The stage was set, the storyline already in place. One way or the other, Game 6 was going to be about Kevin Durant.
With silly headlines and bad box scores hanging on his arms like Tony Allen, Durant was for the first time in his career, backed into a corner. Negative attention was actually descending upon him, and he was feeling individual adversity. He admitted to playing decoy and floor spacer in Game 5, and almost seemed resigned to the fact that maybe this just wasn’t his series.
Durant’s played in more important games — five of them, in fact, called the NBA Finals — but this carried a different kind of weight. There’s barely been a loose word said about Durant, rarely a critical thing written. But with the burden of being an MVP about to be placed on his shoulders, the public seemed ready to finally turn.
And Durant did what we expect the great ones to do. He locked himself into his own world, and took his team to a higher place in a must-win spot. This is a pressure the Thunder and Durant have never experienced, with actual disappointment and dejection facing them. Their coach’s butt was starting to feel some heat emanate from his chair and the two stars were having fingers pointed at them. They needed an answer. They needed their hero to rescue them.
When Durant’s first shot thunked through the net on the Thunder’s first possession, there was almost a feel of “take that” in the air. After a miss on a pull-up, Durant galloped to the rim for an easy layup, something he hasn’t seen many of this series. Another midrange jumper splashed through, with another following a minute later. After a quarter: 14 points on 6-10 shooting.
It was on.
Just four points in the second quarter, but that was because Durant had done his part. One of his greatest qualities is an ability to force without forcing. He slid to the side, and watched as his team turned defense into offense, building a 15-point first half lead. But with the way the series has gone, even an 18-point lead felt tight, and it was on the Thunder to continue to play and hold back the Grizzlies. So jumper by jumper, it was Durant doing the pushing.
He scored another 18 in the second half, shaking loose of Allen for a few clean looks, and finally finding himself at the free throw line. For the first time all series, Durant was in that effortless, easy-chair scoring mode where it looks like he can’t help but put points up. Whether it was the headline, the chatter, or the desperation of the circumstance, the Thunder needed a game from their MVP, and he provided.
“I’m not going to give them credit for nothing,” Durant said of any extra motivation. “We were down 3-2. We needed to win this game.”
And while Durant looking like Kevin Durant again is what we’ll remember from Game 6, there are two other key points to mention:
1) Russell Westbrook played his best game of the series.
2) Scott Brooks coached his best game of the series.
First, Westbrook. He was almost reluctant, but in a very good way. It was clear he was hunting good shots, rather than trying to force bad ones to go in like he was stuffing something in the trash can. He got to his sweetspots in the midrange — just off both elbows — and used that to spark his overall game. He toed the good side of aggressive and crazy, bottling that relentless style without letting it spill over to reckless. It’s no coincidence Durant’s effective night came alongside this. It’s not that Westbrook opened things for Durant — it’s that they opened it for each other.
Second, Brooks. He’s had a rough series and faced a heap or deserved criticism. He’s appeared unprepared and unready at times, commanding an offense that was dysfunctional. With his two stars struggling, there was an insistence that they were merely missing shots, but we could all see the growing issues. A lack of discipline within the offense and little accountability.
But Brooks flexed big time in Game 6, rolling the dice with his precious starting five. He benched the completely ineffective Thabo Sefolosha and started Caron Butler, which made an immediate impact on the offense end. There was room to operate for Durant and Westbrook, as those Memphis defenders were pulled just a step or two out of the paint. Butler hit a couple early shots, and the flow and rhythm of the offense was in a whole new place.
And Brooks didn’t stop there. He dusted off Steven Adams, who spiked five shots in 20 minutes, playing his trademark physical defense and setting soul-crushing screens. In Game 1, Adams played 12 minutes with three blocks and made an obvious impact on the game. The next four, he played a total of nine minutes, with one DNP-CD. But with three games coming in five days, Brooks dug into his bench and was rewarded with the trust. I know, I know — why not earlier, why now? You can look at it that way if you want, and I don’t disagree that Adams needed more time, but the move was made just in time, and it worked wonderfully.
That’s what I expected Game 5 to look like. After the Thunder clawed their way out of Game 4 with a 2-2 split and regained homecourt advantage, it seemed like they were going to turn the page. But those old habits crawled back in, and the Grizzlies ground and pounded their way out.
So: How will Game 7 go? Who knows. While this win provides a brief reprieve, the pressure is still firmly on Durant and the Thunder. The performance tonight was something special, but it won’t matter unless the task is finished Saturday. But for the first time, there’s a bit more hope and belief that they’re capable of finally putting the Grizzlies to bed.
Not because No. 35 is back, though. He never went anywhere. He just needed to remember who he was.
- The Thunder played a really good game in Game 1, despite a rough third quarter stretch. But tonight was obviously the best performance. They actually looked like themselves. They played with pace, energy, urgency and intensity. They controlled the tempo and tone of the game. That’s who they are right there.
- You can’t understate how big-time of a game this was from the Thunder. This was a must-win situation and they just obliterated a good team on the road. The Grizzlies were ready to clinch and dance on Beale Street. But the Thunder went after them. They may still lose Game 7 and we’ll forget all about this. Or we’ll look back on this moment and circle it and that defining, landmark game.
- Durant’s Game 6 wasn’t quite LeBron’s Game 6 in Boston, in more ways than one, but it still wasn’t something else given the circumstances. Durant finished with 36 on 11-23 shooting, plus 10 rebounds. He still went 0-6 from 3, which included a WIDE open look from an extra pass setup by Serge Ibaka (wait what?). But what’s reassuring is that Durant dominated from effective spots, hitting 11-17 from 2-point range, and getting to the line 15 times, making 14 of them. His 36 was quiet, which is just the way Durant likes it.
- Let’s talk about the spark Steven Adams provided. That was some aggressive defensive basketball. His block off the backboard that led to Durant’s run-out dunk was a statement. I thought Adams was trying to pop the ball he swatted it so hard.
- Reggie Jackson played a near perfect game in 29 minutes off the bench. He finished with 16 — some in garbage time — but that’s precisely the kind of bench spark the Thunder need. When Westbrook and Durant provide the front line scoring, if the Thunder get that little extra help, they’re really, really tough.
- Caron Butler’s phone call thing is… odd.
- Just 21 3-point attempts for the Thunder tonight (they made seven). In Game 1, they took 16. In Games 2 through 5, they took 29.2, and never fewer than 28. I sense a trend here.
- I don’t understand though. Why just 48 minutes? Why didn’t they play the final five tonight?
- Suggestion for Game 7′s headline: “Kevin Durant is bad.”
- Overlooked in Durant’s great performance is the fact the Thunder played some top tier defense. They attacked the screen and roll, staying active all over the floor. They didn’t lose weakside cutters or fall asleep on shooters. Durant talked postgame about focusing on defense and letting the rest happen as it would, and it was clear that was the team’s mindset.
- Ibaka has a very solid game, despite just eight points and seven rebounds. His interior defense threw back four shots and he even pump faked from the corner, watched his man fly by, took two dribbles and finished at the rim. It was an amazing moment for everyone.
- The Thunder dominated the boards 47-36, but a lot of that was because the Grizzlies shot just 37.3 percent, so there were a lot of available rebounds.
- OKC, 11 blocks. Memphis, one.
- For really the first game of the series, it certainly felt like the whistle leaned in the Thunder’s favor. Based on the booing and the mentions on my Twitter feed, Grizzlies fans were convinced that this was the greatest reffing injustice in league history, but there is no doubt that the Thunder got some calls. Still, the foul count was 19-19, and the Grizzlies ended up taking three more free throws.
- The best thing the Thunder did was hold down every Grizzlies run. There were a couple of moments where the lead could’ve been trimmed to 12 or 14, but the Thunder always got their stop and eventually, pushed it back up to 17 or 18.
- Mike Conley tweaked a hamstring and tried to play through it briefly, but eventually went to the locker room. That’s a game-changing injury if he’s not 100 percent for Game 7.
- Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones played!
- The Thunder are now 3-0 in games without a four-point play and 0-3 in games with them. This is an important stat.
- I’m curious as to if Thabo’s DNP-CD says anything larger for the future. I think it’s too early to make that assumption, because it’s obvious he hasn’t been a great fit in this series. But against the Clippers in Round 2, should the Thunder be there of course, he will likely be an important piece to defend J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford.
- Why did the broadcast keep making references to being reliable? Is that some kind of inside joke?
Next up: Game 7 on Saturday