Maybe the headline declaring Kevin Durant Mr. Unreliable had some effect on the way he played as he took the Oklahoma City Thunder from facing elimination to hosting a game 7 at home thanks to a big night from the future MVP to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 104-84.
Everyone was on Durant’s back about being unable to shake off Tony Allen and the Grizzlies defense for most of the series, but everything was different in game 6. He scored 36 points while doing a lot more work to get into the paint. Russell Westbrook suddenly seemed like he listened to critics by taking a lot less pull-up jumpers from mid-range which have been disastrous for him and the Thunder throughout the series.
Defense, more than anything, made the difference, as it usually does. The Thunder were able to run a lot more than before with 17 fast break points, forcing Memphis to bad shots away from the basket, hitting only 37.3% from the field. While Zach Randloph and Marc Gasol fared OK in their paint battles, Mike Conley was terrible, Mike Miller couldn’t get hot enough and Courtney Lee gave them absolutely nothing.
Durant didn’t suddenly hit all of his shots. He missed six 3-pointers, open and contested, and finished with 11-of-23 from the field. However, he scored 16 points in the paint and was able to get to the line quite often, making 14-of-15 this time after shooting a poor 71.8% from the line going into game 6. He was able to get the ball a lot closer to the basket, making a huge difference: Only 22% of his shots came on touches that started beyond the three-point line, compared to 47% earlier in the series.
It might have also had something to do with Tony Allen not being his primary defender. Allen was guarding him on only 7 of his attempts, as Durant went 3-of-7 with Allen guarding him and 8-of-16 against all the rest. Good screening and also some weird strategy from Memphis made the difference for the Thunder, who didn’t play all that different from usual. They simply had something extra to their game this time, resulting in a blowout win after four consecutive overtime games.
Westbrook himself always seems to be ignoring actual basketball questions directed at him and his team. Whether it’s arrogance or simply a parts he plays in front of reports, it doesn’t matter. In the win he scored 25 points on 9-of-21 from the field. Not something special, but he cut down on his mid-range pull ups, taking only nine of them and hitting six of them, compared to attempting 14.5 of them in the previous games, hitting only 27.6%.
Home court advantage means nothing in these playoffs, and certainly not in this series. Setting a defensive and aggressive tone early seems to be what separates winners and losers in this one. The Grizzlies can’t allow themselves to experiment now, while the Thunder need to stay in the same mindset for a few more nights, and hope that Russell Westbrook doesn’t try once again to do the wrong things at the wrong time.