While many foresaw a tough, defensive-minded series as the Grizzlies looked to slow the pace, few saw Memphis truly challenging OKC, let alone being on the brink of the next round.
As has been Memphis' calling card over the last few seasons, the Grizzlies' surprising success has been all about defense. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have been frustrated into lower field-goal percentages than they're used to, and the Grizzlies' pace has ground OKC's fast-paced offense to a halt.
The key matchup has been either Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince on Durant, with the Memphis duo's physicality and quickness winning the battle. Memphis understands that shutting down Durant is nearly impossible; at times, he will bust out for a quick flurry of points.
Over the course of a game and series, however, the constant beating and physicality on every single offensive possession will wear him down. He will take bad shots out of frustration; he won't work as hard to get open to avoid further contact; he'll let the referees anger him more than they should.
"I'm worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot," Durant admitted before Game 5, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "I've just got to focus in on the rim and my shot. I can't go out there and think too much, I have to let my instincts take over."
There's a mental battle on top of the X's and O's, and currently the Allen/Prince duo has the upper hand. And because OKC's offense has to flow through Durant, the ineffectiveness has facilitated Scott Brooks' force-feeding of the basketball to him. This takes the entire offense out of rhythm, screwing things up further.
All of this has been reflected in Durant's statistical output thus far in the series. As tweeted by CBS Sports' Matt Moore, Durant has struggled whenever he and Allen have shared the floor. Durant has shot 46.7 percent from the field with Allen on the bench, compared to 36.3 percent with Allen on the court.
For the entire series, Durant is shooting a ghastly 28.6 percent from three-point range. Maybe the worst part has been his playmaking, which has dropped off as well. After averaging 5.5 assists and 3.5 turnovers per game in the regular season, he's fallen to four assists and four turnovers per game, good for a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
For the series, however, Durant's overall numbers don't look that much worse. His points per game are down from 32 to 28. His rebounding rate has actually risen to 11 percent from 10.8 percent during the regular season. But it's his efficiency—the true mark of a great high-volume player—that has tumbled.
Over his 81 regular-season games, Durant's effective field-goal percentage of 56.0 and true shooting percentage of 63.5 were outstanding. In the playoffs, not so much: Those numbers are down to 44.8 and 49.2, respectively. And as a team, the Thunder's offensive rating has plummeted from 108.1 to 99.7.
What exactly are Allen and Prince doing to mitigate the effectiveness of both Durant and the OKC offense? It all starts with denying Durant the ball, particularly on wing entries.
Any time a point guard or big at the top of the key tries to pass Durant the ball, Prince and Allen simply make it difficult for him to make the catch. This forces him to work just a bit harder on each possession, which in turn wears him down over the course of the game.
The secondary effect is that it helps to align the Grizzlies defense before the real action on a given possession takes place. Take this play from early in the third quarter of Game 5, when Prince denies Durant the ball. This allows Marc Gasol to easily slide over to the free-throw line and Mike Conley to completely abandon his man in the corner and station himself at the rim.
Before Durant even has the ball, the paint is effectively closed off:
By the time Durant does get it, notice how far away he is from the hoop:
Durant also has his head down, as he's working so hard to spring free of the pressure. A few hard dribbles later and he's pulling up from three-point range. Having to go full-speed to pull away from the defense makes it much more difficult for him to be a playmaker. This in turn forces a bad pull-up, which Durant misses (not to mention that off-the-dribble pull-ups are the hardest shot in basketball):
A few minutes later, Prince does it again. Conley and Gasol adjust once more, and Gasol is actually able to get a hand on the ball when Durant pulls up at the free-throw line:
This type of defense became especially crucial toward the end of Game 5, when OKC was down two points and in possession of the ball. The Thunder ran a play for Durant to catch, but Allen made it extremely difficult.
Eventually, Durant had to pull the ball out and go one-on-one from nearly half court, a difficult and low-percentage task. Allen's studying of Durant also become evident on this play, as Durant went for his patented hesitation-crossover move. But in the video below, you'll notice Allen is able to beat him to the spot before he has even fully crossed over.
Durant ends up giving up the ball to Ibaka for a contested three-pointer, earning a trip to the line after a silly foul on the rebound by Allen.
Without that last-second boneheaded move by Allen, it would have been a fantastic defensive possession.
With Game 6 in Memphis and the energy of the crowd pushing the Grizzlies to their limits, Oklahoma City will have a tough time on offense once more. There has been a lot of blame thrown at head coach Scott Brooks, saying that his offense isn't creative enough despite having some of the game's best players.
But at some point, it's on the players to take Memphis' physicality and punch back. If Kevin Durant has one weakness, it's that he's not an overly physical player. He relies more on his length to get around and over defenders, as opposed to going through them.
Memphis' goal is to bother him enough so that those advantages are nullified. Thus far, it has certainly worked. If the Thunder hope to escape with Game 6 to force a Game 7, they'll need to fight back. They'll need to match Memphis' intensity and physicality.
Only then can the true skill set of Durant come to life and take back this series.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via NBA.com and are current through Tuesday, April 29.
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