Who those guys were Sunday, I have no idea. Because the team that showed up in white tonight was pretty much the exact opposite. In the day off, Scott Brooks did some coaching and the team did some soul searching. Backs to it Tuesday night, they were ready. Really ready.
It’s simple: Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were complete non-factors. Combined, they went just 5-22 for 28 points. Kevin Durant had 25 points, Russell Westbrook was solid, James Harden and Eric Maynor combined for 36 off the bench. But the guys that won this game for Oklahoma City were Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Reason being, it was a completely revamped attack on Randolph. It was obvious on Memphis’s opening possession as Randolph caught the ball on the block and went into his jab-step, pump-fake arsenal, but Ibaka was right up on Randolph. No room to breathe. No room to shoot over the top. The Thunder played Randolph entirely more physical and took him out of the positions he likes to score. This was what we expected in Game 1. This is what we expected from the Thunder’s new and improved front line. The interior was locked down. That’s the way the Thunder are supposed to play.
“I thought Nick did a really good job keeping a body on him,” Scott Brooks said. “For the first three quarters I thought we played as well as anyone could play on Zach.”
It’s odd though because the Thunder still turned the ball over 16 times, still gave up 13 offensive rebounds and still took seven fewer shots. Seemed like a recipe for disaster. But behind the stellar interior defense — and really overall defense (Memphis shot just 44 percent) — the Thunder hit shots. OKC shot almost 53 percent, went 8-14 from 3 and got to the free throw line and converted (27-33). Westbrook was good, Durant did his thing and of course Maynor and Harden went a combined 11-16. I’m not saying the Thunder can’t do that again, but we received the gift of good shooting in this one. A lot of it was because the looks were better and less was forced. But still.
One thing that was different though? The Thunder forced 16 turnovers, meaning the margin was even. That’s the key. Game 1, that didn’t happen and the Thunder paid for it. While OKC gave it away a good amount against tonight, they took it away too, which is the important thing.
The Thunder led by 10 most of the third but Memphis closed to within six and then eight to head to the fourth. I figured the first three minutes of the fourth would essentially decide the game. In those three minutes, OKC, led by its bench, outscored the Grizzlies 10-3 to push the lead to 15. And Scott Brooks did an interesting thing: He hung with the bench. And they did an interesting thing: They extended the lead to 20.
It was a great move by Brooks and really illustrates how his “feel” has improved. I think a year ago, he might’ve stuck with his normal rotation and brought Durant and Westbrook back with eight minutes left. Not that Brooks has never done that, but in a big game and in big moments, Brooks trusted his intuition and his team.
Obviously the Thunder were desperate and needed this. There was pressure. There was anxiety. But the team responded. It’s a series again — not that it ever wasn’t, but some were freaking a bit — and the Thunder are back in position to take control. They have to win in Memphis at some point, but that’s not impossible. Not if they defend like this. Especially if they shoot like this.
- Serge Ibaka left the game after banging knees in the second quarter, but returned. He then came down on it funny late in the game and had to leave. He said after the game he thought it was fine, but he will be evaluated tomorrow.
- Russell Westbrook was good. Not great. Good. He took two more shots than KD (oh no!!!) but had 24 points and six assists. It really just felt like he was more settled into this game. Not forcing near as much, not pressing near as much. He had four turnovers, but two of those came via big men fumbling good passes.
- OKC turned it over seven times in the first quarter and only nine more times the next three.
- KD: “I think we did a great job of starting the game out with great intensity.”
- Westbrook doinked a fast break dunk and it gave the Grizzlies a bit of life at the end as they cut it to six with 40 seconds remaining, but this time, Perk didn’t throw any fullcourt outlet passes out of bounds. The Thunder hit their free throws and closed Memphis out.
- Did you know: Zach Randolph did not score a basket in the second half.
- Harden and Darrel Arthur got into it a bit with Arthur eventually picking up a technical. Arthur hit Harden with a bow to the beard. Harden said of it, “He got me with an elbow, but it’s playoff basketball.”
- Brooks played Perk and Nazr Mohammed for I think, the first time ever tonight. It was OK, but not amazing, but I liked the thought. I liked that he was trying something new, trying to adjust.
- Text from my wife: “I bet James Harden was the one that killed Osama bin Laden. He’s so bad.” Harden had eight in the first quarter tonight. He had five total in Game 1. Harden went 11-11 from the line and just looked like a whole new dude.
- Funny moment in the first half: After a call by Bill Kennedy, Perk went after him arguing it. Kennedy was having none and said something Perk didn’t like. Perk responded with, “Don’t talk to me like that!” To which Kennedy responded, “Don’t scream at me! Don’t scream at me!”
- This game had a very physical feel to it. KD and Shane Battier were really going at it. Ibaka was fighting like mad on the block. Lionel Hollins said: “They were just more aggressive. It was a classic desperate, more aggressive team.” The Grizzlies honestly looked to be on the verge of completely being frazzled and losing their composure.
- Another fan hit a halfcourt shot, winning $20,000. That’s the third this year. As pointed out to me, that makes fans 3-46 this season. A solid six percent.
- KD put on one of the blue Thunder giveaway shirts midway through the fourth quarter. I chuckled quietly to myself about that for a good two minutes.
- The Thunder’s now 23-6 in bounce back games, including the playoffs.
- Collison, a +15 in this one. A game-high.
Things are now set up for a big Game 3. I anticipated a long series. Memphis is a group prepared to fight. The Grizzlies don’t back down. Remember, they took one of two in San Antonio and then took it to the Spurs after that in Memphis. The same fate could await the Thunder. The plan tonight, worked. It worked really well. But Lionel Hollins isn’t going to sit on his hands. Randolph isn’t just going to accept it. The Grizzlies will come ready Saturday. And the Thunder better be too.
Next up: At Memphis Saturday.