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Thunder vs Grizzlies: Three Lingering Thoughts Regarding 2011 Semi-Finals Game Four

If you've ever seen the film, "Memento," you know how maddening it can be for people to remember important details. Some memories never leave you because of the trauma or elation involved; others hang with you because of how it engages your senses. Sometimes though, you just don't want to forget the minutia. The less rationally inclined might take the Leonard Shelby approach and tattoo the details of Game Four onto their body. That's one way. Another method, slightly less intrusive and painful, is to write a blog post about it. I shall take the latter approach.

1. My personal historical context.

I've been watching NBA playoff basketball for about 25 years now, and I am fairly certain that I have never seen a game like Game Four. The only one in my memory that comes close is Game Three of the 1993 Finals that pitted Jordan's Bulls against Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns. That game was memorable too, but did not feature the same emotional swings that the Thunder-Grizzlies game did. Rather, it was a game that was played neck and neck the entire way. The Suns team was desperately trying to get back into a finals series that Jordan was usurping, on both a personal level  (Barkley had been named league MVP over Jordan that year) as well as a team level, as the Bulls were trying to win a contemporarily unprecedented third consecutive championship.

That 1993 Finals game surpassed last night's in its significance and stature due to the fact that it was a finals game and that it featured three of the top 50 players of all time (although with the presence of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Zach Randolph, there is no shortage of all-star power in this series either). However, I do not think that 1993 game can rival the emotional roller-coaster that Game Four offered, because in reality Game Four was also about Game Three. In Game Three we saw the Thunder fall apart in the waning moments, which begged the natural question of whether this young squad was up to the task of competing against such a mentally focused aggressor.  The Thunder were completely and unabashedly demoralized after Game Three, and that emotion carried over to Game Four. Through the first 15 minutes, it appeared as if the Thunder were ready to pack it in, which would have likely ushered forth the end of the series itself.

At the end of the day, I think this - Game Four is the very reason why we watch the NBA, and sports, in general. We watch because we as sports consumers know that when the competitive spirit is raised to its highest point on all sides of the equation, it has a way of enrapturing our very spirits in a way that few things do. It is a multi-sensory experience that raises our adrenaline and emotions. It is the sound of something sizzling in the moment before the chef removes the cover of your meal and unleashes olfactory heaven, or the girl's scent that lingers on her skin right before a first kiss. It is the anticipation and hope of the possibility of experiencing something you've never experienced before. Sometimes, that moment results in a win, like OKC's last night. Other times, or from the other side of the table, it results in a loss but somehow transcends it

Apropos of nothing, in that 1993 game, Jordan shot 19-43 and Scottie Pippen shot 12-35. I'll just let that factoid sit there and you can do with it what you will. 

2. My previous musings. 

Although I never could have predicted what we saw on Monday, in reflection it does appear that the themes that came out of Game Three carried forth in Game Four. Mostly.

     a) A defining collapse. 

Game Three's collapse now seems like a distant memory because the Thunder in effect reversed the outcome. In #3, the Thunder, seemingly assured of victory, lost a 16 point lead late and crumbled in overtime. I knew that the collapse would be difficult to overcome, but because of the way the NBA game is played I knew that the Thunder could flush it out in time. Even knowing this though, after watching the first 12 minutes of play, I still had my doubts. In that opening quarter, the Thunder still looked shell-shocked, their body language was terrible, and seemed like they wanted to pack it in. If they had given in at that point, they would be all but finished in the series. They would have failed the mental test, if not the physical one.

To me, the stretch in the 2nd quarter was as important a test as anything the Thunder have dealt with this season. The reason why is that the Thunder had to come to terms with their identity and who they wanted to be. OKC was about to crumble against the greater mental stamina and resiliency of the Grizzlies, and the Thunder seemed ill-equipped to do anything about it. But then, they decided to do something about it. Collectively, they as a team decided that they would go down fighting, that the season did not have to end with a whimper. In a way, it was an extension of how Durant played in Game Five of the Nuggets series. There too the team seemed resigned to the fact that they could not win and would have to endure a trek back to Denver. Durant decided that this was not a foregone conclusion, and rocketed himself into the pantheon of the playoff elite by putting the team on his back and carrying them across the finish line. Monday's change of attitude and direction was similar, but this time it was shared by all of the young men wearing blue.

After that 2nd quarter sequence, everything about the game and the series changed. The mental edge the Grizzlies possessed had been taken away. At that point I audibly said to nobody in particular (I need to watch games like #4 alone, for everybody's sakes), "OKC figured it out. They got it. They're going to win this game by double digits." A venerable Nostradamus, I am.

     b) James Harden cures all. 

I had posited before that, while Scott Brooks is not great at in-game adjustments, he does seem to be much better at game-to-game adjustments, and that he would figure out the Harden equation. And so he did. In Game Four, Thabo Sefolosha played only 15 minutes and by and large gave way to Harden, who logged 49. Harden was instrumental throughout the second half.

I've written extensively on the multitude of problems Harden creates for the Grizzlies defense, so I won't recap it here. What is worth noting though is the fact that Harden comes up big in big moments. That's why I've started calling him Big Game James, consequences be damned. The first image that probably leaps to your memory is the huge game-tying 3-pointer that Harden hit in OT #2. Yes, that moment was great, and I'm thrilled that Harden has gotten to this point following an up-and-down sophomore season.

Bigger than that 3-pointer though, it was Harden's contribution in the 4th quarter that allowed OKC to make it to the OT. Just like in Game Three, the Thunder had a double digit lead that was quickly evaporating. In Game Three, the Thunder could not figure out how to score, and the Grizzlies caught them. Harden was on the bench for the final four minutes, precious minutes when he could have given the Thunder a 3rd scoring option. Brooks recognized this error and as a result, many of those 4th quarter possessions in Game Four were run through Harden. Though he did not score a single point, Harden handed out four huge assists, including two to Nazr Mohammed of all people, that kept the Thunder offense from going into the tank. 

More than his shooting, passing, rebounding, or shot blocks, Harden simply adds an element to the Thunder that makes them more dynamic as a team. He does not take bad shots, he's always looking to set up other guys, and he is big enough and strong enough where other guards don't bother him. He will continue to play a major role in this series. 

     c) Defense is...woops.

We actually got a bit of a replay from Game One, at least in the first quarter. Both Randolph and Gasol were getting a bevy of open looks and were converting with ease. The Thunder were able to reverse the trend going forward, but it was primarily through the work of Gasol and Randolph on the offensive boards that enabled the Grizzlies to stay competitive even as they began to lose players to foul trouble.

That said, I think the defensive game plan has to remain the same. The Thunder have to continue to pack their defense into the lane to prevent those two bigs from getting easy looks. Also, I don't care who is guarding Gasol, but Gasol should never be beating anybody off the dribble, ever. Give him a contested 20 footer if you must, but the guy has slower foots-peed than Kendrick Perkins. Just keep him away from the rim where he can get those easy hook shots and offensive put-backs.

Also, I think the Thunder have chosen wisely to live or die by the hot/cold hand of the Grizzlies' perimeter players. O.J. Mayo has had a good series, but he isn't a guy of which to be afraid. As long as the Thunder are willing to give up those perimeter shots, they should continue to come out ahead on the defensive end.

3. The continued saga of the Durant-Westbrook dynamic.

The further these playoffs go, the more weary I grow of the over-analysis of this topic. In a way, it has sort of been like the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade dynamic, but in reverse. If you recall, the Heat duo went through months and months of heightened scrutiny as the two struggled to figure out how to play together. ESPN even created the ridiculous "Heat index" to cover the unfolding story. No game, nay, quarter, was above reproach for criticism and extrapolation. Every disagreement or mix-up of communication was covered ad nauseum. They were even described as an old married couple. It has been the grandest and most unprecedented of experiments, and it may not work out this year or any other year. Regardless, I think it is safe to conclude that the Heat, or any other team for that matter, would have been insane not to try to make it work. James and Wade endured the criticism, waited for the dogs to find a new chew toy, and now they find themselves on the brink of moving on to the Eastern Finals.

Unfolding in the opposite direction, Durant and Westbrook started out the year in relative obscurity. Durant, coming off of the heroics of the summer's world championships, was primed but not quite ready for what this season was going to bring. For the first few months, he looked both tired and uncertain of how he was supposed to take the next step of superstar evolution. I speculated that the summer championships had a direct impact on both - those games had robbed Durant of the opportunity to recover his energy stores, and it had elevated him to a point where he thought he knew what he was supposed to be, but without the proper knowledge and tools (yet) to actually do it. As a result, Durant was far too easily prone to lingering around the perimeter, waiting for passes so he could quickly hoist up bad shots. In other words, he had morphed into the 2003 version of Jamal Crawford. However, very few people noticed it at that point. Why? Because the team, despite its flaws, was winning.

Why were they winning? Russell Westbrook had taken the lead. And that is what he does. For the first quarter of the season, it was common to see Westbrook on the short list of league MVP candidates. Everything about him, from his game to his dunks to his statistics, was jumping off the page. He by and large carried the talented but flawed team through the first 30 games of the season until Durant finally found his sea-legs in January. The two continued to figure things out, often with one at the expense of the other, but the team kept on winning. From that point on, they were like two lead Iditerod dogs, sometimes struggling to go in the right direction, dependent more than they could ever know on the coaching staff that was working to keep them focused on the prize.

Since the media boomerang left the Heat duo, it has now reverted back to land on another tender morsel. So here we are now, with columns being written daily and misleading warbling like this clip being offered that take turns attacking and defending the teammate dynamic between the Thunder's two most important cogs. 

This is what I know - Westbrook will allow Durant to lead as long as Durant is willing to lead. However, if Durant becomes passive once more, Westbrook will not wait nor should he wait; there is a game to win.