The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies have developed a bit of a rivalry over the past three seasons. It started in 2011 when the Thunder withstood the relentless, physical onslaught from the Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals, with the Thunder prevailing in seven games. Then, of course, Memphis answered back with a 5-game series win in the last year's conference semifinals against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder.
Friday night, in the fourth matchup between the two teams of the 2013-14 season, the Thunder prevailed 113-107, putting them at 3-1 against the Grizzlies on the year.
The common theme in all of these matchups has been the Grizzlies' approach to Kevin Durant. It's not that they have shut him down or anything like that. In fact, combining the regular season and postseason matchups, he's still averaging right around 28 a game. Rather, it's been the way Memphis has always seemed to frustrate Durant. In 2012, it was Shane Battier and Tony Allen that combined to make it as tough as possible for him to score. Last season, it was Allen and Tayshaun Prince. This season, Allen missed the first three matchups, so it was largely Prince and newcomer James Johnson left to defend KD.
No matter the defender, the approach has remained the same. Body up KD off the ball and make him fight for everything BEFORE he catches the ball. Make him fight to establish position, make him work to get the ball on the floor, and always, always put a hand in his face.
There are the more subtle attacks, too. The defenders - Allen especially - aren't afraid to grab Durant when he is getting too much space. Sometimes it gets called, sometimes it doesn't, but it's the perpetuity of it that begins to take it's toll, particularly in those playoff series when it comes game after game.
Friday night, with Allen back in the lineup for the Grizzlies, it seemed reasonable that they would continue that pesky game plan. Except that Allen found himself in foul trouble, despite not even guarding Durant for the majority of his time on the floor. That left the defensive duties to Prince and Johnson, and their slightly less physical styles of play allowed KD to cook.
For the sake of this whole "head to head" thing, the match-up - coming in at least - was Durant vs. Allen. But when all was said it done, it was Durant vs. Grizzlies defender X. No matter who X was, it all resulted in the same thing.
Look at the four losses to the Grizzlies in last year's playoff series. Sure, the Thunder was without Westbrook and Durant was being called on to carry an enormous weight, but it's not like Memphis hadn't had success shutting him down before. In that 2011 series, in the games Memphis won, they shut down KD in the fourth quarters, where he averaged just 5.7 points on 33 percent shooting. Last post-season, they just kept at it.
In particular, take a look at Game 5 of last year's series, when Memphis eliminated the Thunder. The clip here shows all five of Duran't fourth quarter shot attempts:
Shot 1 (:00-:08)
Not the best example of how the Grizzlies guard Durant, mostly because it's a quick shot before the defense even gets set. That in itself, though, says something. Up to that point, Durant was 4-16 shooting and couldn't buy a bucket. When a player like Durant, who knows he can score, gets in a funk like that, he will often try and shoot his way out of it. He had obviously been contained to this point, and a quick shot like that is a frustration shot. After being bodied up all game - and all series, really - Durant takes the first quick, open look he's seen in a while, mostly just because it's nice to not have to be hit while doing it.
Shot 2 (:10-:19)
Here is the one make Durant has in the quarter, and it's the one time he gets a little help from his teammate. Allen is right on top of Durant, as he typically is, but Reggie Jackson comes in and sets a nice screen. Allen has always been very capable of getting through screens, and he honestly doesn't have much trouble here. But again, for Durant, it's finally a bit of separation, something he's not used to against Memphis at this point, and he capitalizes.
Shot 3 (:20-:35)
Now the Thunder are trying to set screens off the ball for Durant. As I mentioned above, the Grizzlies do as good of a job as any team in the league at making Durant work hard just to even get his hands on the ball. What you see here, though, is that even though Allen does a nice job getting through the screens, it's the willingness of the rest of the Memphis defense to sag off their guy and help on Durant. Randolph does it at first, then as the ball moves to the top of the key, it's Conley. They're forcing Durant to have to give it up, something that pretty much every team tries to do, but very few are ever actually able to execute. Durant finally does get off a decent look using the one-legged Dirk fadeaway. But at this point, he's already had to work through Allen and the Memphis defense for 12 solid seconds, and that physical toll throws him off enough for him to come up short.
Shot 4 (:36-:50)
Once again, Memphis doesn't let Durant get anywhere on the floor without having a hand on him. He starts under the hoop, where Marc Gasol keeps him in check. Then he drifts out to the corner with Allen on him, before catching it at the wing where Allen closes out hard. The hard closeout is something Durant can beat easily with a pumpfake - and he does here - but the help is there once again, forcing Durant to give it up. He gets it right back and again Allen pursues aggressively, allowing Durant an extra step to get in and get a decent look off over the helping Gasol, where he once again comes up short. You even see Durant hang his head as he runs back on defense, clearly frustrated.
Guys have bad shooting nights all the time, Kevin Durant included. Many times, it has nothing to do with the defense. Still, you have to think that this was the fifth straight game facing this relentless defense that was making him work for shots like that pretty much every single time. That had to play at least some part in him coming up short on a lot of these attempts. Including the last one.
Shot 5 (:53-end)
Durant surprisingly doesn't have much trouble at all catching the inbounds pass. Like usual, though, there's Allen right up on him. Except this time, Durant takes advantage of that aggressiveness and gets Allen to commit enough to one side that he can get down a quick dribble. Allen gives a respectable closeout, but it's still a great look, especially considering the game is on the line.
This is just one example of the many times Durant has faced the physical Memphis defense, yet it's a microcosm of the Memphis defensive gameplan as a whole. Don't let Durant go anywhere without making him work his tail off to get there. Again, it helped that Westbrook was out, but wasn't just this just this series, where Durant saw looks like this from Memphis.
Durant clearly learned from this, as well, and used the experience to torch the equally aggressive Memphis defense on Friday night. And yes, Westbrook helped a ton, too.
Westbrook alleviated a lot of that pressure early on, taking the reigns and finishing the first half with 15 points while Durant had just 7. At the break, the Thunder held a commanding 57-42 lead.
Durant took over in the third though, going 6-10 for 17 points. It came entirely against Prince, whose style is far less physical than Allen. Unlike Allen, Prince mostly just uses his length to keep a hand in Durant's face. That allows Durant more opportunities to run around off the ball and get off cleaner looks, something again aided by having a guy like Westbrook to soften the rest of the defense as well.
It led to the fourth quarter, where Durant simply used the Grizzlies' aggressiveness against them at first, and then took advantage of having Westbrook on his side.
Take a look at the shots he gets in this fourth quarter, compared to the ones above in Game 5 of last season.
The first one actually comes against Allen, the one time when Allen was able to bother Durant. You see Allen doing his usual thing, chasing Durant around a screen, keeping hands around his waste as he drives, tugging, grabbing, and then ultimately fouling on the closeout.
It really wasn't all that different than those Game 5 possessions, except that the rest of the defense wasn't as crowded around Durant. Just as he did on that final shot in Game 5, he is able to get off a clean look despite Allen being draped all over him to start. It's great focus by Durant, and obviously a relief for him to see it go through and get the call, as he lets out a nice yell-and-fist-pump after it.
Then, as the Grizzlies kept responding on the opposite end and making a game of it, it turned into the Westbrook/Durant screen-and-roll show to close it out.
It's Johnson guarding Durant now, and he also gives more space than Allen ever would. Durant catches it up top along with Westbrook and the two trade it off. Unlike in past series, though, when a defender would never come off Durant to help elsewhere, both Johnson and Calathes, Westbrook's primary defender, cheat toward Westbrook, allowing Durant to roll into an open look. Koufos closes a little, but nothing close to what Durant was seeing with Gasol in the past, and it's an easy two points for KD.
Now that it worked, why not try it again? Pretty much the same thing, with both Johnson and Calathes cheating toward Westbrook, only this time Durant is a little lower in the corner, and there isn't a center to close out, as Gasol is still in the key. Two points, this time even easier.
No way would the Grizzlies allow it a third time, would they? Well, they do, only this time, Durant is far enough back for a three. It's a great look, and would have been a dagger, but he just misses it. But with the defense still preoccupied with Durant, Ibaka is able to fly in for the offensive rebound and get it out to Durant for one more chance.
It's Durant's chance to improvise now. He wisely slows it down, using up the clock to make sure that, even if the Thunder miss, Memphis won't have many possessions left to finish the comeback. Again, though, you see how Durant uses the defender's aggressiveness against them. Johnson isn't near as good of a defensive player as Allen, so when he comes out strong to challenge the drive, Durant gets past him basically untouched. Then, as Durant slows and Johnson tries to work his way back, he over-pursues, leaving Durant some space to work past the helping Courtney Lee. All Lee can really do is swipe at him, but Durant gets into the key for a wide-open floater. Dagger. Game over.
The gameplan wasn't all that different for Memphis coming in. Just like last year, Prince started off on Durant. It worked out for them in the first half, at least in terms of containing Durant. Though, unlike in the playoffs, the supporting cast was there to pitch in. Then, as Durant got cooking in the third, there was no Tony Allen to come in and shake things up. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that Allen got his chance, but he picked up his fifth foul right away.
Was Durant better this time around? Less tired? Maybe it was the fact that Memphis has a new coach with a different defensive philosophy. Or, maybe, Memphis is saving that all-out defensive style for the playoffs, should they somehow get back to that.
No matter the reason, Durant clearly had more room to operate down the stretch on Friday night. Without the added pressure and physicality of the defensive, he found his flow, and buried the Grizzlies late.
May skip this one against the Bobcats, though it will be interesting to see how Steven Adams and Hasheem Thabeet can handle the interior presence of Al Jefferson, considering how well they did (seriously, Thabeet was solid!) against Gasol and Randolph on Friday.