The Thunder is in peril as Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals arrive Monday night. But is the Thunder in any worse shape than against Memphis in the 2011 West semis?
The Thunder is down two games to one and struggling to find offense. There’s not much optimism outside the Thunder circle that OKC can survive this series, and the optimism you hear from the Thunder camp could be suspect. Except the Thunder veterans have been down this road before.
The Grizzlies led the Thunder 2-1 after three games in 2011. A loss in Game 4 figured to sink the Thunder.
A couple of differences, of course. Memphis is better now, and the Thunder would be. That Thunder team was a four-seed; that Memphis team was an eight-seed that had just upset San Antonio. This Thunder team is a one-seed, albeit playing without Russell Westbrook. This Memphis team is a five-seed but won 56 games, which is more than OKC won (55) in 2011.
This series is much more defensive. The Grizzlies ostensibly were a good defensive team in 2011, but nothing like they are now.
In Game 1 in 2011, the Grizzlies stunned OKC 114-101 in a game that didn’t seem that close. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 54 points on 21 of 33 shooting. It appeared the Thunder had little answer for the Memphis big men.
In Game 2, the Thunder beat the Grizzlies 111-102, taking a 54-44 halftime lead and eventually blowing to a big lead and coasting. So OKC had a reasonable amount of optimism going to Memphis.
But in Game 3, the Thunder blew a 16-point lead in the third quarter, an 11-point lead with 7:40 left and allowed the Grizzlies to force overtime. Which Memphis dominated and won 101-93.
Which brought up Game 4. One of the most memorable games in Thunder history. Or NBA playoff history, for that matter.
The Grizzlies roared to an 8-0 lead and was up 37-19 with 8:20 left in the second quarter. But the Thunder climbed back. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden combined to make 11 of 12 foul shots in the final 3:20 of the half and got within 53-49 at halftime.
Then the Thunder played great, taking a 90-80 lead with 5:25 left. Durant made two foul shots with 1:56 left to take a 96-89 lead. But down the stretch, the Thunder missed all four of its shots (including one by Daequan Cook), Kendrick Perkins missed two foul shots and Mike Conley threw in a 26-foot 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left to a game that was just getting started.
In overtime, the Thunder dominated again. Durant’s 3-pointer gave OKC a 105-98 lead with 2:12 left, then his 18-foot jumper made it 107-101 with 1:30 to go. But Durant committed two turnovers down the stretch, but Conley missed a tying 3-pointer with 24 seconds, and Westbrook’s two foul shots made it 109-106 with 16.3 seconds left. Even worse, the Grizzlies needed two fouls to put OKC in the bonus. The first fouled out Conley, the second fouled out O.J. Mayo. But Greivis Vasquez, Conley’s backup, threw in a wild 3-pointer with 9.4 seconds left, Durant missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer and away to the second overtime we went.
The second overtime was tense. Full of big Thunder plays. Westbrook made a 3-point play to give OKC a 112-110 lead with 4:05 left, then Westbrook made a drive to tie the game at 114 with 1:41 to go. Vasquez converted a three-point play, but Harden answered with a 3-point shot to make it 117-117 with 1:07 to go. Westbrook nailed a 21-footer with 30.8 seconds left to make it 119-119.
Then the Thunder — led by Perkins and Nick Collison — play he-man in the lane as Randolph, Gasol and Randolph again each got shots at the basket. None fell, and Westbrook’s desperation shot at the buzzer was off.
So to a third overtime went the game. And finally the Thunder took control. The Grizzlies were without their two best perimeter scorers, Conley and Mayo, and finally it cost them. Memphis made only one of eight shots in the third overtime, Serge Ibaka’s 7-footer gave OKC a 127-123 lead with 1:37 left and the Thunder won going away, 133-123.
The rest of the series was blowouts — OKC won 99-72 in Game 5, Memphis won 95-83 in Game 6 and the Thunder finally eliminated the Grizzlies 105-90.
The Thunder seems in trouble going into Game 4. But the Thunder was in deeper trouble the last time it played a Game 4 in Memphis.