For the second game in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder pushed the Memphis Grizzlies to overtime with a thrilling, improbable comeback spurred by a four-point play. For the second game in a row, the Grizzlies bounced back in the extra period to take control and come away with a huge win in this increasingly fascinating first round series.
Frankly, the host Grizzlies should have put the game away much earlier. With 7:43 remaining in regulation of Game 3, they held what looked like a commanding 81-64 lead and a clear path to going up 2-1 against the favored No. 2-seed Thunder. However, the offensive drought that followed reached near-catastrophic levels. Over nearly seven minutes, the Grizzlies failed to score and allowed the Thunder to creep back into the game at a time when their offense didn't even appear to be functioning at peak levels of efficiency. When Russell Westbrook drained a 3-pointer with 57 seconds on the clock, he finished off a 17-0 run that brought OKC back into an 81-81 tie.
Memphis's struggles stopped there, with improbable offensive sparkplug Tony Allen putting together a driving dunk and breakaway lay-up (off his own steal) on consecutive possessions to put his team up by four points. Yet, just like Kevin Durant in Game 2, Westbrook saved the Thunder with a unlikely four-point play:
It didn't necessarily look like Allen made meaningful contact, but the drama of the moment obviated any complaints about the officiating. Four-point plays are rare in the NBA, but it's downright shocking that each of the Thunder's two stars hit one in the final 30 seconds in consecutive playoff games to give the team a chance to steal a playoff game.
On the other hand, the Thunder's dramatic comebacks in Games 2 and 3 helped obscure that they needed these rescues in the first place. As in Game 2, the Grizzlies rebounded from their own late struggles and misfortune to control overtime. Although Durant opened the scoring with a three-point play, the Grizzlies tightened up their defense and focused on their inside-out offensive attack to take a 95-90 lead with a minute on the clock. The Thunder made things close with two Durant free throws and had a desperation chance down four points in the final second after Allen fouled Westbrook in the act of shooting from roughly 70 feet away, but it was clear that they were playing from behind. Memphis earned this 98-95 victory and a 2-1 series advantage.
The Thunder have plenty of soul-searching to do as they attempt to regain homecourt advantage in Saturday's Game 4. Durant entered the postseason primed for a huge run after his MVP campaign, but the Grizzlies have limited his effectiveness. Although he finished with 30 points, Durant needed 27 field-goal attempts to do so. As noted by ESPN, his 0-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc ranked as the second-most attempts in his career without a three-point basket. Additionally, Durant went only 1 of 13 from outside of 10 feet. The Grizzlies stymied Durant in last spring's second round with Westbrook out with a knee injury, but things were supposed to be different with both players in the lineup this year.
Unfortunately, Westbrook appears to lack his typical balance between his mercurial athleticism and the proper application of that ability. His 30 points on 9-of-26 shooting (4-of-13 3-pointers) speaks to his inefficiency, but the current Westbrook experience goes beyond those numbers. If he is capable of out-of-nowhere brilliance at his best moments, then this version of the player appears to have the ability to get himself in position to make those plays without having the body control or wherewithal to put it all together. It is likely Westbrook is not fully recovered from the knee troubles that have plagued him over the past year, and that inability to play at full strength appears to be hurting the Thunder. Worse yet, the team appears to be doubling down on Durant and Westbrook as offensive linchpins with no role players compensating for their struggles.
But all of this Thunder talk does a disservice to the Grizzlies, who have rounded into top form at the perfect time. First-year head coach (and longtime team assistant) Dave Joerger has his team playing its customarily suffocating defense at just the right time, and role players like Knicks castoff Beno Udrih — who wouldn't be playing these minutes if not for the suspension of Nick Calethes — are playing at unexpectedly high levels. More than anything, though, the Grizzlies are evincing the grit-and-grind mindset that has brought them such great success in recent seasons. This team knows its strengths and believes in its ability to transcend any run or struggles. They're not a perfect team by any stretch — a seven-minute scoring drought proves that quite clearly — but they know how to make up for any deficiencies. The Grizzlies are proof of the power of a talented team with a firm identity.
The Thunder still remain in decent shape in the series. Durant and/or Westbrook could go off for a dominant game at any time, and two overtime losses suggest they're not too far from figuring things out. But one of the NBA's apparent championship contenders needs to do so quickly if it hopes to avoid a very disappointing first-round upset.
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