1. It’s almost refreshing how little “maybe Kevin Durant isn’t clutch!!??!” idiocy we’ve been hearing over the last three days, after Durant’s shaky shooting performances down the stretch of the last three Thunder losses. Durant has shot 2-of-14 in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime (with the scoring margin at five points or fewer) over those three games, per NBA.com, and he shockingly bonked two free throws with 39 seconds left in Game 3 that would have brought Oklahoma City back within two. He missed a midrange jumper right before those free throws (and probably got fouled) and two more isolation jumpers in the last minute of overtime on Monday.
He also tied that game with just six seconds left in regulation on a scoop that looked so easy, it was almost as if Durant were a high school senior playing against freshmen. But I don’t think that one monster hoop is saving Durant from the loudmouth “clutch” scrutiny. Two things are driving that refreshing calm:
A. Durant has cemented his late-game chops already. He has ranked among the league’s most efficient high-volume crunch-time scorers over the last few seasons, and even in a somewhat down “clutch” season this year, he still shot an acceptable 39 percent in the last three minutes of close games, drilled his foul shots, and collected a bunch of very important baskets — including the game-winning bucket in Game 1 of this series, the basket that set up that shot, and (in last season’s playoffs) a million midrange jumpers that still make people in San Antonio nauseated. The guy has both embraced the big moments and worked effectively during them, and it has been good to see the commentariat mostly shrug at his half-dozen big misses with a collective “I guess it happens to everyone.” After all, Marc Gasol, the world’s newest playoff hero, missed two free throws in the clutch last night.
B. Durant has zero help in this series, as everyone has been writing and shouting for a week. All five Memphis defenders are guarding him in some sense, including at times in the most literal sense possible.
If he catches the ball at the 3-point line, he knows that if he takes even one dribble, a second defender will trap him and a third will be waiting for him in the paint, just in case he gets through the first two. He has no choice within the half court other than to pass or take a brutally difficult shot, which is why I had no real issue with Durant taking clear-out jumpers on his final two meaningful shot attempts of the game — including one that Scott Brooks “designed” out of a timeout. He passed to Reggie Jackson, the player actually quaking in crunch time of this series, with about 1:30 left in overtime, and Jackson rewarded Durant by charging into Gasol instead of kicking the ball to wide-open shooters on either side of the floor.
The rest of the Thunder just aren’t quite ready or capable of carrying a larger offensive load, and there is no offensive system in place on which the team could fall back.
2. There were at least two moments in Game 4 when I thought the Grizzlies had six players on the floor. It’s all Tony Allen’s fault, of course. He can’t sit still, and he sometimes meanders along the baseline when he’s resting, even while the action is unfolding just a few feet away from him. TA is the best.
3. The Grizzlies have methodically exposed Serge Ibaka’s defense in this series, though “expose” may be too strong a word. Ibaka is an excellent defender, one of the dozen or so best in the league, but he’s long been overrated in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. His pick-and-roll positioning has improved, but is still shaky, and post brutes can give him issues on the block. His combination of shot-blocking and crazy athleticism allows him to make up for some positioning mistakes by flying around the floor as an out-of-nowhere, rim-protecting menace. The Grizzlies’ slow-moving, inside-out style just doesn’t provide a lot of those opportunities.
Ibaka has fared decently against Zach Randolph, but as the series has proceeded, Randolph has shown he can overpower Ibaka for deep position on the block. Ibaka has altered some of Randolph’s shots near the basket, but Z-Bo’s ability to bully his way into position there is damaging enough. It draws help, creates fouls, and leads to offensive rebounds. The Grizz have rebounded almost 28 percent of their own misses when Ibaka has been on the floor, and just 13.5 percent when he’s been on the bench, per NBA.com. Both Randolph and Gasol have flat outmuscled him for contested offensive rebounds.
Brooks over the last two games has shifted the nearly useless Kendrick Perkins onto Randolph, leaving Ibaka to work against Marc Gasol. That hasn’t worked, either. Gasol is too big, strong, and nimble for Ibaka’s jumpy post defense. For the second straight series, the Grizz have forced a mid-series matchup shift and left an opponent uncomfortable with any assignment for its starting power forward.
4. I continue to enjoy the work of Rick Trotter, the Grizzlies’ delightful public address announcer, who sounds as if he should be working a monster truck rally.
5. Marc Gasol, by the way, is officially an NBA star. Live it, love it, embrace it.
6. Tayshaun Prince is hurting the Thunder, mostly as a passer, on side pick-and-rolls with Gasol. The Thunder have never been all that good at keeping side pick-and-rolls on the side, and away from the middle, and Prince has exploited that.
7. Brooks’s decision to leave Kevin Martin on the bench for long stretches or crunch time against both Houston and Memphis, including during most of the fourth quarter and overtime last night, is curious on the surface. The Thunder’s offense is dying, and Martin is losing minutes to Derek Fisher in lineups both big and small. That is quite obviously a bad decision. Fisher has been hot from long range, but he’s a one-dimensional offensive player, he’s not particularly good at that one dimension (and certainly no better than Martin), and he’s nearly as damaging on defense.
But Martin’s defense has been so comically bad this series, almost like a parody, that I almost haven’t minded in real time. He’s been burned by off-ball cuts so many times I’ve lost count, and he and Fisher have combined to botch a number of off-ball screening actions, leaving open Memphis shooters on plays like this:
Still, there have been multiple last-minute instances in both series in which the Thunder, needing a basket and coming out of a timeout, have left Martin on the bench for lesser threats. That shouldn’t be happening.
8. This isn’t about Thunder-Grizzlies, but I’m dropping it here anyway. This Stephen Curry dish might be my new favorite recurring pass in the NBA:
He does that regularly, and hits his target. You could give me a ball, paint a target on a wall, and have me throw lefty behind-the-back passes at that target, and I wouldn’t be able to do it as accurately as Curry does in a live NBA game. Sometimes, when the pick-and-pop shooter is nearly parallel to him, Curry almost bends the pass forward, so the ball ends up closer to the basket than it was at its starting point. It almost looks like an optical illusion, the NBA’s version of the “riser” pitch in Wiffle ball.
9. After the Grizzlies were eliminated last season, I had a long talk with Tony Allen about how he’d defend the play on which the Thunder leaned in crunch time — a simple pin-down play on which Russell Westbrook would pass the ball to another guard on the perimeter player, scamper down to the right block, and screen for Durant as the scoring champ popped up for a jumper. How would Allen handle that play if he were guarding Durant? Would he shoot the gap? Ask for help? Switch?
Allen responded that he’d simply fight through the screen and stay as close to Durant as he could. He’d just “lock and trail,” he said. I asked him how he would do that, and it was almost as if the question made no sense to someone with his skill set. His response was, basically, “I’d just do it.” But how? “You just have to do it.” Yeah, but is there some sort of technique or timing or secret to it? “Man, you just do it.” We went on like that until I gave up.
Allen might have guarded Durant more in Game 4 than in any prior game of this series, and he had a bunch of chances to “just do it” on that pin-down play. And, with some strategic grabbing, shoving, and general Tony Allen–ness, he did it. Watch Allen stay attached to Durant on the right block in the second quarter:
And here’s another one from the third quarter:
That second clip is instructive. Allen feels comfortable chasing Durant over the pick, voluntarily putting himself behind Durant, because he knows his partner here (Jerryd Bayless) will leave Fisher in order to plant himself in front of Durant while Allen hounds him from behind. Allen has been a bit more of a gambler than most defenders dare to be against Durant, and he can play that way because he knows his four teammates will have his back if he gambles himself out of position for a beat — in part because they’ve developed a nearly perfect five-man defensive chemistry in Memphis, but also in part because those teammates have close to zero respect for any other Oklahoma City player.
10. Unleashing Allen on Durant opens up the possibility of playing Allen, Bayless, and Mike Conley together — effectively moving Allen to small forward as a way of getting more shooting on the court without sacrificing Allen’s defense. That trio is plus-13 in 17 minutes in this series, and logged just eight minutes in six games against the Clippers. Something to monitor.
11. I’m not sure what Hasheem Thabeet did to get back in Oklahoma City’s rotation, but he shouldn’t be there. The Thunder actually managed to tread water over four minutes of the second quarter with Thabeet on the floor, including for 2:26 with a lineup of Fisher, Thabeet, Nick Collison, Martin, and Thabo Sefolosha. That group was plus-4, which serves as proof that anything can happen in a short stretch of time, and that results are less important in planning future decisions than the process behind those results. That lineup is horrible, it can’t score, and it produced the points it managed based on random and unsustainable events — a Collison jump hook in a post isolation over Gasol, a random Martin back cut as Fisher dribbled into the paint for what promised to be a hilarious floater, and Martin drawing a shaky foul while posting up Bayless.
It’s great that the Thunder stayed afloat with this group. But they did so while sacrificing a precious chance to go small, since Darrell Arthur was on the floor in Gasol’s place. The Thunder’s small lineups have, on balance, outperformed their lineups with two big men, and Brooks deserves credit for letting those lineups spend some time against the Gasol-Randolph combination. But in a series this close, Brooks has to give those lineups every second possible against Memphis when Arthur is playing. (By the way, the Thunder’s new starting lineup, with Jackson in Westbrook’s place, has been a walking catastrophe. That group is minus-55 in 96 minutes together, which translates to a minus-27.5 margin over a 48-minute game. That is astoundingly bad, to the point where Brooks has to at least consider scrapping it — even if the sample size is small and the lineup has gone a more manageable minus-16 in 58 minutes against Memphis.)
12. Another way you can tell the Grizzlies’ interior game is wearing the Thunder out a bit: Oklahoma City last night began overhelping on Memphis’s inside play, leaving capable shooters more open than usual. (The Thunder may actually want to start doubling more aggressively, especially off Prince and Allen, but these plays are another sort of beast.) It started in the second quarter, after seven bruising Gasol/Randolph points had helped trim a 15-point lead to 10. Look how Martin (near the foul line) drifts away from his man (Bayless) on this Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll, with a Randolph post-up underneath it, before Conley kicks the ball to Bayless for an open 3-pointer:
Less than a minute later, the Thunder nearly triple-team Gasol on a post-up, arrive just a bit late recovering to shooters, and lose Bayless for another 3-pointer:
And finally, watch Sefolosha leave Conley open in the corner to help on a Randolph post-up, even though Conley represents the easiest passing target for Randolph:
Helping Durant battle Gasol is one thing, but all three of these very dramatic help choices happened with big Thunder lineups on the floor. The Grizz, man. They just beat you up, and wear you down, and cloud your judgment. And they’re one game from the conference finals.