Through the first five games of their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked confused and more than a little out of sorts. After a season in which they established themselves as a title contender, the West's No. 2 seed faced elimination against one of the toughest and most resilient teams in the NBA.
What a difference two games makes. As in Game 6, the Oklahoma City Thunder controlled the terms of Game 7 and came away with a 120-109 win to take the series and avoid a crushing early exit from the postseason. Facing an undermanned Memphis squad, OKC rode the excellent performances of their two stars to victory.
Despite the result, the game didn't start out so well for the Thunder. With the Grizzlies losing power forward Zach Randolph to suspension, head coach Dave Joerger eschewed his team's usual inside-out style and went with a small starting lineup of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Mike Miller and Marc Gasol. It paid dividends early — the Grizzlies tied their season high for a quarter with 36 points and ended the period with a 36-27 lead. For at least a bit, it looked like Memphis would be able to play with Oklahoma City on the latter's preferred terms.
That advantage proved short-lived. While the Grizzlies appeared to succeed by surprising the Thunder, the home team adjusted and thrived in a game with a more open flow. Kevin Durant broke a 58-58 tie on a 3-pointer with three seconds left in the half, and the Thunder never looked back from there. A 33-23 third quarter put the offensively limited Grizzlies in a difficult position, and the Thunder held a comfortable double-digit lead for the entire fourth. When Reggie Jackson pushed the lead to 120-98 with 3:17 remaining in regulation, the rest of the game became a formality.
The biggest reason for the Thunder's dominance was quite clear. For the first time in this series, both Durant and Russell Westbrook played like the All-NBA talents they are. Durant, who shot worse than 50 percent in each of the previous five games, hit 12 of 18 from the field and all five 3-point attempts for a game-high 33 points. He looked like the MVP of the league.
Westbrook came through with a legitimately historic performance, putting up 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, 16 assists and 10 rebounds for the seventh Game 7 triple-double in NBA history. He also became the first player with two such games on that list, adding to his performance against the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the 2011 Western Conference semifinals. For the second straight game, Westbrook managed to channel his intense energy into something more productive, taking only two 3-pointers after averaging over seven attempts over the first five games of the series. (He did turn it over seven times, but such mistakes can be seen as unfortunate byproducts of a willingness to make plays when the results are this good.) If Durant is the most reliable scorer in the league, then Westbrook is the unhinged genius who gives them their cutting edge. When both play this well, the contributions of other players — which did exist — are just icing on the cake.
The Grizzlies will be disappointed to have lost two straight elimination games, but their Game 7 struggles were somewhat predictable. With Randolph out, Memphis lacked the ability to control the game from the interior, which was always going to be its best chance of beating OKC in this series. Frankly, it's somewhat surprising the Grizzlies scored as often as they did, especially given the hamstring strain that limited Conley (20 points on 8-of-14 FG, nine assists, four steals) to 36 minutes. But the lineup changes affected the Grizzlies' vaunted defense, as well, and the Thunder shot 60.9 percent from the field and hit 11-of-19 3-pointers in their offensive onslaught.
Oklahoma City still has several issues to iron out before it reaches championship form, but it's also possible the Thunder faced their toughest opponent of the postseason in this series. The Grizzlies were a No. 7 seed, but their ability to control tempo and turn games ugly always made them a very difficult matchup for this squad. Each series presents a new challenge, though, and the Thunder will have to hope they manage that battle of styles earlier than they did in this series. Luckily for them, they figured things out before it was too late.
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