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