There’s nothing new about Kevin Durant going off for 31 points, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 86-77 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. However, considering the absence of Russell Westbrook and last year’s Western Conference semifinals, there’s an added significance to the victory.
Not Durant getting back to his old ways (with 8 rebounds and 8 assists) or the Thunder rebounding nicely from their loss to the Wizards. The win over Memphis shows just how much this team has grown in the last 10 months, and that playing against the best defense in the NBA (at least since Marc Gasol has been back from his injury) is no longer something that’s too much for the Thunder to handle, even with Westbrook watching in a suit from the sidelines.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, it worth mentioning that the Grizzlies are without Mike Conley and Tony Allen, which means that even though their frontcourt is whole again and their most important defensive player is once again shutting the lanes, there’s plenty more we can expect to see from the Grizzlies when everybody is healthy, and that their matchup with the Thunder when it’s full lineup against another means a very close encounter.
I thought we did a good job of playing tough defensive basketball throughout the game. One of the strengths of our team, obviously, is our versatility. I think tonight it showed that sometimes you have to play different styles of basketball to get a win. We started the game great defensively and we built off of that. Offensively we played a little slow but we picked it up in that second quarter and built some momentum going into the second half.
The Thunder kept the Grizzlies at only 39.5% from the field and 12.5% from beyond the arc. Without an actual point guard in the lineup or on the bench, there’s only so much Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol can do. On defense, it’s possible to make up for that. Offensively? The Thunder had an easy enough time, plus some very strong stand from both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, to handle the limited repertoire the Grizzlies were throwing at them.
This is the kind of win that makes you feel and think the Thunder have changed. Forgetting about the missing personnel on both sides of the ball, it took more than Durant’s impressive scoring performance to bring this one home against a team that the Thunder do have matchup problems with because of what Gasol can do on the floor, both ends.
Winning the NBA championship or getting close to that is going to take more than Durant scoring 30 points every game (has 30 of them this season, almost twice more than LeBron James with 16). Winning it takes the whole effort, and he kind of defensive abilities the Thunder have shown they do not lack, with the ability to get down and dirty and come out on top while changing up their style showing up more and more this season, making it seem like this just might be their year.