The Oklahoma City Thunder came out during the first half of Saturday night's 100-86 Game 1 victory like a team looking to make a point—not just to their opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, but to the entire basketball world.
This team has been surprisingly easy to overlook of late, with questions concerning Russell Westbrook's health and the bench's effectiveness. The Grizzlies seemed all too eager to face them, playing their starters throughout the overtime period during their season-ending win over the Dallas Mavericks to jump up to the No. 7 seed.
This is, after all, the same team that Memphis defeated in last year's conference semifinals. But this is also the same Thunder team that swept the No. 1 seed Spurs in the regular season.
They are the team that won the entire conference the last time they had Westbrook, who was injured early in the 2013 postseason. When this team is healthy, there is no better combination of youth, athleticism, experience and ability in the league.
This was the team that showed up early in Game 1, scoring the first eight points of the contest en route to a 56-34 halftime edge.
But just as suddenly as the Thunder broke out in the first half, so did they shrink in the second. Memphis stormed back into the game with a 31-13 third quarter.
Now, the Grizzlies are a very good team. They may be the greatest No. 7 seed in NBA history—a 50-win club that made the conference finals a year ago. But that is not an excuse for what happened in the third quarter Saturday...if anything, it makes the Thunder's performance that much more inexcusable.
Facing a quality opponent, Oklahoma City simply stopped executing, particularly on offense.
Run Some Offense, Please
"We're not defending."
Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks offered that comforting nugget of coach speak during an interview with ESPN following his team's disastrous third quarter. It certainly sounded good. After all, defense wins championships, right? And the Thunder had surrendered 31 points to a mediocre Memphis offense.
But here's the flip-side to that coin: Oklahoma City also scored a meager 13 points in the quarter—a period in which Kevin Durant played all 12 minutes. That shouldn't be possible...ever.
Yes, the Grizzlies are a great defensive team, but it doesn't matter if you're facing a starting five of an in-his-prime Bill Russell and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: No team with Kevin Durant should ever score 13 points in a quarter.
The Thunder began the game on fire from both ends of the court. On offense, they got out in transition, early and often. And when the Grizzlies got back on D, Oklahoma City expertly dissected them thanks to a healthy helping of pick-and-roll action.
On defense, the Thunder used their extraordinary length to block eight shots in the first half—three from Steven Adams, two apiece from Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison and one from Reggie Jackson.
So what happened in the third quarter? On defense, they fell asleep, to be sure. But they were also hurt by an unexpectedly fine shooting performance from Memphis guard Tony Allen, a prototypical all-D, no-O player.
Allen torched the Thunder for 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting in a 15-minute stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters, even knocking down a few long jumpers. Here's the thing, though: As a defense, you don't necessarily mind Allen taking many of those shots, because he rarely hits them.
Here is his 2013-14 shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com:
It was offense that really crushed the Thunder in that period. They stopped running the pick-and-roll that had been so effective in the first half, a fact noted by Hardwood Paroxysm's Jared Dubin:
Hey Scotty: you might want to clear out one side of the court for a Russ-KD side P&R pretty soon. Nobody can stop it.— Jared Dubin (@JADubin5) April 20, 2014
Instead, Westbrook spent too many of their offensive possessions aimlessly dribbling at the top of the key, which resulted in two quick turnovers. After the game, Westbrook took responsibility for failing to get Oklahoma City off on the right foot in the third, per the Daily Thunder's Royce Young:
Westbrook: "As a point guard, my job is to set the tone. And I didn't do a great job of that to start the third quarter."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 20, 2014
But the fault also lies with Scott Brooks, who too often lets his players freelance instead of running plays. The Grizzlies are too good for that.
The Thunder finally turned the game around on a critical offensive play.
With the Grizzlies only down two, Durant assumed the role of playmaker on the right side of the court, coming off a screen and hitting a rolling Ibaka for an and-1 dunk that put the Thunder up five. Memphis never got so close again.
Game 2 Wake-Up Call?
If anything, this Game 1 might have been helpful for the Thunder. They received an important reminder that no playoff game can be taken for granted, while at the same time coming away with the victory.
The Grizzlies may have actually caught a break when forward Tayshaun Prince left the game with an illness, allowing coach Dave Joerger to put his best lineup on the court.
Of course, Scott Brooks and the Thunder have a similar dilemma with big man Kendrick Perkins, who contributed to their poor third quarter by committing two turnovers. Per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
Winner of this series is team that cuts bait with its weak link (Prince or Perkins) first.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 20, 2014
Barring injury, the Thunder will likely be eliminated only if a team is able to out-execute them on a consistent basis. Those teams do exist—Miami and San Antonio come to mind.
However, Oklahoma City really does hold all of the cards. The Thunder are no playoff neophytes; Durant, Westbrook and Brooks cannot have forgotten how thoroughly they were out-schemed by Miami in the 2012 finals.
If they can finally put aside careless stretches of play, like we saw during the third quarter against Memphis, they will be nearly impossible to beat.
All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.