I was in the Thunder’s locker room an hour before tip-off in a Western Conference semifinal Game 7. I stood there for a minute, looking at every player sitting in their chair next to their locker. I was trying to get a good sense of what the feel was. What the players might be thinking, how they were feeling. I know that I was so nervous that I needed to carry around a barfbag all day, but 60 minutes to tip, those guys were ice cold.
Joking, laughing and chatting just like it was a December game against the Raptors coming at them. The arena was filled with about as much nervous tension as it could possibly have, but the Thunder were all business. Just a quiet intensity. A reasoned focus. This was the biggest game of any of their lives — a Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals for crying out loud — and they weren’t about to get tight. They were playing at home in front of their people which meant everything was going to be fine.
And they had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. In order to beat the Grizzlies, the Thunder were going to need something big from at least one. Two, and things would look good. But all three? The Thunder are darn near unbeatable. Harden hit three straight 3s in the third and finished with 17 off the bench. Russell Westbrook put up the first triple-double in a Game 7 since Scottie Pippen in 1992 (14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds). And KD, well, he was KD.
A lot went wrong in Game 6. KD most decidedly was not KD. He went 3-14 for just 11 points. With a player like KD, that’s just not happening twice, not in the biggest moment, not in the crucial time his team needed something from him. He started just 2-9 but after that, went 11-16. He finished with 39 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and hit key shot after key shot throughout the game. He had that Durantula look to him where he wasn’t about to be denied something he wanted.
The Thunder played well in the first half, holding an eight-point edge at the break. Things were good, but with the way Game 6 went, cautiously optimistic. OKC needed to survive the start of the second half again, holding Memphis off while still hanging on to a lead. A few times the Grizzlies got it to four, once to three. The Thunder picked up three technicals, started 0-5 from the floor and appeared to be teetering on disaster once again.
But for seven minutes with Thabo and Serge Ibaka on the floor, the Thunder were just a -2, holding a six-point lead as reinforcements arrived. After Harden and Collison entered, the Thunder finished the quarter up 14, meaning they were +16. Those five minutes were what took this game for the Thunder. Harden drilled a 3, Westbrook found KD in transition for a 3 and then Harden splashed another triple to end the quarter. It wasn’t over at that point, but whatever push Memphis had was snuffed out right there and it was just a matter of finishing.
And evidently, the Thunder finished well enough because Nate Robinson played and gave OKC fans their victory cigar by dropping a 3.
It’s hard not to want to savor this one, but reality is, things kick back up in two days. In two days, it’s on to Dallas to take on an extremely well rested and ready Maverick team. But let me savor for a moment. Think back to all the ups and downs this series had. Remember when the Thunder lost Game 1 at home and many felt like everything was already over? Remember when the Thunder blew a 16-point lead in Game 3 and everyone felt like it was a missed opportunity? Remember when everyone decided Russell Westbrook was the Worst Person Ever? Remember when the Thunder scored just 29 second half points in Game 6 and made us all spend a couple days gnawing on our fingernails? All of that piled up to a classic seven-game series. It’s good to have homecourt advantage and it certainly paid off for the Thunder Sunday.
This team has always bounced back well. It’s now at 25-6 on the season. It’s a stat worth repeating all the time. But whatever they had in them today, it was just right. They kept their heads and kept their faith. They never doubted their games. They trusted each other and despite all of us panicking three or four hundred different times, they just stayed with it. I’m not saying this team is championship ready by any means, but the Western Conference Finals? This year? Right now? That’s pretty darn sweet.
- A word on Nick Collison: He’s my MVP of the series. He was terrific every game and in this one didn’t have the No-Stats type of box score we’ve all gotten used to. This time he grabbed 12 rebounds, had eight points, three blocks and put up a sparkling +26 in 33 minutes. He basically put Ibaka — one of the Thunder’s most important players, mind you — on the bench for most the night.
- With Harden and Collison on the floor, the Thunder outscored Memphis 70-49. Without them, it was 41-35 in Memphis’s favor. Think about that.
- The Thunder turned it over just twice on the first quarter. That was a nice change.
- I’m not sure I knew exactly when KD was about to turn things on, but despite his slow start, he always kept a look about him. He knew he was going to get it going and indeed he did.
- Scott Brooks added a clever offensive wrinkle to this game which really helped. And wouldn’t you know it, it was only effective with Harden on the floor. The Thunder ran pick-and-roll with Westbrook and Durant, leaving Harden on the weakside elbow-ish area. Then they’d bring it back around and run pick-and-roll with Westbrook and a big man, with Harden strongside as KD operated off a weakside screen. It was lovely.
- KD summed up his last performance simply: “That wasn’t me at all in Game 6.”
- To recap Perk’s day, he nailed a 15-footer and dunked. I have no comment.
- I was extremely worried about what would happen coming out of the break. Harden needed to start the second half. The reason I use to think that it was good for him to come off the bench was because he really got to control the second unit. At times, he seemed to struggle figuring out how to fit next to Durant and Westbrook. Now, it looks like he’s figuring that out. All that offensive action if really just effective with him on the floor.
- The Grizzlies had just three assists at the half and finished with a total of 13. They were the stagnant team in this one.
- I really like how everyone is praising Westbrook today saying things like, “See, that’s what I’m talking about!” If you really watch this tape closely and compare, I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot different Westbrook than other games. He took fewer shots, but it was a product of not having to. He actually had open men to pass to. If you give Westbrook a strong cut or a good screen and an open man, he’ll find him. Yes, sometimes he can call his own number a bit too much, but him being a so-called “true” point guard is more of a product of the entire Thunder offense running well. He’s at the head of that, but as people that watched him all year, this sort of game isn’t a shocker really. He’s put up a number of these games this season where he controlled pace, tempo and the game well.
- Small adjustment from KD today was the use of a pump fake. I don’t think I’ve seen that from him yet this series. Tony Allen bit every time.
- The Thunder won this game because they shot the ball really well. In Game 6, they went 4-25 from 3. In this one, they went 11-28. Simply shooting well can make a world of difference.
- With about 30 seconds remaining, the arena erupted into a “We want Dallas!” chant. It was awesome.
- Here’s where I feel the obligation to give props to the Grizzlies, because that was a terrific series. That’s one tough, gutty team right there. Remember, they were missing maybe their best player in Rudy Gay. In the end, the Thunder’s superior talent won out but not for a lack of effort from Memphis.
Next up: Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Tuesday in Dallas.