MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Former Oklahoma State standout Tony Allen was speaking of his Memphis Grizzlies, but he just as easily could have been discussing the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We know that every game you try to be a piece to a puzzle and each individual understands that, knowing their role,” said Allen, one of the NBA's premier defenders. “Most important, we're playing for each other. We understand that. We're a help-the-helper team on the defensive end and we know exactly what we want to do offensively. So the game plan is already set. It's on us to go out there and execute.”
Like the Grizzlies, the Thunder tries to make all its pieces fit.
However, the OKC puzzle is missing one of its center pieces in three-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who had season-ending knee surgery on April 27.
As a result, some of the other pieces don't quite fit like they used to.
With its 87-81 loss to the Grizzlies in Game 3 at the FedExForum, the Thunder now trails this best-of-7 playoff series 2-1.
OKC and Memphis are elite teams defensively, which has been easily evident throughout a series where neither team has reached triple-digits.
Teams with the same core values also helps explain why this Western Conference semifinal already has had 49 lead changes and 32 ties in 12 quarters.
Game 3 brought more of the same with 13 lead changes and eight ties. The final tie came at 81 with 1:58 remaining after OKC had fought back from a 10-point deficit, but the Thunder failed to score again as the Grizzlies closed the game with a 6-0 run.
“We know they're a tough team,” Allen said of the defending conference champion Thunder. “They've been to the promise land before. They've been to the Finals and they know what it takes to win. We're not putting nothing past those guys, so we're just focusing on us.”
OKC shot 36.4 percent from the field, but Memphis wasn't much better at 40.5 percent. The Thunder misfired at 27.8 percent from 3-point range, but the Grizzlies weren't much better at 28.6 percent.
“We just gutted it out,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “We defended and we defended. … We just stayed after it like we've done all year long. It's not always pretty. Tonight wasn't pretty, but it was pretty for us because we got the win.”
Particularly ugly for OKC was its free-throw shooting, where it shot just 63.2 percent (12 for 19) and included NBA free-throw champion Kevin Durant shooting 55.6 percent (5 for 9). During the regular season, the Thunder shot 82.8 percent from the line with Durant finishing at 90.5 percent.
With Westbrook out, the Grizzlies have gone from a being genuine threat to win the series to the odds-on favorite after winning Game 3.
“In order for us to be one of those elite teams and in order for us to just be considered a top-level team, we've got to come out here and win games and go to the next round,” Allen said. “That's the key. We're not worried about the naysayers or whatever people's opinions are. We just focus on us.”
Though OKC showed commendable improvement from its Game 2 loss in some areas – rebounding and turnovers being the most noteworthy – Memphis remains in charge.
“Obviously, they beat us in a lot of different areas tonight,” said Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, who went 7 for 7 from the free-throw line, including 4 for 4 in the final 50.5 seconds. “For us to come away with the win, we are very happy. We will take it but it just goes to show we have a lot of work to do. We have to do better next game.”