1. Durant, OKC Solve Recurring Bear Problems
But with each time, it's been increasingly more agonizing, with a play or two seeming to always go the Memphis way in the final two minutes. Four straight games in May eliminated the Thunder in the second round as Memphis advanced to the Western Conference finals. And two weeks ago, a 90-87 slugfest in Memphis tilted the Grizzlies' way.
All five games played out mostly the same way. Kevin Durant, bracketed and shadowed by a hounding Memphis defense, couldn't engineer enough to carry the Thunder himself. Because of it, Westbrook never looked more valuable to the Thunder machine.
This time around, the Grizzlies felt the Thunder's pain, in more ways than one, playing without their own stud point guard (Mike Conley), and coming out on the wrong end of the scoreboard 86-77. The playing field was leveled in that regard, but it's also undeniable: The Thunder have matured, developed and grown since that postseason series, and even since that game in Memphis on Jan. 14.
They went on a 10-game roll, winning games against the Rockets, Warriors, Trail Blazers, Spurs and Heat. They saw the rise of Durant as an unstoppable lone wolf, taking his supporting cast to a higher place while doing more himself. And maybe more importantly, they learned how to adjust and flex. Against the Heat, Thunder coach Scott Brooks made the overdue change of sitting Kendrick Perkins and playing exclusively small.
Against the Grizzlies tonight, the Thunder showed off their ability to play big, matching the formidable Memphis frontline, holding Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to just 26 points combined on 11-for-26 shooting.
"One of the strengths of our team, obviously, is our versatility," said Brooks. "I think tonight it was shown that sometimes you have to play different styles of basketball to get a win ... On the road, we won small. Tonight, I thought we did a good job of winning big. When you play teams in this league, you've got to be able to play different ways. I thought that was very clear tonight. We can play different styles of basketball and still come away with a win."
What really provides Brooks those lineup options, though, is having an absurdly versatile player like Durant, who can flow between four positions like he's flipping through channels on his TV. Tonight against Memphis, Durant stayed mostly between the 1 and 3 positions, posting a ho-hum line of 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
With the month of January he had, Slim Reaping his way across the country, devouring every defensive scheme in his path, this game felt mildly pedestrian for Durant. Really, it's a perfect illustration of where Durant's game has evolved to, where a 31-8-8 can be kind of meh. I think that's called the LeBron Zone. The last few weeks, Durant's dominance has been loud, in your face and obvious, but really, the name of his game has typically been in more of a covert prepotence.
"I think we've seen a lot of our players for the last 5-6 years now and sometimes you forget all the developments they've had over the years," Brooks said. "Kevin is the same way, he's a much better player from the first month that we had him to today. That doesn't just happen through osmosis. That happens through all the work that our guys put in."
What the Thunder accomplished in a fairly methodical win over the Grizzlies was exorcise a few demons, but like Brooks said, they also showed an impressive adaptability. The Western Conference is filled with different matchups, and the thing about the postseason is, you don't really get to pick who you play. If it's someone big like the Grizzlies or Clippers, the Thunder have that covered. If it's someone small and speedy like the Blazers or Warriors, they have an answer there too. Or extrapolate a little further and look at the two likely options coming out of the East: One is big (Indiana) and one is small (Miami).
It's all part of an impressive internal development of the organization, right down to Brooks as he grows as a game manager. Making the decision to pull the plug on Perkins against the Heat was certainly a difficult call, but a necessary one. Monday against Memphis, it was business as usual for Brooks and his rotations.
But as he mentioned tonight, Brooks recognizes the versatility he's been afforded, though the thing is, he has to show a willingness to use it. Because that flexibility, that willingness to adjust, is what can make the Thunder such a special team, and one that's a major problem for whoever they find themselves matched with in a few months.
Royce Young's work appears on Daily Thunder, part of the TrueHoop Network.
2. Around the Association
MVP: After missing the last six games, DeMarcus Cousins dominated the Bulls in his return. Chicago' frontline was no match for Cousins who came back from a sprained left ankle to post an effective 25 points and 16 rebounds in victory.
X factor: Sacramento's team defense. The Kings played their best defensive game of the year Monday. They limited Chicago to a frigid 28.2 percent from the field and just 70 points. Those marks set new lows for the Kings against an opponent this season.
Defining moment: The game was testy throughout, but reached its apex near the midway point of the third quarter. Joakim Noah was not happy after he was called for his third personal foul on a ticky-tack play. That caused Noah to draw his second technical of the night plus an ejection, and he made sure to let all three officials hear his displeasure on his way out of the game.
MVP: Lance Stephenson did what he does best, and that's stuff the stat sheet (15 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) en route to another blowout victory for the Pacers against an overmatched opponent.
X factor: The bench won this game for Indiana. The Pacers got plenty of production from guys like Danny Granger (16 points), C.J. Watson (12 points), and Luis Scola (10 points), which allowed coach Frank Vogel to rest his starters.
Defining moment: The Magic, trailing 59-50 at halftime, cut their deficit to as little as two in the third quarter. But the Pacers responded by going on an 18-1 run that put the game out of reach.
MVP: It's hard to believe, but John Wall hadn't been above .500 in his NBA career before tonight's game. He finally surpassed that milestone against a tough opponent with a stat sheet stuffed to its breaking point: 22 points, five assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots.
Turning point: Portland's last push had the Blazers down six with just under a minute to play, but Nene's midrange jumper gave Washington a comfortable lead and forced Wes Matthews to take a couple of contested 3-pointers on the following possession, both of which rimmed out.
That was ... remarkably clean. The Wizards took care of the ball incredibly well, finishing with just six turnovers and just one in the first half. Portland scored six total fast-break points as a result.
MVP: Paul Pierce and Deron Williams pick up the co-MVP, or their scoring exploits with Joe Johnson and Andray Blatche out. Pierce finished with 25 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the field (14-for-14 free throws) and Williams contributed 21.
X factor: Mirza Teletovic was a major spark off the bench, sniping the Sixers from afar to the tune of 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field and 5-for-9 from downtown. This was Teletovic's fifth game of five-plus 3-pointers on the season.
Defining moment: Kevin Garnett had a tremendous defensive stand on the interior with under a minute to play and Philadelphia down five, which was followed up by Pierce making both of his game-sealing free throws, only to be topped off by Shaun Livingston's seventh steal of the night.
MVP: Dwyane Wade. LeBron James was only two rebounds shy of a triple-double, but the evening belonged to Wade, who put on a vintage performance. Wade was on attack from early on, slashing to the basket, getting to the rim and making plays. He looked energetic and at times explosive, tallying 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
X factor: Chris Bosh: Just like how the Heat are hard to beat when Wade is on top of his game, they are also extremely tough when Bosh is balling. Though his production tapered off in the second half, he provided a third offensive option for Miami, and he stayed active on the other end.
Defining moment: LeBron's skyscraper alley-oop in the second quarter. We all know how freakishly athletic he is, but every once in a while it is nice to be reminded. On the toss from Mario Chalmers, LeBron's receiving hand was extended beyond the top of the white backboard square. It brought the Heat's bench to its feet and set the tone for the rest of the game.
MVP: Kevin Durant. Did you really need to ask? He nearly collected a triple-double tonight, finishing with 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
X factor: Blocks. The Thunder picked up nine to the Grizzlies' four, including four from rookie Steven Adams. A swat seemed to thwart every major Memphis run.
That was ... a bit of an aberration, in terms of the playoffs. The Grizzlies are missing Mike Conley and Tony Allen, and Oklahoma City is still going without Russell Westbrook. It's hard to take much away from this affair if we're thinking about their potential matchup in the spring.
MVP: Tony Parker was playing a different game than everyone else tonight, as he scored 32 points while dishing out nine assists for the Spurs. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put him in the pick-and-roll with Duncan all night and Parker had an answer for whatever the Pelicans did defensively.
Turning point: The Pelicans led by 12 with 9:26 to go. After a Popovich timeout, Patty Mills dropped five straight points and Danny Green followed that up with a huge 3 to cut the lead to four. That was the beginning of a 27-7 run that put the Pelicans away for good.
That was ... a taste of his own medicine: Anthony Davis is running away with the lead in blocks per game, but the Spurs did a good job of rejecting both Davis and his teammates tonight. The Spurs had 12 blocks total, including six by Tim Duncan. It is becoming clear that Davis is the future, but Duncan isn't ready to pass the baton just yet.
3. Monday's Best
Kenneth Faried, Nuggets: Faried made 11 of 13 shots en route to a career-high 28 points and 11 rebounds for the Nuggets, who beat the Clippers when Randy Foye hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer for a 116-115 win.
4. Monday's Worst
New York Knicks: Losing to the NBA's worst team is no way to right this ship. When you get relatively efficient offensive nights from Melo and J.R. Smith (combined 11-for-21 from 3-point range), it would seem to be winning time. Instead, the Bucks picked up win No. 9 by a tally of 101-98.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I said to my wife when that happened, 'Watch this, I'm going to make Twitter go nuts.' She was like, 'Don't do it!' I said, 'I've got to do it,' so I did it."
-- Mark Cuban, explaining why he falsely tweeted that he won $20 million on a Super Bowl bet about the rare opening safety.
8. Knight's Time
9. Stat Check
The Wizards beat the Trail Blazers to improve their record to 24-23 this season. It's the first time Washington is over .500 within a season since they beat the Nets on Halloween in 2009. The Wizards played 355 consecutive games in which their record was at or below .500, the longest such streak for any NBA team since the Clippers played 387 straight games without a winning record from 1996 to 2001.
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
Co-MVPs: Dirk Nowitzki keeps rolling with 23 points. That's 95 in his last three games. Samuel Dalembert got 18 points on 7 of 8 shooting. He averages less than six a game.
LVP: In 11 minutes, Dion Waiters goes 0 for 4 from the field, 0 for 2 from behind the arc, for a total of zero points. He averages 14.5 points and 28 minutes a game.
X factor: Six players scored in double-digits and all 12 players got minutes for the Mavs. As the seventh-oldest team in the league, it's always nice to spread the minutes around.
MVP: Brandon Knight scored the Bucks' final five points, including a nifty backdoor cut for a layup and the game-winning 3 in Raymond Felton's mug with 1.4 ticks left on the clock; all part of a 25-point, seven-assist outing.
X factor: Subbing for a mostly ineffective Larry Sanders, Zaza Pachulia was a disruptive presence in the paint, battling for extra possessions, converting at the rim and making some swell passes from the high post.
Defining moment: You can delight at watching Giannis Antetokounmpo practically glide through the air as he races down the court or marvel at his seemingly boundless potential. What I'll remember from tonight's game is the radiant expressions of pure joy on his family's faces as they sat courtside. That was beautiful.
MVP: Jonas Valanciunas. His lack of development this season has been disappointing at times, but it's important to remember that development is not always linear. Tonight, his gifts were actualized and he dominated Rudy Gobert and Enes Kanter in the post. He finished the night with 18 points and nine rebounds.
X factor: DeMar DeRozan in the fourth quarter. With Kyle Lowry going down due to knee pain, DeMar stepped up and took on the role of closer. He drove to the basket, hit his patented midrange pull-up and sunk a 3-pointer in the fourth to help the Raptors pull away.
That was ... surprisingly effective: Marvin Williams (23 points) at the 4 gave the Raptors fits. Toronto refused to go small, so Williams and his quick first step drove by Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson all night long.
MVP: Kenneth Faried scored a career-high 28 points on just 13 shots while pulling down 11 rebounds. And he did all that against one of the best frontcourts in the NBA.
X factor: Randy Foye. After a Matt Barnes 3 gave the Clippers the lead with 16.8 seconds left in the game, Foye came right back and hit a 30-footer at the buzzer to clinch the game for the Nuggets.
That was ... unexpected: The Clippers had a 13-point lead in the first half. They led in the final seconds of regulation. But they just couldn't hold on at the very end and the Nuggets got a big win to get back to .500.