Thunder-Memphis is a series so riveting, so wild, so dramatic, that even when it was over, it wasn’t over.
Speaking of over, the Thunder season sits on the edge of Grizzly Mountain. The Thunder lost to Memphis 100-99 in overtime Tuesday night – yes, an NBA record fourth straight overtime in this series – and now must win Thursday night in Tennessee and Saturday back in Oklahoma, else over the cliff go the Thunder, and this season falls into the pit of massive disappointment.
And over it will be if the Thunder plays like this. The Thunder inexplicably went soft on defense for far too many stretches, and that will get you beat against Memphis, because the Grizzlies never wilt on defense.
At the final buzzer of overtime, Serge Ibaka sank a follow shot of a desperate Kevin Durant heave, and for a moment you thought that magic dust had stayed with the Thunder. But replays clearly showed that the ball left Ibaka’s fingers a fraction of a second after the backboard lit up in red, and Memphis goes home with a 3-2 series lead and the belief it can close out the Thunder on the banks of the mighty Mississipp.
Anyone want to pick against the Griz? Tony Allen is in Kevin Durant’s head, Russell Westbrook is playing ferociously but not always wisely and the Thunder is giving Memphis just enough good shots to stay ahead of the posse.
“We have to turn this page as quick as we can and put all of our energy, intensity and focus into the next game,” said Scotty Brooks. “We still have an opportunity to go there and continue to fight. We won the last game we played there, so we know we can win on their court. Guys are going to keep fighting. Couple breaks here or there could have changed the game.”
Some defense in the first half would have changed it more than a couple of breaks.
Hard to understand how the Thunder could come into the most important game of the season and play such lax defense early. Brooks called a timeout less than three minutes into the game, but Memphis wasn’t slowed. The Grizzlies had 30 points in the first quarter, 25 more in the second quarter and 66 total just 4:05 into the second half.
An example of the Thunder’s softness: Memphis had just three first-half turnovers and the Thunder committed just six first-half fouls. A total lack of aggression on the part of OKC in what could prove to be the season’s defining game.
“We gotta impose our will from the beginning of the game,” Durant said. “We’ve got to be locked in defensively. We gave up too many points to start the game … I liked our offense tonight. We could have made more shots, but I like the way it moved a little bit. But defensively we have to be way better. We gotta guard all their movements. We gotta guard all their 3-point shooters when they come in the game and rebound the basketball.”
Give Durant the edge over Brooks in how they saw the game. Foreman Scotty in postgame kept talking about offense, not scoring the basketball, but Memphis isn’t giving in. Marc Gasol isn’t going to get out of the way, and Allen isn’t going to stop haunting Durant, and every Grizzly this side of Gentle Ben isn’t going to stop converging on Westbrook’s drives.
Like always, the Thunder was not deterred by dire straits. OKC made up a 20-point deficit and did it less than nine minutes of game action. But after a barrage of 3-pointers helped the Thunder take a 79-78 lead with 6:45 left in regulation, OKC never led again.
Memphis scored on five of six possessions to retake command, and the Thunder was playing uphill the rest of the way. Caron Butler’s four-point play (OKC is 0-3 in this series when it has a four-point play in the final three minutes) helped keep the Thunder alive, and Westbrook’s steal and dunk with four seconds left sent the game to overtime.
But Memphis controlled overtime, right up to Ibaka’s ill-fated follow shot. And now the Thunder is on the edge of that cliff.
Westbrook keeps saying this series is “first to four,” and he’s right. “We’ve won there (Memphis) before. We know what we need to do to win the game. We just gotta come out and play our game. Come out and impose our will.”
Imposing will is just talk. Playing determined defense is action. The latter is all that will save this Thunder season as it sits on the brink.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.