Mike Conley’s game-tying 3 bounced high off the back of the rim as the buzzer rang. Kevin Durant walked over, and wrapped those tarantula arms around Reggie Jackson. And wouldn’t let go.
Who knows what happens next. Who knows if this win just delays the inevitable, or if it’s the kind of night that we reflect on in June as being the defining moment of the season. At this present moment, I don’t care. Because watching Durant hug Jackson like he was a soldier coming home from war is one of those things that kind of transcends the ridiculously incredible game we just watched.
The MVP-to-be, who just suffered through one of the worst games of his life that also happened to be one of the biggest, wasn’t thinking about shooting percentages, or trophies, or scoring streaks. In that moment as he held on to Jackson, it was about the raw survival at all costs, about a team backed into a corner sticking together, and doing something that seemed impossible — winning a game where Durant and Westbrook scored a combined 30 points on 11-45 shooting.
KD said it best after the game: “We just have to figure it out. We can play different ways, that’s the beauty of our team. Hopefully our offense comes around and we start making some shots, but if have to grind it out, we have to grind it out. We just got to figure it out. You can throw Xs and Os in there, or trick plays man, but it comes down to determination, will and heart. All those words, that’s what it comes down to and all those guys in that locker room on our team has that.”
A lot has been going on since the disappointment of Game 3. A lot of rising pressure on Scott Brooks, on Durant, on Westbrook, on the bench — on everyone. In Game 4, it was about facing the music, and answering the call. Durant needed to step up. Westbrook needed to trust his teammates. The bench needed to produce something. Scott Brooks needed to solve the one-dimensionality of the offense.
And really, the Thunder didn’t really accomplish any of that. They just played harder than the Grizzlies, and refused to die. This time it wasn’t about miraculous four-point shots or Kendrick Perkins buzzer-beaters. Despite a mostly awful offensive performance, the Thunder were able to build a 14-point second half lead, and hadn’t seemed to throw their fastball yet. Durant was coming, and when he did, it would be curtains for the Grizzlies in Game 4.
Except it never happened. Jackson carried the Thunder through the third quarter, and started off the fourth rolling on. But the Thunder couldn’t shake those old isolation two-man habits, probably because it’s simply who they are, as Durant and Westbrook traded miss after miss after miss after miss. And like a Zach Randolph fastbreak, the Grizzlies lightly jogged their way slowly back into the game. A Beno Udrih 3, a Conley and-1, a Marc Gasol reverse layup. And when Mike Miller splashed a straightaway 3 with four minutes left to cut the Thunder’s lead to one, it looked like the collapse was complete. It was like watching someone driving a tractor three miles per hour head straight for your dog, knowing the pancaking was coming and there was nothing to do. The gutpunch was on its way, and nothing could stop it.
Then with 1:20 left, Gasol hit from 15 feet and that’s when it all started to become real. The bargaining stage was transforming into the pitiful sadness stage, where you just had to slouch down and take it. The Grizzlies were about to do it again, taking Game 4 and sending the Thunder back to Oklahoma City as the walking dead. Another yakaty-sax possession for the Thunder produced nothing, so Jackson was left with a grenade in his hands. He launched… and hit. Hot damn, new life.
A Durant steal and the Thunder had a 2-for-1 opportunity. Jackson, who inexplicably had been frozen out almost the entire fourth before that 3, had it again and cruised his way to the nail, dropping a floater from the heavens. Tie game, 80-80, 30 seconds left. Gasol missed a difficult leaning jumper, the ball bounced around agonizingly, Serge Ibaka blocked Tony Allen, and Jackson had it again with five seconds left, 80 feet from the basket. Riding high off those last two makes, he pulled the boldest heat check in NBA history, launching from 75 feet with four seconds on the clock. The ball bounced twice, and the clock ran out on regulation.
Back to overtime with a chance to conquer some demons. The Grizzlies had beaten the Thunder three straight times in overtime in the playoffs, two of those coming in Games 2 and 3. The last time the Thunder beat Memphis in overtime — Game 4, 2011, Thunder down 2-1. But that one happened to take three overtimes.
Durant opened the extra frame hitting a smooth jumper, but That Guy nailed another 3 to put the Grizzlies back on top. And that’s where the Thunder started to get it. Westbrook and Durant released their death grip on the offense, handing the keys over to Jackson. The Thunder exposed a mismatch of Miller on Jackson, running high screen-and-roll with Jackson and Perk. First time, Jackson knocked down a 12-foot jumper. Then he got to the free throw line and made both. He missed a good look from 20 feet, but Westbrook soared for an offensive rebound and Durant attacked, getting to the line for two free throws. A stop and another stop, and it was back in the hands of Jackson to ice the game away at the line, putting the finishing touches on a career 32-point performance that saved the Thunder’s season.
It’s impossible not to correlate this Game 4 win to the one from 2011, that happened to take two more overtimes. The Thunder were down 2-1 in that series, and played with a tangible desperation that basically willed them to a must-have win. A lot has happened since then, and the two teams look a bit different. But that night was one that helped a young team seemingly in over its head grow up, and catapult them to a seven-game series win. This one maybe is a different kind of grow-up game, one where a crazy talented, playoff-tested team can shake that sense of frustration and how-will-this-go-wrong-now feeling off.
That 2011 game was something special, a foundational kind of night that established the special resiliency this team plays with. Backed into a corner, pushed to a place where the outside chatter was reaching a fever pitch and fan angst was rising steadily, the Thunder got their result. Who knows what Game 5 holds, but it sure feels like the Thunder are this close to figuring it out. Game 5 in 2011 was a blowout win for the Thunder, where they rode the wave of momentum from Game 4 and ran Memphis out of the gym. Is that the path to follow again? Like Rust Cohle said, time is a flat circle.
- Looking at a box score and seeing “Durant: 15 points, 5-21 shooting” just doesn’t seem right. It’s like I’m in some alternate reality where up is down, down is up, where you say hello when you leave and goodbye when you arrive.
- The story of the game obviously was Jackson, but it really was the total Thunder bench. In Games 2 and 3, the bench produced 23 total points. In Game 4, it had 43. Jackson’s 32 pumps that up nicely, but Caron Butler hit a couple shots in the first half, Nick Collison canned a corner 3 and, well, that’s really it. But still! The bench was great!
- Something that can’t be forgotten: Jackson was 3-21 shooting the first three games. He was completely off, to the point where Brooks had to essentially bench him in Games 2 and 3. His defense was bad and he wasn’t impacting anything. It’s like the Lord of Light had him raised from the dead like Beric Dondarrion (nerd alert Game of Thrones reference).
- Westbrook and Durant couldn’t make ANYTHING. But you’ve got to give it up to those guys. They kept on competing, and doing their best to not let their offense stop them from impacting elsewhere. Durant had 13 rebounds. Westbrook tuned up his defense and was an animal on the offensive boards. Kudos.
- Late in regulation with 30 seconds left, Westbrook came up with one of those absurd skying offensive rebounds, then proceeded to immediately start sprinting with the ball and left his feet to throw it away. Russ: For once, stop running. Slow down, jumpstop, take a breath.
- Where Memphis lost this game: free throws. They shot just 13-23 from the line and had some critical misses, included two in overtime from Mike Miller.
- The Grizzlies went small to spark their late run, which put Zach Randolph on the bench. A risky move from Dave Joerger, but it was obviously effective because it spread the floor a bit better. The run was clearly aided by comically awful offense from the Thunder, but it has to be said: Perk is straight whipping Z-Bo. In 33 minutes, Randolph went 5-14 for 11 points. For the series, he’s 27-75 for 73 points in four games. That’s 18.2 points on 36 percent shooting for one of the best low block players in the game. Tony Allen ain’t the only one playing defense in this series.
- Amazing how a win in a series can change perspectives. Because think of it this way: The Thunder obviously very much could’ve won both Games 2 and 3 had things gone a little more their way. Which means this could’ve been a sweep. But on the other hand, they were within inches of being down 3-1. So 2-2 is fine.
- The fouls and free throws balanced out in the end, but at halftime, the Thunder had taken only four. Late in the fourth, the Thunder had 21 fouls to the Grizzlies’ 12. And watching the way the Grizzlies defended hands on, it was kind of hard to figure out.
- Durant hit a 3 tonight, going 1-7 from deep. Not good, but at least he broke a streak of missing his last 13 from distance.
- Steven Adams played! Only five minutes, but he played.
- Was pretty convinced Conley was going to make that 3. Then I expected Greivis Vasquez to show up and make another one in the second OT.
- There was a play in the third quarter where Gasol had the ball in the high post, with Courtney Lee on the wing. I could see the whole thing happening before it actually did. Westbrook was ball watching as Lee slipped to the corner, then Westbrook went ahead and gambled for a strip on Gasol. And Lee was WIDE open for a corner 3. (He missed it, but still, this is the frustration with Westbrook’s defense. Most of the problems are unnecessary and easily fixable. He needs to get it out of his head that great defense is steals and deflections and blocks. Great defense is staying in front of your man, and making it hard for him to score.)
- Random notes I had written down that now make a lot of sense: “Reggie.” Then, “Reggie!!!” Then, “REGGGGGGGIIIIIIIIEEEEE!”
- Westbrook needs to make the leg flailing follow-through standard. He’s shooting 86 percent on 3s he does that, unofficially.
- We keep telling ourselves “SURELY Durant and Westbrook will snap out of this. SURELY this won’t keep going on.” But who knows, we’re four games in and outside of Game 1, neither has found much offensive rhythm. This may just be the way it is. It may be about getting unlikely production and gutting two more out. Like Durant said though, the Thunder are capable of doing it.
- Did Brooks coach a better game? Or were things as bad as ever? There was some really good, some really, really bad. I just don’t see how Brooks can be held accountable for Durant shooting 5-21 because so many of those looks were clean and the result of solid offense. On the other hand, the two-man nonsense in the fourth quarter is a result of the offensive structure he’s produced, and while they figured it out eventually with Jackson, it was almost too late.
- Total passes tonight per SportVU: 239. More of the same. But again, that’s who the Thunder are, so not surprising.
- Want to take a soapbox second to explain why media are a lot more hesitant than fans to go after coaches. You might say we’re being soft or spineless. But there are two things here: 1) It’s not as easy as you think to write that a guy needs to be fired, and then go and talk to him the next day. Yeah yeah, that’s our jobs, to ask tough questions and speak the truth, but we’re people here and it’s not as easy as you think it should be. And 2) say I went in on Scott Brooks after Game 3 and said he had to go. And then say the Thunder came back to win this series, then went on to win the Finals. Now, I have to be held accountable for that, and I’ll have people saying, “Yeah you’re the guy that wanted him fired” for the next five years. Fans that emotionally lash out don’t have to be held accountable like that. You can fire off your mouth, and nobody is going to remember it. A media person goes on record with it and that stuff can linger. It’s why most of us try and stay as rational and separate the emotions as much as possible.
- Unsung hero: Thabo Sefolosha. He made a shot (!!!) but his defense on Conley was a terrific tone-setter.
- Speaking of defense, pretty sure I saw Jackson playing it pretty well in the fourth quarter. A little offense gets you going all over, man.
- You have to admit, Jackson’s takeover was very, very Harden-ish.
- The Thunder turned it over 21 times. Not good.
- The Thunder got Serge Ibaka involved early, and then Durant found him a few times in the third. But after that, he was basically an afterthought, not getting a shot in the fourth or overtime.
- This needs to be stressed again: The Thunder shot 36.7 percent, went 8-28 from 3, only took 20 free throws, had 12 total assists, had 21 turnovers, Durant and Westbrook scored 30 on 11-45 and Ibaka only had 12. And they won the damn game. Amazing.
- Big stat: 20 offensive rebounds for OKC. The Thunder won the boards 59-49.
- The Thunder got homecourt advantage back, and now it’s a best of three with two of the games in Oklahoma City. This win obviously was monumental, but Game 5 is where it all swings massively in one direction. The Thunder have to seize this moment and make sure they don’t let up. That would be devastating.
Next up: Game 5 at home on Tuesday