MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kevin Durant swished a 10-foot jumper on the Thunder’s first possession. Durant scored off a drive on the Thunder’s second possession. Durant hit a 6-foot turnaround jumper a couple of minutes later, giving the Thunder an 8-6 lead.
The Grizzlies never caught up.
A series defined by wild finishes and a crazy streak of overtimes suddenly was determined not by the end, but by the start. This crucial Game 6 in the historic Thunder-Grizzlies joust was decided early. Not late.
The Thunder routed Memphis 104-84 at FedEx Forum to set up a Game 7 showdown Saturday night back in Oklahoma City. And a Thursday that began with an Oklahoman headline creating a national furor, referring to Durant as “Mr. Unreliable,” ended with Durant reminding us why the Thunder is an NBA title contender and should win this series, even if Memphis is meaner than a pack of unfed bears.
“Durant went first and ate first tonight,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger. “Sometimes he tries to get other people involved. I thought he was very assertive early in the game.”
No doubt. Durant scored 14 first-quarter points and jumped the Thunder to a 25-17 lead. The lead was 56-41 at halftime, and the Grizzlies never got closer.
That’s what superstars do. Maybe it wasn’t the 45-point, 15-rebound game LeBron James pulled off in Game 6 at Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. But Durant’s 36-point, 10-rebound game was no less what the Thunder needed after three discouraging losses in a playoff-record four straight overtime games.
And Durant claimed no motivation from day-long scrutiny caused by the headline.
“We were down 3-2” in the series, Durant said. “We were on the brink of elimination. That’s more motivation than anything.
“Just leave it out there on the floor for the team, no matter what. Play and shoot hard. Everything else will take care of itself. That’s what I told myself. I have to take it to another level, as far as my intensity and my defense awareness.”
Durant’s defense was no small thing. Scotty Brooks switched his starting lineup, inserting Caron Butler for Thabo Sefolosha, and it paid off famously. The big gamble is perimeter defense, Thabo’s forte, but Durant stood in the gap. He switched over from Tayshaun Prince to cover Memphis sharpshooter Courtney Lee, a much tougher assignment, and Lee was a non-factor. He finished with four points on 2-of-7 shooting.
That lineup change spread Memphis’ defense and gave Durant more room to maneuver. Defensive demon Tony Allen was his usual pesky self, but Durant stayed on the attack. He made 14 of 15 foul shots and 11 of 23 shots from the field. That’s the kind of stat line that will send the Grizzlies screaming into the offseason.
“KD was KD,” said Allen. “We have to fight him. We understand what he wants to do. We just have to be the aggressors on the defensive end. Obviously, he was the aggressor tonight. We knew coming into this series, he was going to be an MVP type player.”
And the start had everything to do with it. In the crucial Game 5, the Thunder came out lethargic, fell into a hole and were fortunate to recover from a 20-point deficit to force overtime.
There was none of that in Game 6.
“They hit us first,” Allen said. “They played harder than us. They were doing the things that we usually do to start off a game.”
Except Memphis never starts off a game with an aggressive Durant on its side. The Thunder did, and now there’s a Game 7.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . 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.