe in. When I thought we had good enough players at Oklahoma to run, we scored a lot of points. If I didn't think we did, we didn't (run). You can run all day with guys that can't score, but that's just more misses.”
You came back from being down 3-0 in this series. How much of that is about emotion as much as execution? Your guys seem more relaxed, more confident each game.
“A lot of it has to do with Kevin's mentality, too. Kevin does a great job with this team in not putting any kind of pressure on them one way or the other. He's one of those guys who is so positive and so reinforcing. I don't know if I've ever heard him say a condescending word to any of them. I'm probably the bad cop and he's the good cop, which is kind of different with a staff. Kevin is perfect for this team. We've got so many young guys and he just builds their confidence. We've had some rough shooting nights because of the way we play … but we're never out of it. If you notice, when we get big leads, you're never out of it, either.”
Did you have a previous connection with Kevin McHale?
“Just (in) passing. I interviewed for the (Houston) head job and in the same breath (Rockets officials said), ‘We're going to go in this direction, but we'd really like to talk to you about (being the) associate head coach, lead assistant and all that.' At that time, I wasn't in the mood to hear that. That's just being honest about it.”
How did you end up in Houston?
“Kevin called me when he knew he had (the job), but it wasn't announced. I was still (an assistant) in Milwaukee. He said, ‘Let's get together.' So I flew up to Minnesota. He picked me up at the airport. I think he was helping re-roof his brother's house. That's when I knew I liked him. I think he had on Converse (shoes), circa 1987. I think they were green, too. I knew that he kept them. … He had on shorts, way too short; dirty socks; a 1998 old Tahoe Suburban; bottles; cups; I thought it was the construction guy's (car). I thought, ‘This is my kind of guy.' ”