A one-game elimination tournament, the NBA playoffs are not.
But boy, that did not go well.
One team looked like the superior group and it wasn’t the one in the home whites. The Grizzlies walked into Oklahoma City and basically just took it to the Thunder in every way. They led early, and they led throughout. They led by as many as 17 and finished it off with a 114-101 win in OKC, snatching homecourt advantage.
The three things I couldn’t stop thinking about the last 48 hours really hurt the Thunder in this one: turnovers, rebounding and Zach Randolph. The Thunder turned it over 18 times, the Grizzlies rebounded 17 of their 45 misses and Randolph finished with 34 and 10. Three strikes and the Thunder’s out.
The first half was fairly miserable, but one of those where it felt like the Thunder could seize an opportunity by just being down 10 going to the break. And they roared out in the second half cutting the Grizzlies’ lead to just three twice. It really had the feel that the Thunder were going to right the wrongs and issues from the first 24 minutes and assert themselves for a good second half battle. But one play really summed it up. After the Thunder got a big stop, Serge Ibaka turned and wildly threw the ball to Russell Westbrook. Memphis picked it off, scored on the next possession and just like that, momentum zapped once again. Despite all the effort and energy out of the gates to start the third, Memphis actually extended its lead to 13 heading into the fourth.
The Thunder tried to come back once again in the fourth quarter, cutting the Memphis lead to seven twice, but again, the Grizzlies withstood. The crowd absolutely begged the Thunder to get back in the game. The energy was there from the fans, but the team couldn’t respond. A number of times the ball just didn’t seem to bounce the Thunder’s way or a suspect call sucked the energy right out of the comeback. But it’s all a credit to the Grizzlies. The composure those guys showed was incredible.
It’s hard not to be impressed with those guys. They took a number of comeback punches from the Thunder and never wavered. The Grizzlies only turned it over eight times. Those guys are tough. They have players. They have talent. They aren’t going down easily. Obviously.
The Thunder lacked a clear amount of energy early on. Maybe it was the noon start. Maybe they took the Grizzlies for granted a bit. But whatever it was, Memphis was the team ready to go when the ball went up.
“We didn’t have any energy. They played harder than us. They fought harder than us,” Durant said. “You can make excuses but that’s not what we’re going to do.”
I’m admittedly a bit of an eternal optimist but this is far from doom and gloom to me. Every issue the Thunder battled today is fairly correctable. Adjusting to Z-Bo is the greatest challenge, but the turnovers can be cut down, the rebounding can improve and the Thunder can absolutely play better. I have no doubt. Before you totally freak, remember that the Lakers dropped Game 1 in Staples to the Hornets. Of course that was seen as an aberration and I’m not saying this was, but it certainly doesn’t mean anything is over.
What this means now though is, the Thunder have to win at least once in Memphis. And Tuesday night too. Lose Tuesday and they’re sunk. That one might as well be an elimination game.
- KD on Zach Randolph: “He’s an animal. He’s an animal … he’s the best power forward in the league I think.”
- The Thunder’s defensive was just worked to the bone in this game. Marc Gasol and Z-Bo combined for 54-23. So much for the Thunder’s new and improved frontline handling things better against them. Memphis scored 52 points in the paint and 14 of their first 20 came inside. The cut, they moved and they made shots. And most importantly, they took care of the basketball.
- KD was very good (33 on 11-21 shooting, plus 11 boards) and Russell Westbrook had a decent night (29-8-6 but seven turnovers). Serge Ibaka chipped in with 16 (11 boards and five blocks) but other than that, the Thunder didn’t get much from anywhere else (21 total). James Harden might as well not showed up (five points, 2-5).
- On Westbrook: I can’t stand that it’s gotten to the point where if he takes a shot and misses, he’s judged. That’s just so stupid. I’m entirely over the excessive, pick-at-every-little-thing negative crap with Westbrook. He’s played this way all year. Nothing is different. What, you want him to change now? Because of his inherently reckless, attacking style, he’s going to turn the ball over. He’s going to take some wild shots in the lane. I will always agree he could improve. He’d tell you the exact same thing. Some nights, he isn’t spectacular. This was one of those nights. But he wasn’t at all the reason the Thunder lost this game. Interior defense, rebounding and team turnovers is.
- KD: “We didn’t have any energy. They played harder than us. They fought harder than us.”
- Lionel Hollins talked about the Nuggets style affecting OKC’s defense. Scott Brooks dismissed that but it’s an interesting thought. The Thunder really looked prepared for Denver’s offensive scheme and not at all ready for the Grizzlies.
- Russell Westbrook on the 18 turns: “It was my fault. I did not take care of the ball. It starts with me. I just have to take better care of the ball.”
- Memphis’s high pick-and-roll with Marc Gasol gave OKC problems. Mike Conley handled it really well and let all the mess clear before passing off to Gasol. How many times was he open around the free throw line? Felt like about 400.
- Via Synergy, Russell Westbrook is shooting 31.8 percent around the rim in half court sets in the playoffs, but 60 percent in transition. That definitely held true tonight where Westbrook missed a number at the rim. All good looks, just unable to put it down. Really as a team, the Thunder stunk finishing at the rim.
- Z-Bo shot right over the top of Ibaka early on, canning three straight shots. Brooks quickly went to Nick Collison who didn’t have a ton of success then tried Kendrick Perkins on him. I think Perk really did the best job because he played Randolph extremely physical and forced him outside a bit more. But that hurt because Ibaka was on Gasol. If OKC is going to win, Ibaka has to step up and play better on Randolph, period.
- If you wanted to gripe about the officiating, I wouldn’t blame you. Know that non-Thunderers won’t listen because of the 32-28 free throw edge in OKC’s favor. I’m entirely biased, but it did seem like the Thunder picked up a couple tacky fouls inside on Randolph when it was just two big guys battling for position.
- I talked to Jimmy Goldstein after the game and one thing I couldn’t help but laugh about was that he had an old school Razor phone. How does he not have a fancy smart phone?
- The kid that lost his toy on the rim at the dunk contest and Ibaka had to rescue it was the halftime performer tonight. I’m beginning to think that whole dunk was staged.
- While Memphis hurt the Thunder badly on the glass, it was kind of a selective thing. The Thunder had 16 offensive boards themselves, but the Grizzlies turned into a bunch of second chance points. In the third quarter where OKC tried to come back, Memphis grabbed eight offensive rebounds alone and scored 12 points off them.
I wouldn’t tell someone to shut up for freaking out a bit after this game. The Grizzlies revealed a bunch of holes in the Thunder’s armor. OKC has flaws and Memphis has the ability to exploit them. The way Gasol and Randolph punished OKC inside was scary. The way the Thunder seemed to lose their composure was worrisome.
But again, it’s one game. The Thunder has to win four out of six now and a game in Memphis. It sounds like a tall task because it is. But a series can turn on its head quickly. Heck, we were all panicked and worried when the Nuggets were this close to forcing a Game 6 in Denver. So pump those breaks just a bit.
Next up: Game 2 in OKC Tuesday.