Climbing out of a 3-2 hole and avoiding an early trip home will be about more than a single game, though. It'll be about figuring out how to address a handful of key issues that have plagued the team for much of this season and, well...all of the preceding ones in the Kevin Durant-Scott Brooks era.
It sounds silly to talk about serious problems for a team that won 59 games and has the likely MVP winner on its roster, but the Thunder are now face to face with a seriously disappointing end to what could have been a fantastic season.
A few serious problems have come together to nearly bury the Thunder.
One of those problems is the Grizzlies, and there's nothing OKC can do about that. Memphis is a terrific team, albeit one whose excellence remained hidden for much of the season. Had Marc Gasol been healthy all year, it would have been easy to see this group's win total jump from 50 to 60.
The Grizz wouldn't have sneaked up on anybody under those circumstances. Although, there's a case to be made that their track record and well-established identity as a brutally tough out should have put opponents such as the Thunder on notice anyway.
After all, this same Grizzlies team sent a Russell Westbrook-less Thunder squad home last year.
The rundown isn't new when it comes to Memphis: It defends brilliantly, bothers Durant with guys such as Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince and limits the Thunder's open looks as well as anybody.
That's who the Grizzlies are, and that's not going to change.
So if the Thunder are going to climb out of the hole they're currently sitting in, they'll have to look at what they're doing wrong. Don't worry; the problems are familiar ones.
The Same Russell Westbrook
Westbrook notched a triple-double in Game 5, piling up 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds in 48 minutes. But he needed 31 shots to get his numbers.
He forced the issue far too often, casting off three-point shots without his feet firmly set, attacking where there were no lanes to drive and generally playing with a frenetic pace that invited wasted possessions and bad decisions.
If any of this sounds like something you've heard before, it's because you have heard this before—all of it.
Westbrook is the same player he's always been, which means he's still just as likely to completely dominate a game with his animalistic approach as he is to give one away. There's no dimmer switch on this guy, and his confidence borders on self-delusion.
Case in point: the following from CBSSports.com's Royce Young...
Westbrook: "If they give me a 15-footer, I'm gonna make that nine times out of 10, so I'm gonna shoot it." Um. Uh. Hmm.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 30, 2014
The fact Russell Westbrook thinks he's a 90 percent shooter from 15 feet explains a whole lot of things.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 30, 2014
Yes, he takes shots away from Durant. Yes, he plays into Memphis' hands by firing off mid-range jumpers. And yes, he'll keep doing all those things because they're part of what is, on balance, an extremely effective package.
The problem, though, is Westbrook's "giveth and taketh away" makeup is only guaranteed to net the Thunder a positive return over the large sample of a season. In any one game, he can completely submarine his team's chances to win.
If he offers up one of his poorer efforts (like the one he turned in on Tuesday), it'll be his last of the year, and the Thunder will be cooked.
So if you're looking for somebody to dig OKC out of its hole, don't count on Westbrook. He's just as likely to keep digging until he hits bedrock.
KD Is Gassed
Durant is a great player who's offensively skilled in ways we've never seen before. But there comes a point in every superstar's season when he succumbs to fatigue.
After a ridiculous workload this year, Durant may be reaching that point.
And who can blame him? SB Nation's Michael Erler has some numbers:
Durant played over 3,100 minutes this year. A 100 more than next-closest guy. He's averaging a cool 47.6 minutes in the playoffs so far.— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) April 30, 2014
KD played 52 minutes in Game 5, bumping his average for the series up to 47.8 minutes per game. He's shooting 40 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from long distance, both far cries from his accuracy rates during the year.
Credit the Grizzlies for running him off the line. And credit Allen, specifically, for making every second Durant has the ball a hellish experience where it becomes unclear which player is supposed to be attacking the other.
But don't discount pure exhaustion.
KD is the Thunder's go-to option against a defense designed to stop go-to options. With little help from his star teammate and even less reliable assistance from his bench, it's difficult to see how he'll be able to reverse the accumulated fatigue that has clearly worn him down.
Everybody loves tearing into Brooks—for his failure to engineer a functional offense, for his inability to rein in Westbrook and especially for his late-game strategy.
Actually, nobody really digs into Brooks over strategy. That presupposes he employs one.
Durant got a contested look that could have given the Thunder the win in overtime, but it missed long. That was the play Brooks drew up, which again, isn't technically accurate, as Young shows here:
Brooks said the final play was an option to shoot or catch and drive. "I give KD that decision to make a play."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 30, 2014
He didn't really draw anything.
As such, he caught heat after the game, such as this from ESPN-affiliated blogger Darius Soriano:
Seriously. That Brooks quote is stuff we used to make up VDN saying in timeouts late to clown. But Brooks ACTUALLY said that. Hahaha.— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) April 30, 2014
Hey, it's defensible to give Durant the ball on the last shot and hope he figures out a way to score. He's the best scorer on the planet; that's what he does.
But viewed in the context of Brooks' overarching offensive philosophy, one that doesn't have any real structure or innovation, it's easy to see why so many critics are up in arms over that final play. To them, it was a symptom of an offensive disease that has plagued the Thunder for years.
There's a sense Brooks is wasting one of the most talented offensive duos the league has ever seen. He probably is.
OKC cannot rely on Brooks to take advantage of a matchup, and he's certainly not going to outscheme the Grizzlies now that he's on the brink of elimination and probably coaching for his job. He's never outfoxed an opponent before, so he's not going to start now.
He's not the guy to dig OKC out of its hole, either.
Bad News: Bears
We're still talking about a close series here, a fact evidenced by four straight overtime games and a handful of officiating oddities that may have affected the outcomes. At this point, it's crazy to say one team has drastically outplayed the other.
So Oklahoma City is not dead yet. And all the things that make the Thunder so frustrating—their reliance on talent, Westbrook being totally unpredictable and Durant being left on his own to figure out ways to score—also make them dangerous.
The truth is, if they wind up surviving this series, it probably won't be because they've changed anything at all. If they emerge from the dirt, they'll do it in their own style, leaping with raw athletic grace and sheer force.
It'll be superhero stuff—stuff they've always done.
This is not a team that calmly assesses its situation and realizes digging is not the solution to get out of a hole. This is a team that doubles down, keeps digging and eventually pops out on the other side...in China, if those Bugs Bunny cartoons are geologically accurate.
The Thunder's issues are systemic, deep-rooted and unlikely to be resolved between now and that potentially decisive game. But we've seen them overcome just about everything with force of will and talent before.
The Grizzlies, though, won't be impressed by anything OKC does, and they certainly won't be afraid.
That hole the Thunder are sitting in is about to become a pit of despair.