The Oklahoman. Tony Allen. An elimination game in the Grindhouse.
Kevin Durant faced pressure from all directions.
Yet, the the Oklahoma City Thunder relied on their MVP-to-be to extend their season. And it worked!
UnReliable scored 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Thunder’s 104-84 Game 6 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.
Durant earned a stay of scrutiny, though only temporarily. The Oklahoman’s point, even if initially miscommunicated, was accurate. Durant had not been reliable throughout this series. A cold Game 7 on Saturday against the battered and bruised Grizzlies – Mike Conley left the game with an injury – and the criticism of Durant will return in greater force than ever.
But, until proven otherwise, Durant has earned the benefit of the doubt. Reliability is not proven in five games, and adding Durant’s Game 6 (11-of-17 on 2-pointers, 0-for-6 on 3-pointers and 14-of-15 on free throws) to the scale tips it in a different direction.
This was not Durant’s best game, mostly because that bar is absurdly high. He was just reliably good when his team’s season was on the line.
Durant needed barely more than 14 minutes to score 18 points, doing most of that damage before his defensive nemesis, Allen, even entered the game. Allen later had his moments, but Durant was not nearly as bothered as he’d been previously.
The Thunder leading by at least 15 for the final 25 minutes also helped keep Durant comfortable.
Russell Westbrook (25 points on 9-of-21 shooting, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and four turnovers) provided his usual compromise – sometimes-erratic, but much-more-often-effective, play.
Scott Brooks’ decision to start Caron Butler over Thabo Sefolosha paid off with Butler spacing the floor by making 2-of-4 3-pointers. Many wanted Reggie Jackson inserted into the starting lineup instead, but Brooks kept Jackson in the second unit, and the point guard scored 16 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting.
Serge Ibaka (four blocks) and Steven Adams (five blocks) anchored a defense that held the Grizzlies to 37 percent shooting and a series-low 84 points. Of course, ending the game after the fourth quarter helped keep Memphis’ scoring down.
For the first time in five games, the Thunder and Grizzlies didn’t play overtime – and that reminded us of something that was getting lost
The Thunder are better than Memphis.
They were better all season, and they’re better now. Not so much better that they’ll necessarily win Game 7, but better.
Oklahoma City has won games in this series by 14 points and 20 points. That leaves four overtime – i.e., coin-flip – games, three of which the Thunder lost. Had they won one more of those, this series would be over. You can claim “What if?” about overtime games, not 14- and 20-point losses.
Wednesday, Marc Gasol (17 points) and Zach Randolph (16 points), but by the end of the game, they were sitting sullenly on the bench. More worrying, Conley was in the locker room.
Conley went to the lock room late in the third quarter with a right hamstring strain. He returned for 56 seconds in the fourth quarter, but then he went back the locker room for the rest of the game.
The Grizzlies point guard struggled Wednesday (2-for-10 shooting), but it’s difficult to see Memphis winning a Game 7 on the road without him. He’s a major plus on both ends of the floor – especially for a team that already lost its backup point guard, Nick Calathes, to suspension.
In 18 playoff games against each other in the last four years, including 308 minutes in this series, the Thunder and Grizzlies have grown tired of each other. Butler and James Johnson got into a tizzy, drawing a double technical foul, and Randolph and Adams later had to be separated. Play got chippy at points, even though the lack of drama in the game’s result probably eased tension.
The battle hasn’t ended. We have, at least, 48 minutes left in what’s been a mostly well-played series.
Durant proved tonight the Thunder can rely on him when it matters most, but he proved it only for a night. Now, Saturday matters most.
Is Kevin Durant reliable? It’s a question he’ll answer – again – in Game 7.