Tony Allen opened the Western Conference Semifinals by controlling the ball off the opening tip, then dribbling one-on-four into the entire Oklahoma City defense and committing a turnover. For the first 10 seconds, it looked like the Memphis Grizzlies had shot their wad in Friday’s victory over San Antonio, and would be ready to passively escort the favored Thunder to the next round.
Then Allen spent what seemed like the next 47 minutes and 50 seconds making life difficult for two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who missed his first three shots and struggled to shake Memphis’ defense all afternoon.
Durant would recover, scoring 33 points on 11-21 shooting, but as was the case in every meeting with Memphis this season, he didn’t get enough help.
Russell Westbrook displayed the most overt frustration, repeatedly slumping over or making anguished faces after his shots slid off the rim. He penetrated at will against Mike Conley’s relatively ineffective defense, but couldn’t get the ball to drop enough. He finished with 29 points, but committed seven turnovers and missed seven shots from four feet or less.
Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka lost the interior battle decisively to the Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol-Darrell Arthur triumvirate. Randolph continued his run of success against the Thunder, scoring 34 points and torching Ibaka and Nick Collison with an assortment of rainbow jumpers and put-backs. Gasol added 20 points (on 9-11 from the field) and 13 rebounds while seemingly getting open on every half-court possession and forcing the Thunder’s big men to pick their poison when defending his pick-and-roll with Conley.
Memphis’ bench outscored Oklahoma City’s 27-16, with Shane Battier’s 11 points, two blocks and two steals leading the way. The actual plays looked even worse than the numbers: Eric Maynor had all too much carry-over from his regular-season stink bomb against the Grizzlies, missing all three of his field goals and not even hitting the rim on two of them. He also allowed Greivis Vasquez to run wild in his brief stints off the bench (four points and three assists in only nine minutes). During the two major stretches when the teams mostly matched up their second units, the Grizzlies extended their leads and seized momentum.
The game’s most eye-catching statistic lay in the turnover battle, which Memphis won by only giving the ball away seven times while forcing 18 from the Thunder.
Oklahoma City caught several unlucky breaks on rebounds and loose ball bounces, and Westbrook, as noted, couldn’t have been less fortunate on his attempts around the rim. There’s every reason to believe that those were one-game aberrations that won’t continue in Tuesday’s Game 2.
Lucky or unlucky, though, the Thunder are down 1-0 and have lost home-court advantage. Their to-do list before the next game:
* Get Randolph off the right block. He hit five of eight shots from his favorite spot and the Grizzlies isolated him there to prevent double-teaming. Ibaka and Collison will need help to keep him from setting up in prime real estate.
* Keep faith in Westbrook. This column has criticized Russell’s decision-making recently but most of his attempts today were on balance and showed good touch. He backed down Conley for good shots and looked completely in control when he took his time on the block.
* Ease Durant’s load. Only two days removed from his heroic performance in Game 5 against Denver, Durant found the going much tougher against the long arms and quick feet of Allen and Sam Young. Most times he was able to beat his first defender off the dribble, he found a wall of Grizzlies waiting. He’ll need strong screens from Perkins and Ibaka, and he’ll need Harden, Maynor, and Thabo Sefalosha to provide more of an outside threat to space the floor.
* Take care of the ball. The turnovers are the obvious issue, but just as worrisome was the Thunder’s poor conversion percentage around the rim, where the team hit only half of its attempts. Some of that was due to Memphis’ long arms and tenacious defense, some was over-passing, and some was just bad luck. They’ll need to value these possessions more to negate the Grizzlies’ advantage in the trenches.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.