Elite teams win on their off days.
This was certainly an off day for the Thunder. Russell Westbrook went 0-13, missing shots he usually drains blindfolded. He got frustrated and that led to words with Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Durant, to the point Durant and Westbrook had to be separated.
And in the end, the Thunder still won, 98-95. They beat a good team that plays them tough. It’s the kind of thing contenders do, winning on off nights. They did it thanks to Kevin Durant’s 32, including key shots down the stretch.
Early on both defenses were tight — Memphis started 0-11 from the field. This is why the Thunder went out and traded for Kendrick Perkins at the deadline last year, to match up with Memphis and Los Angeles and other teams with size in the paint. Perkins protects the rim with the best of them. So after one quarter Memphis shot just 19 percent, but was still in it because Oklahoma City was only at 31.6 percent (in part because Kevin Durant started 1-7 shooting).
Even at the half Durant and Westbrook were a combined 3-14 shooting, but the Thunder were up five. It was that kind of night.
The game ended up being the kind of dogfight we saw in the playoffs between these teams. Mike Conley goes down with a sprained ankle but Jeremy Pargo steps in and plays solid ball. Kevin Durant was being Kevin Durant, but the Grizzlies had 19 offensive rebounds and stayed close. Very close at the end.
Grizzlies cut their deficit to two on a Rudy Gay leaner with 58 seconds left (a good play by Pargo who pushed the pace, got into the lane and kicked out to Gay who had the undersized Westbrook running at him). Memphis had a chance if they could get a stop.
Next trip down the Grizzlies left Rudy Gay one-on-one with Durant — Gay plays good defense but Durant gets to his spot by the elbow and hits and impossible to stop 18-foot fadeaway to put the Thunder up by four. It was interesting defense by Memphis, going with the one-on-one approach. At that point, don’t you run a hard double and do whatever it takes to get the ball out of the hands of the best scorer in the game?
Memphis had time to get a two-for-one (35 seconds) but good defense by OKC left no clean three-point shots for anyone but Pargo and he was reluctant to shoot (he was trying to find O.J. Mayo). The two-for-one disappeared but Gay found a nice path to the rim for a finger roll — only to have Serge Ibaka come from the weak side and send the block into the first row. Mayo missed a wild three and after that it seemed over — until a steal on the inbound led to a Gay dunk with five seconds left to cut it to 94-92.
But from there the Thunder hit their free throws — as they do — and even a dramatic three from Zach Randolph could not get Memphis the win.
For the Grizzlies, it was a well played game, especially with Conley. What’s more, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay are starting to figure out how to play off each other. There is starting to be a flow, a picking of spots by both players. When that balance arrives, the Grizzlies will be that much better.
But Kevin Durant plays for the Thunder. And some nights you win because you have the best player on the floor. This was one of those for the OKC.