Here are five observations (and more) from the Thunder’s 120-109 Game 7 win over Memphis on Saturday night:
1. Tough, needed series - Now that the Thunder is out of it — and the Grizzlies can be referred to in the past tense — it’s time to start viewing this first-round dogfight in a new light. It was stressful, physically taxing and nearly deadly for OKC. But it also may have been the best thing possible for Scott Brooks and the Thunder. It pushed them to the brink, forced them into a corner, pinned them into desperation mode. And Brooks and his players came out better for it. Reggie Jackson had his best playoff moment. Russell Westbrook had a ‘Hey, maybe I should stop jacking threes like I’m Steph Curry’ epiphany, Kevin Durant finally solved Tony Allen and the Grizzlies and a desperate Scott Brooks was finally forced into adjustments he’s long been unwilling to make. It was scary for the Thunder, but a ton of progress was shown. On to Round 2.
2. KD’s threes – Even though he broke out of his mini-slump in Game 6, Kevin Durant still didn’t shoot like we’re used to. He went 11-of-23 and missed all six of his threes. His final line was good — 36 points and 10 rebounds — and his defensive tenacity and tone-setting led the Thunder to a crucial win. But strictly from a shooting standpoint, Saturday night provided the hallelujah moment. The soon-to-be MVP and four-time scoring champ was back to his unfair offensive ways, firing in 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting — the kind of hyper-efficient line he so often compiled all year. He went 5-of-5 from three, reversing a surprising slump that had seen him make only four of his 29 threes the previous four games.
And in postgame, a content Durant was honest with the media: “You guys motivated me a little bit, even though I told you you didn’t.” Darnell Mayberry wrote a more in-depth piece on Durant’s whirlwind series of emotion, struggles, scrutiny and eventually triumph. You can read that here.
3. Westbrook's change - It’s far too small a sample size to call this a breakthrough, but Thunder fans have to be extremely encouraged about the adjustments Russell Westbrook made in the latter stages of this series. Despite the obvious talent, he may have been the team’s biggest problem in Games 1-5. Westbrook jacked up 38 threes and made only seven. He stalled the offense with aimless dribbling and played right into Memphis’ hands with his errant shooting and wild, unsuccessful attacks at the basket. But in Games 6 and 7, he was a completely different player. From the tip in each game, he maintained an aggressive approach, but did it in a calm, calculated way. He picked his spots and played point guard first, making sure to keep his superstar happy and others involved. And Saturday night was really a masterpiece — one of the greatest games Westbrook’s ever played. He finished with 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds, his second triple-double of the playoffs.
Westbrook on his decision to stop taking as many 3s: “Like Kevin said, we were shooting too many walk-up 3s off the screen and that’s what they wanted. I just looked at film and seen where I can find open ones.”
4. Film Room - Check out the play below. Perfect example of the improved Westbrook. This is from early in the third quarter on Saturday night, after Tony Allen gambles off Westbrook to pressure Durant at the top of the key. KD swings a quick pass to an open Westbrook about 19 feet from the hoop. Early in the series, he’s immediately jacking. But on this night, a cerebral Westbrook identifies the vulnerable situation Memphis defense is facing and decides to attack. It forces the Grizzlies to scramble around and leaves a wide open Caron Butler in the corner. Butler open threes > Westbrook 19-footers. And the Thunder’s point guard recognizes that, leading to one of his 16 assists.
5. New rotation - In the last two games of this series, Steven Adams played 45 minutes, Nick Collison played seven and Thabo Sefolosha played zero. If I’d have told you that last week, your first two questions would have been ‘When did Collison and Sefolosha get hurt?’ and ‘Wow, a mid-series firing, who’d Presti replace Brooks with?’ But it really happened. It was clearly the right move. And it was done by Scott Brooks, a surprising maneuver that he stuck with. He trusted his rookie and benched a pair of veterans, recognizing the benefits of Steven Adams energy and the limited need for Sefolosha in this series (not many perimeter scoring options for Memphis) and Collsion in this game (no Zach Randolph). Moving forward, though, I’ll be interested to see how Brooks handles the rotation. Sefolosha will likely be needed against the Clippers, with Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford far more explosive and elusive than Memphis’ backcourt.
-Reggie Jackson was 3-of-19 overall and 0-of-6 from three in the first three games of this series. He went 24-of-38 overall and an amazing 10-of-15 from three in the final four games. A huge and probably overlooked development.
-The biggest stretch of the game came at the start of the third quarter. Facing an eroding Grizzlies team, exhausted from a pair of costly suspensions and facing foul trouble and fatigue, the Thunder pounced. Marc Gasol: “The beginning of the third quarter was the key to the game. Their main players took tough shots and made them.”
-Biggest sign of fatigue: Marc Gasol went 6-of-8 for 13 points in the first quarter. He was 1-of-12 for 11 points the rest of the game. And that included at least three airballs.
-Twelve combined turnovers between Westbrook and Durant. Really the only blemish on what was an amazing performance from the dynamic duo. Combined line: 60 points, 18 assists, 18 rebounds.
-If you hadn’t noticed, Russell Westbrook’s minutes limitation is long gone. He averaged 40 minutes in the series, the second most minutes he has ever averaged in a playoff series, behind only the 42.2 he averaged in the 2012 NBA Finals.. By game: 33, 43, 39, 44, 48, 39, 39.
-How about the series from Kendrick Perkins? You already know about his rock-solid interior defense, but the reason he was able to play 22.3 minutes a night was because of his rediscovered “I’m not as terrible as you think” offensive game. He went 12-of-17 shooting in the series, dropping in a sky hook and floater in traffic on Saturday. Check out the picture of his sky hook below (photo by Nate Billings). I still can’t believe he made this shot:
-Steven Adams making Mike Conley look like he’s about three feet tall in this picture:
-Tony Allen, quote of the year, when asked about missed opportunities: “If ifs were fifths, we’d all be drunk”. I’m gonna miss him. Pure entertainment the past two weeks.
-Up next: Clippers in OKC on Monday night for Game 1. Tip at 8:30 p.m. CT. Should be a big-time series. I’m picking the Thunder in seven, but L.A. is dangerous. In my opinion, the Thunder’s biggest threat in the West.
-Full Russell Westbrook highlights: