Grizzlies Comeback Attempt Falls Short As Thunder D Tightens Up At Crunch Time

Grizzlies Comeback Attempt Falls Short As Thunder D Tightens Up At Crunch Time

I’m sorry I didn’t get this out yesterday. I was helping out on a move and didn’t realize how tired I was until after I got back home. If I would have attempted this last night, I would have ended up with a draft characterized by disjointed thoughts and incoherent rambling, which I would surely have never let see the light of day anyway.

Marc Gasol goes for a floater over Hasheem Thabeet. Gasol finished the game with 17 points.

Marc Gasol goes for a floater over Hasheem Thabeet. Gasol finished the game with 17 points.

Looking back, I’m sure every Thunder fan was watching the 4th quarter and asking themselves, “Are they really going to find a way to give this game away too?” We spent most of it watching the Grizzlies slowly, but surely chip away at a 19-point lead the Thunder had built throughout most of the game. But I’m obviously getting ahead of myself. To paraphrase the opening soundbite of a White Zombie album, perhaps I’d better start from the beginning.

Tayshaun Prince with the slick jam. Prince ended the game with 12 points.

Tayshaun Prince with the slick jam. Prince ended the game with 12 points.

The Grizzlies opened the game with the first two buckets, but that 4-0 lead would end up being their largest of the game. To make matters worse for the Grizz, the start of a Thunder run ensured that the 4-3 advantage at the 10:00 mark would be their last lead of the game. The Thunder run in reference ended at 10-2, giving the Thunder a 10-6 lead with 7:35 to play in the opening quarter. Even though the Grizzlies had managed to tie the game at 12-all with 6:20 to go in the 1st, an 11-3 run established an 8-point lead for the Thunder (23-15) with 3:10 remaining. The Thunder lead held steady up to the end of the 1st, as they took a 29-22 advantage into quarter #2.

James Johnson splits the defense of Thabeet and Nick Collison as he rises. Johnson provided 11 points from the Grizzlies bench.

James Johnson splits the defense of Thabeet and Nick Collison as he rises. Johnson provided 11 points from the Grizzlies bench.

The Thunder lead was still 7 (33-26) when a 3-point Thunder basket had extended it to 10 (36-26) with 8:15 to play until halftime. That’s when the Grizzlies started their initial comeback effort by initiating a run that ended at 10-4, pulling the Grizzlies to within 4 (40-36) with 5:16 left in the first half. The Thunder shut that effort down by ending the first half on a 17-6 run that gave the Thunder their largest lead to that point (57-42). The best part of this first half for the Thunder was that they gave up 42 points to the very formidable Grizzlies in its entirety. Keep in mind, the Thunder’s last loss came because they allowed 42 from the Cavs in the 4th quarter alone.

Serge Ibaka passes up Zach Randoplh for the lay-in, Ibaka finished his evening with 16 points.

Serge Ibaka passes up Zach Randolph for the lay-in, Ibaka finished his evening with 16 points.

After a quick Grizzlies lay-in to open the quarter, two unanswered 3-point buckets by the Thunder would give them their largest lead of the game (63-44) at the 10:11 mark of the 3rd. Even though the Grizzlies were able to generate a couple of mini-runs, the Thunder pretty much cruised through the 3rd quarter, still holding a 16-point lead (87-71) as they entered the 4th.

Russell Westbrook catches Mike Conley out of position. Westbrook's 21 points made him the #2 scorer of the game.

Russell Westbrook catches Mike Conley out of position. Westbrook’s 21 points made him the #2 scorer of the game.

The Thunder lead was still 16 (89-73) with 10 minutes even to play. That’s when a quick 9-2 run pulled the Grizzlies within 9 (91-82) with 8:40 left on the game clock. The Thunder were able to reextend their lead to 13 (99-86) with 7:13 left, when the Grizzlies pulled off another run, this one a 16-6 run that turned a blowout game into a one-possession game (105-102) with a mere 2:29 left on the game clock. I guess the Thunder D had a plan to clamp down if the Grizzlies eclipsed 30 points in any given quarter, however. They’d only allowed 29 in the 3rd, and once the 30 and 31st points were scored for the Grizzlies in the 4th, the Thunder defense that had been AWOL at various times since their return to game action from the All-Star break decided to show at the most critical point in the game. Once the Grizzlies closed the Thunder lead to 3, the defense forced timely misses from the perimeter. Not only that, but Kevin Durant finally shook off his crunch-time funk at the offensive end with two much-needed jumpers (one off of a Russell Westbrook assist), and two timely free throws that provided the killing blow to the Grizzlies’ comeback hopes. Serge Ibaka’s two made free throws with seven-tenths of a second to play were mere icing on the cake at that point, as the Thunder took a 3-1 season-series win by a score of 113-107. Their record improves to 44-15 while the Grizzlies fall to 32-25. (The Grizzlies record is now 33-25 after last night’s 110-96 victory over the Cavs.)

Kevin Durant puts one over Prince. Durant's 37 points led all scorers to take the floor in this game.

Kevin Durant puts one over Prince. Durant’s 37 points led all scorers to take the floor in this game.

One of my biggest problems with the Thunder this season was put on display yet again in this game, as they started getting too comfortable and playing slopball once again. Some of the turnovers the Thunder were guilty of in the 4th were appalling. NBA.com’s Randy Renner has apparently noticed the same thing I have when it comes to “Thunder basketball” this year, especially in terms of the defense. What he put in the game’s notebook section on NBA.com hit the nail right on the head:

Courtney Lee drives against Reggie Jackson. Lee contributed 10 points to the Grizzlies' total.

Courtney Lee drives against Reggie Jackson. Lee contributed 10 points to the Grizzlies’ total.

“The Thunder defense relaxed again in the fourth quarter. It’s something that has happened several times this season in both wins and losses. … Clearly the Thunder still don’t have that killer instinct to put teams that are down, out of the game.”

Zach Randolph splits both Ibaka and Steven Adams on the way up. Randolph posted the game's lone double-double with 13 points and 10 boards.

Zach Randolph splits both Ibaka and Steven Adams on the way up. Randolph posted the game’s lone double-double with 13 points and 10 boards.

At least Durant and Westbrook did what they needed to do to stop the slide. Durant’s 37 points led all scorers to take the floor, while Westbrook’s 21 made him the second-leading scorer amongst all players to see minutes. Ibaka added 16 points while being 1 rebound shy of yet another double-double, and Reggie Jackson shook off his recent cold streak with 14 points off of the Thunder bench.

Reggie Jackson, the man who provided 14 points off of the Thunder bench.

Reggie Jackson, the man who provided 14 points off of the Thunder bench.

The individual numbers Grizzlies players post in losses at times can astound you. Zach Randolph had the game’s lone double-double with a 13-point, 10-rebound performance. Marc Gasol provided 17 points of his own, while Tayshaun Prince posted 12 points, and Courtney Lee dropped 10. The Grizzlies bench deserves the bulk of the credit for keeping the game respectable, and one bench player in particular. While James Johnson contributed 11 bench points of his own, Mike Miller’s 19 bench points led all Grizzlies players, including the starters. Another interesting fact is all 19 of Miller’s points came in the 4th quarter, rendering him almost single-handedly responsible for the Grizzlies near-comeback. To put his 19 4th quarter points into better perspective, the rest of the team scored 17 combined in the 4th, with Kosta Koufos actually scoring 9 of those himself (Oddly enough, like Miller, all 9 of Koufos’ points also came in the 4th quarter, which were all bench points as well.). That bench easily helped keep the Grizzlies in this one, as 58 points by the starting five were met with 49 from the bench, although 30 came from just two players, Miller and Johnson. Now that I think about it though, the school of thought going into the 4th was that the game was already over, hence the lack of starters scoring for the Grizzlies in the 4th. All 36 of the Grizzlies 4th quarter points were bench points.

Mike Miller finds himself all alone as he shoots the floater. Miller's 19 points, all coming in the 4th quarter, were the catalyst in the Grizzlies' near-comeback.

Mike Miller finds himself all alone as he shoots the floater. Miller’s 19 points, all coming in the 4th quarter, were the catalyst for the Grizzlies’ near-comeback.

By the time you see this, the next game should be just getting started, rendering this part essentially pointless. However, the Thunder are hosting the Bobcats this evening. The Bobcats are looking to end the season series in a 1-1 split, as they took a heart-breaking 89-85 loss at home on Dec. 27th. The Thunder of course will be looking to sweep. The game is scheduled for 6pm tip-off at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but with the current weather conditions, I’d advise anyone planning to attend to be extra cautious on the roads this evening. The ones who don’t care to brave the elements can catch the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma or NBA League Pass. Those who can’t get to a TV, but have radio access can catch the game via WWLS The Sports Animal.

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