Kevin Durant's singular brilliance meets its limits vs. Grizzlies
OKLAHOMA CITY -- For 45 minutes, Chesapeake Energy Arena was Rucker Park writ large, Kevin Durant doing to the Memphis Grizzlies what he did to those poor saps in Harlem two Augusts ago: dribbling the ball unencumbered up the court, letting it fly, and back-pedaling as a delirious crowd writhed all around him. But this is the NBA playoffs, not the amateur summer league, and that's the problem with Durant's one-man show. It makes for great entertainment, but against these opponents and these defenses, it probably can't last.
Over 45 dizzying minutes, Durant was everything for the Thunder, their ball-handler and sniper, their rebounder and finisher. He scored 36 points and no one else on the roster cracked 20. He pulled down 11 rebounds and no one else topped six. He dished out nine assists and no one else even had half as many. If this sounds familiar, it's because the Thunder box score was almost as imbalanced in Game 1 and they escaped, a testament to Durant's all-around brilliance. But he cannot make every play, and without Russell Westbrook, that's essentially what the Thunder is asking him to do.
"He kept making a play, kept making a play, kept making a play," said Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins. "But in the end we got stops."
Tony Allen was matched up against Kevin Martin in Game 1 and assumed he would draw the same assignment Tuesday. But late in the fourth quarter, Hollins put him on Durant, and the endless highlight reel skidded to a halt. This was not Rucker Park in 2011. Durant was not going to end the night with four straight threes. Allen is nearly six inches shorter than Durant, but he is the most willful perimeter defender in the NBA, and he'd logged about 20 minutes fewer than the man he was guarding. Durant converted a three-point play with 3:18 left to put Oklahoma City up by two, but he did not score again, missing his last four shots. It was a rare cold snap, and a brief one, but the Thunder had no one to help break it. They didn't manage another field goal until the buzzer, falling to the Grizzlies in Game 2, 99-93.
"As a leader, I've always got to stay positive," Durant said. "It can't ever look like the series is over just because it's 1-1 and they beat us at home. It made it a little tougher on us but we always like a fight and we always like a challenge." The Thunder overcame the trade of James Harden in October and posted the best record in the Western Conference. They overcame the injury to Westbrook and ousted Houston in the first round. But the Grizzlies present a different kind of obstacle because they are the stingiest defensive team in the West, and even though they can't stop Durant, they can smother everybody else.
"The kid has the ball in his hands a lot and he is taking a bunch of shots," Hollins said. "We knew we had to take away some other people ... We pretty much did that."
Martin, who scored 25 points in Game 1, was held to six. Starting center Kendrick Perkins made one field goal, and starting guard Thabo Sefolosha made two. The Thunder depended heavily on reserve Derek Fisher, who was out of the league earlier this season, and came off the bench to sink four three-pointers. But Fisher isn't taking the Thunder back to the Finals.
Durant will have to bear as heavy a load as LeBron James did for the Cavaliers in 2007. That year, James scored 25 straight points in a playoff game against the Pistons, and every improbable basket was necessary. Durant is capable of the same, but his margin for error is as slender as his physique.
This series will boil down to a transcendent star versus a fully-formed contender. Desperate to spring point guard Mike Conley against a defense weakened by Westbrook's absence, Memphis big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol took turns setting solid high screens, and Conley bounded off them for 26 points and nine assists. Thirteen of those points came in the fourth quarter as Conley played closer, drilling a three-pointer that gave the Grizzlies the lead at the two-minute mark and a long jumper that sealed the win.
Memphis captured the split, the home-court advantage and three enjoyable days off before Game 3 at FedEx Forum. The Thunder has the best player in this series. The Grizzlies appear to have everything else.