Three-Pointers: Thunder storm past Grizzlies and into the second round
So it ends. The Thunder and Grizzlies spent the better part of seven games fighting for the tiniest of edges, though at long last Oklahoma City prevailed with a 120-109 win on their home court to advance to the second round.
• Consider this game a reminder that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not of this world. When the Thunder's two stars play this well at the same time, they tend to overwhelm all other factors involved. The preparation, the matchups, the carefully formulated strategy -- it all comes crashing down under the weight of Durant and Westbrook's authoritative excess. Against the Grizzlies on Saturday, they notched 60 points between them on 34 shots. Neither missed a three-pointer in seven total tries. They registered 18 rebounds and 18 assists in tandem, good for more than half of the team's total rebounds and more than 80 percent of its total assists. Durant may have started glowing. It's possible that Westbrook breathed fire.
The numbers themselves are batty, though it was the implication behind them that in effect sealed Game 7 for the Thunder. Every Grizzlies run seemed to be answered by some deflating Durant jumper or a demoralizing Westbrook explosion. Memphis fought, as has been the case all season despite major injuries and long odds. In that fight, however, one could see some growing signs of dismay as Game 7 wore on -- a drift intimated in slumped shoulders and long faces.
This is the latent toll that comes with playing against the Thunder. Opponents have to find a way to slow Durant, to challenge Westbrook, to attack OKC's elite defense and to control the pace of the game. Beyond that, they have to weather the mental assault that comes with inevitable breakthrough. It's only a matter of time before Durant and Westbrook start sprinting into momentum spikes with incredible plays, and it's because of that frightening potential that playing against this team is so daunting.
• Memphis made do with a hobbled Mike Conley, a one-eyed Tony Allen and an absent Zach Randolph. This was not a typical game for the Grizzlies, as their Game 6 loss came with all kinds of circumstantial costs. Randolph's suspension (as a result of taking a swipe at Thunder center Steven Adams) was the most overt among them, though Conley's strained hamstring seemed as though it had the potential to be the most damaging. While Memphis has created a reputation as a team defined by its interior players, it's Conley that keeps everything on balance by transitioning the offense from one action to the next.
Somehow, between stretching sessions and turns on the stationary bike, Conley was able to maintain that function and then some. He played a hell of a game; although he clearly had trouble exploding into open space and keeping balanced on his jumper, Conley finished with 20 points on 14 shots, nine assists, five rebounds and four steals. Absolutely stellar work under the circumstances.
Randolph's absence from the lineup, though, shifted Marc Gasol (24 points, six assists, four steals) into an outsized offensive role and fundamentally changed the Grizzlies' defense. Gasol is an ace of an interior defender, though he leans on Randolph to rebound when he has to provide help elsewhere, to take up space in the lane, and to get a body on those looking to score inside. Memphis doesn't have another player who could match Randolph's contributions to acceptable magnitude. So rather than replace Randolph directly in the rotation with a lesser big like Kosta Koufos or Ed Davis, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger elected to run with a smaller lineup that could better space the floor for Conley and Gasol. That approach worked to a point, though there were some diminishing returns when the Thunder defense scrambled its way into great contests and timely turnovers. With Durant and Westbrook scoring over and around the Grizzlies on every whim, the whole of the Thunder's efforts proved to be too much.
There's no shame in that. This was a competitive loss for the Grizz to close a competitive series, and one in which their odds turned with bad injury luck and Randolph's poor judgment. Still, Joerger made a smart call in response to the team's circumstances. His players executed to the best of their ability and kept a tough game within a workable margin. That Durant and Westbrook erupted shouldn't overwrite Memphis' respectable effort in the finale and terrific work throughout this first round.
• An incredible series comes to a close. Game 7s are awesome in their finality, though there's a touch of blue in seeing a series this great come to a close. Oklahoma City and Memphis shared four-point plays, bumps and bruises, four overtimes, the best of Tony Allen, the sheer volume of Russell Westbrook, the surprise of Beno Udrih, and the revival of Reggie Jackson. Scott Brooks made crucial adjustments to his playing rotation. Memphis made a go of it by running smaller than we've seen all season. Tempers flared, stars were tested and a contender found a way. It's unfortunate that we have to say goodbye to the Grizzlies, though at the least we can thank them and the Thunder, both, for stretching this thing to seven. It's been a delight, truly.
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