Time: 2:30 PM Central Daylight Time
Place: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), Soul Classics 103.5 FM WRBO
Well now, my friends, we reach the end. OKC and Memphis fans have been treated to some tremendous basketball in these past two weeks, and it is fitting that such a series would come down to a Game 7. I'm starting to feel nauseous just thinking about it. Even so, this is the very reason I decided to start blogging the Thunder this season. It was in the hope that they would face a situation like this very one today and have a chance to overcome it in a way that they failed against the Lakers a year ago.
1. The Experience.
The Thunder are young team. We all know this, and for better or worse it has been a valid if overused excuse for much of this season. They don't know what it is like to be in a Game Seven situation, and all the anxiety and stress it brings.
Well, except for one guy.
In 2008, Kendrick Perkins was the starting center for the Boston Celtics, and they had just rolled through the regular season like a tank. They met the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, and that season the Hawks were not good. They had only won 36 games in the regular season and were largely considered chum in the waters. But then, something strange happened - the Hawks won a game. And then another. The Celtics could not beat the Hawks in Atlanta, and after a disappointing Game Six, the Celtics were at home, in Game Seven, staring at elimination by a team that had won almost 30 games fewer than the mighty C's.
Kendrick Perkins knows what this type of situations feels like. He knows what it feels like to be suddenly struck with the self-doubt and disappointment of not putting away a team earlier.
There is a magic bullet in this case. It's label is "defense." Perkins is a defensive player, brings a defensive mentality, and now he has to instill a defensive focus in his team. Yes, OKC did play competent if uninspired defense in Game Six. Their defense played well enough that they should have won. However, it was not inspired. It did not have teeth. It did not have the attitude embedded in every single possession of, "not this time." A defense that takes this particular approach serves the double impact of 1) heightening a team's sense of urgency, which a Game Seven Requires; and 2) shifts the emotions that players are feeling from offense to defense, so that the offense can run with focus and not fury. Emotions will be high in this game, and the youthful Thunder are going to have to figure out a way to channel it to their advantage rather than have it turn into a detriment. The most sure-fire way to do this is by committing to a doberman defense.
In 2008, the Celtics closed out the Hawks, winning 99-64 and were never seriously threatened again on their road to the championship.
2. The Recognition.
Like any great playoff series, this one has had plenty of strategic twists and turns along the way. The Grizzlies dominated the inside early, so OKC countered with sucking in its defense and challenging the Grizzlies to make shots from the outside. Memphis started ignoring OKC's defense-only players, so OKC changed its crunch time line-up to squeeze out a little bit more offense. Then in the last game, Memphis changed its strategy again to stretch out the Thunder defense to give its interior big men a chance to work while simultaneously destroying the space that Kevin Durant had.
Scott Brooks, while still learning about the in-game nuances, has done well in adjusting from game to game, and he must recognize these shortcomings and adjust. He must counter the Grizzlies' inside game once more, because Memphis will chew them up inside if he does not. He must figure out a way to get Kevin Durant open shots, because the Thunder's chances live and die with Durant's offense.
Most importantly though, Brooks must recognize that the way that the Thunder failed in #6 is not because of strategy, but because of mental focus. The Thunder have a tendency to think something is over before it is really over. This tendency resulted in a Game Four loss against the Nuggets as well as the two losses in this series (3 & 6). When this mental focus drops, it usually takes the form of stagnant offense. The Thunder simply cannot afford to have another 15 point quarter, so if Brooks sees the game going down that path, he must not be afraid to shake things up. There are guys on his team who can make shots - Daequan Cook, James Harden, Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and even Nazr Mohammed can all score when called upon. When the offense stagnates, every player must downshift and grind it out. They must figure out ways to score points. One of the most tell-tale signs in Game Six of where the team's collective psyche was, was when the Thunder worked themselves into the free throw bonus in the 3rd quarter when things were falling apart, and yet they did not take advantage of it to manufacture points.
3. The Man.
Kevin Durant. This is the moment for which he signed on the dotted line. This moment will not define his legacy, but it will be the next permanent chapter written. We all want to see the stuff from which KD is made. I would imagine, so does he.
Prediction: Thunder 92, Grizzlies 89