The Grizzlies beat the Thunder 87-81 in Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis to take a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinals series.
• A suddenly tough life for a team that's made it look so easy. It's virtually impossible for a series to be tighter than the one that is unfolding so far between Oklahoma City and Memphis. Game 1 was a one-point game with just a few seconds remaining; Game 2 was a two-point game with just over a minute remaining; Saturday's Game 3 was tied with just over one minute remaining. Although neither team has truly broken open a game as of yet, the Grizzlies prevailed in a tense endgame for the second straight contest and appeared to edge toward control of the series as a whole.
"We just gutted it out," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. "We defended. We just stayed after it. As we've been all year, it hasn't been pretty, but it was pretty for us because we got the win."
Hollins had no reason to hesitate in placing his team's performance within their year-long context. The Grizzlies beat the Thunder in Game 3 in much the same way they beat the Thunder in Game 2 and in much the same way they defeated the Clippers in the first round. For the third time in their four playoff home games, Memphis held its opponent to less than 84 points, sucking virtually all of the life, spark and fun out of the opposition's attack. Kevin Durant crouched in frustration in the game's closing minutes, as the league's third-highest scoring offense in the regular season sputtered into an offensive foul call and an errant desperation three.
It was telling -- and comical, really -- to hear a deadly serious Marc Gasol lament the Grizzlies' defensive shortcomings afterwards.
"Too many points in the paint, too many fast-break points, we've got to be better than that to win the series," he said.
OK, Marc, the defense fell short of perfection, but please acknowledge these facts: Oklahoma City shot 36 percent from the field, 28 percent from deep and couldn't muster a point in the final 1:57. The Grizzlies might be able to contain Reggie Jackson a bit better and they might never force Durant into a truly off night, but they've already succeeded in junking up the series exactly to their liking, frustrating and exhausting the Thunder in a way no one -- save the Heat in last year's Finals -- has managed to do over the last two seasons.
"We can't hang our heads," Durant, who finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, repeated multiple times. "We can't cry about losing. We have to embrace the challenge and learn from it."
That was a reminder to himself and a message to his teammates, more than anything else, following a loss that was defined by a basketball junkie's pet peeves: missed opportunities. Serge Ibaka blew two dunks and Durant, almost incomprehensibly, whiffed on a pair of free throws in the closing minute.
"We missed some looks," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Easy, easy, easy."
If Game 3 fit perfectly into the Grizzlies' season, it also stuck out like a sore thumb from everything the Thunder has considered normal. A team that has made basketball look easy, made scoring look effortless and made good defenses look average since the end of the lockout is now stuck in a Russell Westbrook-less alternate reality where even the surest of points can't be taken for granted.
Durant's talent is such that he can't be written off or counted out but it's becoming impossible to see the Thunder restoring this series to their preferred pace and style. In turn, Game 3 made it that much more difficult to envision the Thunder beating the Grizzlies at this game, which is so clearly their game.
"We don't look at it [like we are the favorites now]," Gasol said, after finishing with 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. "We don't care. the tags and all that stuff, we leave it to you guys. That doesn't faze us. It never has and never will."
• Pick a goat. The ongoing race to see who will take a greater share of the blame if and when the Thunder are eliminated added another important chapter on Saturday, when both Ibaka and Kevin Martin finished six-for-17 from the field, again leaving Durant to rely almost solely on Jackson for offensive help in Westbrook's absence.
Martin's inconsistency has been maddening -- very good in Oklahoma City's closeout win over Houston and in Game 1 against Memphis but usually invisible otherwise -- but Ibaka, who is shooting just 43 percent in the playoffs after shooting 57 percent during the regular season, will likely wind up taking the brunt of the heat. Frankly, there was a Chuck Knoblauch feel to his performance in Game 3 (Serge Knoblauch-a, perhaps?). The botched dunks were just the start: he was zero-for-seven on jumpers, had two other misses deep in the paint and appeared hesitant to shoot at times.
Durant spoke openly about Ibaka's confidence crisis following a game in which his shot total (19) barely outpaced Ibaka's (17).
"I'm not going to stop passing the ball because he missed a few shots," Durant said. "It's all in the mind. I have to continue to build him up. ... His spirits were down and I have to pick him up."
Ibaka's saving grace, for now, is that Oklahoma City's big men held Memphis's frontline in check. The Thunder won the rebounding battle by seven, had 14 more points in the paint, Zach Randolph finished with just eight points on a poor shooting night and Ibaka had four blocks. Should Z-B0 get things rolling like he did late in the Clippers series, the target on Ibaka's back will grow exponentially bigger. That seem unfair: Martin's rarely fulfilling his primary duty -- to score -- while Ibaka has consistently executed his defense/rebounding/paint control role, even if he's failed miserably when asked to do more on offense.
• Look past the late miscues. Oklahoma City's struggles late included Durant's missed free throws, an ill-advised deep three-pointer from Derek Fisher and a crucial charge call on Jackson with 1:31 remaining and the game tied. He made matters a bit worse by fouling Mike Conley with just under a minute remaining, gifting Memphis two free throws and turning this into a two-possession game.
Those two plays marked an unfortunate end to another strong performance from Jackson, who had 16 points, 10 rebounds and two assists, and found a way to provide the occasional spark by getting to the rim or finding space to shoot open jumpers in semi-transition.
The future of Eric Bledsoe with the Clippers -- where's more or less stuck behind Chris Paul even though he possesses starter-type talent -- has received all sorts of attention and we're getting closer to the point where Jackson's play will warrant that type of buzz as well. He's way too talented to play just 14 minutes a night again next season. Most likely, the Thunder resolves the scenario by playing him alongside Westbrook on a regular basis, as Jackson's finishing abilities far outpace his playmaking skills at this point. Remarkably, none of Oklahoma City's 18 most-used lineups this season included Jackson and Westbrook on the court simultaneously, per NBA.com. Talk about a huge opportunity for experimentation.
Need convincing? Take a look at the coordination, speed, ball-handling, composure and general athleticism displayed during this end-to-end finish and tell me this guy's short-term future should be as a full-time back-up.