Filling a role, Thundering up
How OKC compensated for missing Westbrook in Game 1 win over Grizzlies
OKLAHOMA CITY -- An hour before tipoff at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the blond wood-paneled doors to Russell Westbrook's locker were shut tight. The black Aeron chair where Westbrook usually sits pregame -- headphones on, futzing with his smartphone -- was empty.
Many of us have been there at some point: A workhorse is ill and out of the office indefinitely. Who covers? Do we split up the responsibilities? Wait for someone specific to take charge? Tread water until the person gets back, or just let the stuff pile up on his desk, to be dealt with at a later date?
That's the predicament the Oklahoma City Thunder now find themselves in without one of their two indispensable employees. But on Sunday afternoon, those duties left vacant by Westbrook's absence were divvied up and fulfilled, as the Thunder roared back from a double-digit second-half deficit and stole Game 1 of their conference semifinals series with the Memphis Grizzlies, 93-91.
The guy who stayed late to finish up the extra work and close the office was Thunder forward Kevin Durant. He drained the go-ahead pull-up jumper with 11.1 seconds remaining, the last of his 35 points on the afternoon.
"I like the way we stuck with our defense, and I like the way we bounced back and were resilient through it all," Durant said. "That shows maturity in our group."
Resilient. Bounced back -- words generally reserved for an underdog, not a No. 1 seed hosting the opening game of its second-round series. Yet that's where the Thunder now find themselves against a confident Grizzlies team that rode a four-game winning streak into Game 1.
That exuberance has now been tempered, and the Grizzlies will have to relive Sunday's nightmarish final minute, when they scored a grand total of one point in five possessions after having the ball with a three-point lead. The most excruciating sequence came with the Grizzlies still clinging to a one-point lead with 31.2 seconds to go.
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, who'd likely be up against his counterpart Westbrook, instead drew the aged Derek Fisher up top. The screen to his left from Grizzlies center Marc Gasol was perfect, and Conley had no trouble clearing both Fisher and Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins. With 20 seconds left in the game, Conley now had a well-lit alley to the hoop. A bucket might not have sealed the game for the Grizzlies, but it would've tilted the probabilities radically in their favor.
As much as Fisher is honored as one of the league's elder statesmen, he's possibly the last rotation player remaining in the postseason we'd expect to make a crucial defensive play. Yet just before Conley elevated for a clean shot at close range, Fisher recovered from Gasol's pick to poke the ball loose from behind.
"They ran a screen up top and he was able to get by," Fisher said. "At that point, that was the only defensive play I could make, to try to get a hand in there before he got up to try and finish."
The ball landed in Durant's hands with 18 seconds remaining, the Thunder down one and about 89 feet from their basket.
This is the instant when the majority of NBA head coaches call timeout. In fact, Thunder coach Scott Brooks did so himself in a similar situation in Game 4 against Houston with 12.1 seconds remaining and his team trailing by two.
But rather than let Memphis get its second-ranked defense set for trench warfare in a half-court possession, Brooks jumped up from his seat and feverishly waved his superstar downcourt.
"It's something that we talked about during [the previous] timeout," Brooks said. "It worked out that the right guy had the ball [off the turnover]. If it wasn't [Durant], we would've called timeout. A long rebound, still we were going for it. We were going to attack and put pressure on their defense. Kevin is a smart basketball player. He understands time and score. He understands the situation. I thought he had three things. That's one of the best players in basketball coming at you at full speed. He has the pull-up, the 3, the drive and the ability to make plays."
Against a scrambling Memphis defense, Durant streaked up the right sideline, then took a soft left turn right at Grizzlies forward Tayshaun Prince. From the menu of options laid out by Brooks, Durant opted for the pull-up jumper, an 18-footer with plenty of space against Prince, who couldn't put the breaks on quickly enough.
"[The Grizzlies] have such a great team defense, I just wanted to get it up the floor as quickly as possible and find a shot," Durant said. "It was the only shot I could find, and by the grace of God it went in."
Whether by divine grace, or just opportunism and a lifetime of work, Durant put the Thunder up one. When the Grizzlies got possession with 11.1 seconds remaining, they couldn't get a shot off, as Thabo Sefolosha deflected a pass from a beleaguered Gasol back up top to Conley. Westbrook understudy Reggie Jackson sank two free throws, then Grizzlies wingman Quincy Pondexter blew a chance to tie the game with three free throws and 1.6 seconds remaining by missing the first.
Thought to be the most talented team in the West before Westbrook went down in the Houston series, the Thunder will now have to draw up a new blueprint. Jackson has been valiant at the point, and Fisher is undoubtedly a grown-up, but they can't apply the same pressure on a defense that Westbrook does.
That's hardly news, but the cascade effect on the Thunder's offense is profound. Westbrook's relentless penetration forces opposing big men to help, which allows Thunder big man Serge Ibaka to lift to open space along the baseline or at the foul line extended area for open jumpers. Now there's less daylight for Ibaka, fewer shots at point blank range for the Thunder's guards and constant hounding of Durant.
For the Thunder to prevail in a rugged seven-game series, they'll have to morph from a team reliant on individual exploits into one that makes the most of its fourth-ranked defense. Decision-making, which has always been an issue for the turnover-prone Thunder, will have to be refined. They'll need production from Kevin Martin, who poured in 25 points of his own on Sunday. Durant may have locked up the office, but Martin was the guy who worked through lunch.
Resourcefulness has always been Memphis' thing, as it usually is for a team with obvious holes in its collective skill set. But it has been a long while since the Thunder were anything other than a large-scale operation that churned out offense in high volume. With Westbrook out of action, the enterprise has been downsized. The Thunder will still produce -- especially with Durant at the controls -- but as Game 1 demonstrated, their profit margins will be squeezed.