With the relief of advancing washing over him, Kevin Durant was ready to come clean.
“You guys motivated me a little bit even though I told you that you didn’t,” he said. “I really just looked at all my guys in the eye and didn’t want to let them down.”
Whether it was a silly headline or the steady realization that this thing was about to slip through his fingers, Durant snapped out of the odd malaise that was plaguing him in Games 2 through 5. His Game 6 was a quiet yet forceful 36 points in one of the most pressure-packed nights of his life. Game 7, though? It was vintage Durant — 33 points on an effortless 12-18 shooting, including 5-5 from 3.
“I got out of my own way,” he said. “I was thinking too much, I was worried about what you guys were saying, I was worried about how many shots I was going to shoot throughout the game. I was thinking too much. The game of basketball is played on instincts. And I realized I started playing this game to have fun and I didn’t want to take the pure fun out of the game. I was thinking too much so I just released everything and enjoyed and I knew if played as hard as I could and did the work for my team the results were going to show. I just forgot everything and played my game.”
It’s hard not to blame Durant. Being a team with a target isn’t always easy, especially when you’re about to be named MVP the next week. It was obvious he was pressing, doing uncharacteristic things like missing layups, leaving open 15-footers short and misfiring on free throws. He wasn’t himself.
But Durant’s mood and mindset wasn’t the only thing that changed. Alongside him, Russell Westbrook built off his shockingly steady Game 6, turning in his second triple-double in a Game 7 against the Grizzlies. Yeah, he turned the ball over seven times, but there was a point in the third quarter where I’m positive I’ve never seen Westbrook play better. One play really sticks out: He caught a kickout open on the wing, about 20 feet out. He gave a small pump, beating the closeout and attacking the paint. But instead of doing the typical thing — pulliing up from 15 — Westbrook took one extra dribble, drawing two defenders to him, then kicking to an open Caron Butler who splashed home from the corner. It was like it all sunk in right at that moment for Westbrook, like the light bulb went on and he was able to see the light.
Next possession, more of the same. A high screen and roll, a paint attack, draw kick and three points, this time courtesy of KD. Perfect, simple, smart, effective basketball.
“I was shooting too many, like Kevin said, we were shooting too many walk-up 3s, off the screen and that’s what they wanted,” Westbrook said. “And I just looked at film and saw where I could find open ones and when Kevin would drive, those are the ones I would try to take. I tried to stay attacking the basket and getting my teammates open.”
Westbrook’s final line: 27 points on 10-16 shooting, 2-2 from 3, 10 rebounds, 16 assists and yep, seven turnovers. But he was the offensive monster we all know he’s routinely capable of being, balancing between himself and others absolutely perfectly. There’s a look Westbrook has when he settles into the right gear, when he finds the appropriate pace to play with. And even with the awful jump-pass turnovers, you could see that Westbrook was in the right place offensively. Even with Durant’s 33 on 18 shots, Westbrook was the best player on the floor tonight.
“I have no idea why he takes the flak that he does,” Dave Joerger said. “This man can play. He’s one of the most talented people in the league. It’s unfathomable that he takes that. I just don’t understand it. He was aggressive without being out of control.”
It was always an obvious oversimplification of the Thunder’s play as we watched this series develop, that Durant and Westbrook just needed to play better. Their struggles in Games 2 through 5 was the easy answer to why the Thunder found themselves in four consecutive overtimes, and there was a confidence that their best games were yet to come. Let them figure it out, and the Thunder should be fine.
But as Memphis continued to stay a step ahead defensively, it didn’t seem like those answers were ever going to come. If Westbrook and Durant weren’t going to find better shots, why should we think that they’d soon starting making them? Scott Brooks remained pretty defiant though. Just let the shots start falling, and everything would be fine. And in Game 7, the Thunder made shots. A bunch of them.
Westbrook and Durant combined to hit 22-38, the team shot 60.9 percent from the floor, hitting 11-19 from 3. They had 22 assists, which was, you know, a result of the ball going through the basket more. Some of them were absolutely stupid ridiculous, too. As if the basketball gods were making up for a few of those other games. Westbrook’s running late-clock 3 in the third, Derek Fisher’s rainbow over Kosta Koufos — those were plays that just weren’t going for the Thunder earlier in the series. But as the rhythm of the offense finally settled and Westbrook took control, the world opened up to them.
Now, I’m like 15 grafs in and I haven’t mentioned the big storyline. Zach Randolph didn’t play due to suspension, and Mike Conley was clearly limited. The Grizzlies were in a seriously difficult position already, playing a Game 7 on the road against a great team that seemed to finally be figuring things out. But to be missing a horse like Randolph, and have their key offensive cog be injured, it was going to take some kind of performance. Joerger made the predictable, but smart, move going super small to start with Mike Miller playing power forward alongside Marc Gasol. The floor was spread open and the Grizzlies built a 10-point lead in the first half, spraying in shots and running clean offense through Gasol in the high post.
But that was always going to be difficult to sustain, especially at the pace the game was being played. The Grizzlies aren’t a shot-making team, and with the flow opened up to the Thunder’s preferred tempo, Memphis was essentially inviting the outburst from Durant and Westbrook. It was a truly valiant effort from an overmatched team, with Conley battling his way through 36 difficult minutes and producing a nice game.
The problem was, you can’t beat the Thunder when their superduo is playing like that. That’s always been the design of the team and why those frustrating games in the middle of the series stood out so badly. The Thunder didn’t have secondary options to rely upon — outside of Reggie Jackson in Game 4 — and were a predictable two-man show. But those two are too good to hold down for long, and that was the trust Brooks was operating with. He had to believe the guys that got him here were going to remember who they were. Because there wasn’t any other option.
The Grizzlies made it a scrap, as you’d expect. And the Thunder have to feel fortunate to put this series in the rear view. That’s some kind of a nasty team that is for some reason capable of bringing out the worst in the Thunder. It was seven games of attrition, seven games of crawling through crap, to eventually come out smelling clean on the other side. They’re through one, and they have another one coming their way on Monday. It took seven to get to four, but it’s not always about the journey; it’s about the finish.
- Let’s not forget Reggie Jackson. He started the series 3-21 from the floor, but then saved the Thunder — literally saved — in Game 4 with 32. Then he added 16 in Game 6, and 16 more in Game 7. Steady, solid and precisely the playoff X-factor the Thunder need. The Thunder aren’t playing on Monday night without him.
- I thought Brooks was making a tactical error by staying big against the Grizzlies shrunken frontline, especially because Serge Ibaka has done such a quality job on Marc Gasol while Perk has been wonderful on Randolph. But without Z-Bo, Perk checked Randolph as Ibaka slid over on Tony Allen. And because of Ibaka’s one-dimensional offensive game, it wasn’t something the Thunder could exploit. Still, that group lit up the start of the third quarter, with Perk putting in excellent work on Gasol.
- Shouts out to Perk, who played probably his best series since his time in Boston. He held Randolph down, and even provided some unexpected offense.
- Grizzlies fans might feel shorted — for good reason — but trust me, Thunder fans aren’t going to feel all that sorry for them.
- Durant coming into Game 7 was 12-48 from 3. He hit 5-5 tonight.
- Westbrook in the first five games took 38 3-pointers. In the final two games, just four.
- Caron Butler? Good call, Presti.
- Westbrook joins Rajon Rondo as the only players in NBA history with two Game 7 triple-doubles.
- Miraculously, Mike Miller hit only one 3 and had just that, three points. Also, I found it odd that Joerger went with Jon Leuer with big minutes in the second half, going sort of half big, instead of using Miller who is obviously a wonderful floor spacer.
- The Thunder got to the line 30 times, which has been a really big improvement. Here’s the thing about the free throw count, though: When you don’t take many, people start saying, “Well be aggressive, start attacking and quit settling!” But then when you take a lot because you did those things, you’re getting calls and the refs are bad. Which way is it?
- I thought Ibaka’s pick-and-roll and post defense in the second quarter was some of the best I’ve ever seen from him. He was baiting the Grizzlies to throw entry passes to Gasol, and jumping the lanes. Memphis was almost exclusively in a two-man game, but Ibaka wasn’t letting them execute it at all.
- I can’t be the only one that is maybe more relieved about this because Durant doesn’t have to accept his MVP at a super awkward press conference after being eliminated. That would’ve been so, so brutal. Instead, he looked like the MVP he is, taking over in the two biggest games of the season.
- Steven Adams made another huge impact. He was a -20, but that doesn’t reflect how well he played. Gasol beat him up pretty good in the first quarter, but Adams was active and effective. For eight points and just one rebound, it was a really nice game.
- Game 7 was electric, but this series was won in Game 6. The Grizzlies were full strength that night and had an opportunity to close this out on their home floor. And the Thunder went and obliterated them. If Grizzlies fans want to complain about the league stealing this series from them, they just need to look back at that Game 6 and realize that was the night they really lost it. They had their chance there and didn’t take it.
- There was a bit of grumbling about how the Thunder’s primary pieces in the Harden trade weren’t doing anything, but after Adams’ last two games, it looks like they might have gotten something pretty darn good out of it. Remember: This guy is just a rookie. Think about him after three years of learning and understanding. He’s going to be a stud.
- Another DNP-CD for Thabo, but trust me, he could be important in the next series. And add one for Nick Collison, who with the Grizzlies small, just didn’t have a place on the floor.
- I’m not going to write a mea culpa about some of the criticism on Brooks, because the struggles the Thunder had in this series was real. But you have to give him and the team credit. This is the formula they have, and while sometimes ugly and terrible, it was proven to be effective again.
- That said, I hope some of you learned a valuable lesson about playoff basketball. It’s hard not to get caught up in the game to game momentum and emotion, but it’s not ever officially over until someone gets to four. It was probably harder than it should’ve been for the Thunder, but they’re moving on and that’s what matters.
- Can I just say how terrific Dave Joerger is? So polite, so nice and so good at answering the questions he’s asked. He was giving a few one word answers tonight, but they were still super great. Memphis has themselves a good one.
Next up: The second round in OKC on Monday