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After five glorious seasons of gritting and grinding, the Memphis Grizzlies appear (for the moment, at least) to have settled into the role of gatekeeper. They're good enough to knock off decent competition, win nine of 12 games and earn a mid-bracket playoff spot, but they just don't have the firepower to avoid big, bad losses against prospective top-flight title contenders. Hence the 30-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the franchise-worst 50-point loss to the Golden State Warriors, the 20-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs ... and, now, a 37-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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Oklahoma City turned a one-point game midway through the second quarter into an absolute laugher, outscoring Memphis 57-23 from the 5:14 mark of the second through the end of the third to leave FedExForum quiet, dispirited and just waiting for the pain to stop. After a fourth period played only to ensure the game stayed in compliance with league rules, the Thunder walked away with a 125-88 win that stands as the most lopsided home defeat of the Grizzlies' tenure in Memphis. (The Vancouver Grizzlies once lost by 47 at home, but the club had never lost by more than 31 in Tennessee before Tuesday.)
Kevin Durant incinerated the Grizzlies' perimeter defense, making 11 of his 14 shots, four of his five 3-point tries and all six of his free throws en route to 32 points in just under 31 minutes of floor time. The 2013-14 NBA Most Valuable Player added 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals, offering another stellar performance in a comeback season aimed at proving he's still the best player in the world. And while it kind of feels like everybody's playing for second with the way Stephen Curry's rolling right now, Durant — who entered Tuesday fourth in the league in scoring, and third in True Shooting percentage and Player Efficiency Rating — has done a pretty fine job of making his case ... even if, as he himself has said, he might not always be the best player on his team.
Russell Westbrook continued to put the lie to the tired argument that he doesn't distribute enough, tying a season-high with 16 assists against just three turnovers in 25 minutes of burn. He added 13 points on efficient 5-for-7 shooting, five rebounds and two steals, routinely torching Memphis in the pick-and-roll, collapsing the defense and setting the table for his teammates — especially during the mid-second-quarter run that changed the game, as detailed by Royce Young of Daily Thunder:
The game turned almost instantly when Billy Donovan went small with 6:50 left in the second quarter, playing Westbrook, [Dion] Waiters, [Anthony] Morrow, Durant and [Serge] Ibaka together. It was an onslaught of offense, with the matchup giving Memphis fits as Durant guarded Zach Randolph with ease which allowed the Thunder to completely destroy the Grizzlies on the other end. It was simple pace and space offense, with Westbrook running high screen-and-roll with Ibaka, and shooters lining the floor across the perimeter. Collapse on Ibaka’s roll, Westbrook dished to an open Durant. Stay wide, and Westbrook dropped to Ibaka for a dunk. Memphis had no answer and it led to eight consecutive made baskets at one point, and the Thunder finished the half making nine of their last 11.
That unit outscored Memphis by 11 points in seven minutes of floor time on Tuesday, according to NBA.com's lineup data. A similarly small group featuring Nick Collison at the five with Durant at the four, Waiters and Andre Roberson on the wing, and D.J. Augustin at the point finished +10 in just three minutes of shared play. Ibaka finished with 17 points and four rebounds, joining Durant and Westbrook among six Thunder players in double figures; none of the three left the bench in a fourth quarter that saw the lead balloon to 40.
The flip-side of that offensive onslaught, of course, is the Grizzlies' inability to keep pace when the game got small. Memphis' starting lineup of Randolph, Marc Gasol, Jeff Green, Tony Allen and Mike Conley got outscored by 13 points in 12 shared minutes on Tuesday. Gasol-Randolph-Conley-Green with Courtney Lee in Allen's stead was outpaced by five points in four minutes of work.
Then again, you can kind of understand why staying big might've seemed worth a shot, given the performances turned in by Memphis' guards and wings. Conley missed all seven of his shots and went scoreless in significant minutes for the first time in 3 1/2 years. Allen again looked toothless offensively and a step slow on the other end against an opponent that knew it didn't have to worry about him. Green's defense was a persistent problem. Matt Barnes picked up four fouls in 11 minutes through three quarters. (Alone in absolution for Tuesday's woes: recent addition Mario Chalmers, who scored a team-high 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting with a pair of steals and a block in 21 minutes.)
This shot, from ace Memphis Commercial Appeal photographer Nikki Boertman, just about sums it up:
And, really, that's about the state of things for the Grizzlies beyond Tuesday night, too. Plenty of smart people have noticed that Allen, now 33 years old and in the third year of a four-year deal, hasn't looked much like "The Grindfather" this season, and that the awkward fits among the Grizzlies' wings has led to some really bad perimeter combinations, and that the Gasol-Z-Bo-Conley-Allen-Green starting five — which is now Memphis' second most-used lineup this season despite having been outscored by 23.8 points per 100 possessions in 97 minutes — seems in desperate need of a shake-up. The Grizzlies seemed to have weathered the storm after their awful start to the season; now their $100 million All-Star center is talking about how problems left unaddressed can come back to bite you:
Marc Gasol talks about sweeping issues under the rug & eventually tripping over those issues: pic.twitter.com/CUsNuIHUSk
— Ari Alexander (@AriA1exander) December 9, 2015
When asked if he is happy the Griz have another game tomorrow night, Marc Gasol replied: "I'm nowhere near happy."
— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBeat) December 9, 2015
There aren't many teams who can do much with the kind of heat Durant, Westbrook and company brought on Tuesday. On the right night, though, Memphis used to be one of them. Now, despite being separated by just 1 1/2 games in the Western Conference standings, the difference between the Thunder and Grizzlies seems vast enough to make you think OKC might have a deep playoff run in them, and that the Grizz might be nearing the end of an era.
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