It was that collapse in Game 3, and that crazy, crazy contest we called Game 4 that created the perfect climate for the Thunderstorm that struck Oklahoma City Arena on Wednesday night.
The Memphis Grizzlies never stood a chance.
Oklahoma City cruised to a 99-72 cakewalk in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead over the Grizzlies. The Thunder is now just one win away from a trip to the Western Conference Finals and a meeting with the Dallas Mavericks.
Game 6 is set for Friday night in Memphis. If necessary, Game 7 will be played back here Sunday.
“We have to play well,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We have to do a lot of things well to beat them on their court…We're looking forward to the challenge.”
Good thing the Thunder has plenty to draw from. Stressful as it was, this is when all those experiences, all those ups and downs, that took place on the banks of the rising Mississippi River could aid the Thunder in its quest to advance.
There was no doubt that three-day trip to Tennessee triggered Wednesday's thrashing.
In Game 3 on Saturday, the Thunder blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead before falling, 101-93, in overtime. It was perhaps the most disheartening defeat this season. Then in Game 4 on Monday, the Thunder bounced back as it has all year long and survived a 133-123 triple-overtime thriller.
“Going through that kind of molded our character. It (brought) us closer together,” said Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 19 points and used Wednesday's blowout to get a rare but comfortable seat on the bench for the duration of the fourth quarter.
“Losing Game 3 the way we did and winning Game 4 the way we did, it kind of showed what type of team we are. What type of courage and heart we have.”
If Games 3 and 4 proved the Thunder's tough-mindedness and team unity, Game 5 showed how these young lads learn on the fly and quickly adjust.
The Thunder's 27-point victory was a direct result of the previous two games teaching OKC how to properly close out an opponent. This time, when the Thunder entered the final period ahead by 19, it pressed the gas and walked off the court with its largest lead of the night. Falling behind 6-0 early after a horrid offensive start was no issue, either. The Thunder scrapped back from an early 8-0 hole Monday and an eventual 18-point, first-half deficit.
Most importantly, the Thunder applied lessons of teamwork, defensive tenacity and a total 48 minutes. All three were missing in action at times on the last road trip. On Wednesday, the Thunder held the Grizzlies to series-low 35.9 percent shooting while racking up a series-high 22 assists. Only one Grizzlies player scored in double digits, Marc Gasol leading Memphis with 15 points.
“Our guys have always had the ability to stay focused on the game at hand,” Brooks said. “When we've had some tough losses, we've always bounced back. When we've had some big wins, we've always stayed focused. I thought that's what we did.”
The Thunder led 46-35 at the half after outscoring the Grizzlies 29-18 in the second quarter. A balanced effort, better ball control and some timely bench play made the difference. After having just four players score in the first quarter, the Thunder had eight players score in the second period.
Oklahoma City turned the tide with a quick 7-0 run that turned a one-point deficit into a 37-31 lead with 3:47 left in the half. The half ended with the Thunder lengthening the spurt to a 16-4 surge over the final five minutes.
It quickly got out of reach from there.
The Thunder held the Grizzlies to 12 of 36 shooting (33.3 percent) in the second half and outscored Memphis 53-37 over the final 24 minutes.
“We did everything we were supposed to do on the defensive end,” said Eric Maynor.
Maynor said the Thunder was due for a shutdown defensive performance like this.
But this storm started brewing Saturday.
“We're seeing all different types of scenarios playing in this series,” said Durant. “So we can handle anything.”