Watching a game like this is a treat. It's not the type of game where there's lots of insane highlight reel plays, and, conversely, it's not the type of game where it has to come down to the final seconds in order to be interesting. It's a game that always keeps you on your toes. Both teams exchange leads, with neither team really able to put together a serious advantage. Both teams threatened, but no team ever went up by double digits, and the Grizzlies fought until the last couple of seconds.
As you know, the Grizzlies were without Zach Randolph, who has a bruised knee. With Darrell Arthur out for the season with a torn ACL and Hamed Haddadi out for personal reasons, the Grizzlies were forced to play small. The wiry Marreese Speights started at power forward, and nobody taller than 6'8" played from the bench.
The result was a Grizzlies team that was in a constant state of pressure on defense. They did an excellent job swarming the Thunder big men in the first half, limiting Perkins, Ibaka, Collison, and Mohammed to 6 points during that period. The Grizzlies guards didn't really hurt the Thunder bigs while they were in the post. Rather, the Grizzlies guards prevented the Thunder bigs from getting the ball in the first place. And when the Thunder bigs did get the ball, the Grizzlies wouldn't let them put it on the floor.
Sefolosha was tonight's third leading scorer with 12. Okay, so those numbers won't blow you away, but they're really solid for a guy who used to be considered an offensive liability. He had a couple of nice steals (one which was grabbed by Durant, and thus not counted for him), and was available to knock down his open shots on offense. Because the Grizzlies were pressuring so much, they often forgot about Sefolosha, who made them pay.
Below: More Analysis, Perk Almost Ejected, Bad Three Attempts, Awards!
Russell Westbrook really carried the team through the first half, while the Thunder were being pressured. He had the matchup advantage against the smaller Conley or the slower Mayo, so he was able to basically find whichever quick mid-range shot he wanted. His streak of excellence waned in the second half, when he started to shoot a bit too far from the basket and lost the ball on a couple of drives. Overall though, Westbrook was back to his old self.
The Grizzlies offense was a constant rotation, with Marc Gasol as the centrepiece. He's not as varied as Randolph in his abilities, but he does what he needs to really well, and was really reliable in the paint and from mid-range. Speaking of mid-range, that's the are where the Grizzlies loved to shoot the most. They had 20 freethrows compared to our 32, yet they took 11 more shots from the floor. Basically, that shows how trigger happy Memphis was getting from mid-range. They found good shots in the first half, but during the second half they got more and more sloppy. They took some shots that were probably a bit too contested and finding themselves further behind.
When Reggie Jackson was subbed in, he technically functioned as the team's PG. But in reality, James Harden was the defacto PG. Jackson would bring it up the floor, but within the first few seconds the ball would end up in Harden's hands, and he would usually run the team's play. Admittedly, it made the team's offense a bit more limited, but it allowed Jackson to try his hand at off-ball scoring. He was okay, but I'm withholding judgement until I've seen more extended minutes out of him.
The first half ended in strange fashion, as Kevin Durant received the ball for a lob at three quarters court. With merely 0.3 seconds left, Durant was mugged by Dante Cunningham, giving the Thunder two freethrows. After the freethrows, a double technical was called, with Kendrick Perkins and Marc Gasol getting into it. Perkins was almost given a tech earlier in the game, but for some reason the blame shifted to Westbrook for defending Perk's anger. Had Perk gotten the technical earlier, he would have been ejected for the entire second half. The entire end of half incident was ridiculous, but the free points given to Durant and the possible ejection of Perk could have been game changers.
Speaking of game changing moments, Rudy Gay missed two crucial free throws late in the game, with his team down by 4 and only 3:19 to go. Then, a couple of minutes later, Gay had the ball in the corner, with his team down only by 3. He lost the ball, and the game was over. That's not to say Gay had a great game otherwise, as he went 1-5 from the line and only shot 33% overall. When your best player displays little to no clutchness, you're not going to win many games, and there's no better example than what happened to the Grizzlies tonight. He was definitely a scorer, but he wasn't as reliable as he should have been. I credit most of that to some excellent mid-range defense by the Thunder.
The three point shooting of Westbrook and Durant was really frustrating to see. I know it was only four shots, but bear with me. Two of Durant's shots came when we had a 7 point lead in the fourth, and Westbrook's three came when we had a 5 point lead in the third. Sure, those shots could have put the game away. But all of them were simply badly advised heat checks. I have no problem with Durant crossing over and rising from Rucker Park range when the game isn't at a critical point or we need a last second shot. But doing it when we need to press a lead is just stupid. If you make it, it's demoralizing. But if you miss, the consequences are even more dire, as it gives the other team motivation for a comeback. Had we gone for a more reasonable shot during those three opportunities, it's very possible this game wouldn't have been close by the time it ended.
Aside from individual moments, the Grizzlies toned down their pressure defense in the fourth, allowing the Thunder to get it to their bigs with some more regularity and penetrate the lane for easy freethrows. Meanwhile, the Thunder really upped their pressure defensively, allowing them to gradually build a lead.
With the win, the Thunder move to 8-2 and sit atop the Western Conference and the Northwest Division. With the loss, the Grizzlies fall to 3-6 and are in a 3 way tie for 10th in the West. The Grizz are also in a three way tie for third in the Southwest Division with the Rockets and Hornets.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 30 Points, 60% Shooting, 6 Rebounds, 3 Assists
Thunder Down Under: Thabo Sefolosha, 12 Points, 100% Shooting
Thunder Blunder: Kendrick Perkins, for almost getting ejected.
Thunder Plunderer: Marc Gasol, 20 Points, 14 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 4 Blocks
Next Game: At the New Orleans Hornets, Wednesday, January 11th, 7 PM Central Standard Time