Thunder taking change in stride

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Thunder taking change in stride

The Thunder have been no strangers to change this season, but their ability to move on during difficult times has made it a near-seamless transition for one of the top teams in the Western Conference.

A team that built their core the last four years almost entirely through the draft, Oklahoma City made major news a week before the season began by trading Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets.

It was a trade that took most of the league by surprise. Oklahoma City was attempting to fit Hardens eventual contract extension into their already tight salary cap, which had committed more than 45 million to three players for next season. Harden eventually received a five-year, 80 million max contract with Houston, where he has played well, while the Thunder received fellow shooting guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb in return.

The move was a difficult one for the Thunder, the team that drafted Harden third overall in the 2009 Draft and watched him mold into one of the league's top scorers. It was also difficult for stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who considered Harden a brother in the Oklahoma City locker room.

Just being around a guy every single day for the last three years, forget the basketball part of it, Durant said. We called each other family here, so just to see one of your brothers leave the way he did so unexpectedly was the toughest part of it.

"Basketball-wise, we just know we have to come in and handle business because anything can happen in this league. Us being so close as brothers and doing everything together, it was kind of tough not having him here the next day.

With such a young core consisting of 23-year old Westbrook, 23-year-old Serge Ibaka and 24-year-old Durant, it would have been easy for them to have trouble accepting the trade of someone they grew with both on and off the court.

And while head coach Scott Brooks said it was a difficult adjustment, hes been happy with how his team has moved forward post-Harden.

Theyre young but theyve been in the league for five or six years now, so its an adjustment," Brooks said. "Theres no question about that. If there wasnt an adjustment youd be worried about them because theyd have no emotions, and youve been with guys for a long time, even myself as a coach, its an emotional job.

You get to be with these guys every day, but you also have to understand thats part of the job. Youve got new faces and new opportunities for guys and you have to integrate it as quickly as possible. Theres no excuses. You dont have time. Nobody feels sorry for you. You do the best you can and you move forward without excuses and things usually work out."

Durant began the rebuilding project in Seattle, when he was selected second overall by the Sonics in the 2007 Draft. A year later, the brand new Oklahoma City Thunder selected Westbrook with the No. 4 pick and Ibaka with the No. 24 pick, and saw their record jump to 50-32 with a playoff apperance. Harden arrived a year later as the Thunder improved to 55 wins and a Western Conference Finals appearance.

And last year, that core came within three wins of an NBA Championship. It seemed as though this could have been the year the NBAs best young talent made it over the top, but the financial restrictions kept Harden away from Oklahoma City.

Durant said it was difficult, but also that the team is adjusting well with Martin in tow. Martin has averaged 19.3 points per game off the bench through four games. The Thunder are just 2-2, but seem to have adjusted well to the major change that took place just a week before their season began.

Its all in a days work for Durant, who said the change was difficult to cope with but something he understands as being part of the business of the NBA.

"Anything can happen in this league. We see some of the best players switch teams quickly, we've seen so many players get traded, let go in this league, so theres nothing thats new to us, and I think that with that mind set youll always be prepared for anything," Durant said.

"And we just gotta come in and do our jobs every single day and everything will work out for us for the best. So Im not worried about anything that happens in this league. Its been happening for the last five or 60 years, so you've got to just play through it and move on."

Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

The Blackhawks have talked the past several games now about how they need to play better, how they need to get back to their 60-minute game. But even when you tell yourself you have to improve the message doesn't always translate into immediate action. That's especially true if, despite so-so play, you're still managing victories or still eking out a point.

Sometimes, you need a jolt to realize you have to get better. Well, that thud the Blackhawks made in South Florida ought to get their attention. 

The Blackhawks' 7-0 loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night, that "ugly, ugly game," as coach Joel Quenneville, is the latest in what's been a mediocre stretch for the team. They've been leaning on their goaltending again (please see Minnesota, Montreal, Ottawa and Dallas games). Or they've been leaning on their ability to wake up in the third period after sleepwalking through the first two. Sixty-minute games and four-line rotations, such a big part of the Blackhawks' success through February and early March, have been absent.

Call it the Blackhawks' mid-March malaise.

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It hasn't been more painful because the Blackhawks have still found ways to get points. Or at least they did until Saturday night, when two "yapping" penalties – Quenneville's (accurate) description of Ryan Hartman and Marcus Kruger's unsportsmanlike calls – started the Blackhawks' demise against the Panthers. Players told the traveling media following the game that this was a wake-up call. It ought to be.

Granted, the Blackhawks' late-season issues aren't as bad as some of their fellow Western Conference teams. The Minnesota Wild are 3-10-1 in March. The San Jose Sharks have lost six in a row. This also isn't the first time the Blackhawks have gone through this late-season mediocrity.

Entering the 2015 postseason they struggled to score goals and lost four in a row (five goals in those four games). It turned out alright. Still, best to avoid bad habits.

Perhaps the Blackhawks are in a bit of a swoon because, really, there's not much for which to play in these final few games. They don't care if they win the Presidents' Trophy (and they probably won't). They're currently in first place by seven points following the Wild's 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday. Whether the Blackhawks finish first or second, they'll start this postseason at home. 

So is this panic-inducing? No. Is it a concern? Certainly. The Blackhawks can't start thinking they'll automatically flip the switch as soon as the postseason begins.

The Blackhawks want to get their four-line rotation going again. Artem Anisimov returning in the next week or two will certainly help that. They want to get their overall game going again. The Blackhawks have been telling themselves what needs to be done for a few games now. Maybe they needed a wake-up call. On Saturday, they got it. 

Lake Park's Gino Romano goes 1-on-1 with Edgy Tim

Lake Park's Gino Romano goes 1-on-1 with Edgy Tim

Everyone who took part in the recently-held fifth annual Franklin Middle School Dodgeball Madness charity tournament played for various charitable reasons. The Lake Park Lancers football team chose to honor a person who embodied the true meaning of service and sacrifice.

Lake Park junior linebacker Gino Romano took a few minutes to explain why they decided to play in honor of fallen Bloomingdale police officer Raymond Murrel, the first ever officer who died in the line of duty for the village.

Romano also discussed the Lancers’ offseason and the team’s overall preparation for the upcoming 2017 football slate.

I caught up with Romano at the tournament in Wheaton. Proceeds benefited the school, the DuPage Hundred Club, Team Red, White and Blue and The Pat Tillman Foundation.

Watch the following video above.