On Thursday morning, Oklahoma City's biggest newspaper named Kevin Durant "Mr. Unreliable" in a bit of criticism. Later that night, with the Thunder facing playoff elimination well before they'd planned, Durant and his teammates reminded the basketball world why expectations for this team were so high in the first place.
In OKC's most impressive performance of the postseason, the West's No. 2-seed topped the Memphis Grizzlies 104-84 at FedEx Forum to force a decisivie Game 7 for Saturday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder took a double-digit lead late in the first half and didn't see it dip below 15 points for the entire second half. This was a complete win, the mark of a team fighting to extend its season and reclaiming the form that made them a top title contender throughout the regular season.
The Thunder have been criticized many times in this series for relying too heavily on Durant and Russell Westbrook while both stars force shots, and that general offensive calculus didn't change in Game 6. Durant (36 points) and Westbrook (25 points) combined to score nearly 60 percent of the team's points, with no other player even taking as many as 10 field-goal attempts.
The difference, though, was that each star took better shots and ended up considerably more efficient for it. While Durant went 0 of 6 from 3-point range to continue a terrible run of form from long range, he also hit 14-of-15 free throws, his most attempts at the stripe in the series and a total much more in line with his league-leading regular-season average of 9.9 per game. As such, his 11-of-23 shooting marked his fifth consecutive game of worse than 50 percent field-goal shooting but also matched up with an impressive points-per-shot ratio of 1.56.
Westbrook enacted a more substantive change in approach. After averaging 7.6 three-point attempts in the series' first five games, Westbrook attempted only two in Game 6 (with his only make coming on a banked shot from the wing). Instead, Westbrook focused on getting to the rim and serving in his typical role of all-world catalyst. His 9-of-21 shooting on the night doesn't exactly inspire, but the way he got those shots served the Thunder well. He looked like a player with a more thoughtful approach, even if he expressed with his typically chaotic energy.
A similar sense of self-knowledge helped the Thunder control the game from the outset. With more sensible rotations, head coach Scott Brooks put forth lineups that created more transition opportunities and allowed OKC to play the game on its terms. The Grizzlies have succeeded against the Thunder by controlling tempo, but they were unable to do anything of the sort in Game 6. Given Memphis' lackluster outside shooting and regular difficulties in coming back from big deficits, this result was decided fairly early in the game.
The Grizzlies have not struggled to enforce their style on the road in this series, so it's not as if the Thunder's performance in Game 6 indicates they've solved the matchup and are on their way to a certain closeout win at home on Saturday. Nevertheless, this game was a great sign for the series' favorites. They played their game and figured out a way to put the Grizzlies, who have controlled the style of play for the vast majority of these games, into an uncomfortable position.
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