Nationals

Durant, Westbrook sharing load in Thunder offense

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Durant, Westbrook sharing load in Thunder offense

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) From the NBA Finals to the All-Star Game to the Olympics, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have proven themselves to be one of basketball's most dynamic duos.

To lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the league's best record, they've found even more ways to make an impact - primarily by putting their teammates in better positions to contribute.

Both Durant and Westbrook are averaging career highs in assists this season while cutting down on their turnovers, helping the Thunder become the NBA's highest-scoring team with an impressive line of statistics. Oklahoma City leads the league in 3-point accuracy and free throw percentage and ranks second in overall field-goal shooting.

``We're passing the ball so much better this year,'' said coach Scott Brooks, who has long harped on the need to improve the team's assist numbers and cut down on turnovers. ``Our basketball knowledge has improved a lot the past few years just from all the experiences that we've had. Our passing and our spacing is really good. Our offense has been in a nice rhythm.''

Somehow, Oklahoma City finished third in the league in scoring last season despite the dubious combination of passing out the fewest assists (18.5 per game) while committing the most turnovers (16 per game). Loaded with individual talent, the Thunder struggled to turn it all into something even better.

``In the past, I think we were more of an isolation team. We relied on our talent, probably too much at times,'' forward Nick Collison said. ``So, we're trying to get away from that and get more to where we're executing, sharing the ball and getting easier shots.''

Although they were unable to sustain it in the NBA Finals against Miami, the catalyst for change may have been the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Down 2-0 in the series, Oklahoma City rallied for four straight wins with its best team basketball of the year.

Durant came back committed to improving his all-around game, proving it with his first career triple-double earlier this season. Westbrook, whose assist totals dropped off last season, is passing the ball better than ever. He's in the top 10 in scoring, assists and steals and is also among the top 10 guards in rebounding.

As a team, Oklahoma City is now in the top half of the league in assists.

``We're not having to rely on our guys to make incredible plays, difficult plays. We're getting a lot more easy shots. I think Kevin and Russell deserve a lot of credit for that,'' Collison said. ``They've embraced it and they're trusting everybody else. The decisions are easier when the spacing's better. I think that's part of it, too. But when we're not playing in a crowd, we get better shots.''

Some early-season growing pains after NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden was traded away - his role taken over by Kevin Martin - has faded away. Durant, who has won the scoring title the past three seasons, got some immediate criticism for being too passive and forcing the ball to others while Westbrook opened the season in an awful shooting slump.

Oklahoma City has dispelled any doubts with the franchise's longest winning streak since 1996 - the last time it was coming off of an appearance in the NBA Finals (then as the Seattle SuperSonics).

``We're happy with it but we're not satisfied,'' Brooks said. ``We're going to keep doing what we do, and that's play every game the best we can and live with the results. We know we're not going to win every game in this league.''

Westbrook, particularly, doesn't seem ready to accept that.

Even after Oklahoma City won its 10th straight game, Westbrook was displeased and started to duck around a group of reporters who had gathered at his locker and skip his postgame interview. When he was tracked down at the exit to the locker room, he had no interest in patting himself on the back for his seventh double-digit assist game of the season - more than he had in 86 games last season, including the playoffs.

``I can do better,'' he said.

His coach wasn't surprised.

``He never cheats the game,'' Brooks said. ``He's not a perfect player, like nobody in this league is. But his effort is always good. He plays with a lot of desire and a lot of heart and determination.''

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Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

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USA Today

Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Murphy's two-run single drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning and the Washington Nationals rallied past the Philadelphia Phillies 8-6 on Sunday night to salvage the finale of the three-game series.

Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper tied a career high with three doubles and Michael A. Taylor and Murphy each had three singles in a game that was delayed 38 minutes by rain in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams homered for the Phillies, who had won three straight.

Pinch hitter Brian Goodwin led off the eighth with a walk against Victor Arano. With one out, right-hander Seranthony Dominguez (1-2) came on to face Harper, who doubled to right, with Goodwin stopping at third.

After Rendon grounded out, Juan Soto was intentionally walked and Murphy lined a 1-2 pitch to shallow right. Taylor's single made it 8-6.

Ryan Madson (2-3) pitched the eighth inning, and Sean Doolittle finished it for his 21st save.

The Phillies took a 6-2 lead in the fifth on a two-run triple by Odubel Herrera and a two-run homer by Williams.

Washington pulled within a run at 6-5 in the sixth with four two-out hits, including an RBI triple by Trea Turner and RBI doubles by Harper and Rendon.

Nick Pivetta went five innings and allowed two runs on eight hits for the Phillies.

Washington starter Jefry Rodriguez was charged with four runs and five hits in four-plus innings.

The Phillies broke on top on Hoskins's two-run homer in the third.

Rendon made it 2-1 with a solo homer in the fourth. The next three hitters singled, tying the game, but with the rain intensifying, out came the tarp. When play resumed, Pivetta struck out three straight to end the inning.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Phillies: C Andrew Knapp left in the seventh with a right knee contusion. ... 3B Maikel Franco slipped on first base and fell hard in the eighth. He stayed in to run, but left after the half-inning. ... INF Jesmuel Valent?n was placed on the paternity leave list and OF Dylan Cozens (left quadriceps strain) was reinstated from the 10-day DL.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (right hamstring strain) allowed 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings of a rehab start at Class A Potomac on Sunday. "I'm more concerned with the way he feels," manager Dave Martinez said, downplaying the results. "We'll go from there." ... RH reliever Brandon Kintzler (right forearm flexor strain) threw a scoreless inning at Potomac. ... RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) played catch on the field again. "We'll keep doing his throwing progression and figure out when he can actually throw from the mound," Martinez said.

UP NEXT

Phillies: RHP Vince Velasquez (5-7, 4.82) starts the opener of a series against the Yankees on Monday. He is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA in two games vs. New York.

Nationals: RHP Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08) opens a series at Tampa Bay on Monday. He is 2-2 with a 5.54 ERA in six games against the Rays.

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Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

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USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

As June minicamp concluded, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden pulled no punches when asked about expectations for new quarterback Alex Smith. 

"He has got to get it down by the first game," Gruden said of Smith. 

While that might not sound overly demanding, remember this is Smith's first season in Washington. The QB will be playing with new teammates and implementing new terminology. 

Still, Smith is a veteran with a lot of experience, and frankly, it seems like Gruden isn't worried about a transition period. 

"We are not in here to build the team around him, the team is built and he has to lead it like right now," the coach said. "This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away."

Gruden made things quite clear. He expects the best from Smith, yesterday. 

Those comments created headlines, but there was something else the coach said about his passer that also stood out. Asked about Smith's veteran presence, Gruden talked about what the quarterback might mean for his teammates. 

"The whole job a quarterback has is obviously getting the most out of the people around you. That’s what I think he does as good as anybody," Gruden said. "He’ll get the most out of the tight ends. He’ll get the most out of the backs."

The coach continued, and things got a bit more interesting.

"He’ll get the most out of the receivers and offensive line because they’re going to want to play for him and they’re going to feel confident that he’s going to make something happen in a positive way or at least give it everything he’s got and take responsibility if something doesn’t work out."

Redskins fans are often a weirdly divided bunch. Many liked former QB Kirk Cousins but plenty did not think he was worth the type of money he was paid the last two seasons. Along the way, some fans will read Gruden's comments about making something happen and taking responsibility as a jab at Cousins. That's probably wrong. 

Remember, Trent Williams played through a serious knee injury last season. Asked why, Williams said he wanted to be out there to protect Cousins. Guys played for Cousins. 

The responsibility comment might mean something else, though. Their was a rather hostile back-and-forth last season between Gruden and Cousins last season, when the QB and coach disagreed about taking more risks with the football. A quick reminder of the scene: Cousins told a reporter that he would throw 20 interceptions if he played like Gruden wanted. The coach responded that while the interceptions might pile up, the QB would also throw 60 touchdowns. (Relive it here)

Throughout his career, Smith has thrown less interceptions than Cousins. But that doesn't mean Smith doesn't take risks or put his receivers in position to make plays. 

It's entirely possible Gruden simply expects Smith, a veteran, to be a responsible player and leader. And it's likely that comment had nothing to do with the Redskins previous quarterbacks. 

The bottom line is that Smith better be ready to go Week 1, and his coach made that clear. And if Smith isn't, Gruden expects his quarterback to take responsibility. 

MORE REDSKINS NEWS:

— Contract years: Redskins face 5 tough decisions 

— Dead Money: Trades, misses and mistakes hurt Redskins salary cap

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