It may be time to stop wondering how the Oklahoma City Thunder – now tied at 1-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals after Tuesday’s 99-93 loss – can deal with Memphis’ vaunted inside tandem, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, because Mike Conley is presenting much more of a problem.
His Game 1 numbers were pedestrian – 5-15 field goals, 13 points, 5 assists – but he catalyzed the third quarter that almost put the game away, and he got the shots he wanted: 3-8 from four feet and in, 1-5 on three-pointers. It doesn’t take a math degree to see that hitting just one or two of those high-quality shots would have changed the game’s outcome.
In Game 2, they did. Conley’s three-pointer just under the two-minute mark gave Memphis the lead, and his 18-footer with 1:04 left pushed that lead to four. Those were the finishing touches on a magnificent performance: 26 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, and only two turnovers in 42 minutes. His quickness and cleverness within the limited Grizzly offense are keeping the Thunder guessing on every pick-and-roll.
Randolph is presenting a different problem, even as the Thunder do a decent job of keeping him away from his favorite right-block location. Randolph has instead taken over real estate in the paint, where he has attempted 16 shots in the series. Tonight, he hit five of his seven tries from six feet and in. His free throw struggles (3-7 in Game 2) were a minor annoyance, but they didn’t stop him from attacking the rim.
Gasol, meanwhile, imitated Conley by hurting the Thunder from both inside and outside. He carried Memphis’ early offense, hitting his first three shots en route to an efficient 8-13 night from the floor, and converting all eight of his free throws.
Even with all of those holes springing in their defense, the Thunder did lead this game with under two minutes to play, and got virtuoso shooting games from Kevin Durant (a quiet 36 points on 11-21 shooting) and Derek Fisher (6-9, 4-5 threes for 19 points).
Fisher played well for the sixth straight time these playoffs, but pessimists will note that his three-point shooting – 19-30 thus far – is bound to return to earth. His effort on defense, where he came away with two huge steals in the back-and-forth final minutes, is welcome to stay for as long as it wants.
Durant, who finished one assist shy of a triple-double, was as magnificent as his fans have come to expect, but the enduring image from tonight may be his collapse to the floor while attempting to back down the frenetic Tony Allen with under a minute remaining.
The symbolism is clear – Durant, who has carried the Thunder to an even greater extent since the loss of Russell Westbrook, collapses under the weight of his burden – but the moment underscored another issue: Memphis’ ability to check Durant with exactly the kind of small, aggressive defender who’s given him problems throughout his career.
If the Thunder continue allowing Allen and his cohorts to be the aggressors, offensively and defensively, this series could be over even sooner than many expected.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.