Memphis battens the hatches, shuts down Kevin Durant on its way to a 3-1 series lead

Kelly Dwyer

“Team without its second-best player loses close game to a very good team while playing on the road. Film at 11.”

If the Houston Rockets’ surprisingly competitive first round turn against the Oklahoma City Thunder wasn’t convincing enough, then the Thunder’s 2-1 second round deficit entering Monday night should have been more than the proof you needed to appreciate Russell Westbrook’s many talents. The injured OKC guard was badly needed throughout the Thunder’s 103-97 overtime loss in Game 4 of the team’s series against the Memphis, especially with Kevin Durant missing 17 of 27 shots against a world-beating Grizzlies defense.

Westbrook’s finest attribute – making an efficient offensive play when all hope is seemingly lost – would have fit in perfectly for the Thunder on Monday. Scott Brooks’ crew ran out to a 17-point lead in the first half based mostly on Durant’s presence and the sound shooting touch of Serge Ibaka, but the Grizzlies did well to cut the lead down to eight by the half. Oklahoma City roared out of the gate once again to start the third quarter, but Durant’s shooting touch wore down in the face of expert Memphis defense by Tayshaun Prince, Tony Allen, and Marc Gasol (geez, good luck scoring on that), and the Grizz had it tied by the fourth period.

(A quarter that kept up the tie, but not after seeing some of the best and worst from two of the more entertaining teams in the game.)

Derek Fisher airballed both a three-point attempt, a long two-pointer, while missing another three-pointer that hit the front of the rim before hitting the shot clock before (illegally) going in. Zach Randolph did expert work finishing off of broken plays, but he also saw plenty of his shots sent back (five of Zach’s attempts were blocked, on the night), and he was the unfortunate victim of a well-intentioned but ultimately misspent final play in regulation – one that saw him trying to beat Kendrick Perkins off the dribble to win the game at the buzzer. Thunder coach Scott Brooks kept Kevin Martin on the bench in favor of Fisher, while the Grizz countered with a weird 4:20 run of Keyon Dooling’s own.

This isn’t to say that this was a fourth full of folly, friends. Durant was dogged in his approach, and the Thunder did well to space the floor with the three-time scoring champion at the top of the arc, surveying his options. The Memphis defense is just too good and too damn adaptive to be caught off guard, though, as Allen, Gasol, Mike Conley and Prince (that’s three members of the NBA’s top two All-Defensive team, alongside an all-timer in Tayshaun) reacting and cutting off angles down the stretch.

Randolph and Gasol combined for a fantastic interior line in the win. The pair teamed for 46 points, 23 rebounds, three assists, just four turnovers (incredible, considering how much these two had the ball spaced out over 88 minutes), with seven blocks. Prince had his share of timely buckets off of loping improvisations. Conley tossed in 24 while turning it over just once in nearly 49 minutes. Jerryd Bayless and Darrell Arthur were not scurred off the bench, so to speak.

And Oklahoma City, as you’d expect, were just missing that game-breaking element.

It’s true that a made free throw or reversed call could have given the Thunder a win in regulation, and a 2-2 series heading back to OKC. Still, it was apparent against Houston that the defending Western champs just aren’t nearly the same without Russell Westbrook’s derring-do, and that unpredictable approach that RW usually brings to a game was badly needed against a top tier defensive team like Memphis. And this is still with replacement Reggie Jackson cutting expertly (15 points on 6-8 shooting) and Kevin Martin playing efficiently (18 points on 12 shots).

The Thunder has enough to work their way towards a Game 7 in Oklahoma City. Memphis still struggles to score, the referee calls (which were iffy for both teams tonight, despite a veteran crew) could go either way, and Durant’s brilliance could heal all wounds. Wounding all heels from a visiting Memphis group of bashers that would be looking for the series-deciding upset.

This is what happens when a superstar like Russell Westbrook goes down, though. And even if Kevin Durant is more than enough to build a team around, superstars aren’t easily replaceable. Especially in May.