In a Western Conference Semifinal series that started less than 48 hours after each participant closed out its first-round opponent, anxious moments were inevitable. The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 by handling those anxious moments with slightly cooler heads.
The semifinalists showed clear effects of their recent draining series, combining for probably the worst-played first quarter of the playoffs. Their ugly achievements included four missed layups in the first 1:30 (Tony Allen 2, Mike Conley, Jr. 1, Thabo Sefalosha 1), and 12 made field goals combined in the period (OKC 5-23, Memphis 7-23)
By the time that opening dust settled, the teams were almost ready to start the series. The Thunder got the most encouraging news when Kevin Durant rested for the first four minutes of the second period, leaving the offense in Kevin Martin’s hands.
OKC’s big offseason acquisition showed the ability to carry the second team when necessary, finding seams for difficult shots, drawing fouls, and spotting up smartly to allow Durant – coming off a first-round series in which he played 257 of a possible 288 minutes – a chance to catch his breath.
Martin’s emergence as his team’s secondary scorer answered one critical concern. The other came when the Grizzlies tested their hosts’ interior defense.
When these teams met in the same round two years ago, the Thunder post defenders really were more like “hosts,” as Zach Randolph memorably tortured Serge Ibaka. Randolph picked up where he left off in Game 1, hitting his first two shots over Ibaka and hurting backup Nick Collison by driving on him and displaying a surprisingly nimble touch on his finishes.
Randolph got plenty of help from Marc Gasol, Quincy Pondexter, and Mike Conley, who triggered a 27-17 third-quarter scoring margin that put Oklahoma City in a deep hole. The Thunder crawled back into the game in the fourth period, behind another Martin outburst, as he scored his team’s first six points to give Durant a rest from carrying the offensive burden.
This meant Durant was ready at the end, when he had just enough heroics left to overcome Memphis’ stout defense and his own exhaustion. The Thunder offense, inspired by Martin’s proactive cutting, had far more movement and imagination than when it stagnated against Houston, and Durant found enough openings to score eight points in the last four minutes, including the go-ahead basket with 11 seconds to go.
From there, the Thunder got a huge pass deflection from Thabo Sefalosha to force a Memphis turnover; two Reggie Jackson free throws that stretched the lead to three; and finally a senseless foul by Jackson that gave Pondexter three free throws that could have tied the game.
Pondexter missed two of the three, though, and the game mercifully ended, much as it had begun: with questionable decision-making on both sides, but enough heart and effort on both sides to deliver a truly entertaining result.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.