With a city's backing, Thunder roll
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Six blocks north of the arena where the Oklahoma City Thunder play and 12 hours before they started another promising playoff run, there was silence for 168 seconds on Saturday morning.
For the 19th time, the survivors and families of the 1995 bombing at the Murrah Federal Building marked the grim anniversary with a quiet second for each person killed. The most somber day on the calendar in Oklahoma coincided with the start of Oklahomans' beloved Thunder's postseason, an occasion that has quickly rated as a holiday.
The bombing and the Thunder: the two things that have come to be Oklahoma City as much as the churches and the buildings with the names of oil and gas companies on the sides. It might not seem logical or really germane when discussing the NBA playoffs, but they are intertwined, as many residents can explain and routinely show.
It's why the Thunder take every new player to the memorial as part of his orientation. It's why general manager Sam Presti, who has become a hero here just below the spots reserved for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, was among the families with flowers, letters and heartbreaking stuffed animals for the memorials of the 19 children who died in the day-care area on the second floor at 9:02 a.m. that day.
The unison of that heartbreak has carried over into the unison displayed at Thunder games. Both are part of the town's character. Their arena has the most energy of any in the league and has proven to be a reliable ally for the home team in the postseason. It was a factor in how the Memphis Grizzlies fell down 24 points by halftime -- as they were overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the game's start -- and it led to the Thunder's 100-86 Game 1 victory.
It's not that the Thunder are unbeatable at home -- the Grizzlies ended OKC's season on the same floor last May. The Grizzlies have it within their power to find a way to win this series, too, though they're certainly the underdog. But it was no real surprise the Thunder were the only high seed to defend its home court on the first day of the playoffs.
Beating the Thunder when Durant and Westbrook are fully engaged -- and they were in this one -- is a task. Playing against the Thunder in Oklahoma City in a playoff game on April 19 -- you're playing against more than the players in uniform.
"The crowd was unbelievable," said Caron Butler after playing in his first playoff game with the Thunder. "I can't even put it into words."
"They came out with so much force," said Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, who was coaching his first playoff game. "They ran downhill from the opening tip."
"They came out running," Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. "We were embarrassed in the first half, quite frankly. And that hurts."
At one point, the Grizzlies complained the music in the sound system was turned up too loud. It's not the first time such a complaint has been lodged, and perhaps it is true that the decibels were outside the acceptable range, but it just confirmed what was already clear: The Grizzlies had trouble dealing with that early stress, and it effectively cost them a game in the series.
They shot a miserable 12-of-48 and had their shot blocked eight times in the first half, setting futility records with their 25 percent shooting and 34 points. They didn't make a shot outside the paint until the final two seconds of the half. Combined with the blocks, the bricked jump shots explained how the Grizzlies could miraculously have just one turnover yet give up 21 fast-break points.
Durant and Westbrook combined for 33 points in the first 24 minutes, and their speed and confidence had the Grizzlies on their heels. Until James Johnson hit that jumper, a 3-pointer, in the final seconds of the second quarter, Westbrook and Durant had outscored Memphis on their own in the half.
It's most likely the series actually started in the second half, when the teams played close and the Grizzlies were able to slow the pace and take advantage of their grinding defensive style. They made an admirable run, in fact, and crushed what was a 25-point lead down to just two points by forcing some turnovers to create some easy baskets and making a few jumpers.
Yet it never actually seemed like the Grizzlies would take control. Desperate to get back into the game and missing two rotation players as Nick Calathes started his drug suspension and Tayshaun Prince bowed out after four minutes with illness, Joerger played his front line 14 consecutive minutes in the third and fourth quarters.
He might've gone longer had Zach Randolph, who ended with 21 points but needed 21 shots, not picked up his fifth foul and been forced to the bench. The crowd had gone from loud and proud to genuinely worried, but Randolph, Conley and Tony Allen were wheezing by then. After committing just two turnovers in the game's first three quarters, the Grizzlies gave it away four times quickly in the fourth, mostly because fatigue was zapping their concentration.
"No question, they ran out of gas," Joerger said. "But we were on a run."
The fresher Durant, who ended with 33 points, and Westbrook, who ended with 23, combined for 20 points in the fourth quarter to end it. No matter what game-plan adjustments the Grizzlies make or how they handle the noise better in Monday's Game 2, Memphis doesn't have a realistic chance if they give up 70 points to Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who had 17 points and four blocks.
Ultimately, there was plenty for Memphis to build on considering they probably could not have played more poorly in the first half. Last season, after all, the Thunder won Game 1 and lost the series to Memphis. But this season, the Thunder are fully healthy and much deeper, as was displayed by a surprising 30 effective minutes from Butler off the bench. Pulling this upset will be much harder.
"[The Grizzlies] are obviously going to want to play better," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Winning is all that matters. It's the first team to four."