By Ben Golliver
The Thunder overwhelmed the Grizzlies 106-89 in Oklahoma City on Thursday night, improving to 35-11 on the season. Memphis dropped to 29-16.
• The Grizzlies were blown out one day after trading forward Rudy Gay to the Raptors. For some, this may serve as sufficient justification for a knee-jerk second-guessing of the move. That thinking might go: The Grizzlies had no perimeter answer for Kevin Durant, they shot just 6-for-25 from three-point range and they were beaten soundly on hustle and energy plays early, digging a 58-34 halftime deficit. Perhaps Gay could have held Durant in check and opened up the floor a bit, and surely his teammates would have played harder and better if they weren't so upset that he had been traded, right?
Please, please allow some context to override that line of thinking.
Three important reminders. One: Oklahoma City is an offensive juggernaut, ranking No. 1 in points scored per possession. Two: Oklahoma City is very difficult to beat at Chesapeake Energy Arena, holding a 20-3 home record this season after going 26-7 last season and 30-11 in 2010-11. That's a 78 percent home winning percentage over the last two-and-a-half seasons. Three: Oklahoma City is in the midst of one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory, routing teams with remarkable frequency. Get this: 24 of Oklahoma City's 35 wins this season have come by double digits and eight have come by 20 points or more. The Thunder pounded the Grizzlies by 17 points on Thursday, but that represented just their 10th-largest margin of victory this season.
The Thunder can pummel any time at any time, especially when Durant and Russell Westbrook combine for 48 points on 33 shots. It didn't help that the Grizzlies were short-handed and had to juggle their starting lineup because Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye hadn't yet arrived after the trade. It didn't help that the Grizzlies looked mentally outmatched just moments into the game. It (obviously) didn't help that their No. 2-ranked defense conceded 80 percent shooting in the first quarter and didn't manage a single defensive rebound in the first 12 minutes.
The point here: Racing to blame the Gay trade for this particular loss ignores Oklahoma City's impressive season-long body of work and circumstantial advantages. Adequately assessing the Grizzlies' response to a fairly major midseason shake-up will require much more than this one game.
• Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins didn't exactly stick to his organization's script during his pregame comments on the trade.
The Grizzlies' prepared press statement announcing the trade, attributed to general manager Chris Wallace, touted the addition of "three players who bring with them a tremendous amount of value to our team and have achieved incredible success on the pro, college and Olympic levels."
"If we were dumping salaries, why would we take on Tayshaun Prince for multiple years? It's a marathon not a sprint for us. We want to look at the next five-year window and be as competitive as we can be."
Levien clearly isn't very convincing with his logic, given the disparity in salaries between Gay and Prince, but his words represent the organization's message. Essentially: This wasn't only about finances.
Hollins, though, went straight to the money in remarks aired on TNT.
"It's a business of basketball," he said. "I understand that perfectly well. I think our players understand the business of basketball. When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. We're in a small market."
Memphis is the NBA's smallest market and the Grizzlies rank No. 18 in home attendance this season.
Rarely will you hear an NBA coach speak so frankly about his franchise. Memphis was on track to be a taxpayer before making two trades in the past 10 days and the team remains over the salary cap, which doesn't exactly evoke the phrase "beer budget."
It's understandable that Hollins would be upset to see his core broken up after enjoying lots of success over the last three seasons. It's understandable that he would view Gay first as a player rather than as a contract; indeed, that's his job. That he would speak so frankly about the move isn't totally surprising, given his reputation as a straight talker, but it presents some problems in the short term. The biggest: What do Prince, Davis and Daye think about walking into a locker room headed up by a man who just presented their acquisition to millions of people in this fashion?
Once Hollins lost the battle to keep Gay, assuming that he fought for him, it was time for him to hop on board by becoming a champion for the deal and the remaining Grizzlies. A coach's voice can be very influential and a locker room shouldn't be led to believe its coach and management aren't on the same page. If this is a situation where philosophical differences have simply come to a head, then there are better ways to handle it.
Grizzlies management and ownership must immediately take steps to address concerns from the players and coaching staff alike. The talent on hand for the rest of the season isn't significantly different from what it was before the trade, and the Grizzlies remain in the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. It's time to rally the troops and move forward because this is a team that can still do some damage this year, assuming everyone has bought in.
• Will we ever have a good idea of exactly what goes on inside the mind of Westbrook? The man finishes with a near triple-double -- 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists -- and he would likely have reached that statistical benchmark if he didn't sit out virtually the entire third quarter after a bizarre argument with teammate Thabo Sefolosha.
Westbrook was apparently upset with Sefolosha's spacing on a cut through the paint on a possession that ended with a five-second violation against Westbrook. It was a completely meaningless sequence in a blowout. The Thunder led by 25 points at the time, cruising toward a lengthy stretch of garbage time in the fourth quarter.
Instead, Westbrook yapped at Sefolosha, punched the ball to the court, continued his discussion with the Thunder's bench, made a pair of silly mistakes and was then subbed out for the final 7:54 of the third quarter. He argued with assistant coach Mo Cheeks and stormed off toward the locker room. Memphis went on a 23-14 run to close the third, cutting the lead to 10 points as he sat.
Durant, who finished with a game-high 27 points, attributed the outburst to Westbrook's overwhelming desire to win. DailyThunder.com reported on Twitter that Westbrook said it was "just a little miscommunication," and Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Westbrook was "frustrated with himself." His prodigious talent and the Thunder's postseason success makes it easy to forget that Westbrook just turned 24. Still, this feels like a corner that should have been turned by now. Kudos to Cheeks for possessing the patience.