It never gets any easier for Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the absence of Russell Westbrook. They dropped by Beale Street just in time to face a Memphis Grizzlies squad that was welcoming back Marc Gasol to the starting lineup after a month-and-a-half spent sidelined by a knee injury.
The Grizzlies held on for a 90-87 win, their third in a row and fifth in seven tries since the turn to 2014, to move within a game of .500 for the first time since Dec. 11, when Memphis lost at home to (who else?) OKC. Durant performed valiantly, but even his 37 points weren't enough to lead a stagnant Thunder offense to victory.
Memphis' success came by way of a mix between classic "Grit and Grind" basketball and the floor-spreading, sharpshooting style that first-year head coach Dave Joerger and the front office have attempted to install since Lionel Hollins was pushed out. Mike Conley continued his recent scoring tear with 19 points in addition to his usual fill of seven assists. Courtney Lee, acquired from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Jerryd Bayless last week, tallied a team- and season-high 24 points, 14 of which came in the first quarter.
But as the game wore on, the focus shifted ever more toward the reunited frontcourt tandem of Gasol and Zach Randolph. Z-Bo piled up 23 points and 14 rebounds for his 21st double-double in his last 28 games and his 14th 20-10 effort of the 2013-14 NBA season.
Statistically speaking, Randolph far outstripped the contributions of Gasol—which was to be expected, given the latter's injury-related rust. Gasol finished with 12 points, four rebounds and an assist in a modest 24 minutes, looking stiff and slow-footed throughout.
Then again, Gasol wasn't exactly a fleet athlete before his latest layoff. His game has long been predicated on vision, intelligence and toughness—all of which the sizable Spaniard had in spades on Tuesday night. He spent the evening setting screens, patrolling the paint and generally using his giant frame to disrupt the Thunder on both ends of the floor. His mere presence made Memphis bulkier and more balanced than it's been all season.
Unlike OKC, which saw just three players score in double figures against the Grizzlies' physical defense. Durant (naturally) was one of those three, with his 37 points (on 15-of-28 shooting) marking his fourth straight performance of 30 points or more.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, they've lost three of those four. Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, who combined to score 28 points on subpar 11-of-27 shooting, with all of two free throw attempts between them.
Those two have been inconsistent in support of Durant, as have most of OKC's role players. Without Westbrook, who's been inactive since late December after undergoing a third operation on his left knee in eight months, the Thunder have had to lean even more heavily on their slim-limbed scoring savant to produce points and carry the team.
A development with which Durant is none too pleased. “I just can't keep thinking about myself,” Durant recently told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman. “It's messing up the rhythm. So I got to figure out how I can help them out. It's not about them helping me. It's about me helping them.”
Of course, there's only so much Durant can do to help his teammates if they don't capitalize on the opportunities he creates for them. Jeremy Lamb (nine points on 3-of-9 shooting) missed a slew of wide-open looks, including all four of his three-point tries. Ibaka missed a clean look from behind the arc in the corner that would've tied the game with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
In truth, what KD and OKC need is a healthy Westbrook, which they'll have eventually. The good news: Russ has been off crutches since Jan. 5 and expects to be back in full force whenever it is that he returns (via ESPN).
The bad news: The Thunder's loss in Music City dropped them to 5-5 since Westbrook last went under the knife. That's not going to cut it if OKC intends to hang with the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference standings, which seem to be crowded with more quality teams every day.
The Grizzlies certainly qualify for that conversation. They're now just three games back of the fading Phoenix Suns in the race for eighth place out West, with the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves also in the picture.
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For all their struggles with injuries and inconsistency this season, the Grizzlies represent a serious sleeper squad on their side of the bracket. Remember, Memphis is coming off the finest season in franchise history, with a team record 56 regular-season wins and a landmark trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Thanks in no small part to the knee trouble with which Russ is still struggling. The Grizzlies ousted the Thunder from the second round of last year's playoffs in a tough five-game series, during which Durant averaged 28.8 points on below-average 42.1 percent shooting.
At this rate, these two teams could come to blows again this spring, assuming Gasol's return doesn't disrupt the flow the Grizzlies developed in his absence.
KD and the Thunder can only hope that they'll find a similar groove while Westbrook is away. Their path back to the NBA Finals figures to be difficult enough as it is. The last thing they need is to slide into a lower seed with Westbrook out of the mix.
Especially if it puts them in line for a rematch with the surging Grizzlies come April and May.
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