Memphis coach Dave Joerger made the first critical decision in this chess match we call playoff basketball.
He made his move, and perhaps tipped his hand, just 36 minutes into Game 1 against the Thunder.
Joerger rode his starters for the first 14 minutes of the second half, relying on them to dig the Grizzlies out of a 25-point, first-half hole.
And it worked.
Memphis cranked up the intensity and mounted a remarkable rally, closing within two points inside the final nine minutes.
There was just one problem.
The Grizzlies got gassed and had nothing left in the tank to finish the job.
Joerger admitted as much.
“No question,” he said. “But I thought we were on a run. I didn’t know where else…”
Joerger stopped in mid-sentence. He changed course instead of conceding he was out of options.
“We had a little bit of a rhythm,” he said.
An advantage that appeared to favor the Thunder on paper played out before our eyes in the Thunder’s 100-86 win Saturday, and it now stands as perhaps the most significant key to this series as the teams get set for Game 2 on Monday night.
The Thunder has it. The Grizzlies don’t.
Memphis’ second unit took an unexpected hit on the eve of this series when backup point guard Nick Calathes was slapped with a 20-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Though he’s not considered a threat on his own merit, his absence triggered a costly trickle-down effect. Starting small forward Tayshaun Prince then played only four minutes while dealing with dehydration, which left an already-sketchy second team even thinner.
More importantly, it left the plodding Grizzlies hard-pressed to keep pace with a Thunder team looking to dictate the tempo and turn this series into a track meet.
“There were times throughout the game where we sensed that the pace that we’re capable of playing at is difficult for them to keep up with,” said Thunder guard Derek Fisher.
That advantage manifested itself in many ways.
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook resting to start the second quarter, an all-reserve Thunder lineup pushed OKC’s lead from 13 to 20. During the 11-4 spurt, Reggie Jackson took the baton from Westbrook and ran it down the Grizzlies’ throats, scoring or assisting on nine of the Thunder’s points.
“I don’t think they had a turnover as a group,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of his second unit. “That’s solid basketball.”
Oklahoma City also scored 21 of its 32 fast-break points in the first half. It helped the Thunder take a 22-point lead into halftime. When the Grizzlies clawed back, cutting it to 74-76 with 8:46 remaining by taking advantage of Thunder turnovers, defensive breakdowns and a drop in intensity, Memphis had nothing left to get over the final hump.
“Mike Conley ran out of gas a little bit,” Joerger said after the game. “He had some looks that he normally knocks down.”
Conley played 39 minutes. He scored 16 points on 16 shots.
He wasn’t the only Grizz who struggled.
Zach Randolph played 39 minutes and scored 21 points on 21 shots.
Marc Gasol played 45 minutes and scored 16 points on 19 shots.
In the fourth quarter, that trio scored 11 points on 3-for-10 shooting.
“The energy that they exerted in that third quarter to get back into the game is probably what left them a little gassed in the fourth quarter, in addition to the pace we played with in the first half,” Fisher said. “It’s hard to play from behind for a whole game. And even when you make a run and get back into it, there’s only so much energy you have to try to then get over the hump and win a game.”
Depth was the difference.
While the Grizzlies struggled to find steady contributors in the face of unfortunate circumstances, the Thunder was able to truck along down a road upon which it has spent all season traveling rather smoothly. All those nights that Brooks went 10 and 11 deep paid off Saturday. It allowed the Thunder to withstand early foul trouble to Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams, hound Conley with a quartet of defenders in Westbrook, Jackson, Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha and get ample rest for Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, neither of whom exceeded 35 minutes.
“We have a good basketball team,” Brooks said. “That’s why we’re in this position, because we have guys that can play, guys that understand how to play and they play well.”
And this was just Game 1.
The Thunder still has a bench full of capable contributors should the time come.
Jeremy Lamb. Perry Jones III. Andre Roberson. Hasheem Thabeet.
“If we believe in who we are and the fact that every member of our team throughout this season has made a contribution and can come in and play minutes then you shouldn’t be holding anything back,” said Fisher. “And if we get tired, there’s somebody right behind us that can come in and get the job done. And so we have to play as though we have plenty of subs and we can just keep fighting and exerting however much energy we need to.”