The noise surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder was louder than ever heading into Game 6. Lose, and the future of the entire franchise becomes uncertain. Maybe Durant can't win here. Maybe Westbrook isn't a championship-level point guard. Maybe Brooks has taken the team as far as he can. On the other hand, win, and all of that noise goes away.
Until Game 7, at least.
Scott Brooks adjusted his starting lineup, Kevin Durant came out scorching, Russell Westbrook stayed in control throughout the entire game, and the Thunder's supporting cast stepped up when called upon. For the first time since the first half of Game 1, the Thunder controlled the tempo of the game. Here's how we grade each player.
||KD gets graded on a curve when he performs badly, simply because the expectations are so high. So it's only fair to grade him on a curve in a situation like this, as well. He started out brilliantly, then started settling for - and missing (0-for-6 from 3-point range) - jumpers in the third quarter. Still, he found a way to hit some big shots and get to the line in the fourth to close it out. In the regular season, it was a B-level performance from KD. But factor in everything else - the headline, the talks about whether he and Westbrook could win together, the questions about his coach - it was the first time maybe ever that KD was facing the noise that guys like Lebron and every great player have had to face when they fail to win the big one. So to come out and take control was huge for Durant, and it set the tone for the entire team.|
||Kevin Durant. What can you say? He knew that he would have to come into the Grind House and play better by an order of magnitude in order for the Thunder to get back home for game 7, and he went out and did it. The thing is, Durant wasn't even that great, at least by the standards he has set for himself. What it proves though is that he doesn't need to go supernova against this Grizzlies team in order for the Thunder to have the upper hand. All he needs to do is play up to his normal standards, and it compromises everything Memphis tries to do defensively. Most importantly, Durant looked comfortable for the first time on the court in about 2 weeks, and that should carry over into the ending of this crazy series.|
||Same curve goes for Westbrook. He's in a lose-lose situation most of the time. The team plays bad, it's usually because "he shot too much," regardless of how everyone else performed. The team plays well, KD gets all the love. This was Westbrook's best game of the series as well, and don't think he didn't have just as much pressure as KD. He, too, stayed in control, kept his relentless attitude (that putback dunk on KD's airball?!), and continued to push the pace so the Grizzlies D could never get set. It's easy to say, and not much of a #hotsportstake, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any team that can beat the Thunder when both of its stars are clicking like they were in Game 6.|
|SHERMAN||Durant will get the headlines, but Russell Westbrook was every bit as important as KD. What is kind of amazing about Westbrook is that he's usually at his best when he's not making a ton of noise on the court. He will be producing points, gathering rebounds, leading the break, and you almost forget he's out there, until WHAM. There it is, and he takes your breath away and puts the fear into his opponent once again.|
||Ibaka continues to do good things when he is involved in the offense. He also continues to be uninvolved in the offense for long stretches of the game. He wasn't needed in the fourth quarter in Game 6, and that certainly skews his stats a little. He also found time to swat four shots, which helped key the excellent team defense. Look, if it works like it did tonight, then just being a defensive guru is fine. But it's been six games in a row where we've been calling for Ibaka to be more involved, and he has yet to do so. Plus, he actually pump faked and drove to the hoop and finished at one point, so he's an offensive maven!|
||Serge Ibaka's game 6 numbers aren't as impressive as previous outings, but if you want to get a sense as to what the Thunder are doing on defense, watch how the Grizzlies' low post game fades over the course of the game. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have started off well, but as time goes on their looks at the rim get fewer and fewer, which means that it puts more and more pressure on the Grizzlies' perimeter players, a weakness on their team. As a bonus, Serge actually pump-faked a three and drove to the rim, the first time anyone anywhere has seen him do that, I reckon.|
||I still get goosebumps thinking about Reggie Jackson tearing up and hugging his teammates after Game 4. That moment created a sort of sentimental bond with Jackson, where I constantly want to see him do well and be happy. Game 6 was great for that, because he answered the bell when he was called upon, but also didn't have to do it all by himself. That's what a sixth man should be expected to do, provide a spark but not carry the entire team. His improved 3-point shooting has been a major weapon, and has the potential to swing a lot of key playoff moments.|
|SHERMAN||Reggie Jackson bounced back from his subpar game 5 by producing the Thunder's best 3-point shooting on the night. That probably needs to be reflected upon for a moment. A year ago, Jackson was dreadful from beyond the arc. This year, he's shooting 4-5 in an elimination game. Major props to his dedication to his shooting craft because it is paying off now.|
||THAT BLOCK! (link to it down in JA's section). He also completed a nasty alley oop. Pretty crazy seeing a Thunder center do that. It also wouldn't be a Steven Adams appearance if every player on the other team didn't want to fight him within five minutes. He was great in Game 1, barely saw time in Games 2-5, and once again was a spark in Game 6. As I said in Perkins' section, you can alternate the two of them, as they provide entirely different looks, but it's pretty obvious Adams' value against this Memphis team. He can block Randolph with ease, and can provide more on offense than Perk could ever dream of.|
||Kiwi Strong brought the pain to the Grizzlies in game 6. Steven Adams was given more minutes than Perkins, and he rewarded his coach with stellar defense and 5 huge blocks, none more demoralizing than this one. Adams also did that Kiwi thing he does so well, getting the Grizzlies riled up because they're not used to guys playing physical and then completely ignoring the retaliation. Perkins has been solid, no doubt, but Adams brings an extra boost of energy and athleticism to the mix, and I think he's finally realizing that Zach Randolph cannot actually jump.|
||He gets a C+ because his hair never takes a game off.|
|SHERMAN||Is Nick Collison stepping aside so that Adams can move ahead? It kind of looks that way.|
||Derek Fisher's name is being floated around as the next possible Lakers coach. I'm either 100 percent for that, or 100 percent against that. Would he help the Lakers (hopefully not)? Hurt them (hopefully)? Would his presence be missed in the OKC locker room? If he left, the young guys would finally get his minutes, right? So many feelings. Oh and Derek Fisher stepped on the basketball court and ran around and had a layup and did some other stuff that you could sort of consider helpful while also not hurting the team.|
||Fisher has struggled in this series without question. I'm not sure yet whether it is because he's simply regressing to the mean, running out of steam, or the Grizz defense is simply that good at recovery on the 3-point line. I do know that he's barely gotten any open looks, which has led him to do some unconventional things which he should not be doing. Even so, that was a sweet drive at the end he had there.|
||It's frustrating after games like that when people say things like "well why don't they play like that all the time?" Well, hypothetical person, because it's the NBA Playoffs and good teams makes other good teams play differently from time to time. Still, this was Thunder basketball and is quite obviously the standard OKC needs to try and replicate day in and day out. It all starts on defense, and you see how much easier the offense can run and flow freely simply by getting stops, not fouling, and grabbing rebounds. It opens everything else up. It lets KD and Russ create with a little more space, and it lets the other guys find more open spots on the floor to get their own easier looks. Home court won't mean much in Game 7, because it's going to be about whether the Thunder can play this way once more, or whether Memphis can slow the game back down and make OKC play halfcourt basketball. That's going to decide who advances. At least the Thunder showed they remember how to play their brand of basketball.|
||The resurgence of Durant, the control of Westbrook, and the assertive lineup changes will get most of the press, and deservedly so. One thing that hasn't gotten much mention (except at WTLC of course!) is that the Thunder defense has been really on point for most of this series. With the exception of the Game 2 OT period and a stretch during Game 5, they have taken away much of what Memphis likes to do. They have sealed off the interior, guarded Mike Conley well, and really the only consistent issue is how they've defended Miller these past 2 games. If OKC keeps this up on the defensive end and simply plays to their abilities on offense, they will put themselves in a great position to close out the Grizzlies in Game 7.|
*All player images via US Presswire