Thunder ambush the Grizzlies early, but have to hang on for Game 1

BOX SCORE

At halftime, the Thunder led the Grizzlies 56-34 in what was a complete, diabolical beatdown. The way the Thunder swarmed and suffocated a good Grizzlies team made it seem almost a miracle when Memphis stumbled their way to two points.

But it was funny, because even with a 22-point lead, it felt like it should’ve been more like 62 with the way Oklahoma City absolutely demolished Memphis. The way the Thunder played, though, gave a look like yep, they were simply just waiting for this to turn off the dimmer and go full sun. They had the look of a potential playoff buzzsaw, taking that coasting nonsense from the last month and punting it from the top row of Loud City.

And then the third quarter started.

The script flipped completely. It was the Thunder’s turn to completely implode offensively, dribbling the ball of their feet, throwing passes to ghosts, taking horrific jumpers in bad situations. In fewer than five minutes, the Grizzlies produced half of their entire first half output, forced two timeouts by Scott Brooks. And it didn’t get better. Down to 11. Down to nine. Down to seven. Down to five.

Down to two.

Kevin Durant, who was clearly having issue with Tony Allen’s typical defensive tenacity, slid past him and fired a bullet to Serge Ibaka for an and-1 dunk. Two steals and three Thunder free throws, then a Durant dagger from deep took OKC’s back to 10 with 7:16 left, and with the Grizzlies running out of gas, seemed to put out the fire.

You see, Dave Joerger rolled the dice in a big way in the second half, essentially running his starting five (sans Tayshaun Prince) into the ground to try and spark a comeback. And it worked as Memphis trimmed the Thunder’s lead to two. But those horses can only run so long, and a well-rested Thunder eventually just grit and ground the Grizzlies down. After Durant popped that 3, in checked Russell Westbrook after an extended rest on the bench. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph both approaching 40 minutes already, there was just no chance they be able to withstand another frenetic Thunder burst.

“It’s about bending and not breaking,” Durant said. Another way to put that: It’s about winning, not losing. And the Thunder won. Which despite the ugly phrases within the game, that’s what truly matters.

The story of the game though, at least after 24 minutes, was destined to be how Westbrook’s presence made a noticeable, significant difference compared to the Thunder’s five-game elimination to the hands of the Grizzlies last postseason. That third quarter slip changed that a bit, but still, a 1-0 series lead behind a somewhat dominant 100-86 win left a few sour flavors on the taste buds, but certainly a different feeling than the skin-of-their-teeth nature the Thunder won Game 1 last playoffs against Memphis.

Westbrook’s burst of unbridled ferocity was felt from tipoff as he essentially ambushed the Grizzlies in the first quarter with 10 points on 4-5 shooting, plus four rebounds and two assists. That kind of tone-setting was missing last postseason as the Thunder stammered their way around offensively, trying to hope Durant could do things.

“Last year, I put one of our guys, Donte Greene, in a red jersey and just told him to go like heck up and down the floor, you know, acting like Kevin Durant or whatever,” Joerger said pregame. “Well, I couldn’t pull out two red jerseys yesterday. That’s essentially what it is. There’s not just one guy to key on.”

And it wasn’t just Westbrook’s individual performance, which was mostly great — 23 points on 8-19 with 10 rebounds and five assists — but how he cleared the deck for Durant. In the five games against Memphis last postseason, Durant averaged 28.8 points on 42.1 percent shooting, with 4.4 turnovers a game. Tonight, Durant was able to shake free of that Grizzly defense, popping them for 33 on 13-25, plus seven assists. He was far more in rhythm, playing the style of game he so clearly prefers.

“It felt good,” Durant said of having Westbrook back. “He’s one of the top five players in the league, so you’ve got to be conscious of him on the court. Tonight, he did it all for us. He was running the basketball extremely well, got everybody the ball and scored at a high rate. He makes it a lot easier for everybody, not just myself. Tonight, he wreaked havoc on both ends of the floor.”

Again, the Thunder were in this same spot last postseason after a game against Memphis. But that had significantly different vibe, a fleeting feeling of confidence. It was a win, but without much conviction. This, despite the 12-minute hiccup, felt convincing. That first half was a caged animal being freed to feast, and the Thunder stomped their way to that lead. The Grizzlies looked like a team unready to play, and the Thunder like the powerhouse they’re capable of being.

One doesn’t equal four, though, and the Grizzlies push in the third surely gives them confidence going forward. But things seem like they should be different this time around. Because unlike that last Game 1 win against Memphis, Russell Westbrook is going to play in Game 2.

NOTES:

  • The Thunder let things slip, yes, but hoo boy, that first half. That’s what we’ve been waiting to see. That’s what we got a taste of against the Spurs and Clippers. That kind of defense is what can win them a title. The Grizzlies started the game 5-of-29 from the floor after the first quarter, and basically every bucket they had in the first half was either in transition on from a putback. If they were forced to run a halfcourt set, it was going inside five seconds on the shot clock, and they weren’t getting points.
  • Credit to Joerger and his staff for the second half adjustment, though. Getting Tayshaun Prince off the floor (illness) helped quite a bit, but the Grizzlies started spacing and moving, using ball screens to set up their post entry passes. In the first half, it was all stagnant, and they were just isolating everything. Second half, Conley was driving the paint, finding cutters and making plays. I’d expect the Grizzlies to really try and focus on the positives from that third quarter, because that was good offense.
  • Caron Butler did a little to show why the Thunder brought him in. A couple first half shots, and a critical fourth quarter dunk that gave OKC a solid spark. Said Brooks, “I think Caron’s dunk probably surprised 18,203 fans, as well as the staff and players.”
  • Butler on his dunk: “It felt good. I’ve been taking care of my body as a tribute to the training staff and got my body fat down, so that was big. It felt good to get up.”
  • Westbrook on the third quarter, where he got sloppy: “As a point guard, my job is to set the tone. And I didn’t do a great job of that in the third quarter, coming out and setting the tone. Had a few bad turnovers, which kind of led to them getting easy baskets. I’ve got to do a better job of that.”
  • Just have to say, LOVED Joerger’s move to push the starters the entire third and then start the fourth with them. This is the playoffs, where you rest after the game. That was gutsy, and it darn near worked.
  • However, obviously the Grizzlies ran out of gas late. Asked about that, Joerger said “no question” the Grizzlies wore down.
  • Joerger: “I thought they came out with a lot of force, which we had anticipated. They came and ran downhill at us from the first opening tip. They played with a lot of force going to the rim, we go outran, we got out-transitioned, and we didn’t score a lot of baskets.”
  • Scott Brooks said pregame that he wanted to win the opening tip, and he was serious about it. It’s obvious as to see how the game went. Like Joerger said, the Thunder wanted to go right at the Grizzlies right from tipoff.
  • Westbrook took a little bit of an awkward rest in the second half, sitting on the very end of the bench. There was some chatter he went into the tunnel or something, which caused injury fears. But both Brooks and Westbrook said he was entirely fine. My guess is he was out of controlĀ  — and for Westbrook’s, that’s saying something — as he acknowledged, and I think Brooks, and Westbrook, made a good move to cool down some.
  • Just 13 turnovers for OKC tonight. Critical stat. Because the Grizzlies only turned it over six times.
  • Memphis shot just 2-11 from 3. Mike Miller was only 1-2.
  • Joerger was asked about Tony Allen’s decent offensive night: “Yeah, they don’t guard him.”
  • Serge Ibaka was monstrous — 17 points on 6-8, nine rebounds and four blocks.
  • In the first half, all of Randolph’s catches were 15 feet and out. Kendrick Perkins did a nice job early pushing him out, and then Nick Collison took over and went to work on the big fella. Randolph finished just 7-21 for 21 points.
  • Again, Perk did great work in the first half on Randolph, but man, he killed the Thunder to start the third. Basically blew up three straight offensive possessions with yakaty-sax worthy plays. Brooks got him out after five minutes, and Perk played only 16 total.
  • Steven Adams was extremely effective, especially in the first half. He had three blocks in about a 90-second span, and played some quality stand-up defense on Gasol.
  • Thabo, complete non-factor. Just 11 minutes, and 0-1 shooting. I don’t see much of a role for him in this series. Because what do you do? It allows the Grizzlies to hide one of their guards — probably Courtney Lee — on him and unless he’s guarding Conley or Lee, there’s just not much there.
  • I would say Grizzlies fans gripe about officiating more than any other fanbase. Look, when you play an interior focused game, you’re encouraging a physical night. Randolph and Gasol give out their fair share, and they get it back.
  • Nick Collison is basically one non-stop blood drive.
  • Well done Thunder on taking a minute to remember 4-19-95 pregame. It was a simple moment of silence, and an invocation from the director of the memorial. But it’s all we needed. Because to be playing an NBA playoff game seven blocks away from ground zero, on April 19, is an even better way to recognize what happened here 19 years ago.
  • Hasheem Thabeet played actual first half minutes. It was mostly because of foul trouble, but he didn’t suck.
  • I feel like Derek Fisher didn’t make a single 3 with a toe on the line this season, and then his first shot tonight was a 3 with a toe on the line. That was the moment the playoffs officially started.

Next up: Game 2 on Monday in OKC

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