MEMPHIS — Kevin Durant drove to the basket, missed a floating shot but got his own rebound under the basket, unencumbered by Memphis Grizzlies. Then Durant missed the easy putback. And his shoulders slumped.
About that time, Ray Westbrook, little brother of Russell, took to Twitter to call for Scotty Brooks’ head.
Soon enough, the Grizzlies’ fourth-quarter lead soared to 17 points.
The Thunder’s finely tuned culture and chemistry was imploding, along with the season.
Then the Thunder staged one of those epic rallies, made this a game and took Memphis to overtime. Only to lose, 98-95 Thursday night in Game 3 of this Western Conference playoff series.
The Thunder salvaged its pride. We’ll see if it can salvage its season.
For two straight games, the Thunder has staged a comeback for the ages, fueled by a final-minute four-point play. OKC’s 17-0 run wiped out Memphis’ lead, then Westbrook – Russell, not Ray – produced a four-point play with 26.6 seconds left in regulation. But just like Monday night in Game 2, the Grizzlies then took command in overtime.
The Thunder was oh, so close to two unforgettable victories. Now the Thunder is two games shy of elimination.
Beating the Grizzlies anywhere is becoming increasingly difficult, and beating them in FedEx Forum is becoming Herculean. Memphis has won 15 straight at home, and over three playoff series since 2011, the Thunder is 1-5 in the Grindhouse, needing three overtimes to get that one victory.
The bench suddenly stinks. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who played valiantly but not wisely, threw up 21 3-point shots and made but four. The Thunder is turning Memphis pit bull Tony Allen (16 points) into a star. And now there’s sniping within the family. Sorry, but the brother of one of the franchise cornerstones counts.
Who knows how much togetherness the Thunder has as critical Game 4 approaches Saturday night?
“We’ve been through a lot of battles together,” said Brooks. “We understand that on the road, it’s a tough environment. You have to stick together. That’s all you have. There’s no other choice. We’ve always been that way.”
No. The Thunder has always been a star-kissed team void of ill fortune. Then came Westbrook’s injury that derailed the 2013 playoff hopes, and now the Thunder is more gritty experience than youthful exuberance, more aware of what can go wrong than thrilled over what could go right.
Now the Thunder has to pick itself off the mat and fight off discouragement against a Memphis team that shows no signs of letting the Thunder return to its free-and-easy style.
“We’ve been in it before, so we know how to handle it,” Durant said. “We’ve been down 2-0, we’ve been down 2-1. We’ve been in that position before, so I think that experience is going to help us out.”
Maybe. But Durant, just like against Memphis a year ago, is getting less and less productive the deeper the series goes. And Westbrook is no better. Durant is 22-of-55 shooting the last two games; Westbrook is 20-of-54. That’s not likely to change much. Memphis won’t allow it.
And in practice Friday, Westbrook has to apologize for his brother’s goofiness, or go stone cold silent about it. Not a pleasant day in Thunderland. If Foreman Scotty can coach his team to victory through this minefield, he’ll have forever earned his stripes.
Of course, his best attribute as a coach is these guys play for him. They never quit. Not down 17 in the fourth quarter. Not down four in the final 30 seconds. Not even down four with 1.7 seconds left. Westbrook somehow got himself fouled with 0.9 seconds left, shooting a halfcourt shot, just to give the Thunder a sliver of a chance at victory.
But playing hard and playing well are two different things. The Grizzlies can’t keep the Thunder from the former, but they can and have kept the Thunder from the latter. And now the Thunder season reaches a critical point, and there’s trouble in paradise. Not just from Ray Westbrook, but from a team that has to wonder if it can scale Mount Memphis.
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.