MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kevin Durant’s blank stare shot toward the feet of media members waiting in front of his locker in the visitor’s dressing room at FedEx Forum. It was the lasting image of Friday night’s 86-84 last-second loss at Memphis.
Who knows what the Thunder’s star was chewing on in his final private moment before fulfilling his obligation and addressing the horde huddled in front of him? The loss? The rebound Marc Gasol stripped from his hands? His missed 3-pointer that could have won the game? The answer likely is “D,” all the above.
This much is certain, though. The sight of Durant, sitting at his cubicle, robotically running through the finishing touches of his post-game routine, told the story of where this Thunder team is after 43 games.
Losses have become irritating. Close defeats are now intolerable.
The Thunder now expects to win, and more and more players are visibly PO’d when it doesn’t happen.
Might not sound like much. All teams should expect to win, right? After all these are professionals. But understand this is the same group of young guns who veteran Nick Collison had to publicly call out for monkeying around following a 25-point embarrassment at Philadelphia last year — a loss that was the Thunder’s seventh straight and dropped the team to 1-9. This, by and large, is the same cast that, after that seven-game skid stretched to a franchise-high tying 14 consecutive defeats following a similar last-second letdown against Minnesota, drew praise from its coach for how he liked that his squad still was “competing.”
Here’s how things have changed.
The Grizzlies gave Oklahoma City the blues in a bad way before the Thunder bid bye, bye to Beale Street. Thunder Coach Scott Brooks took even longer than normal to emerge for his post-game press conference. James Harden, presumably showered and undoubtedly fully dressed in the clothes he arrived to the arena wearing, slipped by the media while Brooks was still answering questions. Russell Westbrook wasn’t seen inside or leaving the locker room.
Which left us with Durant’s gaze, a look that spread throughout the remainder of the room on smaller scales. Similar frustration was evident in the eyes of Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and Collison. Their thoughts might have been unclear. But the meaning of the overall mood was unmistakable.
“We’re just growing,” explained Green.
Collison put it another way.
“What’d we lose last year, 57 games?” Collison asked, short-changing the Thunder two losses. “So you just can’t take them as hard.
“But our season’s going a lot better. We expect to win games now, and when we don’t guys are upset. We’re disappointed. That’s the way it should be…We’re used to winning. And when we don’t it hurts.”
- Kevin Durant didn’t sink it, but you have to give credit to the Thunder for at least getting him the ball for a potential game-winning 3-pointer. That’s more than you can say OKC did in about five other games this season.
- I’m coming around on the Zach Randolph All-Star campaign. Dude scores, rebounds and passes and rarely does something dumb out of selfishness. He looks to really be trying to help his team win. That’s the most impressive thing to me.
- Thabo Sefolosha shut down O.J. Mayo, holding the Grizzlies’ guard to a season-low two points on 1-for-12 shooting. Mayo entered the game averaging 18.4 points and had scored 20 or more points in five out of 10 games this month. Add Mayo to the growing list of players Sefolosha has shut down.
- The Thunder dug itself a big hole (14 points) because it couldn’t keep Memphis off the glass or prevent the Grizzlies from converting second-chance opportunities. In the first quarter, which ended 28-20 in favor of Memphis, the Grizzlies out-rebounded the Thunder 15-9 and had outscored OKC 9-2 in second-chance points.
- The Thunder was able to climb back in it only because it flipped the script on the Grizzlies in the final three quarters. OKC out-rebounded Memphis 37-27 in quarters two, three and four to win the rebounding battle 46-42. But the first 1 1/2 quarters showed how significant rebounding is to the Thunder’s success.
- Durant struggled with his shot early, starting the game 2-for-8. Rudy Gay’s length clearly was a factor, even though Gay isn’t regarded as a defender. But Durant made a slight adjustment to start the second quarter that helped him get it going. Durant began releasing the ball quicker on his pull-ups. For most players, an in-game tweak like that can throw off rhythm and timing. And Durant’s first few attempts even looked to be ill-advised shots because he was off balance out of rhythm. But he soon started sinking them, and the adjustment spoke to just how deadly he is on the offensive end.
- Frontlines like Memphis’, with long, athletic players like Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Hasheem Thabeet, are the types that expose Nenad Krstic. His two rebounds in 25 minutes tonight were costly. Gasol had a game-high 13.
- Krstic sprained his right thumb Wednesday at Minnesota and played with it heavily wrapped. He removed most of the wrap during the game and played the last half of the game with the thumb exposed.
- Tonight’s game is the game in which Eric Maynor officially arrived as a safety net for coach Scott Brooks. With Russell Westbrook struggling in the first quarter (three turnovers), Brooks sat down the second-year point guard the entire second quarter and went with the rookie. Maynor responded with two points, four assists and two rebounds in the period.
- Westbrook’s eight points will turn into $8,000 for Haiti victims, $1,000 for every point he scored. In one breath I say it’s too bad he had an off night. In the next, I remind myself that’s more money than I can give. Hats off to Russell.
- Etan Thomas, who is represented by the same agency as Westbrook but did not play Friday, told me he gave $20,000 to the Haiti relief efforts.
- Hasheem Thabeet is the truth as a shot-blocker. He’s as good as advertised and has the ability to contest or reject everything that comes his way. He had four blocks tonight. It’s easy for Thunder fans to thank the heavens for Memphis drafting Thabeet so OKC could land James Harden one pick later. And while I have no doubt that Harden will have the better career, I am really anticipating seeing what Thabeet blossoms into four, five, six years down the line. If healthy, I think he has the tools to be a interior presence for many, many years.
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on the game: “We gave a chance to win with our defense, and that’s what we are building our team on.”
- Brooks on the bench play: “I thought James (Harden) and Eric (Maynor) did a good job of really getting us back into the game. James hit a big 3 when we were down seven. I thought that gave us the (energy) to rally and come back. They played well. That is what they have been doing all year. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
- Memphis coach Lionel Hollins: “I was just incredible intensity between two young teams trying to prove to each other who has a step ahead of the other.”
- Hollins on his team’s resiliency: “They showed a lot of grit tonight because nothing was going and the referees let us play. It was just like playoff basketball.”
- Hollins on Hasheem Thabeet: “He was on. he was focused. He was aware. He saw opportunities to go and challenge shots and he did it…He should have had six or seven blocked shots in the game. He was a big difference in us winning that game. He made an impact. As they like to say on some of the sports shows, ‘He was an impact player tonight.’”
- Rudy Gay on his game-winner: “It felt good. I got to the spot where I wanted to be on the court and I elevated. It’s something I work on every day so it was just like another day.”
- Jeff Green on Eric Maynor: “He played great. He came in and gave us great minutes. He played great defense and made some tough shots for us when we needed them. He’s stepping up big for is.”
BY THE NUMBERS
10: Straight home wins by Memphis, a franchise record.
11: Lead changes.
14: Biggest lead by the Grizzlies.
17: Consecutive games of 25 points or more by Kevin Durant, an NBA record for a player under 22.
19: Point differential in bench scoring, in favor of OKC.
23: Second-chance points for Memphis, 16 more than the Thunder.
84: Points by OKC, the fewest since Nov. 11.
12,948: Announced attendance inside FedEx Forum.