Kevin Durant hit a pull-up jumper with 11.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter to help send the Thunder to a 93-91 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Durant took control of things in the fourth quarter, where he scored 12 of his game high 35 points.
This was a great win for the Thunder, but it was a lost opportunity for the Grizzlies more than anything else. Memphis built a third quarter lead of as many as 12 points, and led by seven points midway through the fourth. But Durant closed the game by personally outscoring the Grizzlies 10-7 the rest of the way, while the Thunder finished on a 16-7 run to seal the victory.
Oklahoma City did a lot of things well in Game 1, and undoubtedly gained some confidence against a Grizzlies team many expected to win this series before it started. Kendrick Perkins was excellent defensively against Marc Gasol inside, particularly in the second half. Kevin Martin provided a much needed scoring boost for the Thunder for the second straight game, pouring in 25 points off the bench, 23 of which came in the game’s first three quarters.
The Thunder won the rebounding battle thanks to 15 from Durant, and seven each from Perkins and Martin to offset the 10 the Grizzlies got from both Gasol and Zach Randolph. Oklahoma City successfully packed the paint and limited the Grizzlies’ two biggest weapons inside, and as Memphis kicked it out to try to find open looks, they ended up shooting an uncharacteristically high 19 times from three-point distance, while connecting on just seven of those attempts.
The Grizzlies are going to need to win on the road in this series if they are to win it, and Game 1 had all the makings of an upset. Memphis had its chances, and even led late. They’ll need a stronger performance from Mike Conley moving forward, who finished just 5-of-15 from the field in this one, and (along with Randolph) has been the reason for the Grizzlies’ success to this point in the postseason.
But they can’t allow the game to be this close down the stretch. Because as he did in this one, Durant will simply take matters into his own hands and make sure his team ends up on the winning side.
Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals
And even if Leonard explicitly told Green he wants to remain in San Antonio, I’m not sure Leonard is confrontational enough to tell Green he wanted out, even if he did.
Those caveats acknowledged, this could be a huge revelation.
If Leonard wants to stay with the Spurs, the next step is meeting with them, mending their relationship and convincing them he deserves a super-max extension (which projects to be worth $219 million over five years). No matter how Leonard feels about San Antonio right now, if the Spurs don’t trust investing so much in him, that could lead to a fractured relationship and his exit.
So, there’s still a lot to sort out. But Green saying this means something.
LeBron James flips elimination-game game on its head
His Cavaliers down 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, how does LeBron James assess his situation?
"I don’t enjoy being in the position where it’s you lose and go home," LeBron said before Game 6 tonight in Cleveland.
He might not enjoy this position, but he’s pretty good in it.
Since he first reached the playoffs in 2006, other teams have won 26% of their elimination games. LeBron’s teams have won 57% of theirs.
Of course, LeBron hasn’t gone 12-9 in elimination games just because he’s lucky. He has willed his team off the mat numerous times.
LeBron has scored 40 points and/or had a triple-double in six straight elimination games, winning five of them. His line in his last elimination game before that streak? Just 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.
A full history of LeBron’s elimination games:
Rockets played with fire with Chris Paul, got burned
Prior to Games 4 and 5 of these Western Conference finals, he hadn’t done that in more than two years. He hadn’t done it without both games going to overtime in more than three years.
The Rockets leaned heavily on the 33-year-old Paul, and they’ll pay the price.
Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow. Given how quickly Houston ruled out Paul with a strained hamstring, he seems unlikely to play in a potential Game 7 Monday.
Injuries are somewhat – but not completely – random. Players are more susceptible when worn down. After missing the close of the 2016 postseason, Paul missed 45 games the last two regular seasons. He has accumulated a lot of mileage in his 13-year career.
Yet, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni drastically shortened his rotation, anyway. Not only did Paul play big minutes in this series, he shouldered a huge load. He took the reins of the offense at times, allowing James Harden to conserve energy for defense, while maintaining his own strong-two way play. That’s never easy, especially in these high-intensity games.
This was the risk.
We can feel bad for Paul and his predicament. We can also acknowledge Houston got this far by gambling on Paul’s health.
That’s not to say it was a bad bet. This is what you save him for, the biggest playoff series of his career and maybe one of the last before he exits his prime. The Rockets would have been far worse off to this point resting Paul extensively and protecting him. Even with such a heavy workload, an injury was never fait accompli. And Houston got plenty from Paul before he went down. He was instrumental to wins in Game 4 and Game 5 that gave the Rockets a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Now, they just must hope that’s enough of a head-start into a world of playing without Paul.