The just-concluded Thunder-Memphis series in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs had just about everything. On-court drama, off-court drama, an NBA playoff record four overtime games. Now the Thunder moves on. But before we get deep into the Thunder-Clippers West semifinals, let’s hail Thunder-Grizzlies for the fortnight it gave us.
Rally after rally
Here’s how crazy was this series of major comebacks.
The Thunder was down 17 points in the third quarter of Game 3. The Grizzlies were down 14 points in the third quarter of Game 4. The Thunder was down 20 points in the third quarter of Game 5.
All three times, that deficit was made up. And all three times, the team making the comeback lost in overtime.
Heck, those weren’t even the best comebacks of the series. The Thunder had four-point plays in the final 30 seconds of consecutive games (first Kevin Durant, then Russell Westbrook) to force overtime. And the Thunder lost both games.
Finally, the Thunder took a 21-point lead in the third quarter of Game 6 and a 16-point lead in the third quarter of Game 7. And there would be no Memphis comebacks.
On Feb. 21, 2009, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha played his first game with the Thunder, just after being traded from Chicago. Sefolosha didn’t start. Kyle Weaver did. That was the last time Sefolosha didn’t start a game in which he was activated. Until Game 6 in Memphis.
Scott Brooks inserted Caron Butler into the starting lineup; Butler played almost 29 minutes, then again started Game 7 and played almost 41 minutes. Sefolosha played in neither game, and the Thunder won both in a rout.
Butler wasn’t all that efficient in the two games – 5-of-15 shooting, 22 points total – but the extra threat opened the offensive path for Kevin Durant, who snapped out of a slump in the two games.
And so ends quite the era. Since Kendrick Perkins arrived by trade in February 2011, he, Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant had started every game in which they were healthy. It was a lineup that took the Thunder to great heights. But now that era is over.
The series began innocently enough, with a 100-86 Thunder victory. Then came a remarkable stretch – four straight overtime games, setting an NBA playoff record.
Game 2: Kevin Durant’s four-point play virtually from the seat of his pants and Kendrick Perkins’ putback at the buzzer in the final 14 seconds forced overtime, but Zach Randolph’s layup with 26 seconds left in OT gave Memphis the lead for good in a 111-105 victory.
Game 3: Russell Westbrook’s four-point play with 26.6 seconds left tied the game, and both teams missed at the end of regulation. But after Durant gave OKC an early lead with a three-point play, Memphis scored eight straight points, and the Thunder turned too desperate, with Durant and Russell Westbrook flinging up desperation 3-pointers in the final minute with Memphis ahead by three.
Game 4: The Reggie Jackson game. With both Westbrook and Durant struggling, Jackson scored a career high 32 points, including the final five points of regulation, after Memphis led 80-75 with a minute to go. Then Jackson scored eight points in overtime, Memphis’ Mike Conley missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer and the Thunder won 92-89.
Game 5: The Thunder rallied from a 20-point deficit to catch Memphis, but the Grizzlies were in control down the stretch – until Westbrook stole the ball from Conley and dunked with four seconds left to force overtime. Randolph’s layup came just after the buzzer. In overtime, Durant missed a foul shot that would have tied it with 27.5 seconds left, then Serge Ibaka’s follow shot was ruled to have come just after the overtime buzzer, and Memphis prevailed 100-99.
Westbrook’s Game 7
In the 119 Game Sevens in NBA playoff history, only eight have included a triple double – double-digit totals in three major statistical categories. Russell Westbrook has two of the eight.
After two weeks of grudge matches against Memphis, the Thunder finally broke free, routing the Grizzlies 120-109 (Memphis scored the game’s final 11 points), and Westbrook was phenomenal: 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, 16 assists and 10 rebounds.
Westbrook’s other Game 7 triple double? 2011 against these same Grizzlies, in the West semifinals, with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists. That’s two Game Sevens for Westbrook in his career. Both triple doubles, including 30 assists total.
The series of Perk
Kendrick Perkins played his usual tough defense on Memphis’ Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies’ star forward averaged 18.2 points a game in the series but shot just 40 percent from the field. Perk made Randolph work for everything he got. But the oft-beleaguered Perkins found more than just renewed value.
Perkins found the hero’s mantle, with a putback at the buzzer to send Game 2 into overtime.
Perkins found diplomatic skills, bringing once-mortal enemy Randolph over for a Game3 discussion before tipoff with Monty McCutchen, getting the referee to agree to live with simple back and forth pushing.
Perkins found a park bench in Memphis’ Mike Miller, famously sitting on the fallen Grizzly during Game 3.
And Perkins found some offense. He made 12 of 17 shots in the series. Even made five of six foul shots. And when Perk opened Game 7 with a hook shot over Marc Gasol, you knew it would be the Thunder’s night.
All a Twitter
When the Thunder fell far behind the Grizzlies in the second half of Game 3, a deficit that eventually reached 17, Russell Westbrook’s brother, Ray, took to Twitter. “We need a coach ASAP like rocky!!!!!!” The Westbrook brothers are tight. Was this a death knell for Scott Brooks?
On the streets of Memphis in the wee hours after the Thunder’s loss, Ray Westbrook stood by his tweet. Said that’s how he felt and if people didn’t like it, they didn’t have to follow him on Twitter. Ironically, Ray Westbrook was being accompanied by team-provided security.
The next morning, Russell Westbrook denounced his brother’s tweet and Ray Westbrook apologized. And after Brooks’ creative moves in Games 6 and 7, his stock is high.
Through five games, Kevin Durant had made just 40 percent of his shots, obviously was frustrated and Memphis had a 3-2 series lead. Memphis defensive dynamo Tony Allen was becoming an NBA cult hero, and a stinging Oklahoman headline made national news.
But Durant rallied with two great games – 36 points in Game 6 and 33 points in Game 7, making 23 of 41 shots combined – to keep the Thunder season alive. Allen’s defense withered, Durant started getting more trips to the foul line and he made 18 of 21.
After Game 7, Durant admitted the criticism fueled him, and the Thunder moves on, with no Tony Allen in the near future.
The series began with Memphis missing backup point guard Nick Calathes, who was suspended the day before Game 1 for violation of the NBA drug policy. Turns out Calathes wasn’t missed.
Recently-signed Beno Udrih played well most of the season.
But the day before Game 7 came another suspension – Memphis star Zach Randolph was sidelined for punching Thunder rookie Steven Adams during Game 6.
The Grizzlies suddenly were without their leading scorer. And no recent-signee, or anyone else, could make up for Z-Bo’s absence.
Randolph was not having a great series, shooting just 40 percent, but without him, Memphis had to retool its system. Coach Dave Joerger produced an impressive game plan, with the Grizzlies spreading the floor and going small and staying in the game until late third quarter. But without Randolph, Memphis had little chance.
Not that the Thunder offered any sympathy. OKC was without Russell Westbrook for all five games of their Western Conference semifinal series last season.