When Russell Westbrook went down in Game 2 against the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder knew that their ability to fulfill their championship aspirations would be seriously compromised. It seems as if the severity of Westbrook's loss couldn't communicate just how difficult that path would be.
Despite a late push by the Thunder and several missed free throws by the Grizzlies to give Kevin Durant a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, Memphis escaped Oklahoma City with an 88-84 victory in Game 5 to finish off a 4-1 series win over the West's top seed. They will now move on to the Western Conference Finals to face either the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors for a chance to move on to the NBA Finals.
Memphis nearly forced themselves to head back home for a Game 6. After building an 80-68 lead with 4:13 remaining, the Grizzlies saw the Thunder go on an 11-3 run over the next 3:46. With their offense stagnating, center Marc Gasol hit a huge, flat-footed 19-footer near the end of the shot clock for an 85-79 lead with 27 seconds left. At the time, it seemed like a dagger. However, Kevin Martin managed to draw a foul within six seconds and hit two free-throws to cut it to four. Zach Randolph split a pair of free throws, and Reggie Jackson nailed a wing 3-pointer to make it a two possession game. With Randolph needing a free throw to ensure no worse than an overtime finish, he instead missed both freebies to give OKC life. Despite scoring 28 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, he had a chance to become the game's goat.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has been criticized many times in his tenure for his inability to draw up compelling end-of-game plays, but in this case Durant managed to get a fairly good look from 16 feet with four seconds left in regulation; he missed, however. Tony Allen grabbed the rebound and hit both free throws to ice the game, and the Thunder are now gone fishin' much earlier than they'd anticipated at the start of the postseason.
The miss capped a very trying series for Durant. Without Westbrook, he was asked to take on a nearly impossible burden in carrying the Thunder back to the NBA Finals. That effort manifested itself throughout this series, with Durant playing no less than 43 minutes with major ball-handing responsibilities in each of the five games. Frankly, he looked exhausted, and his shooting percentage suffered greatly. After a 5-of-21 performance in Game 5, Durant shot 15-of-48 from the field in the last two games with no other player managing to score 20 points or more. The Thunder faced an uneasy adjustment to life without Westbrook, their early-game offensive sparkplug, and it's safe to say that no one was able to step up accordingly in his absence. The solution was often just to ask more of Durant, and one player can only do so much.
It did not help that the Grizzlies were to focus the best team defense in the league on one player. With three All-Defensive selections, including primary Durant defender Allen, the Grizzlies were able to hold the Thunder to 36.9 percent shooting in this closeout win. Their imposing defense will face a stern challenge in the conference finals in either the Spurs or the Warriors, but they appear very ready to take on all challengers. With an offense that revolves around Gasol and Randolph in the post, the Grizzlies are something of an anomaly in today's NBA, but that size does not hinder them from playing fluid and punishing team defense.
Given the circumstances of Westbrook's injury, it's fair to wonder how things may have been different if he had not been lost for the playoffs. Yet it's clear that the Thunder would have faced a considerable challenge in the Grizzlies no matter their luck. Memphis is a uniquely talented squad with a clear sense of their own identity. Although they're not the highest seed left in the West, they could be the conference's scariest team at this juncture of the postseason.
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