MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kevin Durant scoffed at the suggestion. Really, it wasn’t even a suggestion. It was a question. Clearly, though, Durant was stunned and perhaps even annoyed that it was even being asked.
Has the Oklahoma City Thunder’s confidence, swagger or belief been shaken?
That’s right. That was a point-blank question posed to Durant, the Thunder’s co-captain, at Sunday’s practice. It seemed a little premature. But this has become the reality for the Thunder after blowing a 16-point, second-half lead and dropping a 101-93 overtime decision to Memphis in Game 3 on Saturday. This is where such a mighty meltdown has left Oklahoma City, facing questions of whether its fortitude to compete with the cagey Grizzlies has been zapped away.
“Nah!” Durant said. “No. If that’s been shaken, that’s bad business right there. If they took our swag away from us and our confidence then we’re in trouble. But I don’t think they did that. We still have that edge. You have bad games. You have mishaps. You have breakdowns. But confidence can’t be taken away if we’re down 2-1. This is a great team we’re playing against. They play well at home. But we have confidence that we can come in here and get one. We can’t let anybody take our confidence.”
Saying it is one thing. Showing it is another.
After a much more reasonable one-day layoff, the Thunder and the Grizzlies will meet Monday night inside the FedExForum for Game 4 of this see-saw series. Only after the final buzzer, however, will the Thunder have provided its best and most authoritative answer.
The stage is set, and this is where we are. Oklahoma City has entered must-win territory. Lose and homecourt advantage forever rests with Memphis. Lose and Game 5 in Oklahoma City becomes the ultimate must-win. Yet, the energy at Sunday’s session was one of a positive team that appeared equipped to embrace the added pressure.
“We’ve played some good stretches of basketball, but we’re down 2-1,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Going into the series, we knew that they are a good team. They beat us three out of four in the regular season. We never looked at it as we would sweep them or they would sweep us. We have a chance to win (Monday) and make it a three-game series with two on our home floor. We gave one away by not playing well in Game 1, and they won one on our home floor. We have to do the same. It’s an opportunity for us to regroup.”
Brooks was initially concerned with how his young guys would respond. For as talented as the Thunder is, these experiences are still new to the majority of the roster. And dropping Game 3 in the manner in which Oklahoma City did was nothing short of disheartening. But Brooks quickly realized the spirit of his team had not been shaken.
“Meeting with them (Sunday) morning, going over the film and talking to them individually, we’re fine,” Brooks said. “We understand that we had a great opportunity. We let it slip away because we did not play well down the stretch. But we have an opportunity to bounce back tomorrow, and this team has done that all year long. I anticipate them coming back with the same type of fight that we had last game. Just hopefully we do a better job of executing down the stretch.”
Inside the Thunder camp, there was no separating the pain produced by Game 1 and Game 3. The Thunder basically didn’t show up for Game 1, opening the series with an embarrassing effort that resulted in a 13-point home loss that surrendered homecourt advantage. On Saturday, the Thunder gave up a 15-point lead it held with one minute remaining in the third quarter because it could muster only 17 points in the final 17 minutes.
“They all hurt,” Brooks said. “That’s the good thing about good teams. After a loss they hurt. Some of the bad teams I’ve been on, losses don’t really hurt. You look forward to the next game. But with our team, losses do hurt.”
On the Thunder, losses also are learning experiences.
“We’ve got to learn from our mistakes and know that we made mistakes,” Durant said. “But we can’t get too down on ourselves. That’s one thing that I tried to tell my guys… You live to see another day and we got to come out and play better.”
With that, the focus turned to fine-tuning things for Game 4. The majority of Sunday’s practice was spent studying film. Brooks and his staff had broken down the tape and were prepared to conduct their customary run through of the previous game’s ins and outs. And at first, the team just sat there and watched. But then something funny happened, something that once again belied this ballclub’s youth. Thunder players started policing themselves. As a throng media members waited outside the practice court inside FedExForum, in a holding pattern that lasted an hour longer than projected, one by one, Thunder players began to speak up.
“Everybody (was) just telling guys what they need to do. How we can get better,” Durant said. “It was good for us. Guys really took it in and embraced what they were saying and I think we’re going to apply it (Monday).”
Much of the film session focused on the final eight minutes of regulation and overtime. That’s when it all went south, and that’s the stage of the game the Thunder needs to make sure it shores up most Monday.
“It’s easy to pinpoint what you did right,” Durant said. “But in a film session, guys just sat there and talked about what we did wrong and how we can get better. That’s the best teacher, just sitting there watching.”
The first three quarters might as well not even have happened. The Thunder hardly made mention of anything from the first three periods.
“We ended it so bad, it’s like the first three quarters didn’t happen,” Durant said. “But like I said, you have to go through that. And I think if we learn from that, we’re going to be better down the line.”
For now, the Thunder is finding comfort in its track record. OKC is 23-6 this season after a loss. At no point in this season has it been more critical to improve that mark.
“(Monday) is another opportunity for this team,” Brooks said. “It’s always been a team that’s done well on bouncing back after a tough loss. And I don’t see that changing.”
The good thing for the Thunder is it knows exactly what went wrong. When the offense bogged down in the final seven minutes of regulation, it was a product of failing to adhere to its principles. Selfishness replaced savvy. Panic replaced poise.
“We stopped moving the basketball,” Brooks said. “We were taking a lot of one-pass shots. Unless you’re hitting them, that’s not a good recipe for winning playoff games.”
The Thunder went 4-for-18 in the fourth quarter. You do the math.
“I think there was one possession we had three passes. That’s not good enough no matter how many good players you have on your team,” Brooks said. “We have to make sure the offense is executed. We have to make sure the plays are run for first, second and third options. In the playoffs, you’re not always going to get that first look. You have to have something on the weak side. And we did not do that. We spent too much time holding the basketball and taking tough shots.”
There was no shortage of blame to be spread around. All five players on the court were at fault. Russell Westbrook held the ball too long while trying to initiate sets at times and flat out bailed on his teammates at others. Durant couldn’t get open because he was either being out-muscled or was giving poor effort. When he did get a touch, he allowed a stifling defense to force him to settle for poor shot selection. James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha stood around the perimeter and watched instead of working without the ball. And Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins either set shoddy screens or failed to make themselves available on broken plays. None of them could secure more than one offensive rebound out of 14 fourth-quarter misses. And Brooks never made the adjustment with his play-calling.
“We have to get our guys in our sets quicker,” Brooks said. “And that’s a responsibility of myself and (Westbrook). We have to do a better job of communicating our plays. And the guys have to do a better job of executing them. We have to set better screens. We have to come off with more force…Our energy wasn’t good enough to get us a better shot than we had in the last six or seven minutes. For whatever reason, we have to make sure we come back with energy throughout the game, especially when you’re trying to finish off the game.”
With the Grizzlies clawing back, cutting an 11-point deficit to three in just over 2 1/2 minutes midway through the fourth, Brooks made an defense-for-offense substitution. He sat Harden and brought back Sefolosha. At the time, it appeared wise. Memphis guard O.J. Mayo was torching Harden. And just before the onslaught began, Harden had a mental meltdown on the offensive side at the end of the third quarter when he didn’t know how much time was left on the shot clock and dribbled instead of getting up an attempt. But then Sefolosha became useless offensively as the Thunder tried to get out of first gear. The team clearly needed a third option in addition to Durant and Westbrook, and that third option was on the bench. Brooks stood by his decision, however.
“The identity of our team is defensively. We have to stay with that,” Brooks said. “That’s what gets us to a position that we want to get to.”
Still, questionable strategy and all, there was little excuse for the Thunder’s offense to shut down like it did. It was no surprise that Durant took the blame. He said the continuation of offensive rhythm starts with him verbally pushing his teammates. Durant said he has to be in everyone’s ear making sure ball movement continues and the things that built the lead remain intact. More specifically, though, Durant said he needs to work harder to prevent his defender from disrupting the Thunder’s offense, and, most importantly, his teammates away from the play need to stay engaged.
“We got to have movement on the other side,” Durant said. “I think they did a good job of making me see bodies. When I thought I had an isolation situation, Zach Randolph was just sitting on my back. They would hedge out a lot on the pick-and-roll. They would double if I had a pick-and-roll and hedge out on the pin-down. So it was tough to get open. But I got to find a way. I think I will. But I think everybody else will just have to move and find an open spot and we just got to hit them. We got to make the right plays.”
Durant took full responsibility for his one foul shot Saturday, which came as a result of a technical foul called Randolph. Though he might have believed he deserved a break from the officials, he didn’t use their lack of calls as a crutch.
“I got to attack a little bit more,” Durant said. “But that’s a learning experience I go through, watching film just knowing my spots, knowing where I can get free throws, knowing where I can get into the guys’ bodies and make the ref make a call. It’s just a matter of adjustments. That’s what film is for.”
Durant said the Thunder must get back to the basics Monday night. Hustle plays, he said, are as important as anything else and can turn the tide in this series.
“It’s the little things that’s going to get you through, the attention to detail that’s going to get you through,” Durant said. “Diving on the floor for loose balls, boxing out, stuff like that is going to win the game for you. If we do that and beat those guys to the 50-50 basketballs, we’ll be fine.”
Despite its disappointing Game 1, and is disheartening ending to Game 3, the Thunder insists it understands the moment. So much has arrived so soon, but so much is still at stake. Players swear they’re not satisfied with the team’s early success, and after making it this far, this fast, in the process a new catchphrase is quickly spreading.
“We feel we can win a championship this year,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if we will. But we’re going to put ourselves in every opportunity to do our best and to win every game.”
Eleven more are needed for the ultimate goal.
“We’re not happy with just being here in the second round,” Durant said. “We’re not happy with getting our first series win against Denver. We’re not happy with that. We want to go as far as we can. Our goal is to reach a championship. That’s every team. But we got to take it a day at a time, a possession at a time, a minute at a time. And if we do it that way, we’ll be fine. We got to win the little games within the games. That’s key for us. If we do that, the sky’s the limit.”