Here are five observations from the Thunder’s huge 104-84 blowout win over the Grizzlies on Thursday night:
1. Mr. Spectacular - Strictly from a basketball perspective, this wouldn’t fit anywhere near Kevin Durant’s pantheon of performances. He had 36 points on 11-of-23 shooting, while adding 10 rebounds and two assists. Career night for most, average line for KD. But considering all the surrounding circumstances and dramatic build up, it was a big-time, gutty showing when his team needed it most. Brink of elimination, pressure on and he was engaged from the tip. Energized and passionate on both ends, he had a certain look to him — the kind of defiant “nobody on this court is at my level” attitude you’re looking for in a superduperstar. He locked into his man on defense and remained aggressive on the other end. “He ate first tonight,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Sometimes, he tries to get other people involved. I thought he was very assertive early in the game.”And he did it all against a smart, swarming and typically effective defense that he made ineffective on Thursday night:
2. True point guard - It’s tough to describe anything Russell Westbrook does (or wears) as quiet. It’s not in his vocabulary. But on Thursday night, he quietly had a really nice game. Darnell Mayberry wrote about it for the paper, which you can read here. But it’s worth noting again. There wasn’t much chatter about the way he played. But all night, he was smooth and composed while piling up another 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists. He played within himself and the offense all night. The aggressive drives and bursts of uncontrollable speed were still there, leading to made shots, missed shots, assists and turnovers. But it all came at the right time. His actions were decisive and smart. He only took two 3s, confidently stepping into makable mid-range shots, and masterfully balanced his desire to attack and the need to get others involved. A smart, composed game in a pressurized environment.
3. THE lineup change - Durant got a little redemption. Westbrook got back on track. But nobody had a better night than Scott Brooks. Maybe the best of his coaching career (I wrote about it more in-depth here). It started with the lineup change, replacing Thabo Sefolosha with Caron Butler. A shock to us all, knowing his stubbornness with that core group, but it was the right move and paid off beautifully (more spacing with the starters, more flexibility with the bench rotations). I still can’t believe he pulled the trigger on it, but I guess elimination pressure will do that to a man. Beyond that, I loved the reinsertion of Steven Adams into the rotation. He played 20 high-energy minutes and blocked five more shots (he has 10 blocks in 41 minutes this series!!!), bothering the Grizzlies with his physicality and rare athleticism for the position. Beyond that, an underrated Brooks move came at the start of the fourth quarter. Instead of inexplicably beginning the quarter with Russell Westbrook AND Kevin Durant on the bench, like he’s done most of the year, Brooks kept them both on the floor. He bypassed his routine, adjusted to the situation and went for the kill. Why doesn’t he do that more often? Why hasn’t Adams got more time? Why didn’t Brooks change the starting lineup earlier? Who knows, but better late than never.
For your enjoyment, here are all five of Steven Adams’ blocks:
4. Smart threes - The Thunder’s overall 3-point percentage wasn’t great (7-of-21, 33 percent), but it wasn’t about the conversion rate. It was about the kind of threes they got and how many they took. And Thursday night was a lot better than most of this series. There were barely any contested bombs. There were hardly any rushed ones. And there weren’t any of those nightmare heaves, the contested, rushed AND early-in-the-clock momentum-killers, which became commonplace in Games 2, 3 and 4. Kevin Durant’s uncharacteristic long-range struggles continued. He was 0-of-6 from deep. But he mostly got good looks, just missed. And at least for a night, Russell Westbrook shut off Steph Curry mode, only taking two. “He’s so much better when he shoots from 18 feet, rather than 25,” Steve Kerr said about Westbrook. Also, Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson combined to make six of their nine. Everything hums a lot better when the role players, the offensive X-factors, are confidently taking and making.
5. Block discrepancy - Everyone understandably and correctly talks about Memphis’ great defense. But they have a pretty glaring weakness on that end. Nobody protects the rim. None of their bigs have elite athleticism. Nobody on that team blocks shots. Maybe it’s part of why they are so crisp with rotations and great at staying in front of the ball. The Thunder can rely too heavily on Serge Ibaka at times, thinking they can allow drives and penetration because of the eraser that looms on the back-line. But Memphis knows they have no one back there to nullify mistakes. Maybe it helps, but you gotta believe there’s plenty of times it hurts.
Anyway, after another 11-1 block discrepancy on Thursday night, the Thunder now has 51 swats in the series, while the Grizzlies only have 16. Serge Ibaka has 18 himself. Adams has 10 in 41 minutes. The overall count:
Thunder – 51
Serge Ibaka – 18
Kevin Durant – 10
Steven Adams – 10
Nick Collison – 4
Reggie Jackson – 4
Russell Westbrook – 3
Kendrick Perkins – 2
Marc Gasol – 5
Kosta Koufos – 3
Ed Davis – 3
Courtney Lee – 2
Tony Allen – 1
Zach Randolph – 1
Mike Conley – 1
-Move of the game: How about this Serge Ibaka’s fly-by layup? Never seen him complete a drive like this. He recognized the wild Memphis closeout, showed a quick-pump fake, then got to the rim and finished with a decisive and controlled two-dribble move. Offensive progress for Serge. An encouraging sign:
-Don’t understand Dave Joerger continuing to start Tayshaun Prince over Tony Allen. Rest him when KD is off the floor.
-Reggie Jackson: 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, 6-of-9 FG, 4-of-5 3FG, a +12 in 29 minutes. Don’t need him to be the 32-point savior every night, but need a lot more of the guy we saw on Thursday — the one we grew accustomed to seeing most of the year — during the rest of these playoffs.
-Nobody does unique timeout entertainment like Memphis. Earlier this series, there was Jerry Lawler drilling a fake “Thunder fan” with a chair. On Thursday, there was a couple of minor league baseball players facing three mascots (dressed like barbecue ribs) in a brief pick-up game. You can’t make this stuff up.
-Thunder fans waited for the players at the airport. Always a cool scene:
-How about the feathery jump hook from Kendrick Perkins, with a little kiss of the glass? Or the pickpocket of Mike Conley? Perk is having some kind of series. Had another six points, seven boards on Thursday. Best I can remember him playing in a couple seasons.
-If you’re interested in my thoughts on the Mr. Unreliable headline controversy, this is from my live chat earlier in the day on Thursday:
“Did I think the headline was a bit over the top? Probably. Do I think the backlash has been ridiculously over the top? Definitely. You won’t find a person in the city, or at our paper, who thinks Kevin Durant’s career hasn’t been anything short of remarkable and truly a godsend for this community. But right now, in a vacuum, we’re covering a series in which the soon-to-be (and deserved) MVP is struggling, frustrated and a bit lost. We wrote some fair articles driving that point home (just like the countless times we’ve written raving articles about his incredible play and attached adoring headlines to those — you know, like the ones hanging in HIS restaurant). Whoever wrote the headline probably read Berry’s column, which talked about KD’s unreliability in THIS series and thought it would make a good hammer. Wasn’t there, but I can all but guarantee there was no talk of selling papers and making the story about ourselves. In hindsight, maybe it was a bit unfair. But that part was unintended. Everyone needs to stop acting like there was some unholy act done.”
-One last thing: Through it all, Berry Tramel was a champ. A true pro. He got more than 200 angry and misguided emails and calls, with people erroneously thinking he wrote the headline. He answered every one. He didn’t deserve the backlash, but nobody could have shouldered it any better. Incredible at his job, gracious at all times.
-Game 7 tips on Saturday at 7 p.m. in OKC. Should be an electric atmosphere.