In the final 36 minutes of the Thunder's 107-97 loss to Memphis on Wednesday night, the most fight shown by anyone in an Oklahoma City jersey might not have even taken place on the court.
After getting ejected late in the fourth quarter, Thunder center Kendrick Perkins and Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph had their altercation spill over into the locker room area, according to multiple eyewitnesses and other nearby arena and team employees who overheard the commotion.
It was the culmination of a night of frustration for Oklahoma City, which saw its five-game winning streak come to a screeching halt following its second lackluster home performance on the early part of this season.
Memphis pushed pass OKC in a dominant second quarter that saw the Grizzlies outscore the Thunder 36-15 and turn a 10-point deficit at the end of the first quarter into an 11-point halftime lead.
It was all downhill from there. The Thunder never wrestled the lead back and went on to trail by as many as 16 points in the second half before falling to 6-3 and 4-2 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“That second quarter, when we were outscored 21 points, it was tough to overcome,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
“I thought in that second quarter they were playing good basketball. Their confidence level became extremely high. Defensively, they were putting bodies on us, and those four 3s in that second quarter really gave them a lift that we had trouble overcoming.”
The Thunder had just put together one of its most impressive opening quarters this season, holding Memphis (6-1) to 20 points on 32 percent shooting. Russell Westbrook was a passing wizard, racking up five of his season-high 13 assists in the opening quarter to help three Thunder players score at least eight points in the period and six different guys move the scoreboard.
But over the next 12 minutes, the Grizzlies made 11 of 23 shots, going 4-for-5 from 3-point range and 6-for-6 from the foul line. Nothing illustrated how in sync Memphis' offense was in that period more than its nine assists on 11 made field goals.
About the only thing the Grizzlies did wrong in the period was turn it over.
That lone giveaway was the Grizzlies' only turnover in the first half. It came on a bad Jerryd Bayless pass — 19 minutes, 8 seconds into the game.
“In that first quarter we had a lot of things going. Our offense was going and our defense was going,” Brooks said. “When that happens, we usually lead after one quarter and I thought that first quarter was good. And then they hit us with a lot of offense.”
Memphis forward Quincy Pondexter led the charge, making all three of his 3-point attempts and two free throws to tally 11 second-quarter points. His play characterized how the Thunder's bench got worked, as it allowed the Grizzlies to go on a 7-0 run that relinquished all Thunder momentum.
Rudy Gay then took the torch and kept the Thunder at bay with 18 second-half points. Going head-to-head with Kevin Durant (game-high 34 points, 10 rebounds and five assists), Gay matched his good friend and reigning three-time scoring champion shot for shot.
“Rudy Gay got hot,” Brooks said. “When you give a team an opportunity to get hot it's tough to turn them off.”
Perkins and Randolph couldn't seem to turn off their emotions.
After incessant jawing during a stoppage in play with 2:05 remaining, the two were tossed by referee Ken Mauer, who had warned both players throughout the game to knock off their shenanigans. As the two were being separated, Randolph, using a closed fist and a thumb, motioned in the direction of the locker room to Perkins. After a few more barbs, Perkins apparently obliged and sprinted off the court, pass the team's bench and into the tunnel.
Perkins declined comment following the game.
Other players downplayed the incident that was seen on the court.
“We always battle with these guys, especially our bigs,” said Durant. “I don't think they should have got thrown out. But those guys always battle, man. It's nothing more than that. Pushing and shoving, that's what the game is about. We have two physical bigs and they have two physical bigs. It wasn't more than that. Just talking.”
Said Westbrook: “I think (the refs) probably just got tired of both teams going back and forth. Stuff like that happens throughout the game.”
It can only add fuel to a fiery rivalry that has been rapidly growing since these two teams hooked up in the second round of the playoffs two years ago and supplied a riveting seven-game series.
“That's what makes it fun,” Gay said.