Well, if you ignore the third quarter, Saturday's 100-86 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies was a pretty resounding statement by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It began in the first quarter, when the defensive effort completely stymied the Grizzlies offense, holding them to a franchise postseason low 5-for-29 in the quarter.
The Thunder looked intent on sticking to their gameplan, clogging the paint, forcing long jumpers, and closing out when possible. It was the type of defensive effort that the Thunder have shown before, and it was a reminder how devastating they can be on an opposing offense.
There was one other big difference, especially compared to last year's series: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook came out with his usual energy, only amped up a little more than usual, which is insane by Russell Westbrook standards. He was clearly excited to be back out there for a playoff game, splashing pullups, closing out like crazy for rebounds, and adding that usual Westbrook flair to just about everything he did. He finished his first shift with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assist and a +14.
The second quarter only continued upon that effort, with OKC pulling out to a 56-34 halftime lead.
That third quarter though? That is the coachable stretch. Because everything the Thunder did well in the first half, they did the exact opposite in the third. No longer were they giving Randolph and Gasol fits inside, no longer were they forcing the Grizzlies into lazy passing. It led to easy baskets for Memphis, lack of runouts on offense, and a surprisingly-close game headed into the fourth.
Rather than tense up and dwell on that disastrous quarter, the Thunder responded beautifully, clamping down and getting the stops when needed, and executing the offense down the stretch to close out the charging Grizzlies.
"Guys are going to make runs in this league," Westbrook said postgame, "but I thought we did a good job staying together."
The key sequence came when Caron Butler (seriously) found a lane and absolutely threw it down to put the Thunder up 74-69. Memphis answered with a Mike Miller three, but Durant came right back on the other end with a beautiful drive and spin pass to Ibaka down low for an and-1 dunk. Lead back to five, and the Thunder kept pulling away from there.
Just as OKC responded to that Mike Miller punch, they responded collectively to the Memphis third-quarter punch. It turned what would have been a pretty awful collapse into a pretty reassuring victory, and a 1-0 series lead to boot.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
You pretty much went from really high to really low in that third quarter, and yet in the end, as I just said, it's hard to be anything other than content with the effort. As you saw with the first three games on today's slate, the playoffs are intense, and anyone has a chance to contend. Despite that dominant first half (which, ultimately, won them the game) you knew the Grizzlies wouldn't just completely lie down.
So the response was key. Tony Allen was fantastic in the third quarter, completely disrupting Durant's flow and frustrating him while the Grizzlies made their run. But rather than sulk and let that affect his minset, Durant kept coming, staying within himself and making the right plays down the stretch. That pass to Ibaka mentioned above is just one quick example, but he ran the pick-and-roll beautifully with Ibaka on several other occasions as well.
The biggest question coming in was whether the Thunder could get back to that championship-contender level, or if the bad habits that kept creeping up in the second half of the season would show themselves once again. The first half effort was as good as it's been all year, and the execution in the fourth quarter - while not perfect - was definitely good enough to win games like this as the postseason progresses.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Following the defensive gameplan, which seemed to be crash the boards, force easy runouts, and take advantage of having the Grizzlies bigs down on the other end. It's the best way to beat the Grizzlies, as the Thunder's biggest advantage is its speed and athleticism.
The gameplan begins with playing tight defense on the bigs, and Perkins and Ibaka were both terrific in that first quarter. Then, as Collison and Adams subbed in and assumed the assignment on the Grizzlies bigs, they were equally effective, if not even better. The two scrappers combined for 5 blocks and completely controlled the paint.
Gasol and Randolph finished the first quarter just 3-for-16 for 9 points. For the game, they ended up combining for 37, which is great for the Thunder considering it came on 14-for-40 shooting.
With the bigs being controlled inside, it was up to the outside shooters of Memphis to hit shots, something they failed miserably to do, especially in that first quarter. That resulted in misses which resulted in easy runouts, and the Thunder's advantage in transition gave the Thunder easy looks to get out to that early lead.
Then, fast forward to that fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies did a better job getting back on D and it became about halfcourt execution. Durant, despite that difficult third quarter, continued to attack and force the issue. He hit his usual Durant shots, but it was the way he and the rest of the offense stayed within themselves and trusted one another. Butler's dunk was the biggest highlight, but one other big highlight was the stretch when Fisher got a steal that resulted in free throws, and then penetrated and assisted a Durant 3-pointer a possession later.
It looked like a team completely in sync with one another, and it's the effort and intensity that will be necessary to grind down the Grizzlies over the course of the series.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The 10 blocks by the Thunder defense are a terrific testament to the way the they absolutely controlled the paint. It was well-established that the Grizzlies would get their points inside, and the outside shooting would be a question mark, but the inside points weren't even all that easy in this one. I mentioned Collison and Adams five first half blocks, but it was Ibaka (as it usually is) swatting away the shots down the stretch. It was the Conley runout first, but the block that led to the Durant dunk in the fourth quarter really sealed the deal in the game.
The tenacious rim protecting and quick runouts gave the Thunder a 32-13 advantage on the fast break, which is just one more testament to their athleticism ultimately winning out over the Grizzlies typically rugged style.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
It's just one game, and the Thunder won Game 1 in last year's series as well. The difference in this one is how dominant they seemed to look as a whole (minus that third quarter). Last season's game took a heroic last-second shot from Durant. This one was everyone pitching in for their moments. Westbrook got it started, Collison and Adams picked it up from there, Butler relit the flame in the fourth, Fisher kept it burning, and Durant and Ibaka closed it out.
That's reassuring for a Thunder team that tends to rely on its two stars a bit too much when things get tough. To have the entire team pitch in for key moments, and to not get down despite almost coughing up a gigantic lead, shows tremendous resolve and will be something to look back to when things get close in future postseason games.
- RUSSELL WESTBROOK POSTGAME OUTFIT WATCH: Game 1:
- For comparison's sake, check out Mike Conley. SO MUCH RED.
- Dave Joerger during coach's interview at end of 1st quarter: "It'd help if they weren't running out after every miss." Sure they'd love to help you there, Dave.
- Randolph and Gasol after the first quarter: 3-for-16, 9 points.
- Mike Tirico was spot on when he was talking about how everyone on the Thunder seems in tune with one another. Guys on the bench are cheering every good play, they're picking guys up during any mistake. It goes both ways too, with the starters just as helpful during their stints on the bench. You think of how a guy like Jeremy Lamb could easily sulk over losing his spot in the rotation, except he's still there smiling and hooting and hollering on every possession. It's a team that just looks locked in, and that may be the best sign out of the many great signs from tonight's game.
- Contrast that with the Pacers game before, too. Hoo boy.
- As I was typing that note down in the second quarter, Ibaka blocked Allen on a fastbreak, and then as Durant gathered on the other end, he slowed it down enough to feed a hustling Ibaka for an easy dunk. Feeding his guy to reward him for a great hustle play, just the perfect example of that team concept.
- At one point though, Butler missed a long contested two, and Fisher hit a toe-on-the-three-point-line two. Hashtag, veteran leadership.
- Third quarter: Erase everything you wrote during halftime.
- What time is it? I have no idea, but I assume Nick Collison is bleeding somewhere.
- Still can't believe that Caron Butler dunk.
- Westbrook took an extended break headed into the fourth. Good decision by Brooks to rest him a little longer after a slightly-wild third quarter.
- Don't want to overlook Reggie Jackson's effort either. He also did a good job staying under control while still pressuring the Memphis D, finishing with 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, including 7-8 from the free throw line. His aggressiveness was key to the second unit's success.
- Wrote my first preview ever today and predicted a 102-89 OKC win. Actual final, 100-86. I'm basically Nostradamus.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant: 33 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook: 23 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists
Thunder Blunder: Hasheem Thabeet: 3 fouls in four minutes (BUT HE PLAYED IN THE PLAYOFFS!)
Thunder Plunderer: Tony Allen: 13 points, 6 rebounds, +9 in a 14-point loss.
Game 2: vs. Memphis Grizzlies, Monday, April 21, 7:00 P.M. CDT