W. Bennett Berry
The Thunder took advantage of the temporary disarray that has set back the now Rudy Gay-less Grizzlies, controlling the first half on their way to a double-digit win over their Western Conference rivals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies tonight by a score of 106-89. In a game that was largely overshadowed by the Rudy Gay trade, which sent the small forward from Memphis to Toronto, the Grizz looked out of sorts in the early going. The Thunder never trailed in the contest, jumping out to an early lead and building it throughout the 1st half over the Grizzlies. Despite a wobbly 3rd quarter for OKC, Memphis did not have enough in the end to mount the come back and the Thunder were able to close the deal, winning by 17.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who finished with 27 points on 10-16 shooting, while adding 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Russell Westbrook also finished with a stat-stuffing box score, scoring 21 points while grabbing 9 rebounds and handing out 6 assists.
The shorthanded Grizzlies were led by Jerryd Bayless, who finished with 23 points and 6 assists. Power forward and Thunder nemesis Zach Randolph was held to a woeful 4-17 shooting for only 9 points, but served up a Dennis Rodman-like rebounding line, grabbing 19 in total, 9 of which were offensive.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
It is difficult to really evaluate this game on any sort of normal level for two reasons. The first reason is the obvious one - when a team loses a key member due to trade or even injury, the drama has a ripple effect that impacts the team's mental focus. If you recall the game after the Thunder traded away the popular Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, OKC were in a daze in an embarrassing loss to the Orlando Magic. So it was tonight with the Grizzlies, who had little offensive or defensive focus early on. To be fair to them, the Thunder started out red hot, shooting 12-15 from the floor in the opening quarter with only a handful of turnovers holding them back, but by the time the 2nd quarter concluded with the Thunder outscoring Memphis 26-12, it was clear that the Grizz were not in the competitive mindset necessary to deal with one of the league's best teams.
The second reason why it was difficult to evaluate the game is because the Thunder were up by so many points early on, it completely killed the flow of the game. Once the 2nd half began, the Thunder were more concerned about simply playing Memphis even instead of really trying to exert themselves. Even after a shoddy 3rd quarter that trimmed the lead to 12, a quick 7-2 run to start the 4th stemmed the Memphis tide and all but closed out the visitors.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
The Thunder recognized the fact that there was a chance the Grizzlies were not going to be mentally ready to compete and jumped them early. While the hot shooting is going to get a lot of attention and rightfully so given how slowly OKC often starts games, the real key was the Thunder defense. We had just watched the Thunder play 6 games where their defense was suspect, but tonight, they were locked in early on.
Interestingly, it was not that the defense met the physicality of the Grizzlies' front line head on with force vs force, but rather with extremely intelligent defensive design so that the Grizz were never getting clean looks inside of 18 feet. Every shot was from the perimeter, and Memphis is not a good outside shooting team. When the Thunder defense did give up lanes to the rim, the defensive rotations were sharp, seldom allowing an uncontested layup. Randolph in particular was flummoxed by the Thunder's quick rotations, struggling to a poor 4-17 shooting from the floor. Serge Ibaka struggled with foul trouble all night, but when he was on the court he was the rim protector, collecting 6 blocks on the night.
By taking the wind out of Memphis' sails early on, the Thunder held them to only 25% shooting in the 1st half off of 13 made baskets. This early defensive focus is what truly decided the outcome.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The Grizzlies attempted 98 shots on the night and were only able to make 34 of them for a 34.7% clip. Furthermore, they shot only 6-25 from 3-point range, including Mike Conley's 2-9 from long range. The Thunder were ceding the outside shot, and aside from Jerryd Bayless, nobody was making those shots consistently.
On the other end of the court, the Thunder started off the game by shooting 12-15 in the opening quarter and continued to poor it on in the 2nd, outscoring Memphis 26-12. The Thunder looked completely relaxed after the 3 day layoff, and if not for the poor 3rd quarter there would be little to critique in this outing.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder clearly took advantage of the Grizzlies' state of change, but even so it was good to see them so focused on both ends of the court. Aside from the poor 3rd, the only thing that really marred tonight's game was Russell Westbrook's 3rd quarter blowup, where he and Thabo Sefolosha got into a bit of disagreement that led to Westbrook's benching to help him calm down. Westbrook retreated to the locker room and did not re-enter the game until the 4th quarter, where he nailed a jumper and then assisted Kevin Martin on a 3-pointer, which was the beginning of the end for Memphis.
We Thunder fans know what we're in for now though. Despite Westbrook's strong play on both ends of the court, the only thing people will be talking about for the next 48 hours is how Westbrook can't keep his emotions in check, and as a PG, that's a big no-no. Or, whatever. You know what it's going to be. Just stay clear of Skip Bayless and his gang of gaseous troubadours, is all I'm saying.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 27 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists
Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison/Kendrick Perkins, who combined for 19 points and 14 rebounds
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, whose foul trouble limited him to only 4 points and 1 rebound
Thunder Plunderer: Jerryd Bayless, 23 points, 6 assists
Next game: @ the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 2 at 6:30PM CDT
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