Kevin Durant closed out his first career playoff series with heroics on both ends of the floor. He scored 16 of his 41 points in the final period, blocked J.R. Smith’s potential tying three-pointer with less than five seconds to play, and survived a controversial near-turnover on his team’s last possession.
Oklahoma City’s capacity crowd got some of the credit for persuading the officials to overturn a backcourt violation called on Durant with 14 seconds remaining and the Thunder leading by one. After review, Oklahoma City got the ball back, and Durant got free from Wilson Chandler’s defense to hit the clinching pull-up jumper.
Oklahoma City trailed by as many as nine in the fourth quarter, but Durant’s offensive outburst and Serge Ibaka’s four critical blocked shots in the fourth pushed the Thunder to victory.
TNT viewers lost much of the third quarter in favor of a live look-in at the other half of the bracket, as Memphis and San Antonio waged a heart-stopping overtime battle from which the Spurs ultimately emerged. Whichever team moves on to face the Thunder in the second round will offer some familiar problems.
The Thunder players are likely too savvy to publicly state a preference about next round’s opponent, but they might also stay closed-mouthed because both teams terrify them. San Antonio swept the regular season series 3-0 and Memphis took three of four from the Thunder. Neither team, though, played the Thunder in its current incarnation with Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka and Durant across the front line.
Defensively, the Thunder have one recent weakness that will be of great concern against San Antonio, but negligible against Memphis: three-point shooting. The Nuggets won Game 4 and threatened in Game 5 by hitting nearly half of their long-distance attempts. Ty Lawson’s penetration and dishing helped set up J.R. Smith, Gallinari, and Arron Afflalo for repeated open looks.
The Spurs used the long ball to torment Oklahoma City in two of their three regular-season victories; one November contest saw Matt Bonner hit all seven of his long-range hoists.
Memphis doesn’t have the shooters to threaten the Thunder from outside, but they have a swarming, long-armed defense that can discombobulate Oklahoma City in much the same way Denver did. The Thunder got many clean looks at the basket against the Nuggets, but they also displayed a tendency to hold the ball too long and look confused in the face of aggressive ball-hawkers. In Tony Allen, Shane Battier, O.J. Mayo, and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies have the personnel to mount the same type of attack.
Additionally, the Thunder have shown willingness to grow shot-happy and throw up ill-advised attempts when frustrated. If the Spurs or Grizzlies can play disciplined defense,
Both teams will likely cover Durant with smaller perimeter defenders: Battier and Allen for Memphis, Richard Jefferson for San Antonio. Durant has succeeded against all kinds of defenders in his career and these playoffs, but the Nuggets mostly defended him with the taller Gallinari. Durant scored on Gallinari, but had to work hard to get a shot off over his 6-10 opponent’s length.
Neither of his next potential opponents have anyone similar, which means that Durant will be able to use his height advantage the way he did when Chandler and Afflalo switched onto him. Neither could bother his jump shot.
Allen and Battier in particular will probably hound him more aggressively when he has the ball, which would put a premium on Perkins and Nick Collison as screeners.
One problem that plagued Denver throughout this series but is unlikely to continue against next week’s opponent is mostly a matter of luck: inability to convert free throws. Denver missed 15 of its 45 foul shots in Game 4 and repeatedly missed chances to put the game out of reach from the line tonight.
Memphis is shooting 72% from the line and San Antonio 75%. Neither is terribly impressive but both are better than the 70% mark that Denver posted in its five games.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.