(35) responded to the prospect of elimination with 36 points in a Game 6 win. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images Sport)
The Thunder blew out the Grizzlies 104-84 to take Game 6 in Memphis on Thursday. The first-round playoff series between the two teams is now even at three games apiece, with Game 7 set for the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City on Saturday.
SI’s 2014 NBA playoffs hub: Schedule, results and analysis
• Kevin Durant rises above the noise. After four straight overtime games and a morning spent in the middle of a media storm sparked by some shaky late-game free-throw shooting, Kevin Durant ended Game 6 shortly after it began.
The damage was swift and lethal. Durant tallied 14 first-quarter points, wasting no time rewriting the absurd "Mr. Unreliable" headline used by The Oklahoman on Thursday. The MVP-to-be's three-point shot still wasn't on -- he didn't hit from outside the arc in six attempts -- but that was the only major flaw in a thorough, dominant performance. It took all of 40 seconds for Durant to get on the board, he punished Tayshaun Prince in the post on multiple occasions, and he was already in double figures by the time Tony Allen was summoned off the bench to try to stop him.
"[Durant] ate first," lamented Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, who admitted the "tone was set in the first six to eight minutes of the game."
The flow that had eluded Oklahoma City for much of this series was back, as was a bounce to Durant's step that seemed to have slipped a touch during Game 5. He worked his way to the foul line 15 times, a total that marked his most attempts of the series and tied for his most attempts since March 21. He traded in the deep, contested three-pointers for opportunities in the mid-range, the basket area and from the stripe, and the result was an offensive performance the Grizzlies simply couldn't match. Durant's 36 points (on 11-for-23 shooting), 10 rebounds and two assists were able to stave off elimination and return the series to Oklahoma City.
"What was said, what was written has no bearing on Kevin, on our team," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He doesn't need outside influences to motivate him. ... He was in attack mode."
Durant attributed his inspired play to the do-or-die nature of trailing 3-2 in the series, rather than the "Mr. Unreliable" flap. As The Point Forward noted earlier Thursday, Durant is nothing if not reliable, and it was completely unsurprising that he would respond to the prospect of an early summer and the ludicrous labeling by taking control of the action from the get-go and restoring homecourt advantage.
"We were on the brink of elimination, that's more motivation for us all," Durant said afterward. "Headlines, not going to give them credit for nothing."
All that was left was for the newspaper to eat its crow.
"Obviously, we could use a little help," Mike Sherman, The Oklahoman's sports editor wrote on Twitter, as he solicited suggestions for the paper's next headline. Obviously.
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• Scott Brooks shakes up his starting lineup. Over the last few seasons, Brooks has been notoriously stubborn -- or famously loyal -- when it comes to his starting lineup. Injuries to Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins forced Brooks to juggle throughout the regular season, but he made the rare decision to alter his starting five by choice on Thursday, even though his season was on the line. Brooks swapped in Caron Butler for Thabo Sefolosha, an "offense for defense" swap on paper. The move came after the Thunder failed to top 100 points in Games 3, 4 and 5, even with the help of an overtime period in all three contests.
Oklahoma City's starting five has not been a juggernaut: the group posted a 98.8 offensive rating and a 101.4 defensive rating during the regular season, numbers that are a bit jarring when you consider the Thunder finished with a +6.3 point differential, which was third-best in the league. Perkins, of course, isn't a textbook starter, as Butler, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb (banished during the playoffs) all averaged more minutes per game than he did during the regular season.
Shaking up the starting lineup in search of better support for Durant and Westborok was a logical play, even if most assumed Brooks would prefer to go down with the guys who brought him to the dance. That he elected to swap in Butler rather than Reggie Jackson made this an even more surprising decision, as the Russell Westbrook/Butler/Durant/Serge Ibaka/Perkins lineup played together for just five minutes total during the regular season and another four minutes earlier in the series. Not only did Brooks break from his long-standing trust in his starters, he gambled on a refashioned unit with little shared experience because of Butler's midseason arrival and a late-season injury to Perkins.
During his post-game comments, Brooks said he would stick with the same starters for Game 7, which makes all the sense in the world. Oklahoma City was +5 before the first substitution in the first quarter and +3 before the first substitution in the third quarter. Butler, meanwhile, finished with just seven points and four rebounds, but he hit two three-pointers, which matches Sefolosha's total for the entire series. Bringing in Butler as a starter also kept Jackson's sixth-man role intact, and the hero of Game 4 responded by delivering 16 points (on 6-for-9 shooting) in another strong outing.
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Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger indicated he didn't expect to unveil any counters to the switch in Game 7. The biggest downside, he believed, was that Mike Conley was forced to guard the bigger Butler in a cross match-up, because he prefers to have Courtney Lee defend Westbrook. The first-year coach joked he was ready to take his chances with Butler, rather than Durant or Westbrook, being the deciding factor in the series.
• Mike Conley departs early. Getting rocked at home in a potential closeout game was no fun for the Grizzlies, but losing Mike Conley to a right hamstring injury made this an even more difficult defeat. Conley left the game with a little over two minutes remaining in the third quarter. He briefly attempted to come back to the court with a little under nine minutes left in regulation, but that stint lasted for barely more than a minute. Down by 18 points and with Conley not moving well, Joerger elected to shut down his floor general for the night.
Conley finished with just five points (on 2-for-10 shooting) and six assists, his first time scoring less than 14 points during the series. Without his offense, Memphis had no way to supplement the interior efforts of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and they had no motor to power a second-half comeback.
"We're hoping that [Conley] can go [in Game 7]" Joerger said afterward. "He'll give it as much as he can. We'll find out after a day of therapy tonight. If he can't go, Beno [Udrih] is going to play a lot of minutes."
Surely Conley will be on the court to start Game 7, considering the implications. However, the Grizzlies will be hard-pressed to pull off the series upset on the road if he's significantly less than 100 percent healthy. It never ceases to amaze how quickly and sharply momentum and hope can shift during a tightly-contested playoff series.
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