If there’s a game to illustrate that maybe it’s just not meant to be this season, it was this one.
The Thunder seemingly fixed it all. They were defending, and finally, they were making shots. They were playing some basketball in that first half. They built a 17-point lead and best of all, were in a terrific flow. KD was dropping 3s, the transition game was cruising and the Thunder weren’t holding on for dear life for once. They had a lead, and they were building it.
Timeout Memphis, with 4:26 left in the first half. And over that final 4:26, the Grizzlies chipped a 17-point margin to eight heading into the break. There was 24 minutes to go after that, and spoiler alert, five more after that, but it certainly feels like the Thunder missed an opportunity to go for a kill shot.
And in the end, they paid dearly for it.
It feels weird to say the Thunder lost an overtime game with four sort of bad minutes to finish the second quarter, but I can’t get that 17-point lead out of my head. And here’s the thing: The Grizzlies made a push early in the third, and OKC punched back pushing the lead to 10 after a Durant 3. The Thunder seemed to be absorbing everything and answering firmly.
For the first time since Game 1, Kevin Durant got the help he needed. Serge Ibaka was extremely impressive in bouncing back from his difficult Game 3, Kevin Martin was scoring and Reggie Jackson was doing it all. Durant got a little short breather in during the first half, but with his guys helping him, he was set up to take the baton and run OKC to the finish line.
But for a third straight game, KD failed to close. He went just 2-13 in the fourth and overtime for five points tonight to finish the game, after going 8-14 for 22 the first 36. Does he shoulder some of the blame? Sure. KD would even tell you that. He needed to be better. The Thunder don’t have that old luxury of surviving anything poor from KD. But pointing the finger at him exclusively is absolutely, entirely, completely unfair. He’s being required to be near perfect every second he’s on the floor. It’s a ton to ask of him, especially when he’s never really had to do it, ever.
Plus there’s this: Durant didn’t get the help in his own game he typically relies on. In that he only got to the line three times, and only once on a foul call, and it was a rip move. I’m not going to sit here and complain about the officiating, but it’s hard to completely ignore the impact it had on the game. The Thunder didn’t get a lot of calls, notably one at the end of regulation where Z-Bo reached in on KD.
It’s basically this: Durant has to get “help” to keep the game close, and then he has to win it by himself. Is that a trust a problem? Is that a supporting case problem? Is that a dear-God-we-need-Russell-Westbrook-so-so-so-so-bad problem?
And that help KD got? The final box score looks like he got a lot of it, but most of it came in the first half. Ibaka scored four of his 17 in the second half. Jackson six of his 15 in the second half. Martin seven of his 18 in the second half. And then there’s this: The Thunder had 13 assists in the first half, six in the second half and overtime.
Still, the Thunder were right there again. Three minutes left in regulation, it’s 89-88, Thunder. Two minutes left in overtime, it’s 98-97, Grizzlies. The simple fact is the Thunder aren’t making the necessary critical plays to win. It’s reminiscent of the Finals in a lot of ways that the series is being played on a knife’s edge, and the Thunder are the team coming up on the short end of everything important.
Some of those critical plays not going OKC’s way: 1) Reggie Jackson’s charge with 1:20 left in overtime; 2) KD losing the ball in transition late in the fourth; 3) KD and Thabo having a 2-on-1 and not finishing it in the fourth; 4) Fisher’s Brett Favre pass to Martin; 5) the offensive rebounds for the Grizzlies at the end of the fourth quarter; 6) Z-Bo’s offensive rebound in the paint with the ball sitting on the ground and three Thunderers looking at it; 7) KD slipping on that pull-up jumper late in overtime. All of it just went against the Thunder. That’s the way it goes in the postseason. OKC normally is the team coming out on top in these situations as the other guy scratches his head and wonders how it got away. Not right now.
Quick, but important note: It might feel like it, but this series actually isn’t over. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit is extremely difficult to do, and it’s only been done eight times in NBA history. But the Thunder are indeed right there. They could’ve swept tonight had things broken their way more. They have to win once at home, then steal the game they needed in Memphis, and then they’ve got a Game 7 in their building. It’s possible.
And here’s a brightside: It seems like the Thunder are sort of figuring out themselves post-Westbrook more. There are still rough patches and the inconsistency, specifically with Durant, is confusing, but the Thunder are better today than they were in Game 4 against the Rockets.
They still have a pulse. They’re on life support and the doctor is pressuring the family to pull the plug right now. But they’re alive. They have a chance and while they have to figure out how to finish, they’re not completely sunk. Yet.
- Briefly considered just posting “IT HURTS” and leaving this recap at that. Because that’s how it feels.
- Serge Ibaka started the game 5-8. He finished it 1-5.
- It was a great thing to see Ibaka shooting the ball so well early on, though. His confidence was back and he was decisive with his jumper. But he couldn’t find anything clean in the second half and missed a couple decent looks.
- When it comes to Collison and Z-Bo, the whistle really only goes one way. That sounds like complaining and who I am kidding, it is, but Collison can’t catch a break. He’s now fouled out three times in this series after fouling out only twice in the regular season.
- Can you imagine how many free throws KD would shoot if he got the off-ball fouls Z-Bo does? It would be all of the free throws. OK, I’m done now.
- It’s official: Derek Fisher’s deal with the devil has expired. He hit that big 3 in overtime and it looked like he might’ve saved OKC again, but then he made that pass to Martin and it was definitely all over. Sell your soul one more time before Game 5, Derek.
- I’m gonna defend Fisher’s pass for a second: Martin was very clearly open. Fisher did two things wrong: 1) He bounced it and 2) he didn’t throw it as soon as Martin was open. The play obviously wasn’t for Martin, but the Grizzlies were so focused on Durant, they overplayed. If Fisher had been able to anticipate that a bit more, and Martin too, that’s an easy bucket for OKC. It wasn’t a bad idea. It just went horribly wrong.
- Raise your hand if you were yelling “WOLF!” at the TV when Conley snuck up behind KD on that fourth quarter break.
- The Thunder had 10 assists in all of Game 3. They had 11 after the first 20 minutes tonight. Then they had only eight more the final 33 minutes.
- In the series coming in to tonight, Ibaka was 0-11 in the first quarter. He scored nine points with seven boards in the first tonight.
- I get that KD shot a lot of jumpers tonight, but you’re telling me he wasn’t fouled one time in the act tonight (outside of the rip move)? That just feels very unlikely.
- It’s a shame Collison fouled out, because he was playing a very Collison-y game. His best yet of the series.
- Randolph picked up a second foul and was subbed for Darrell Arthur in the first quarter. Brooks immediately counted by going small with Kevin Martin checking in for Perk. OKC promptly finished the quarter on a 15-6 run.
- The Grizzlies only turned it over seven times. Their ability to take care of the ball is incredible.
- A lot of people are assuming KD’s minutes are the reason he’s bogging down late. I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s that the game is getting bottle-necked. He, and the Thunder, are getting squeezed when the game gets tight. Without a playmaker like Westbrook to keep the attention of defenders, there’s so much attention on Durant late. The Grizzlies are basically rolling the dice and just seeing if KD can beat two and three defenders at a time. So what do you want? KD to give it up to someone else, or to force up a difficult shot? You can’t have both. If KD gives it up and Martin or Jackson miss, you’re screaming at KD to shoot every time. Since he put up the shots tonight and missed, now you’re wondering if he’s wilting. It’s hard to score on a defensive team in the playoffs in crunchtime. Even if you’re Kevin Durant.
- You know who needs to produce more? Thabo Sefolosha. He’s quietly not done anything offensively the past four or five games.
- I thought Brooks used Perk very wisely tonight. He played 24 minutes, and probably wouldn’t have played any in the fourth or overtime had Collison not been in foul trouble.
- Perk’s defense on Z-Bo at the end of regulation was tremendous. Too bad it didn’t end up mattering.
- OKC’s smallball with Durant defending Gasol has a very good look to it. Especially offensively. It feels risky, but I think Brooks needs to trust that unit more in the fourth of Game 5.
- Clever adjustment by Brooks to start the game with Ibaka on Gasol and Perk on Z-Bo. It didn’t create any great mismatch, but it was something new and I think it helped clear Ibaka’s head a bit.
- Curious decision by Brooks to not play Martin late in regulation. But here’s the reasoning, I think: Brooks wanted to be big with Collison and Ibaka, so he had only three spots to fill between Durant, Jackson, Martin, Sefolosha and Fisher. Obviously KD is getting one spot, and Jackson has earned the other. Now you’re picking between Martin, Sefolosha and Fisher, and in the circumstances, Memphis was running a lot of pick-and-roll with Conley, and Thabo was probably the best defender to use on him. If you go with Martin, Jackson has to take Conley and while you pick up something offensively, you’re hammering it to Durant anyway. This is why I think going small, while again, risky, might be the better play.
- I’ll be that guy because even though it doesn’t make me feel any better, it sort of feels good to say: This series is already over with a healthy Russell Westbrook.
Next up: Game 5 at home on Wednesday.