You don’t win an NBA title without at least one superstar player. Two or three is better. Go all the way back to 1979 and you find just one team that won a ring without one of the 10 best players in the game, usually a couple of them. (That exception is the 2004 Pistons, and they had Chauncey Billups playing at that level for a stretch, plus a superstar defense.)
But you also can’t win a title without a good supporting cast playing well around those superstars.
The latter issue is why the Thunder enter Saturday night’s Game 4 trailing the Grizzlies 2-1 and making this game almost must win. Team balance and alternate scoring options have been at the heart of this series — Memphis has had that, the Thunder have not.
With two of the game’s top 10 players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have the superstar players they need. The Grizzlies have countered with two very good perimeter defenders — Mike Conley and Tony Allen — plus a team defense led by Marc Gasol the Grizzlies can take away the first offensive option, they can make life difficult for Durant and Westbrook — in Game 3 Westbrook and Durant scored a combined 60 points but shot a combined 34 percent and were 4-of-21 from three.
In the last two games, Thunder players not names Westbrook or Durant have shot 39.4 percent and made a total of 28 shots. Serge Ibaka has been in double figures scoring both games (12 and 15) and he’s the only other one.
Without a reliable third option (remember late in games the year they went to the Finals the ball was often in James Harden’s hands and he created for everyone else) the Thunder offense has become a “you take a turn then I take a turn” trade off between Durant and Westbrook. They still put up numbers but the Thunder are not the same offensive juggernaut.
The Grizzlies on the other hand have balance.
Oklahoma City has rightfully focused on slowing Conley, Gasol and Zach Randolph on offense — but others have stepped up. Tony Allen had 16 points, Beno Udrih 12 and Courtney Lee 10 on Thursday night in Memphis. In Game 2 Lee and Udrih combined for 30 points.
The Grizzlies are disciplined and making the extra pass to the open man. They are moving the ball side-to-side well, which is allowing Randolph to seal his man and get the ball in deep for good looks.
The Grizzlies have balance and are using it well.
The Thunder has not had that balance. If they don’t have it they might still win Game 4 — Durant and Westbrook can carry a team a long way — but it is the playoff flaw that will ultimately doom them. Much earlier than they had planned.