Originally Published: November 1, 2012

1. Post-Harden Era Off With A Dud For OKC

By Marc Stein

SAN ANTONIO -- Shotmaker of the season so far? Tony Parker is pretty much two up on the rest of the league after the twin daggers he stuffed into the final 30 seconds of the home opener.

Blame-taker of the season so far?

Permit him this much on an evening he'll desperately want to forget: Russell Westbrook's got the early lead there, too.

Sporting red pants, beige boat shoes and a shirt flecked with white, red, black and grey that would qualify as conservative based on many of the previous offerings from the Westbrook Collection, Oklahoma City's lightning rod of a point guard stood at his locker and didn't try to hide late Thursday, pointing at himself as the culprit in OKC's 86-84 defeat at the buzzer.

Which ranks as the nicest thing you could say about the first night of the rest of Westbrook's life without James Harden.

"I got lost," Westbrook said of the final, fateful play at the AT&T Center, reliving the blown coverage that allowed Parker to step into a clean 21-footer from the left wing that he drained at the horn, just one Spurs possession removed from the corner triple Parker sank to tie this Western Conference finals rematch at 84-84.

"It's my fault. I'll take this one."

Not that he had much choice. The inevitable skewering of Westbrook, after a wild performance offensively leading up to the bad gaffe on D, had long since begun on the TNT set and all over the Twitterverse by the time OKC's QB had emerged from the showers.

Once the Thunder get some distance from the emotion of the ending, they'll surely focus on the fact that they shot 37.7 percent from the floor less than a week removed from the shock of the Harden blockbuster and still barely lost at the finish. Even with Westbrook playing about as raggedly as he could, they were right there against a team (A) playing at home, (B) suddenly sporting a real continuity edge in this rivalry and (C) riding the timeless duo of Parker (14 points, 11 assists) and Tim Duncan (20 points, eight boards) and all the precise execution that flows from them.

Yet no amount of rational thought is going to insulate Westbrook, or Thunder general manager Sam Presti, from the immediate scrutiny to come. Not when the Spurs were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and without the injured Manu Ginobili. Not after Harden rumbled for those 37 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds in his Houston debut. Not after Westbrook, with Kevin Durant and newcomer Kevin Martin in a better shooting flow, seemed so determined to force things in his first fourth quarter without Harden there to take over the playmaking when OKC got stuck.

Not in this hashtag world that, in an instant, spits out #FireMikeBrown when the Lakers start 0-2.

The Thunder, though, swear they're ready for whatever comes, insisting -- with some justification -- that they're pretty adept at tuning out the noise. That'll take some doing in the short term after Westbrook shot 1-for-7 from the floor in the final period to finish 6-for-21 and further smudged a misleading line of 18 points, 8 boards and 5 assists with 6 turnovers. But OKC is clearly going to need (and deserves) time to blend in new sixth man Martin, who did sink three 3s and finished with 15 points while playing much of the fourth quarter alongside Durant (23 points and 14 boards) and Westbrook (who scarcely looked his way down the stretch).

"We'll get better as the season goes on," Thunder coach Scotty Brooks said with assurance.

Maybe that's because as far back as July, according to sources close to the situation, Thunder officials began tossing out names of players from potential trade partners during their occasional spells of worst-case-scenario planning, knowing they'd have to be ready in case extension negotiations with Harden veered off track. Houston duly zoomed to the top of the list not only because of the rookies and draft picks it had amassed but also the presence of Martin, who possesses a cap-friendly expiring contract and has never needed the ball or a lot of shots to put up points.

Well aware that the Rockets were prepared to make a run at Harden in restricted free agency in July 2013 if The Bearded One made it that far, OKC quietly began projecting how Martin would fit in on the floor and in the locker room while talks with Harden's camp played out. And Brooks was uniquely positioned to weigh in, having already worked with the slender swingman in Sacramento when he was a Kings assistant.

"Unbelievable player," Durant said after Martin's debut, which also coincided with Durant's becoming the second-youngest player in history to surpass 10,000 points. "Played his role to a T."

Yet there's no denying the reality that Durant and Westbrook and Harden had the thickest of bonds, as so memorably transmitted by those shots of the three of them together on the bench watching the last seconds tick away in a Game 5 loss at Miami last June that would clinch the championship for LeBron James' Heat. Insiders say Durant and Harden, within the trio, had the closest off-the-floor bond, which theoretically makes Harden's exit toughest on No. 35.

"It wasn't just me," Durant insisted Thursday night. "Everybody was close to James."

Then he quickly added: "For us, we back the front office 100 percent."

And that's why Durant was among the first members of the organization to call Martin and let it be known he'd be welcomed heartily as soon as he stepped through the practice facility door. A similar call from Kendrick Perkins, followed by an enthusiastic in-person greeting from Westbrook, only broadened the smile that, until the disappointment of Thursday's buzzer drama, had been tough to wipe off Martin's face after all those years on wayward teams.

"They all said how happy they are to have me here, and that made that first walk into the locker room pretty easy," Martin said. "I told them I'm gonna work hard and do everything I can to help them get the championship they've been dreaming of.

"I've just got to get out there and play how I've been playing for the last eight years. Coach Brooks just told me to be myself."

You can safely presume, after the first buzzer-beating loss this franchise has suffered since moving to Oklahoma City, that Brooks will also be telling Martin, Durant and especially Westbrook to start out by tuning out the knee-jerkers if they can.

"You can't say if we've gotten worse [as a team]," Durant defiantly claimed, straining to remind his audience that it's a touch too soon in this three-days-old season for firm and final conclusions.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com

2. Around The Association

3. Kobe: 'Everybody Shut Up'

By Ramona Shelburne

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- By virtue of his standing in NBA history and the five NBA championship rings he can choose to wear on any given night, Kobe Bryant can say things his relatively young, less accomplished coach Mike Brown cannot.

Things that former coach Phil Jackson used to say.

"I've won so I can (tell people to shut up)," Bryant said. "For Mike it might be a little tough to say that so I'll say it for him: 'Everybody shut up. Let us work. At the end of the day, you'll be happy with the result as you normally are.' "

Bryant said he's been "amused" by the criticism of the Lakers' new-look Princeton offense as the team got off to its second consecutive 0-2 start despite the offseason acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, comparing it to the team's struggles to learn the Triangle offense when Jackson came to the team in 1999.

Read more at ESPNLosAngeles.com.


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