Oklahoma City beat the exhausted Grizzlies at their own blue-collar game, rolling to a 99-72 victory in Game 5 of the second-round series. The Thunder grabbed a 3-2 lead and moved one win away from a Western Conference finals matchup with the Dallas Mavericks. Game 6 is Friday at Memphis.
"Defensively, that was as good as you can play against a very good team," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, whose team limited Memphis to 35.9 percent shooting and never allowed more than 18 points in any of the first three quarters while building a 71-52 lead, turning the final period into garbage time.
Before the game, Brooks said his biggest concern was keeping relentless Memphis off the glass. His Thunder responded to the challenge. With five players grabbing at least six rebounds (led by Nick Collison with 10), the Thunder pounded the Grizzlies 50-33 on the boards, limiting them to just eight offensive rebounds while holding the team that led the NBA in second-chance points to just nine.
The two most highly debated questions heading into Game 5 were whether Monday's triple-overtime grind would have any impact, and if often-criticized Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook could become more of a distributor, especially for two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. Both were answered as positives.
The notion that the younger Thunder would bounce back from the Game 4 marathon more readily than the Grizzlies seemed to be ratified during the course of game. After weathering a ragged first quarter in which it committed nine turnovers, Oklahoma City pounced on Memphis to build a double-digit lead in the second quarter and never was threatened again.
"I don't know if fatigue was a factor," Brooks said. "It was not on our end."
The Thunder used a 16-4 run in the final five minutes of the second quarter to open up a 46-35 lead. Sixth man James Harden, in his typically versatile fashion, figured prominently at both ends of the floor during the key spurt. He scored on a dunk, assisted on two other slams and took a charge as Oklahoma City pulled away.
"Our bench did a nice job and, when the starters came back, they were kind of running in mud," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of Memphis' poor finish to the half. "We missed a couple of shots and they ran out, we turned it over and they ran out and it was 'Katie bar the door' after that."
Asked if fatigue was a factor, Hollins replied, "It probably was. Not only were we physically down, we were probably mentally down, too."
"Fatigue wasn't the issue; it was more of our effort," said center Marc Gasol, who led the Grizzlies with 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting. "When we got down a little bit, we gave up too easily. They collapsed in the paint and that takes away a lot of stuff. They understand we are an inside team and when they collapse, it is hard to get in there."
As for Westbrook, he turned down good looks a few times to create shots for his teammates. Using a tactic deployed late in Game 4, Memphis put Tony Allen, its premier perimeter defender, on Westbrook -- instead of Durant -- to start the game, keeping the point guard to 1-for-3 shooting and one assist to go with two turnovers in the first quarter. But, like his team, Westbrook recovered, racking up five assists against one turnover in the middle two periods before sitting the entire fourth. For the game, he took just 10 shots, well below his 24.5 average for the series, and four fewer than Durant. More significant, he fostered ball movement for an offense that shot 47.4 percent.
Oklahoma City's bench also came up big, with 57 of the team's 99 points, including 18 from three-point specialist Daequan Cook, and stalwart defensive performances from Collison and center Nazr Mohammed. "Nick was terrific on their bigs," Brooks said. Indeed, just as he did during the overtime periods on Monday, Collison curtailed the touches and scoring opportunities of Grizzlies leading scorer Zach Randolph, who had only nine points on 3-of-9 shooting after averaging 26 in the first four games of the series. Randolph didn't have a field goal with Collison guarding him and clearly was flustered by the end of the game.
"We want to make sure he feels our bodies and make sure that he sees multiple defenders around him," said Brooks.
Hollins had a different interpretation for Randolph's lack of shot attempts.
"He got fouled a couple of times and nothing was called," Hollins said. "The way they were pounding and overplaying, I just changed it up and started doing other things."
Three months ago, the idea of a rugged team like the Grizzlies lamenting the physicality of the Thunder would have been difficult to believe. But this is an Oklahoma City team that has come to understand that playoff basketball isn't about pretty jumpers, or even explosive drives to the basket, so much as taking the heart of the opposition through staunch defense.
"We learned what we did wrong early in the season and then receiving our valuable additions have lead to our improvement," Durant said about the metamorphosis in the team's identity. "Putting Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup helped us and also gaining Kendrick Perkins has been to our advantage defensively. We learned and became more locked in as the season progressed."
Now they are close to a lock on a berth in the conference finals.