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.
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