Zach Randolph was suspended. Mike Conley was nursing a sore hamstring. Tony Allen got poked in the eye during shootaround. It seemed like the Thunder could coast to a Game 7 victory and advance without any problem.
And in the end, that's kind of what happened, as the Thunder cruised to a 120-109 victory to move on to the second round of the playoffs.
It wasn't that easy, though. Memphis needed to shake it up in any way possible, and with Randolph sidelined, they went small from the start. It spaced the floor and sped up the game, something the Thunder had been trying to do all series. The only problem was that, while the Thunder seemingly had the edge with this style of play, it was Memphis that used the fast pace to get off to a fast start.
The Grizzlies put up 36 points in the first quarter - the most they've scored in any quarter all season - and had the Thunder down nine after one quarter.
Then, what the Thunder had been hoping would happen all along, finally happened: their talent simply won out. Westbrook went off, Durant couldn't miss, Jackson/Butler/Ibaka were all big, and the Thunder simply had too many good players who could hit too many shots for Memphis to keep up, no matter how quickly they played to match.
Blame it on the Grizzlies being without Randolph all you want, but Randolph was there for the entire 20-point Game 6 victory as well. If anything, this was just another rehash of that one. The Thunder, clearly still motivated by having their backs to the wall, played desperate, played with energy, and just played flat out good basketball.
Westbrook once again occupied the record books, as he finished his Game 7 with 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds. Perhaps even more impressively, he did it all on 16 shots. How unusual a stat line is it?
One player last 30 years with a 25-pt, 15-ast, 10-reb, 60% FG playoff game. Russell Westbrook today.— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) May 4, 2014
It was yet another example in the long line of examples that show exactly why the Thunder would never, ever, give up on the guy. When he's clicking like he was tonight, he's as valuable as any player in the league.
Speaking of valuable players, Durant was back on track, too, finally having one of his ultra-efficient, "when-did-he-get-so-many-points?" games, finishing with 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting.
You can go up and down the Thunder roster and find something nice to say about everyone, but it still will always be about those two. Is it fair? Considering they catch the heat when things are going poorly, it isn't unfair. Westbrook and Durant knew they needed to step up, and they did, and the Thunder now gets a fresh start in a new series.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
It's more a reaction to the past two games, because again, both were blowouts, but maybe the Thunder really did need to see the edge of the cliff before being properly motivated. Durant even admitted as much after the game, saying:
"You guys motivated me a little bit even though I told you that you didn't."
He was referencing the headline, sure, but it wasn't just the Oklahoman that was questioning him. Pretty much everywhere you turned, it was "Westbrook is shooting too much," "Durant can't win the big one," "Brooks isn't the answer," something of that variation pretty much everywhere (probably here, even. Just read some of my grades).
That's where good teams respond though, and the Thunder did that. Westbrook dialed it back, attempting just four total three-pointers in Games 6 and 7 after attempting 38 in Games 1-5. Durant corrected his body language, got his confidence back, and started getting back to his spots and hitting shots.
The rest of the team responded to their lead. TV color analyst Steve Kerr made an interesting point during Game 6 (at least I think it was Game 6, but there's been so many elimination games I may be losing track), when he said sometimes facing elimination helps put a team at ease because they're no longer playing for anything else besides winning. It's a different kind of peace of mind where guys just start playing to win and not worrying about anything else. I'm paraphrasing but that was the gist (see bullet point 4).
Anyway, the Thunder certainly looked more at peace the past two games. It became less about individual matchups and proving individual worth, and more about just making the right plays and trusting the rest would work out around one another.
And it did. On to the next round.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
The renewed effort. Look, I stand by all of the Brooks criticisms. He's stubborn, lends too much credence to the whole "veteran" thing, and his offense is incredibly basic and entirely dependent on Durant and Westbrook being awesome. But he clearly had his fingerprints on these last two games. Credit where it's due.
Changing the starting five - and sticking with it tonight - was the tip of the iceberg, but you have to believe he at least played some part in getting the guys to sense the desperation and play within themselves. Everyone seemed calmer, the shots were less forced, the team just looked better in every facet (save for the first quarter defense, but even that adjusted, which is yet another positive sign).
When the Thunder was losing, Brooks kept saying the guys just needed to "hit more shots," so since they did, maybe they deserve the bulk of the credit. But no matter where the directive came from, the Thunder clearly figured out how to get back to who they are, and they just used their talent to get the best of the Grizzlies in the end.
That was the prediction coming in from just about everyone. Memphis can match up well with OKC, but OKC is just too good for it to work four times out of seven for the Grizzlies. And that's exactly how it played out, whether it was the fast start by the entire team in Game 1, the Reggie Jackson takeover in Game 4, or the Westbrook/KD onslaught in Games 6 and 7, the Thunder got huge performances from its talented stars and it was too much for the Griz to handle.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The shooting percentages for the Thunder were absurd. 60.9 percent from the field, 57.9 percent from three, Durant and Westbrook 22/34 combined (65 percent). Durant said after the game, "We just trust we can get to our spots and hit those shots," and that's all it took. Durant even went 5-for-5 from three, a nice time to get hot after struggling from behind the arc all series.
Charles Barkley loves harping on the whole "you can't win just shooting jump shots" and he has a point, except it really should be amended to "unless they're good jump shots." When the Thunder is clicking, it's because they're taking "their" shots. Durant knows his hot spots, Westbrook knows his, and it's usually about them getting to their spots or finding other guys (like Ibaka and Butler and Jackson) in their spots for the best shot possible.
And sure, there was Fisher's crazy stepback three, and Westbrook's wild running three from the same spot the next time down that really pulled them away in the third quarter, but it's the NBA. Every team is going to make some crazy shots along the way. It's just about getting enough easy ones to balance it out.
When you shoot as well as the Thunder can, taking jump shots is completely acceptable, so long as they are smart. That's what we saw in Games 6 and 7. Instead of fighting the shot clock and forcing up contested jumpers, the Thunder was running, moving off the ball, and making the extra pass to get the open jumpshot. It's basic basketball, what the Spurs have been doing forever, but it's also really hard to do it consistently. The Thunder did it in back-to-back games, though, and they just so happened to avoid elimination because they did it so well.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
That you guys get to keep coming here and reading about the Thunder in the playoffs! In all honesty, it probably means a whole whole lot more than we're even acknowledging.
Had the Thunder lost tonight - particularly with all of those factors working against Memphis - the noise would have been just as loud as it had been after Game 5. Who knows what would have happened with the coaching situation? Who knows what would have happened with Westbrook and Durant. Maybe it really would have played a key factor in their decisions on whether to pursue free agency in the future.
All of that is avoided, at least for now. Those are probably still the stakes throughout each and every one of these playoff series going forward, but it's obviously less extreme the further the Thunder gets and the better they play. Make no mistake, this season is a failure if the Thunder doesn't at least sniff the Finals, and maybe even still if they don't seriously compete or win the big one.
But the noise dies down for a couple days. It becomes about how the Thunder attack their next opponent. It gets back to how much fun Westbrook and Durant are. The seas are calm, for the time being.
Don't expect it to stay that way for long, though.
- Per ESPN's Marc Stein: Kevin Durant will be named MVP. Announcement expected Tuesday. We'll have more coverage over the next few days, but that's obviously a huge deal for the entire Thunder franchise.
- Russell Westbrook Postgame Outfit Watch: Game 7
Russ: "We fought too hard to get to this point. We didn't want to come back home and let our fans down." pic.twitter.com/J19QBQzfvx— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 4, 2014
Grade: A-. The '90s look is making a comeback.
- Steve Kerr is great at his job by the way, and if he takes the Knicks job, I hope he fails just so he can get back to broadcasting.
- Steven Adams was the first Thunder sub off the bench and received a huge ovation. OKC fans are so glad he got punched in the face.
- After a Thunder 11-4 run to open up the game, Memphis went on a 32-16 run to flip the script in the first quarter. OKC couldn't match up on D.
- Lots of fouls on both teams early. It's weird how that works. When the teams are big and there's a lot of close-quarters contact, it's allowed. But give the guys some space and all of a sudden every bit of contact becomes too much. It's not a complaint, it's just a way of saying I have no idea what's a foul and what isn't.
- In the first quarter, Reggie Jackson got to the rim off a dribble drive. That's usually a good sign for the Thunder if he establishes himself early.
- Memphis' 36 points in the first quarter were the most they scored in a quarter all season. And with the way OKC has handled small lineups all year, it wasn't surprising at all.
- During his first quarter interview, Dave Joerger said the team was trying to "shock the world." You never want to go against a team that's trying to do that.
- I get what Smirnoff is trying to do, but I just don't want to know that Ben Wyatt and Trudy Campbell go vodka shopping together.
- KD had the ball with 6 seconds left in the first half and a chance to take the last shot. He fired it up wayyy too early, but he's Kevin Durant so of course he drilled it.
- These are the games that people conveniently forget when trying to complain about Westbrook shooting too much.
- Per Elias, Russell Westbrook joins Rajon Rondo as the only other player in NBA history with two career Game 7 triple-doubles. Both of his came against Memphis.
- So many Westbrook highlights, particularly in the second half. I'll pick one though that I thought summed him up perfectly:
Just classic Westbrook not caring about anything other than finding a way to get the ball in the hoop. Those two offensive boards also earned him that triple-double.
After hitting the dagger three to put the Thunder up 20 with 5:47 to play, Russell Westbrook looked at Caron Butler and dialed up his own 3-pointer. It was fun.
I also feel like we all owe Caron Butler a collective apology. Dude was huge the past two games and was everything the Thunder hoped he would be when they signed him in March.
Serge Ibaka is on a two-game "pump fake, put the ball on the ground and finish at the rim" streak.
KD postgame: "You guys motivated me a little bit, even though I told you that you didn't." I KNEW IT!
He also said this wearing a Thunder hat, which was really cool for some reason.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook: 27 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, 2 steals. Strutted, holstered, dialed up a Caron 3-point phone.
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant: 33 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists.
Thunder Blunder: Steven Adams was a -20 but I honestly felt like he made some nice hustle plays. He gets this award simply because I wanted to mention my surprise at that stat.
Thunder Plunderer: Mike Conley: 20 points, 9 assists, did all he could given his injury.