Thunder Respond To Being Pushed To The Brink With Best Postseason Performance So Far

Thunder Respond To Being Pushed To The Brink With Best Postseason Performance So Far

I’ve noticed this all through the regular season. It’s the reason the Thunder gave up so many 20+-point leads during the regular season, and is the reason the Thunder experienced a 3-2 deficit in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. There is so much hype surrounding this current Thunder squad that they have a tendency to buy into it themselves at times. It’s understandable. You hear over and over again how good your team is, how good the individual players making up the squad are, and how the GM is building a solid winner, and you can’t help but let some of it go to your head. Buying into hype isn’t always a bad thing. You have to have a certain level of confidence when you hit the court, or a loss is as good as guaranteed. The problem is that you can buy into the hype too much, and start taking things like NBA Championships as a lock before you actually obtain it. This is why the Thunder don’t always play up to their potential. Sometimes they act as if an NBA Championship is a mere formality, treating it as though it’s a guarantee at season’s end.

All three major Thunder contributors are pictured here. Westbrook dropped 25 points for the game, Reggie Jackson was good for 16 off of the Thunder bench, and Kevin Durant's 36-point, 10-rebound double-double marked his best peformance of the series to this point.

All three major Thunder contributors are pictured here. Russell Westbrook dropped 25 points for the game, Reggie Jackson was good for 16 off of the Thunder bench, and Kevin Durant’s 36-point, 10-rebound double-double marked his best performance of the series to this point.

The thing about the NBA is that, especially in today’s NBA, nothing comes easy. Sure, back in the older days, some things were pretty much a formality. Red Auerbach’s Celtics teams winning NBA Championships throughout the late-50s & mid-60s became a formality. And a few decades later, Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams in the 90s were pretty much a lock for a title, much to the chagrin of legends John Stockton and Karl Malone. But even though the Heat have taken the last two titles, I’m not sure if you can call them a lock this year. One key injury could completely derail that team.

Zach Randoplh tries to back down Kendrick Perkins. Perkins' defense was a major contributor in Randolph only scoring 16 for the game.

Zach Randolph tries to back down Kendrick Perkins. Perkins’ defense was a major contributor in Randolph only scoring 16 for the game.

Last night’s Thunder performance was “night-and-day different” from the last 4 outings. They were spacing the floor much better on offense, there was great ball movement, much better shot selection, and they played like a team with something to prove.  One thing I’ve noticed about this Thunder team is that they sometimes need a good, solid hit to the mouth before they start taking things seriously. It’s a lot like when I did amateur boxing. I was always one of those guys who didn’t really get moving until I took a good one to the chin. Then I was like, “Oh yeah. I’m in a fight right now. I’d better pick it up.”

All of the major Grizzlies contributors are in frame here. Marc Gasol was held to 17 points total, while Tony Allen dropped 13 bench points, and James Johnson contributed 15 additional bench points.

All of the major Grizzlies contributors are in frame here. Marc Gasol was held to 17 points total, while Tony Allen dropped 13 bench points, and James Johnson contributed 15 additional bench points.

And pick it up is exactly what Kevin Durant did in the face of a disparaging headline from The Oklahoman that referred to him as “Mr. Unreliable”. From my standpoint, I don’t see why The Oklahoman issued an apology. As it came to this series, they weren’t wrong. Some people took it as an attack on Durant’s character or entire body of work in the NBA. I actually find it sad that The Oklahoman had to clarify that the headline was only in reference to his performance in the Grizzlies series, which even Durant failed to disagree with, saying:

Johnson decides fouling Durant just isn't worth it.

Johnson decides fouling Durant just isn’t worth it.

“That’s what they’re supposed to write. I didn’t come through for the team.”

Honestly, I love the looks on their faces. They play better when they have something to prove.

Honestly, I love the looks on their faces. They play better when they have something to prove.

And if the headline is what it took to wake him up, then so be it. I personally think Durant plays better when he has a chip on his shoulder anyway. Most players do. Give fantastic NBA players something to prove, and they’ll more often than not, do just that.

Point Guard vs. Center? You know Westbrook isn't afraid of the challenge.

Point Guard vs. Center? You know Westbrook isn’t afraid of the challenge.

Hell, Durant put up a 36-point, 10-rebound double-double playing with that chip on his shoulder. If disparaging headlines gets Durant to play this well, maybe the next headline should read, “KD Pushes Down Little Old Ladies Just Trying To Cross The Street. Is The NBA Stardom Going To His Head?” Heck, he might go off for 50 points after reading that one. The headline wasn’t even about Russell Westbrook, but it seemed to help his play too, as he took a step back in the 1st quarter to let Durant make his case. That ended up netting Durant 14 points in that one 12-minute period. (Interesting note: The Thunder are 5-0 in the postseason when Durant scores 14 or more in the 1st quarter.) But even in taking that step back, Westbrook still finished his night with 25 points. Reggie Jackson’s 16 points off of the bench were a major help as well.

Beno Udrih tries to run with Jackson.

Beno Udrih tries to run with Jackson.

And in a good coaching move, Scott Brooks opted to start Caron Butler over Thabo Sefolosha. In fact, Sefolosha never saw the floor. Yet, the defense was as good as I’ve seen all series long, and Butler’s presence gave this Thunder starting 5 a 4th scoring option. This lineup change alone is most likely how the Thunder were getting such good floor spacing last night, because all three perimeter players were 3-point threats. You can’t pack the paint in that scenario. And speaking of paint performances, hats off to Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams for the way they frustrated the Grizzlies’ paint offense last night. Ibaka’s 4 blocks were actually outnumbered by Adams’ 5 from off of the Thunder bench. You give Adams a couple more years of development, and I think he ends up filling in the missing piece to a Thunder title run.

It wasn't even Steven Adams' house. He told Tony Allen to get that mess out of here anyway.

It wasn’t even Steven Adams’ house. He told Tony Allen to get that mess out of here anyway.

And the Grizzlies’ offense in the paint found themselves increasingly frustrated at the Ibaka/Adams block party that was taking place last night. Marc Gasol was held to 17 points, while Zach Randolph managed 16. Neither had a double-double to speak of, which is rather unusual when you talk about that big man duo. Tony Allen and James Johnson were able to combine for 28 points off of the Grizzlies bench to no avail (Johnson: 15, Allen: 13).

Westbrook takes the wide-open shot.

Westbrook takes the wide-open shot.

I said in the series preview not to be surprised if this went to 7 games. This series has gone almost exactly as I envisioned it, with the only difference being that I had the winners of Games 5 and 6 switched. Oddly, last night was the first Game 6 loss by the Grizzlies in franchise playoff history (They are now 4-1 all-time.). That’s the most likely reason you heard a few Thunder fans lose faith in the squad’s ability to extend the series. Plus, this 2-game losing streak at the Grindhouse comes off of the heels of a 15-game Grindhouse winning streak. Now, even though the series just turned into a winner-take-all matchup, I feel like it’s the Grizzlies’ back against the wall after they just got handed the most lopsided defeat of the series. Game 7 comes to us from The Peake tomorrow night at 7pm CST. So far, it looks like TNT has acquired the rights to broadcast. I’ll let you know if anything changes TV-wise. One thing that is certain, however, is that the matchup will definitely be broadcast via WWLS The Sports Animal. You know you don’t want to miss this one.

Thunder Hang On To Take 1-0 Series Lead After Nearly Squandering A 25-Point Advantage

Thunder Hang On To Take 1-0 Series Lead After Nearly Squandering A 25-Point Advantage

It didn’t really surprise me. This is something for which the Thunder have become known. Their regular-season tendency to jump out to a 20+-point lead, only to give away not only said lead, but eventually the game itself to the opposition almost reared its ugly head for their first postseason match-up of 2014. Why it wasn’t surprising was because this happened on a day when the 3 other home teams that played Saturday all found a way to drop their series openers. Once you factor in that two other road teams won yesterday, we all bore witness to history. For the first time since the NBA Playoffs expanded to 16 teams in the ’83-’84 season, 5 road teams claimed Game 1 on opening weekend.

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Kevin Durant tries to find an outlet past Marc Gasol. Durant’s 33 points led all scorers to take the floor. Gasol finished with 16 points.

I was in attendance for the first half, a half that was all Thunder. The Thunder jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead that eventually ended as a 14-2 run. With the Thunder lead 19-10 at the 5:25 mark of the 1st quarter, the Thunder spark a 6-1 mini-run that extended the Thunder lead to 14 (25-11). The 1st quarter ended with the Thunder up 29-16 in a quarter that saw the Grizzlies shoot an ice-cold 17.2% (5-for-29).

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Durant gets fired up as Tony Allen tries to do the same. Allen finished with 13 points off of the Grizzlies bench.

2nd quarter saw more ice-cold Grizzlies shooting, and the Thunder were all too willing to take advantage. After a Tony Allen dunk cut the lead to 11 (29-18), the Thunder sparked yet another run. This run ended up as a 20-8 run, adding more cushion to the Thunder lead (49-26) with 3:29 to go in the first half. After a couple of lay ups by Mike Conley and Zach Randolph cut the Thunder lead to 19 (49-30), the Thunder almost ended the quarter on a 7-1 run that saw them extend the Thunder lead to 25 (56-31). That would have been the halftime score also, but James Johnson ended the half with a last-minute 3-ball that actually marked the first outside-the-paint points for the Grizzlies all game. The score would be 56-34 going into the break, ending a half in which the Grizzlies picked it up a bit, but were still shooting a miserable 25% from the field. This was turning into such a beating, I decided to leave at halftime to beat the traffic.

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Mike Conley can’t figure out why the Grizz are so ice cold. You’d figure his 16-point, 11-assist performance would have had more impact.

That probably wasn’t my wisest decision, as the Thunder came out flat in the 3rd quarter, while the Grizzlies started to heat up. They opened the 3rd with a 8-0 run that ended as a 17-4 run, cutting the Thunder lead to 9 (60-51) with 7:17 to play in the 3rd. Serge Ibaka tried to slow the Grizzlies’ roll with free throws, hitting all 4 attempts to reextend the Thunder lead to 11 (64-53), with 5:51 left in the 3rd. The Grizzlies were still hot at this point though, ending the quarter on a 12-5 run that had cut the Thunder lead to 4 (69-65) to start the 4th quarter.

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Serge Ibaka had 17 points, and finished one rebound shy of a double-double.

Shots began to get traded back and forth in the 4th quarter, allowing the Grizzlies to cut their deficit to a mere 2 points (74-72) with 8:46 to play. Thankfully for Thunder fans, this would be as close as the Grizzlies would come to claiming the lead, as not only did the Grizz go cold again, but the Thunder started heating up again as well. An almost immediate 15-4 run reestablished a double-digit lead for the Thunder (89-75) with 5:30 remaining, and subsequently put the game out of reach for the Grizzlies. They ended the game trading buckets, and the Thunder escaped Game 1 with a 100-86 victory.

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Durant takes flight.

Kevin Durant scored 33 points in the Game 1 victory, but I’d give Player of the Game to Russell Westbrook for his 23-point, 10-rebound double-double. Although Ibaka scored 17 points while being just one rebound shy of a double-double himself.

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Zach Randolph may have posted a 21-point, 11-rebound double-double, but Kendrick Perkins deserves a lot of credit for keeping Randolph and Gasol as quiet as they were.

Randolph’s 21-point, 11-rebound double-double came as no surprise to me, seeing as the man averaged a double-double in the regular season (17.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG). Marc Gasol was good for 16 points. Mike Conley was also good for 16 points, but had 11 assists to go with them, and Allen’s 13 points off of the bench almost provided the spark required to steal Game 1 outright.

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Russell Westbrook, who finished with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double.

Game 2 tips off tonight at 7pm CST, and will be featured at the front-end of tonight’s  TNT double-header, with Clippers-Warriors immediately following it up. Not near a TV, but can pick up radio signals? You can also catch the action on WWLS The Sports Animal.

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.