Reggie Jackson stood at the free throw line preparing to launch the two most critical foul shots of the Thunder's season when 18,203 fans inside Chesapeake Energy Arena erupted in an impromptu chant.
“REG-GIE! REG-GIE REG-GIE!” they shouted in support.
Jackson swished the first.
Then he drained the second.
Jackson had just put the Thunder ahead by three with 2.9 seconds remaining, and when he did he turned and found Kevin Durant moments before reaching the bench for the ensuing timeout.
Durant grabbed the second-year point guard around the head with both hands. Jackson leaned in. He then whispered into his star's ear.
“I told him ‘Thank you,'” Jackson said. “‘Thank you for putting me in that position.'”
That was the basis of the Thunder's grind-it-out 93-91 victory over Memphis in Game 1 on Sunday afternoon, and it just might be the blueprint for how the short-handed Thunder will survive this Western Conference semifinal.
Without the magnificence of Durant, the Thunder wouldn't have stood a chance. He was simply brilliant, dominating in all facets with 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. Yet on a day in which Durant made 13 of 26 shots, he got little help in the form of offense.
But when most of Durant's supporting cast struggled with their shots — the rest of the team made only 20 of 54 from the field, just 37 percent — they began supplying small plays to help the Thunder to escape. Those plays, a free throw here, a deflection or blocked shot there, began to pile up. Soon, it became clear that without starting point guard Russell Westbrook this was the type of scrappy performance the Thunder would need to get three more times.
If the shots start falling, that's even better.
“We had some plays that we'd like to take back,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said.
Hollins then rattled off his long list. All of them were hustle plays.
None involved Durant.
Serge Ibaka, who struggled most with a 1-for-10 shooting performance, supplied two pivotal blocks in the final five minutes. Both came on point-blank attempts. The first, against Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, kept the Thunder within five. The second, against bruiser Zach Randolph, kept the Thunder within two.
Kevin Martin, the only guy not named Durant who did show up offensively, also prevented a basket with block. His came against Quincy Pondexter. K-Mart then won the ensuing jump ball, giving the Thunder a chance to take the lead with three minutes remaining.
Derek Fisher, just 3-for-7 on the day, triggered the biggest sequence of the game. After losing Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley on a high ball screen, Fisher got back in the play, reached in from behind and poked the ball away. The ball squirted right into the hands of Durant, who raced the ball up the court and splashed in the go-ahead jumper with 11.1 seconds remaining.
“At that point, that was the only defensive play I could make,” Fisher said of his strip. “Try to get a handle on the ball … Thank the Lord my arms are long even though I'm not.”
Thabo Sefolosha then set up Jackson's foul shots when he deflected a pass Gasol intended for Conley. The ball bounced toward the sideline. Sefolosha and Conley bumped into each other. Conley fell out of bounds with possession.
“We just try to do things that's not going to show up in the stat sheet,” Durant said.
In this opening game, the Thunder's role players provided plenty.
“There's no question we are a really good team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
“But what really makes us good is our role players. We have stars in those departments.”
Against one of the league's stingiest defense, they'll need to shine bright three more times if the Thunder is to advance to its third straight Western Conference Finals.