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Veteran scorer Martin making quick transition to Harden-less Thunder

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Veteran scorer Martin making quick transition to Harden-less Thunder

Contrary to popular belief, just because Oklahoma City traded James Harden to Houston--where he's gone on to become the league's leading scorer on the young season--doesn't mean the balance of power in the Western Conference has changed. Yes, Harden was an important piece of the Thunder, both in his individual ability and in regard to team chemistry, but his de facto replacement, veteran scorer Kevin Martin, isn't too shabby himself.

Martin, averaging 19.3 points per game off the bench, despite not going through training camp with his new team, is a different player than Harden--more of a catch-and-shoot player than a ballhandler, adept at getting to the free-throw line and using screens to get open off the ball--but that doesn't mean he won't fit in. In fact, due to the fact that Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was a Sacramento assistant when Martin played for the Kings earlier in his career, it wouldn't be surprising if the transition is more seamless than many expect it to be.

"It always helps, just like when I went to Houston and current Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman was there, and he was a big part of my evolution as a player, and also Brooks is, too. Some of the things he piggybacked off of Adelman helped me get to the line and things like that, so he's familiar with what kind of player I am, so that really made it easier to come here," he said after the Thunder's shootaround Thursday morning at the United Center. "Just that familiarity. He knows what I do, so he put in a couple plays for myself and now then he had to put the ball in Russell's and KD's hands more, let them become playmakers. So, right now it's just one big process and it's going pretty well.

Added Brooks, whose team plays Thursday night against the Bulls: "We definitely have changed a few of our things. Not drastic change, just a few minor changes to kind of let his game shine a little bit. He's a great backdoor guy, he's great at coming off screens, he's great making quick decisions. He's not one guy that's going to pound the basketball and try to find an opportunity for him to manipulate a screen-and-roll. He's going to make quick decisions and when you have guys like that, your offense can make adjustments quickly because he knows how to play. I've been with him one year in Sacramento and it's unfortunate for him that he's played on a lot of teams that were in rebuilding phases and they didn't have a lot of success with wins and losses, but he has a winning mentality, he has a winning spirit, he has a great attitude and we're thankful that we have him. He does a good job of working hard.

"'K-Mart' does a good job of just putting himself in the position to fit in. He's not one to come in, demand things and have us change to fit what he does. He's one of those glue guys that come in, he can score without the ball by just moving, hard cuts and setups are always at a high level, and he's very efficient. He doesn't take-very rarely-does he need 20 shots to get 20 points. He can get 20 points with eight shots, with a lot of free-throw attempts and three-point buckets. But his personality fits very well with our group and that doesn't surprise me. We have a good group of guys that believe in team and whenever you make a trade, you have to have guys that understand whoever we bring in, they still have to do it the way we do it, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and 'Perk' Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison-just down the line-and Serge Ibaka, they're all a good group of guys to work with and 'K-Mart' has a great opportunity to continue to improve as our season goes on."

Martin, who toiled on losing teams in both Houston and Sacramento for years, making him one of the more unknown star-level players in the league, is hungry to play on a winner and the demeanor of his new teammates has already made a strong impression on him.

"They're hungry. They're coming to work every day and they know what's at stake for them this year," said the shooting guard, who was hampered last season by a shoulder injury. "They had a little taste of it last year and now they just want to put everything together, and try to bring home the whole thing."

Martin's solid start to the campaign has been overshadowed by Harden's more obvious brilliance with the Rockets, but the Thunder aren't acting as if the star power of "The Beard" will make a difference. Brooks, who ironically won a title as a player with the Rockets, shared his opinion on the widely-accepted theory that multiple superstars are needed to win a championship, a la Miami last season.

"I was fortunate enough to be on Houston's championship team in '94. They had Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe, and myself as the three stars," he joked. "We had one star, Olajuwon, and everybody knew what we were going to do. We were going to give the ball to him on the left block and we had a bunch of good players. You need good players. Does it make it easier to have a bunch of stars and All-Stars? Yeah, obviously. But you need good players, man. Good players win championships. One star, two stars, three stars, there's enough stars in this league for everybody to have a chance to win. I don't look at it that way. We built our team-obviously Kevin and Russell have been All-Stars the last three years and well-deserved-for us to win, they have to play well, but we have to have other guys play well and everybody has to be a star in his own right. Nick has to do his role at a star level, 'Hash' Hasheem Thabeet has to do his role at a star level, and sometimes you only have 10 minutes to do that, and the backup point guard has to do that at a star level and that's how you develop your team and team habits and good habits. I like what we have and we have a chance to have good success here."

Speaking of a team missing a star, Oklahoma City is obviously aware that the Bulls are without the injured Derrick Rose, but still take them seriously.

"They're obviously like every team in this league. You're losing one of your best players, you're not going to be as good. But the way they play, it never changes. They play with great energy, they play with great hustle, toughness and they have great players. Coach Thibs does a great job," Brooks said. "When you lose one of the best players in basketball, it's impossible to be a better team, but they're managing it through all the work they put in and just knowing Thibs-he coached me a couple of times as an assistant coach-he's a great coach, he's a worker and he gets the most out of everybody he has on his team.

Chimed in Martin: "Well, we're know that they're going to play hard. They're going to run every cut hard, they're going to grab, hold, have a great defensive system and we've just got to match that effort and intensity, and just worry about us once again."

Coincidentally, a player Martin is likely to match up with Thursday, fellow shooting guard Rip Hamilton, is a player he watched in his early days and tried to pattern aspects of his game after. Like Hamilton, Martin is an efficient player who effectively utilizes a potent mid-range game and off-the-ball movement.

"I used to watch a lot of him because I knew I was going to have to score a lot without the ball, playing with Mike Bibby and Chris Webber, and how they passed the ball," he explained. "I watched a lot of film on Rip in his Detroit days, scoring 20 points on 11, 12 shots, night in and night out, so he was definitely a big idol of mine."

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field, his night ended with Cubs fans giving him a rousing standing ovation. The former Cubs right hander tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, leading the Cubs to victory in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS—their only win against the Los Angeles Dodgers that series.

Arrieta returned to Wrigley Field as a visitor on Monday night, making his first start against the Cubs since joining the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Ironically, Arrieta’s counterpart for the night was Yu Darvish, who ultimately replaced Arrieta in the Cubs starting rotation.

Despite now donning Phillies red, Cubs fans once again showed their love for Arrieta, giving him a lengthy standing ovation ahead of his first plate appearance. Darvish even stepped off the mound in respect for the moment.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters postgame. “[I’m] very happy that our fans would acknowledge him like that. Yu stepped away from the mound nicely. Jake deserved it.”

Arrieta tipped his helmet in appreciation for the crowd, taking in the moment for more than 30 seconds before stepping into the batter’s box. After the game, he told reporters that moment brought back memories of his time with the Cubs.

“That was something that really brought back great memories of getting that same sort of ovation pretty much on a nightly basis,” Arrieta said. “[I’m] very appreciative of that. I can’t say thank you enough to the city of Chicago, I really can’t.”

Arrieta took fans back to his Cubs tenure on Monday, throwing six innings of one run ball in the Phillies’ 5-4 10-inning win. Although the 33-year-old didn’t pick up the victory, he matched Darvish—who threw six innings of three-run ball—pitch by-pitch.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler noted how well Arrieta handled his emotions throughout the night.

“I thought he handled the emotions really well. I thought he was in control of the game even when we were down,” Kapler said to reporters. “He always maintained his poise and he just got stronger as the outing went on and that’s why we were able to have him take down the sixth inning for us.”

It’s well-documented how Arrieta’s career improved for the better after the Cubs acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. When the Cubs acquired him, Arrieta held a career 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts). He finished his Cubs career with a 2.73 ERA in 128 regular season starts. He also won five postseason games with the Cubs, including Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite moving on in free agency, Arrieta spoke highly of his time with the Cubs, their fans and the city of Chicago.

“Cubs fans all across the country, all across the world, they really respect and appreciate what guys are able to do here for them,” he said. “It means a lot, it really does.

"I’ll never forget this city, the fan base, the organization, everything that they did for me. It was 4 1/2 incredible years of my career.”

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Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish was one pitch away.

Holding onto a 1-0 lead with two outs in the sixth inning, Darvish threw Phillies catcher JT Realmuto a 2-2 cutter. It made sense - Darvish had been spotting that pitch well all night, and the Phillies were averaging a paltry 79.8 mph exit velocity against it.

With one strike standing between Darvish and a 6-inning shutout, Realmuto took Darvish’s cutter and sent it back up the middle for a game-tying RBI single. A 2-RBI triple from César Hernández followed. In the blink of an eye, what was shaping up to be one of Darvish’s finest moments in Chicago was instead reduced to yet another start spent searching for silver linings.

“Really good. He was outstanding tonight,” Joe Maddon said. “He pitched really well.

“He had really good stuff. He had command of his stuff, he had command of himself. I thought he was outstanding - even better than what he looked like in Cincinnati. I thought that was probably his best game for us to date.”

Darvish has continued to lean heavily on his cutter this season, more so than any year prior. After throwing it 13 percent of the time last season, he’s going to that pitch almost 25 percent of the time now. If that holds, it’d beat his previous career-high, set in 2013, by six percentage points.

All things considered, that pitch has actually been good for him this season. It’s his go-to offering when he needs to induce weak contact, and batters are hitting .125 against it so far. He gets batters to chase cutters 29.5 percent of the time, the most of any pitch he throws. While he has admitted in games past that he relies too heavily on his fastball, Maddon sees no issues with the new trend.

“I have no concerns with that whatsoever,” he said. “There’s different ways for pitchers to attack hitters, and if it's successful, I really would not change a whole lot.”

Though the night was dedicated to celebrating one of the franchises most beloved pitchers, it was one of their most maligned that continued to show signs of figuring it out. He’s put together back-to-back starts with three or less walks for the first time this season, and has allowed two or less runs in three of the last five.

The pitcher even stepped off the mound during Arrieta’s first at-bat, in order to let the standing ovation continue on.

“He’s is a legend in Chicago,” Darvish said after the game. “And I pitched against him and pitched pretty good, so it makes me confident.”

The bullpen again struggled on Monday night, as the trio of Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, and Kyle Ryan allowed two runs on five hits, including the game-winning solo home run from Realmuto in the 10th. For a moment it looked like the Cubs had a win wrapped up when Brach got outfielder Andrew McCutchen to bite on a two-strike slider, but was (probably incorrectly) called a checked swing.  He would eventually draw a walk, leading to Jean Segura’s game-tying single.

“On the field, I thought for sure [that McCutchen swung],” Brach said. “Looking at the first base umpire, I was a little taken aback. That’s why I went off the mound - just to regather myself, because I didn’t want to let the emotion get to me there.

“It’s a 50-50 call, and unfortunately it didn’t go my way.”

 

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