Bad victories are impossible to find in the NBA playoffs. The Thunder put that truth to the test Saturday night.
The Thunder beat the Grizzlies 100-86 after leading by 22 points at halftime, and if that sounds easy, ears can be deceiving. This was a grind and a gutcheck. Aren’t they all against Memphis?
The Grizzlies trailed by 25 points with two seconds left in the second quarter, and with 8:46 left in the game, the Thunder lead was just 74-72. Memphis was dead-dog tired by then, and OKC spurted back away, but consider it opportunity lost for the Thunder.
This was a chance to win major points in psychological warfare. Blow out an underdog in a series opener, and that’s a statement. Dominate a team like the Thunder was dominating Memphis, and maybe doubt starts to creep in. Especially since the Grizzlies know their 2013 playoff conquest of OKC came because Russell Westbrook was missing in action.
But no. Memphis made this a game. They’ll awake Easter morning know they can take the Thunder’s best shot and not be counted out.
“Winning is all that matters,” Scotty Brooks said, and he’s mostly right. “First team to four. You have to play every game. We’re up 1-0. This game, we’ll learn from it, and then we will turn the page. Focus on Game 2. They’re obviously going to want to play better, and so are we. We want to find ways to continue to improve.”
Hard for the Thunder to play better than that first half, when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dominated and everyone chipped in. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were flummoxed inside, point guard Mike Conley looked like he had no help and the Grizzlies hardly seemed like the team capable of a first-round upset.
Hard for the Thunder to play worse than that third quarter, when OKC played like it did down the stretch against New Orleans and Detroit, only these Grizzlies aren’t the Pelicans or Pistons. These Grizzlies are tough and seasoned.
“Interesting game,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger. “They came out with a lot of force, which we anticipated. They ran downhill at us from the opening tip. Played with a lot of force going to the rim.”
But the second half was different.
“That’s definitely what we have to hold onto,” Joerger said. “We need 48 minutes of that. We stood up and took a stand, where there was times in the first half we weren’t making contact with people until they were past the foul line.
“What we talked about at halftime, we’ve gotta make them play. They’re just running around free and loose. That’s a big deal for us. We’ve got to guard. No doubt about it.”
Brooks gave a quick theory on what he wants from his team. Solid play at all times, with occasional runs of dominance. “Nothing below solid,” Foreman Scotty said.
The Thunder was several time zones south of solid in that third quarter. Defensive intensity gone. Offensive execution missing. Bad shots on the Thunder end, easy shots on the Memphis end. Hard to believe these were the same two teams.
“We were embarrassed in the first half, quite frankly,” Conley said. “But at the end of the game, we say, ‘hey, we played a good 2 1/2 quarters of basketball.’”
Of course, Memphis comes away from this game with more than just encouragement. It knows Kevin Durant awaits game after game. The Grizzlies and Tony Allen did a bang-up job of slowing Durant last spring in Westbrook’s absence, but even with Westbrook on the bench for much of the fourth quarter, Memphis failed to slow Durant. He had 13 points in the fourth quarter, on 5-of-6 shooting.
Like he’s done time after time over the last six years, Durant lifted the Thunder from disaster to victory.
Shame it was needed.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.