Kevin Durant knocked down a huge 19-foot pull-up jump shot to give his Oklahoma City Thunder a 91-90 lead over the visiting Memphis Grizzlies with 11.1 seconds remaining in Game 1 of the two teams' Western Conference semifinals matchup at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday. The Thunder would hold onto the lead their superstar provided, locking down a 93-91 win to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Durant's transition opportunity was keyed by a miscue from Memphis point guard Mike Conley, who lost control of the ball while driving to the basket with just under 20 seconds remaining and the Grizzlies holding a one-point lead. After Conley ceded possession, with Thunder guard Derek Fisher getting credit for a steal on the play, Durant snagged the loose ball and pushed it up the court; while Oklahoma City still had two timeouts remaning, coach Scott Brooks declined to call one, preferring to allow Durant to attack the Grizzlies before their stout defense could regroup in a half-court setting. The decision proved to be a wise one, as Durant was able to push retreating defender Tayshaun Prince back on his heels, stop on a dime just above the right elbow, elevate and fire to put the Thunder back in front for the first time since holding a 49-48 advantage just after halftime.
The jumper capped a 12-point fourth quarter for Durant, who led all scorers with 35 points on 13 for 26 shooting on Sunday, but it didn't cap Game 1. After a timeout called by Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, Memphis trigged the ball from the right sideline with a chance to re-take the lead, but Durant tipped the inbounds pass; it did find its intended target, center Marc Gasol, but Durant's defense threw a monkey wrench into Memphis' design.
Gasol then missed a window to feed frontcourt partner Zach Randolph down low, passed up a shot opportunity from the right block and kicked out to Conley, but Thunder defender Thabo Sefolosha knifed into the passing lane to earn another deflection. Sefolosha and Conley collided on the play, with Conley heading to the floor along the boundary; as he grabbed possession of the ball and attempted to call timeout, he had one hand out of bounds, and referee Bill Kennedy — who was right on the spot to make the call — awarded possession to Oklahoma City.
Forced to foul, the Grizzlies put Reggie Jackson on the line, and the sophomore point guard who's been tasked with manning the controls for OKC in the absence of injured All-Star Russell Westbrook calmly made two free throws to give the Thunder a 93-90 lead with less than three seconds remaining. After taking their final timeout, the Grizzlies looked for Pondexter — who had gone 3 for 4 from 3-point range to that point, including a double-clutch buzzer beater from just past half-court to close the third quarter — in hopes that the former Thunder draft pick (26th overall in 2010) could come up with one more miracle.
On the ensuing possession — a neat draw-up by Hollins to create some room by using staggered screens — a trailing Jackson smacked Pondexter's right forearm as he let it fly, granting the former Washington Huskies standout three free throws with 1.6 seconds left. But Pondexter, a 78.7 percent free-throw shooter this year, missed the first, eliminating the prospect of Memphis tying at the line.
After making the second to draw within two, Pondexter missed intentionally, and while Gasol wound up coming up with the loose ball, the post-miss scrum ate too much time off the clock, sealing a 93-91 OKC win that allowed the top-seeded Thunder to eke out a win despite opening with a 14-point, 5-for-23-shooting first quarter and trailing by as many as 12 in the second half. But a stellar fourth quarter from Durant (6 for 9 from the field, with many shots contested by as many as two or three Grizzlies defenders, plus four rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block) and cold Memphis shooting (Conley, Prince, Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless combined to shoot 2 for 10 in the fourth) helped Oklahoma City hold serve.
Durant finished with 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, two blocks, one steal and three turnovers in 44 minutes; he outscored Memphis by himself, 8-7, over the final five minutes of the game. Sixth man Kevin Martin also came up huge with few of his teammates in any kind of offensive rhythm, following up his strong Game 6 against the Houston Rockets by scoring 25 points on 8 for 14 shooting, including a 3 for 5 mark from downtown, to go with seven rebounds in 31 1/2 minutes. Jackson and Fisher combined for 20 points on 7 for 15 shooting.
Gasol and Randolph largely won their frontcourt battle with Thunder bigs Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, combining for 38 points and 20 rebounds, but a shaky offensive outing from Conley (13 points on 5 for 15 shooting, three assists, two turnovers) and a poor performance at the free-throw line (just 14 for 24) wound up coming back to bite the Grizzlies, allowing a very winnable game and a chance to swipe home-court advantage slip away.
Game 2 tips Tuesday night at 9:30 EDT.
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