After the final Grizzlies player had his name announced, the lights went dark in The Peake and the new pregame video flashed on the big screen. A black screen, with a white outline of the state of Oklahoma and one word with it.
That word is part of Oklahoma’s fabric, and has been since that terrible day in April, 18 years ago. Oklahomans take incredible pride in being resilient, in standing in the face of odds and challenges and overcoming. They say this team has become part of the community it plays in, and in a lot of ways, has adopted the characteristics of this city. I can think of one very specific characteristic this city shares with the 15 players that wear its name on their jersey.
Without Russell Westbrook, despite shooting 5-22 in the first quarter, despite a nine-point deficit to start the fourth quarter, despite a horrific turnover down two with 1:07 left, despite being backed into a corner for 48 minutes and playing from behind, the Thunder stood tall. They didn’t waver.
And they won Game 1.
When Quincy Pondexter snuffed out a strong third quarter finish with a wild double-clutch halfcourter to put Memphis back up nine heading to the final 12 minutes, it seemed like the Thunder’s last flare had been shot. The life was sucked out of the arena, the team’s shoulders sagged. A nine-point deficit to the Grizzlies is often a 19-point to everyone else. The Thunder had their work cut out for them ahead, and maybe the most important 12 minutes they’re going to have this postseason.
Derek Fisher — who again, was spectacular — steadied the rocking boat with an opening 3 that cut it to a two possession game. Kevin Martin sprung to life again. The Thunder found their defensive spirit again. There were about 15 critical plays in between to make it even possible, but with it all in his hands, down one with 15 seconds left, Kevin Durant. Just Kevin Durant. He’s a noun and a verb. At least when we’re talking about clutch.
“We made a good defensive play and they have such a great team defense that I wanted to get up the court as quick as possible and find a shot,” Durant said. “That was the only shot I think I could find and by the grace of God, it went in.”
The sequence was indeed a minor miracle. Fisher was beat on a Mike Conley drive, but out of desperation was able to poke the ball from behind. It fell perfectly into the hands of Durant, who then made an immediate push. It was exactly as the Thunder drew it up. No, I’m serious. In the timeout, that’s precisely the plan Scott Brooks put in place. Force a steal, grab a long rebound and if the ball is in the right guy’s hands, no timeout. Push ahead for a quick shot.
“During that timeout I said if we get a stop, and it’s in Kevin’s hands, or a long rebound in the right guy’s hands, push,” Brooks said. “We don’t want the defense to get set. If we don’t get a stop, call timeout. Or, if we get a stop and it’s not in the right guy’s hands, we’re going to call timeout.”
Said Fisher: “That’s why Scotty is a phenomenal coach. Our assistant coaches were yelling and saying the same thing. As soon as I saw Kevin get possession of the ball, I instantly knew we were going to just take off and run with it. It was exactly the way the coaches said if it happens this way, this is what we’re going to do.”
Said Perk: “I knew that was a bucket. I ain’t trying to be arrogant, seriously. I just knew that shot was going in … I knew he was going to touch ’em up. KD lives for those type of moments. He’s just got a gift.”
There was a tangible sense of desperation for the Thunder in those final two minutes. They had come so far to tie the game at 84-84 with 3:46 left. They had scrapped their way, pulling out the stops with a great adjustment to smallball to spark the run, then back to two bigs to not allow another. They battled on the boards, allowing only eight offensive rebounds to Memphis for four second chance points. They had to have this Game 1, and they played like it.
I don’t know how good these guys are and if they can even beat the Grizzlies. But I felt pretty confident that winning Game 1 was paramount. These players are only human. They’re realistic. When Westbrook went down, a source close to the team told me they genuinely felt like their championship shot had vanished like a fart in the wind. They were convinced they could beat Miami four times. But with no Westbrook, what were they really playing for anymore? I don’t blame them for feeling that way. Even with KD and a pretty deep roster, the path to even the Western Finals looked far more long and winding than it ever has.
A loss in Game 1, at home, against a team everyone thinks is better than you, and those feelings might’ve been reinforced. I think Game 6 in Houston proved a lot to everyone, including the actual team, that there is still a very good team in place. Kevin Durant is God’s gift to beautiful scoring and with Kevin Martin adjusting into a much more aggressive scoring role, Reggie Jackson blossoming and Thunder defense making a return after a brief sabbatical, there’s still something there.
But I think there’s some belief brewing in that Thunder locker room. Like I said after Game 6, it’s not longer the long view of the postseason we had when things started, where you’re looking ahead to potential matchups and how well they’re playing. It’s day-by-day, game-by-game. It’s about surviving one day, one game, and getting to the next.
The Thunder need three more wins for the chance to return to the Finals. And then four more after that to get there. But nobody is looking that far ahead anymore. Because you can’t. It’s one down, next one up. And with each one, they’re going to believe a little bit more. They showed it today in Game 1. They fought. They clawed. They scrapped. They played with an incredible spirit and toughness that they’ll have to duplicate time and again. They absolutely wouldn’t give in when there were acceptable times to do it. They resisted.
And they won Game 1.
- Kevin Durant: 35 points on 13-26, 15 rebounds, six assists, three turnovers. This guy. This guy.
- Down 12 late in the third, Brooks went small for the first time. That group — Fisher, Martin, Durant, Jackson and Collison — played seven minutes together and was a +7. Brooks obviously was trying to save that lineup as a break-in-case-of-emergency moment, and it clearly was. Deployed at the perfect moment, it was the necessary spark OKC needed. Wait, that’s exactly what Scotty said about it.
- Brooks: “I thought it gave us a little spark that we needed … Small lineup, big lineup, hybrid lineup, we try them all. That’s how we play. That’s our package. And we throw it out there just about every game and we fluctuate it from game to game.”
- Serge Ibaka suffered through one of the worst games shooting he’s ever had (1-10, five points) and while he didn’t stuff the statsheet with rebounds (five) or blocks (three), he was terrific. He defended Zach Randolph as well as I’ve ever seen him, even outperforming Nick Collison in that area.
- Ibaka: I’m here today about my defense. I know people know I can make shots but my first option on this team is defense. And tonight I didn’t make shots. That happens to everybody, man. Everybody. Michael Jordan, everybody. But I wanted to be focused and play some D. Defense wins championships.”
- Again, the Thunder allowed only eight offensive rebounds, and four second chance points. That’s incredible. “I see that being something being a key all series,” Ibaka said. “It’ll be tough on me to get rebounds but I will try to make sure my guy doesn’t get offensive rebounds too.”
- It’s a footnote now, but whoops, Reggie Jackson. OKC up three with with a couple seconds left and he fouls Pondexter on a 3. Almost completely disastrous. But Pondexter, facing a blue ocean of noise, missed the first. He made the second, missed the third on purpose and OKC tipped out the rebound to survive.
- Against the pressure Memphis defense, Jackson only turned it over once.
- Mostly across the board, stats were way even. Memphis went 35-82, OKC went 33-80. The Grizzlies hit seven 3s, OKC hit five. Eleven turnovers for Memphis, 10 for OKC. Each team had 22 fouls. The Grizzlies took 24 free throws, OKC took 25. Biggest statistical difference: OKC missed only three freebies, Memphis missed 10.
- Ice-cold free throw shooter: Reggie Jackson.
- The two teams each had horrifically bad offensive starts, combining for 12-45 shooting in the first quarter. That’s the advantage of playing Memphis. A more explosive offensive team and the Thunder might’ve been down 28-14 after a quarter. Instead, it was only 16-14.
- I think the slow starts had more to do with each team adjusting to a complete contrast in style from their prior series, and less to do about the noon start. The Thunder were now in a slow-down, possession-by-possession game where they weren’t chasing 3-point shooters everywhere. Took a second to get used to it.
- Kevin Martin’s last two games: 50 points, 15-27 shooting, 6-10 from 3.
- Perk on Martin’s breakout: “I always use the phrase it’s a minor setback for a major come-up. I watch K-Mart come in and put his work in every day at the gym. It may not come when you always want it, but it’ll come on time.”
- The subtle brilliance of Brooks not calling timeout: a) it let his players freelance, which they’re better at; b) it didn’t let Memphis get set and match up and c) it didn’t allow Lionel Hollins to sub. Tony Allen was on the bench as KD dropped that shot through.
- Mike Conley on if it was tougher on them for OKC to not call timeout on that shot: “When you got KD, I don’t think it really matters.”
- Hollins on if he feels like one slipped: “No, they earned it. They earned it.”
- Hollins: “Kevin Durant’s a great player and he got going and made some big shots. Talk about whatever you want to talk about, but he made those shots. The last one the break when they were down one, not everybody is making that shot at that particular point.”
- Because everyone is asking constantly even though I feel like I’ve said this five times already: Westbrook isn’t on the Thunder bench, but instead is sitting in a suite. He leg is still immobilized and he’s supposed to get up and move around every few minutes.
- Tayshaun Prince LOVES palming the ball.
- Hollins was asked why he didn’t use Tony Allen on KD any, which has been a tactic in the past: “That’s a few years ago … Durant’s a few years older … when we put him on him in the season, he just took him to the post. And it causes us to help way too much when Durant’s in the post on a smaller guy.”
- Fisher man. Fisher. The guy just has a crazy knack for stuff. One might call that… *shades*… intangibles.
- Fisher on his poke: “At that point, that was the only defensive play I could make, was to try and get a hand on the ball … thank the Lord my arms are long even though I’m not tall.”
- Fisher in the postseason: 13-21 from 3.
- Perk’s inbounds fumble. Oof City. That drew a lot of attention, which is a shame, because Perk was absolutely fantastic in defending the Memphis pick-and-roll and keeping Gasol off the block as much as possible in the fourth.
- The Thunder had possession up one with 3.9 seconds left. Gasol was defending the inbound pass, but completely turned around. It would’ve been massively gutsy, but Thabo could’ve thrown the ball off Gasol’s butt and easily run out the final 3.9 seconds.
- The Thunder crowd was awesome, even a little too awesome at times. They started chanting “Reg-gie!” as he shot the free throws to seal it.
- Thabo made a massive play on Memphis’ second-to-last possession. It started with a tipped inbound pass from KD that forced Gasol to catch a little further out, then Ibaka cut off Z-Bo perfectly on a cut, and Thabo was all over the kickout with his long arms. Great play.
- With 4:16 left after OKC came up with a big stop, Martin came running over to Brooks yelling “That play! That play!” requesting to run a specific play of some kind. Then Martin ran over and told Durant and Fisher. I was all excited to see what this play was all about. I figured it was going to be like a sure thing bucket. I think it was supposed to be a high screen and roll decoy with Fisher flaring on the right wing for 3. But KD threw a blind pass and Mike Conley picked it off. Oops.
- Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but why isn’t Tony Allen guarding Reggie Jackson? Allen would be on Westbrook, and Jackson is in a lot of ways Westbrook. I think Hollins is missing something here.
- KD got two rip moves fouls in the second quarter which promoted Hollins to scream at ref Bill Kennedy, “Where do want him to put his f—ing hands, Bill?! In his ass?”
- Kevin Martin’s stuff on Pondexter. And then he won a jump ball. What?
- Austin Daye has the exact same build as KD. And is 10 percent as good. That’s probably way too generous actually.
- It was awkward to start the game because OKC took so long to score its first basket. The Grizzlies started on a 7-0 run and OKC called timeout. Fans were confused what to do, then ended up sitting. Which great disappointed me. I thought it would be way cool for them to have stood for the timeout. They got back up when play resumed though.
- You know who stood for almost the entire timeout though? Jimmy Goldstein.
- Keep in mind: The Grizzlies have been in this position before, just with their last series. They were even down 0-2 and won four straight. They’re not worried.
Next up: Game 2 in OKC on Tuesday.