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Z-Bo Delays Thunder’s Advancement

Posted By Steven Jones On May 14 2011 @ 12:04 am In Oklahoma City Thunder | 2 Comments

Zach Randolph outplayed Kevin Durant. Wagering on that sentence to explain a potential series-deciding playoff game back in December could have gotten you 20-to-1 odds, by conservative estimate. Tonight, it didn’t even seem that unlikely.

Randolph has firmly stamped his signature on these playoffs, authoring several memorable performances that have offset a few lesser efforts. Many fans might be surprised to find that he entered tonight’s game shooting a mere 37% from the field for this series. His one-man destructions of Oklahoma City’s defense in Games 1 and 3 have erased the memory of his struggles in the Grizzlies’ losses. Tonight, he wiped those poor games even further from the public consciousness, hitting a series of improbable shots in the fourth quarter to help his team force a deciding seventh game.

The Thunder’s victories in Games 4 and 5 left the impression that they had solved the Randolph dilemma, particularly when Nick Collison was able to effectively guard him one-on-one. In the second half of Game 6, though, Z-Bo repeatedly got to his favorite spots on the right block and in the middle, feathering in an array of runners and standstill jumpers to render the defense irrelevant.

He only had the chance to explode because the Thunder failed to capitalize on their earlier opportunities. Leading by 10 at halftime, they promptly dropped their level of defensive intensity and their offensive execution in the third quarter. They hit only four of 15 shots in that period, scoring 14 points while the Grizzlies put up 28.

Durant’s playoff career-low 11 points made him an easy scapegoat, but coach Scott Brooks needs to share the burden. The Thunder built a lead in the second quarter behind the same small lineup – three guards flanking Durant and Collison – that enabled their comeback in Game 4. In the second half, Brooks ignored this success and insisted on keeping the offensively ineffective Kendrick Perkins in the game. This allowed Perkins’ defender, Marc Gasol, to double Durant every time he sniffed at the ball.

This contributed to Durant’s questionable shot selection: of his 14 field goal attempts, nine came from beyond the three-point line. He made one of them.

He’ll shoulder much of the blame for this loss, because Russell Westbrook and James Harden were fine in support: Westbrook put up 27 points, eschewing forced jump shots for repeated drives to the hoop (Oklahoma City’s most effective offensive play this series), while Harden’s 12 first-half points gave his team a cushion that should have been enough for a close-out margin.

On Sunday, when these teams clash in the first Game 7 of these playoffs, Oklahoma City fans might relish the sight of their team going small as soon as they build a lead. Any defensive deficiencies that result from playing Durant at power forward – such as the unsavory prospect of him guarding Randolph at the other end – should be offset by his teammates’ ability to spread the floor and get him the ball in a position where he doesn’t see a wall of quick, agile Grizzlies guarding the hoop like lions protecting a fresh kill.

He’ll have to come up with some plan, because it’s obvious at this point that the Thunder lack the scoring punch to overcome a poor KD outing. Westbrook and Harden have put the ball in the hoop reliably enough, but Serge Ibaka hasn’t provided consistent scoring, while Collison and Daequan Cook have mostly survived off ball-movement scraps. Eric Maynor has mostly played well in limited minutes, and if the Thunder coaching staff shows more faith in the small lineup, he’ll have a chance to torment the Grizzlies further.

It is difficult to conceive of the Thunder losing a deciding game at home against the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Brooks needs to put Durant in a position to keep it from happening. Let Perkins sit, loosen the reins, and allow the Thunder to roll – or enjoy the Randolph-Dirk Nowitzki battle in the Conference Finals.

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