The Oklahoma City Thunder watched their season go down like a sinking ship this week, as the hungry and tenacious Memphis Grizzlies put an end to it all by winning the decisive Game 5 on the Thunder's home court. This ending was not what we Thunder fans had in mind after watching Kevin Durant walk off the Miami court last year and fall into the arms of his parents, weeping unashamed. Even if that teary ending was not what we hoped for, at least it made sense.
These playoffs though, they did not make sense. Instead of peace, we're only left with frustration and a longing for what could have been but never shall be.
To break it all down, we return to Eleanor Roosevelt one final time to set up the framework.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
We at WTLC shall endeavor to conquer all three and in the process hope to be made whole again as we hope the team will be in time.
I. THE PEOPLE
Kevin Durant: Durant, more than any other player, was profoundly effected by the loss of Russell Westbrook. It was upon him now to not only score the bulk of points, but to run the offense, set up his teammates, play 45 minutes a game, and defend the likes of
Tayshaun Prince Marc Gasol. In other words, Durant was expected to play the LeBron James role on both ends of the court for the first time in his career. To Durant's benefit, his downside risk was limited, but the upside opportunity to carve out a legacy was profound.
Reggie Jackson: Jackson was charged with filling the Westbrook role full time heading into Memphis. Precariously, we all wondered how he would stand up to the intense Grizzlies defensive pressure. They are the best at forcing the other team into high turnover games, and for a player who was used to playing only 18 minutes a game against the 2nd unit of other teams, he was about to experience something entirely new. They don't play defense like this at Virginia Tech.
Scott Brooks: Brooks suffered a very shaky opening round as the Thunder took a few games to adjust to the lack of Westbrook. Actually, check that. They once again did not know how to deal with a smallball line-up. Brooks' match-ups were plagued by two Rockets bench guys and a 2nd round draft pick that seems to morph into Scottie Pippen every time the Thunder play the Rockets. While the Grizz are a little bit more of a classic match-up of bigs and guards, Brooks still needed to do a better job at recognizing and exploiting places in the game during a series where offense would be at a premium.
Russell Westbrook: This series was also a referendum on a guy who would not even be playing. If the Thunder won, questions about Westbrook's value to the team would loom large. If they lost, his value would be recognized, but only at the expense of his tight-knit team. In any event, the only sign we'd see of the HAM Badger would be sitting in a box seat with his leg in a cast.
Zach Randolph: Every time I watch Z-Bo, I think about a bare-knuckled brawler from the 1920's. If you watch him play in the post, whether he's backing a guy down or facing him up by sticking his melon inside some poor bloke's chest, he's exercising a game of subtle variations. It is only pretty if you consider a boxer's body blows or an MMA fighter's inside holds pretty. How would the Thunder deal with him?
Marc Gasol: Gasol, the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, is a guy whose art is also in his subtlety. Unlike Randolph, his sense is in how to act as the conductor. To be sure his own offensive and defensive talents are considerable, but as guys like Zach Lowe has written ad nauseum, Gasol possesses a certain Bill Walton-like sense for the flow of the game. He could play with just about anyone, and make anyone play better.
Mike Conley: The biggest reason why I'm a Conley fan is because when he came into the league (#4 pick a year before Westbrook) he was about as limited as Reggie Jackson. However, the Grizzlies believed that he was worth investing in and so have shown great patience as Conley has steadily improved, just like the Thunder did with Westbrook. He now has to be considered one of the top PG's in the league.
Lionel Hollins: I greatly value the fact that he has a deep appreciation for how good Durant and the Thunder are, and then he goes out and beats them. He's also the most quotable head coach after Gregg Popovich. For example, he dropped this gem after Durant got two rip moves fouls in the second quarter of game 1. The fouls provoked Hollins to hollar at referee Bill Kennedy, "Where do want him to put his f—ing hands, Bill?! In his a$$?"
Tony Allen: TA embodies everything that the Grizzlies have come to represent, right down to their own slogan. Lest you forget, it was Allen's unforgettable post-game interview after beating the Thunder two seasons ago that spawned a team identity. I won't lie to you, this is one of my favorite interviews of all time:
II. THE EVENTS
Game 1: In the proverbial "feeling out" game, both the Thunder and Grizzlies looked out of synch and combined for a poor offensive performance through the 1st half. Things heated up in the 2nd half however, as the Grizzlies worked their way up to a lead that was punctuated by Quincy Pondexter's 30 foot heave at the 3rd quarter buzzer to put Memphis up by 9.
With the game slipping away, Kevin Durant began to exert his offense on his way to a LeBron-esque 35 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. In a remarkable sequence of events, the Thunder rallied late, got a steal, and Durant hit the game-deciding jump shot as the clock ran down. However, even with that big shot, the Thunder had to sweat out an "oh-my-goodness-what-are-you-doing?!?" play were Jackson fouled Pondexter on the 3-point play. Fortunately, 2 missed free throws followed and the stage was set for what we expected to be a closely fought series.
Game 2: The 2nd game at the 'Peake appeared to be in the same vein as how Game 1 played out. The Thunder were not as aggressive on the boards or in protecting the ball, but Durant seemed to be feeling his way through the Grizzlies defense on his way to a second eye-popping stat line of 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists. Furthermore, Durant was getting good support from a variety of sources, and the result was that Game 2 felt like the most Thunder-esque game of the whole series.
Unfortunately, because the Thunder stopped doing all of those little things that the Grizz love to do like rebound, defend, and protect the ball, OKC found themselves in a tight game. This time around, we saw a harbinger of things to come. With Durant looking to make a play to seal the game, he pivoted into nothingness, lost the ball, and the game ran away from him.
The optimism in me thought, "Durant's got this thing figured out. Game 2 was a blip." The pessimism in me however whispered, "OKC just wasted one of Durant's best playoff games of his life. He may not get another."
Game 3: The 3rd game of the series was OKC's return to the "Grind House" and the insanity of playing in a game in downtown Memphis. If Game 2 was the one that got away, Game 3 was the one where the Thunder began to realize that Durant's capacity for playing at a high level is capped when he does not rest.
The back and forth affair once again came down to the 4th quarter where the Thunder were in a tie ball game. They had the ball in the hands of their best player, down two, but in position to steal a game and reclaim home court advantage. Durant worked the ball into the paint, raised up to shoot a gimme 10 footer, and missed.
This ending was a new thing for Durant and the Thunder. Game 2? That was a fluke, a slip, a trip, an unlikely to be repeated stumble. Game 3 however was something different. Game 3 was Durant's chance to become Jordan and Kobe - to steal a win from a tough team despite all forces against him. Durant missed. A new script was being written.
Game 4: In the 2011 playoffs, the Thunder and Grizzlies put on one of the most memorable playoff games of all time in Game 4. In that previous series, with the Thunder facing the prospect of falling behind 3-1against the 8th seeded Grizzlies, OKC dug deeper than ever before and turned out a triple OT win in Memphis. Could history repeat itself and enable OKC to recover?
For a time, we all thought it might. The Thunder raced out to a big 17 point 1st half lead with Durant leading the way. Slowly but surely however, Memphis battled back, and by the time the 4th quarter rolled around, we were back in a tie game, just like in every other game so far. Durant, who had played so well up to this game, finally saw the toll of the focused Grizzlies defense effect him and his game slipped noticeably in the 2nd half. What seemed so promising for a time turned into a 10-27 shooting night. On top of that, it seemed to be effecting Durant's free throws as well, ad KD missed a crucial one in the 4th quarter that could have given OKC the lead.
Durant had one last memorable shot left in his arsenal, a George Gervin-esque finger-roll that tied up the game and sent it into overtime, but that sweet shot was the last of Durant's best. He finished the 4th and OT shooting 2-13 and barely had enough energy to execute a basic fast break. The Thunder, and Durant, were getting worn out.
Game 5: This Memphis close-out game might be one of the most painful I've seen in recent memory. It reminded me of such futile attempts as Michael Jordan's ill-fated series against Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic in 1994, a series where Jordan played only 17 regular season games after returning from a retirement and a year and a half of playing professional baseball. In that series, Jordan, a shell of his normal playing self, was bested by such historical greats as Nick Anderson, Donald Royal, and Darrell Armstrong. He simply did not have the conditioning or explosiveness necessary to compete.
Likewise, Durant simply ran out of fuel. Charged with carrying the offense, leading the team, and defending Gasol in the post, Durant had nothing left to give. In a game that was prime for the taking because Memphis wasn't much better, there was little Durant could do. He shot 5-21 for the game with many of those shots missing badly.
In a last bit of torment, the Thunder, down by 12 with 3 minutes to go, staged a comeback. On the legs of Derek Fisher, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison, somehow the Thunder climbed back to a 2 point deficit with the ball and 10 seconds remaining. Durant, misfiring all night, had one last shot at redemption. The series might be slipping away, but he still had one last shot to give the Thunder fans a final home win before receding into the good night.
Durant got the ball. He got a good ball fake, pivoted, and got a clean look for a 16 foot elbow jumper that he drains in his sleep.
The shot wasn't close.
And then quickly, mercifully, it was all over. Memphis had overtaken the talented and driven Durant. Finally, KD could rest.
III. THE IDEAS
There is this idea of what it is a team is supposed to be. Or, in the alternative, there is an idea that a team can be something. The difference of course is in how this group of individuals decides to best apply its abilities toward a common goal.
In the late 80's, there was a team, let's call them Team A, who resided on one of the coasts. This team was impeccable in its coaching, its championship pedigree, its acquisition of both superstars and role players, and its ability to win lots and lots of games over everybody else in the league. There was a second team, Team B, who was none of those things with the possible exception that it too knew how to win lots and lots of games. Which team a fan chose to root for spoke volumes about how they saw that team, themselves, and life in general. Was life matriculation about all of the high profile things that go into creating success: blood lines, parenting, education, college, post-grad, social circles, and legacy? Or was a life of success more about building something of substance despite the lack of all of those things?
The Thunder are a compelling team to watch. They are compelling to experience as a spectacle, to see them grow together, to deal with adversity, and to strive to reach their potential. The Grizzlies are compelling too, but for entirely different reasons. The essence of their core is a point guard who couldn't pass, a shooting guard who couldn't shoot, a power forward who can't jump, and a center who used to be considered the chubby younger brother of the real talent in the family. Both teams play in small markets with dedicated fan bases, both teams are passionately devoted to one another, both teams aspire to win a championship, but you could not find two teams more diametrically opposed in how they go about themselves.
Watching the Grizzlies play over the past three seasons reminds me a great deal about Team B mentioned above. Some time ago, Team B's leader, an immensely talented, competitive, and yes, vindictive player, had to deal with the kind of adversity that the Grizzlies face in dealing with teams like the Thunder. Team B's leader gave an interview with Dan Patrick a few years ago that allowed us inside the mind of a perennial underdog after reflecting on losing to Team A:
"You just ... you wouldn't understand.
"That type of emotion, that type of feeling, when you're playing like that, and you know, you're really going for it ... you're going for it. You put your heart, your soul, you put everything into it, and ... "
The player chokes up. Takes a moment to compose himself.
"It's like, to look back on that, to know that all we went through as a team, and the people, and the friendships and everything ... you just wouldn't understand.
"You know, like you said, to see Dennis, the way Dennis was, to see Vinny, to see Joe, to see Bill, to see Chuck, and to know what we all went through and what we were fighting for ... I mean, we weren't the Lakers, we weren't the Celtics, we were just, we were nobody. We were the Detroit Pistons, trying to make our way through the league, trying to fight and earn some turf, you know, and make people realize that we were a good team. We just weren't the thing that they had made us."
Dan Patrick steps in: "You weren't Showtime, you weren't the Celts, you were the team that nobody gave credit to."
"And seeing that, and feeling that, and going through all that emotion, I mean, as a player, that's what you play for. That's the feeling you want to have. When 12 men come together like that, you know, it's ... it's ...
"You wouldn't understand."
(excerpted from Bill Simmons' ESPN post)
By now you probably recognize that the quoted player is Isiah Thomas, Team B is the Detroit Pistons, and Team A is both the Celtics and the Lakers. Or, if you will, the Thunder. Or the Heat. Or the Spurs. Or the Clippers.
That really brings me to the crux of it all. When I was 12 years old, I HATED the Pistons. To me, they were everything that was wrong with the NBA, while the Celtics and their arch rivals the Lakers represented the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road. However, at that age I couldn't see then what I see now; there was something deeply embedded in that team's makeup that enabled them, a collection of guys like Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, James "Buddha" Edwards, and of course the Batman villain Bill Laimbeer, to win. And not only to win, but to win over Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, and yes, Michael Jordan.
There is no point in trying to parallel those Pistons with these Grizzlies save for one thing - they have defined their identity, and they believe that identity is sufficient to defeat all onlookers.
I admit it - ever since that classically crazy (or is it crazily classic?) seven game series from 2011 that all but forced the young Thunder to grow up and deal with playoff competition, I have been enamored with the Grizz. The way they played converted me to become a fan, and they did it by playing like the team I used to loathe. It's funny how perspective changes with time.
This is the team, a team of guys who can't shoot, jump, or run, who took down the future of the NBA. Despite my sadness, I could not have been more impressed.
I think that even if Westbrook had played, the Grizzlies still could have created a similar outcome. Perhaps not in 5 games, but quite possibly in 6 or 7. I believe this because I watched those Piston teams do the exact same thing against Larry, Magic, and MJ. Tony Allen calls it the "grit-grind," but we have many names for it. Heart. Passion. Will to win. Refusal to lose. Those are nice sentiments, but the truth is more fundamental. The Grizzlies were willing to commit to a plan that gave themselves a shot at beating one of the most talented teams in the league. They then went out and did it.
If you've made it this far with me, you might think that I've spent more time writing about my fondness for the Grizz than my reflections on the Thunder. You might be right, but I hope that you can see it is two sides of the same coin. The Grizzlies matter to the Thunder because they challenge the Thunder to become a better team. The reason the Grizz won, and won handily, is because they had built a team identity that could not be compromised by the loss of a player (Rudy Gay) and they built a plan that would marginalize the presence of another team's player. There is a lesson in there well beyond platitudes. It is a lesson about how a basketball team is built not just though players but ideas and core identity.
The lasting idea is this - the Thunder will be back and they will be better. When that happens, it will not be because Russell Westbrook is healthier, Durant is stronger, and the Thunder supporting cast is more dependable. They will be better because they will understand basketball on a deeper level and they will understand more deeply because the Grizzlies make them understand more deeply. When things go awry, OKC's collective knowledge about the what (what is it?) and the why (why is it?) will carry them through. Grind them through.
You understand, right?