MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kevin Durant did what he said he needed to do.
He swallowed his pride, suppressed his ego and sacrificed the one thing it seems he was put on this earth to do.
Down three, with the ball and 20.2 seconds left to play, Durant, working from the top of the key, slithered his slender frame into the heart of the Memphis defense. Once there, he stopped, surveyed the floor and made a pivotal decision.
His penetration had sucked Serge Ibaka's defender into the paint and left Ibaka all alone in the left corner for a potential game-tying 3-point attempt.
And Memphis escaped, holding on for a 90-87 win over the Thunder on Tuesday night inside FedExForum.
It was the Thunder's third straight road loss and fifth defeat in the last eight, this one ultimately characterized mostly by the same ills as the previous failed attempts — role players not rewarding Durant's selflessness with necessary contributions offensively.
Despite the ending, Durant, who's spent much of the past five days dissecting ways he feels he could better help teammates, said he wouldn't change a thing.
“I trust him 100 percent,” Durant, who finished with a game-high 37 points, his eighth 30-plus-point effort in the past 10 games, said of Ibaka. “The shot looked good. It just hit the side rim and rimmed out.”
Zach Randolph split a pair of free throws at the other end to put Memphis ahead, 88-84, before Ibaka hit a never-before-seen stepback 3 to give the Thunder one last hope. But when the Thunder couldn't corral Mike Conley to deliver an intentional foul and allowed 3.3 precious seconds to tick off the clock, the game was all but over when Courtney Lee sank two foul shots to send the Thunder, out of timeouts, back down by three with 1.3 seconds remaining.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he, too, was OK with Durant's decision and the subsequent shot by Ibaka, who entered the game shooting 38 percent this season on 3-pointers from the left corner.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That's one thing I love about KD. He makes the right play. He could have forced a shot, but that wasn't the right play. Serge was wide open. He works on that every day, and he's made that shot for us. Like KD said during the game, what I said during the game, ‘It's a great look, Serge. If you get that shot again, be ready to step up and make it.'”
By no means did Ibaka's miss cost the Thunder the game.
But what it did was again illustrate the story of how Durant's teammates have struggled to offer assistance since point guard Russell Westbrook underwent a third surgery to his right knee on Dec. 27.
Oklahoma City went 5-for-21 from 3-point range, continuing a troubling trend that's plagued the Thunder for much of the season but has really reared its head in Westbrook's absence.
Over the past 10 games, the Thunder is now shooting 32.1 percent from long distance. For comparison's sake, that clip would rank the Thunder second-to-last, ahead of only Detroit at 31.2 percent.
The Thunder is 5-5 over that same span.
“We had a lot of good open looks,” said Brooks, who's beginning to sound like a broken record with that refrain. “We are going to have to step up and make some shots.”
Reggie Jackson scored 17 for the Thunder, and Ibaka finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. Outside of those two and Durant, the rest of the Thunder's roster went a combined 7-for-26 from the field and 1-for-10 from 3-point range.
“We just got to knock them in,” Durant said. “I'm not worried about the shots.”
Lee, the Grizzlies' recently-acquired guard, scored a team-high 24 points, and Zach Randolph added 23 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Conley chipped in 19 points with a game-high seven assists and just one turnover for Memphis, which won its third straight and fourth in the past five.
The Grizzlies also got 12 points, four rebounds and 24 minutes out of center Marc Gasol, who played in his first game since Nov. 22 after missing the past 23 with a MCL sprain.
But unlike the last two road trips, the Thunder was competitive throughout much of Tuesday's contest.
“We did a good job, taking away the first quarter,” Brooks said.
The Thunder again came out flat for the first period, struggling to score at one end or close out possessions with defensive rebounds at the other. The mix was too much to overcome early, and one game after scoring a season-low 14 first-quarter points, the Thunder was outscored 24-16 in the opening quarter.
Memphis made OKC miserable with its ability to dominate on the glass. The Grizzlies ended the quarter on a rare 15-3 rebounding run, which allowed Memphis to open a 12-point, first-quarter lead, its largest of the night. Thanks to their eight offensive rebounds, the Grizzlies attempted 12 more shots than the Thunder in the period and outscored OKC, 9-3, on second-chance points.
But things quickly turned around for the Thunder in the second period, as OKC started the quarter on a 6-0 run that balloned to an 11-1 spurt. Gasol ended the rally by splitting a pair of free throws with 8:37 remaining. By then, though, the Thunder had captured momentum.
Durant found his touch, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the period, and Jackson bounced back from a brutal first quarter by chipping in nine points in the second period. OKC outscored Memphis, 31-19, in the quarter to take a 47-43 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Grizzlies responded with a counterpunch in the third quarter, outscoring the Thunder, 29-20, in the frame, which was capped by an off-balanced 3 from Lee that gave Memphis a 72-67 lead as time expired.
The Thunder never trailed by more than seven in the final period after impressively responding to each huge shot or stop Memphis mustered. Still, any talk of a better showing on the road being encouraging was quickly balked at by players inside a glum visiting locker room.
“It's no moral victories,” Durant said, “We're (ticked) off we lost the game. We had a chance to win it, no matter who was on the court. It's a tough loss for us.”