The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the playoffs with grand ambitions. Healthy, playing well and motivated, head coach Scott Brooks' team had every reason to set its sights on a return to the NBA Finals, every reason to believe this group could and would do what last season's didn't.
Perhaps nothing has changed in an absolute sense. The Thunder are still abundantly capable of outlasting their opponent in a series that could very well go seven games.
But they will have to deal with a little adversity first, adversity in the form of a 2-1 deficit against the Memphis Grizzlies.
That's nothing new, according to Scott Brooks (per NewsOK's Berry Tramel): "We’ve been through a lot of battles together. We understand that on the road, it’s a tough environment. You have to stick together. That’s all you have. There’s no other choice. We’ve always been that way."
If there's one thing that should mitigate OKC's worries, it's that its awfully experienced for such a young team. It learned a few things on the way to the NBA Finals in 2012. It probably learned even more from its ultimate defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat.
Facing these same Grizzlies sans Russell Westbrook in last season's conference semifinals was no doubt a learning experience in its own right.
The Thunder know what it's like to have their backs up against the wall. They've experienced desperation in the playoffs. They've made adjustments. They've lived to fight another day.
Remember that the Thunder found themselves down 0-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2012 conference finals. James Harden was still around to pick up some of the slack, but the big difference-maker was Kevin Durant. He took the series over, and OKC won its next four games.
Durant echoed his coach's sentiment (per Tramel): "We’ve been in it before, so we know how to handle it. We’ve been down 2-0, we’ve been down 2-1. We’ve been in that position before, so I think that experience is going to help us out."
Will that experience give the Thunder a chance of turning this series around?
Of course. But it won't be easy.
The Grizzlies have proven themselves worthy adversaries, controlling tempo and applying their trademark defensive pressure at will. They held OKC to a season-low 36 points in the first half of Game 2. They held Durant and Russell Westbrook to just 19-of-53 from the field. And they finally held on to win despite a furious 17-0 Thunder run that sent the game to overtime.
Suddenly Oklahoma City's defense looks spotty. The offense once again looks one-dimensional, supremely vulnerable when games slow down and require half-court execution.
Short of the currently elusive hero-ball, the Thunder seem fresh out of ideas.
One of Oklahoma City’s defenses is they have a few guys who are really one-way players like (Kendrick) Perkins and (Thabo) Sefolosha, who are great defensive players, but not much of a threat offensively. They are basically playing three on five offensively for the Thunder.
Ordinarily, the Thunder can survive doing just that. When you have two of the game's best scorers in Durant and Westbrook, three-on-five isn't as bad as it sounds.
But facing off against the Grizzlies defense is another story. The Thunder need to play five-man ball, moving the rock around and getting everyone involved—ultimately preventing the Grizzlies from zeroing in on any one offensive threat. Instead, OKC is putting the ball in Durant and Westbrook's hands and expecting the same old magic to happen.
With Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen keeping Durant occupied, there's reason to be concerned about the Thunder's dependency on isolation and quick shots. Mike Conley is a fine defender in his own right, so Westbrook's job isn't much easier.
The Thunder haven't been able to develop a rhythm. Though the shooting wasn't as bad in Game 2, nor was it especially efficient. Durant and Westbrook combined to go just 23-of-56 from the field. Westbrook was 1-of-7 from beyond the arc. That's a lot of trouble to go to for 65 combined points.
And that's ultimately the problem. Durant and Westbrook will get their points one way or the other, but the big question is how they get them. Is it in the flow of a functioning offense, or is it out of sheer desperation?
Similarly, where are the shots coming from? In Game 3, Oklahoma City attempted 28 three-pointers after throwing up 30 attempts in Game 2.
The notion of a consistent inside-outside approach seems lost on the Thunder. Some of the onus has to fall on Brooks—if the team isn't attacking enough, he has to share in the blame. Much of the credit goes to Memphis' defense, which has effectively walled off the basket from penetration more often than not.
One solution may be for Durant to get his touches closer to the basket, ideally showing off some of his post moves in the process. That's the way forward TNT analyst Charles Barkley advocated Thursday night (per Bracht):
I’ve been saying for the last three years, and Kevin Durant clearly don’t watch the show. He has a hole in his game. When they play little guys on him, I don’t understand why he doesn’t post up. He takes them out on the floor and tries to dribble around him. If he were to add a post-up game to his game, as great a player as he is, it would take his game to a whole new level. They would have to double him on the block.
Calling Durant out almost seems heretical given how much he does for this team. After what was likely an MVP season, it doesn't feel right to put this series' struggles all on him. At the same time, he's the one best equipped to extricate the Thunder from this mess.
But he'll need help.
The Thunder had just 13 assists in Game 3. Westbrook didn't have a single one in the first half and finished the game with just two. Say what you will about the merits of putting the ball in the hands of the best players, but those best players have to make the right decisions. The ball has to move.
And the supporting cast has to respond.
The bench only contributed nine points in Game 3. Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson were just 2-of-14 from the field combined. They'll have to earn their minutes, giving Brooks an excuse to sit Sefolosha and/or Perkins when the priority is scoring.
In contrast, Memphis' balanced attack produced 34 bench points on Thursday night.
There's always the very real possibility that Durant will go off for astronomical totals in one or two of the games ahead. But the Thunder can't count on it. They have to find ways to execute in the event that the jumpers aren't falling. As we know all too well by now, sometimes they don't.
There's also the possibility that Memphis will just have a bad game or two. Maybe there will be some defensive lapses. Maybe a team that often flirts with stagnant offense will slow down at the right time.
But Oklahoma City can't assume the best. It doesn't look like the Grizzlies are going to beat themselves. And at the moment, it doesn't look like Durant and Westbrook are going to beat them either.