Back away from the panic button.
After three straight losses, the Thunder on Friday returned to its winning ways with a 113-107 win over Memphis inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. But even in victory, issues remain.
Consistency was the culprit this time, as the Thunder showcased, finally, a terrific first half of defensive-minded basketball only to soon see that same intensity crumble in the final 24 minutes.
Playing with passion and pride not seen in the previous three outings, Oklahoma City gave the Grizzlies just 42 first-half points — the same amount the Thunder yielded to the Cavs in a stunning fourth quarter two nights earlier. But the Thunder then gave up 65 points in the second half, including 36 in a fourth quarter in which the Grizzlies stormed back from a one-time 19-point hole and threatened to send OKC to its fourth straight home defeat when they closed to within three inside the final three minutes.
So what are we to make of Friday’s performance?
“We won,” said Russell Westbrook, who strung together his second straight stellar game, finishing with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting with six assists and three steals. “We won. That’s what I’m going to take from it. We lost three in a row. We just won. So that’s what I’m going to take from it.”
That was the prevailing sentiment on the Thunder’s side. It didn’t matter how it came. A win was needed in the worse way. For everyone, but mostly for the fan base that was growing increasingly concerned with this team’s uncharacteristic consecutive losses.
“You guys seem to want all of us to press that panic button,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “That never even came into our mind. We weren’t happy the way we were playing. Tonight, we played better defensively but we still gave up a lot of points in that fourth quarter; even in the third quarter also.”
But the blueprint was back.
Ten seconds into the game, Westbrook poked the ball away from Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley as he attempted to orchestrate his team’s offense out beyond the 3-point line. Westbrook streaked the other way but got his pass attempt to a streaking Serge Ibaka picked off by Conley. But when the Grizzlies raced the other way, Kevin Durant stuffed Zach Randolph on a dunk attempt from the left block seven seconds later.
The tone, in 17 seconds, had been set.
The rest of the quarter was filled with similar sequences. Thabo Sefolosha poked away a pass attempt from Marc Gasol to Courtney Lee. Reggie Jackson jumped the passing lane and stole a swing pass from Conley. Steven Adams blocked a layup by Randolph. Ibaka blocked a layup by Conley.
“Everybody was locked in,” Brooks said.
In the first 12 minutes, the Thunder registered four steals and four blocks. With swarming defense and sharp closeouts, OKC forced a 24-second violation and hounded the Grizzlies into four turnovers in the first 61/2 minutes. Memphis entered the game ranked third in turnovers at just 12.6 per game.
“I think these guys did a great job, everybody, (Thursday) in practice, (Friday) in shootaround, of just being focused,” said Durant, who scored 30 of his game-high 37 points in the second half. “Coming in the locker room before the game, everybody was focused and that’s why we came out and played a good game.”
There was no panic. Only trust that originated from a week of preparation, starting with a three-game string of subpar performances that humbled the Thunder, and followed by a defensive-oriented practice session that came after each subsequent defeat.
“I wasn’t at home crying my eyes out,” Durant said of his mood over the weeklong losing streak. “I was definitely (ticked). ... But I leave it at the gym and just try to get my mind off of it when I’m not there. But when we walk into that gym we get focused on what we need to do better.”