MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the most pressure-packed game of the season, the most unpredictable player in this Thunder-Grizzlies series proved to be the steadiest of them all.
Gone was the grumpy attitude, the volatile displays of emotions and the unbridled temper.
Russell Westbrook replaced those erratic traits with rock solid composure, showing the world in the Thunder’s 104-84 thumping of Memphis in Game 6 on Thursday night he can be every bit as special even when he simply settles down.
“I thought we did a great job of just being calm, a great job of just coming in and being cool, calm and collected as a unit.” Westbrook said. “And it showed for 48 minutes. We never took a long dip.”
After countless twists and turns, this crazy best-of-7 series now shifts back to Oklahoma City for a winner-take-all Game 7. The Thunder won its only other Game 7, taking a 15-point home win over these same Grizzlies in the 2011 semifinals.
Judging by OKC’s brief playoff history, the Thunder was fortunate this time to live to fight another day.
Thursday was the fifth time the Thunder faced an elimination game and just the second time when trailing the series, 3-2. The other occasion came in the Thunder’s playoff debut against the Lakers in 2010. OKC lost that series in six and walked into FedExForum just 1-4 all-time when facing elimination before Thursday’s season-saving victory.
“Hats off to Oklahoma City,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger. “They played with a lot of force. They played with a lot of desperation. They played with a lot of urgency. The tone was set in the first six to eight minutes of the game. They came strong. They really set the tone for the game early as far as their mentality of how they were going to play.”
Kevin Durant boiled it down to playing hard and moving the ball.
Sounds overly simplistic, but struggling to sufficiently and consistently bring those two basic elements was among the biggest reasons the Thunder was on the brink of getting bounced unexpectedly early.
By competing with a sense of urgency and a sound strategy to simply no longer settle for long-range shots, the Thunder managed to assemble what was by far its best showing since Game 1.
Westbrook was the driving force.
Two days earlier, Westbrook posted a monster 30-point, 10-rebound, 13-assist triple-double in Game 5. But that performance was widely described as one of the worst, great games in recent postseason memory. He took 31 field goal attempts, played sketchy defense, struggled to take care of the ball and hoisted questionable shots.
But his steady hand Thursday helped the Thunder survive.
Westbrook took better shots, pushed the pace, playing fast but not in a hurry, set up the offense with patience and poise and took precious care of the ball. Of course, his usual hustle plays where there as well. He grabbed nine rebounds, including an incredible snatch under the rim on an air-balled 3-pointer by Kevin Durant that he dunked home in one motion.
Westbrook scored 25 points on 9-for-21 shooting with five assists, three steals and four turnovers.
Durant, of course, wasn’t half bad, either.
After four straight inefficient games, Durant responded with 36 points and 10 rebounds, both game-highs. He made 11 of 23 shots and had two assists, a steal and a blocked shot in 43 minutes.
Both Westbrook and Durant benefited by an unforeseen
For only the first time since inserting Westbrook into the starting lineup in 2008, Thunder coach Scott Brooks switched his starting lineup by choice rather than necessity. Brooks started Caron Butler in place of Thabo Sefolosha, a move that made sense in at least two ways. It could kick-start the Thunder’s stagnant offense, which entered Game 6 shooting less than 40 percent in four consecutive games. And it could prevent the Grizzlies from hiding point guard Mike Conley on Sefolosha, who entered Thursday’s game averaging just 3.4 points on 33.3 percent shooting.
The change, though, meant Westbrook would have to defend Conley. It was a dicey proposition given how inconsistent Westbrook has been on that end in this series, particularly in Game 5. Westbrook, however, took the challenge and helped limit Conley to five points, four rebounds and six assists. He missed eight of 10 shots.
“His defensive presence was really good,” Brooks said of Westbrook. “It gave us energy.”
The Thunder never let it go.
In the face of Thursday’s elimination pressure, the Thunder responded with its best first half since Game 1, taking a 56-41 lead at halftime with a revived offense and more rugged but consistent defense.
The Thunder took a 25-17 lead after the opening period, riding Durant’s torrid start and a much better show of disciplined shot selection. Durant scored 14 points in the quarter, making six of 10 shots, while the Thunder reduced its 3-point attempts and instead attacked the basket on aggressive drives that led to layups and kick-outs to open shooters.
The Thunder started the third period on a 5-0 run to bump its lead to 61-41 with 9:02 remaining in the quarter. The lead swelled to as many as 22 before the Thunder went into the final period with an 82-61 cushion.
Memphis never got closer than 16 in the final period.
“I thought that was a professional basketball win there,” Brooks said.