Durant closed the "Mr. Unreliable" conversation Thursday by dropping 36 points and grabbing 10 boards while shooting 11-of-23 from the field and 14-of-15 from the stripe. It was the first contest in the series since Game 1 that didn't require an extra five minutes to decide.
Russell Westbrook added 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists, and Reggie Jackson added 16 more en route to the landslide victory. Four Grizzlies scored in double-figures, but the team's 39.2 effective field-goal percentage on the night just wasn't enough.
The Thunder did their best to force their hand and make a bigger Memphis team play to their advantage. Judging by the final score: mission accomplished.
Mike Conley, battling a hamstring strain, had his roughest go of it so far, scoring only five points on 2-of-10 shooting. The Grizzlies team shot just 31-of-83, and made 3-of-14 from three-point range.
Now, the series heads back to Oklahoma City, where Memphis has won twice in two overtime tilts. If Kevin Durant wants to end the debate about his reliability for good, he'll need to be the aggressor and not a mere decoy. Will coach Scott Brooks give him the freedom he needs to thrive?
If Memphis comes out on top, it'd be one of the more stunning upsets in recent memory. The Grizz bounced OKC last postseason, but under much difference circumstances. Westbrook was missing from that series and the Thunder had no time to instill a proper secondary strategy.
One of these teams will be going home Saturday, and if history repeats itself (and repeats itself again, and again, and again), we may just get some free basketball out of this one, too.
Seeds: Oklahoma City Thunder No. 2; Memphis Grizzlies No. 7
Series: Tied 3-3
Schedule for Series: Game 7 Saturday, May 3, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Key Storylines for Memphis Grizzlies
The primary focus heading into Game 7 on Saturday for the Grizzlies is Mike Conley's health. The point guard was limited to only five points in 28 minutes Thursday while fighting through a hamstring strain.
According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, Conley is feeling sore but will suit up for the series' final contest. How active he truly is on the floor remains to be seen. Conley initially tweaked the hamstring towards the end of the regular season, but the issue flared up again in the second half of Game 6. He scored just two points on five shots in the second half.
If Memphis plans on advancing to take on the winner of Los Angeles and Golden State, they'll certainly need Conley's skill running point, but also Tony Allen's air-tight defense on Kevin Durant.
Given the daunting assignment of the 6'10" Durant, what Allen gives up in height (six inches), he's made up for in fight and determination. All series long, it's seemed, Allen has been at Durant's hip, fighting around screens an wreaking havoc whenever Durant is in a position to make a play.
According to ESPN.com's Windhorst, Durant admits that Allen has gotten to him mentally over the course of the series.
I’m worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot. 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….
I’m not being disciplined enough in my shot. I’m either pulling it back too quick or shooting too quick.
The numbers prove that Allen is certainly playing a factor while Durant's on the floor.
As Allen's primary assignment, Durant has 37.6 percent from the field—and 25 percent from three—with Allen on the court this postseason, compared 47 percent with him sitting (via NBA.com, subscription required).
|Kevin Durant: This Series with Tony Allen on/off Court|
|Allen off court||99||26||55||47.3||25.0|
|Allen on court||182||35||93||37.6||25.0|
If Allen can continue to have that much of an effect on Durant's shooting and mentality, the Grizzlies have a good chance at coming away with this series—especially with Russell Westbrook shooting just 35.6 percent from the field.
Bleacher Report's Dylan Murphy extensively outlined just how Memphis has suffocated Durant. Here's an excerpt, but check out the article for complete understanding:
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.
Memphis understands how it wins basketball games. They aren't ones start trading buckets or to get into sharpshooting contests. For them, that's a one way ticket out of the postseason. Their success is completely contingent upon their ability to shut down their opponents' top weapon while cashing in on every opportunity they get offensively.
In other words, if Tony Allen does more Tony Allen things in Game 7, Memphis has a real good shot.
Key Storylines for Oklahoma City Thunder
By now, you're surely familiar with The Oklahoman headline following Game 5's disappointing defeat.
Following a 26-point night on 10-of-24 shooting resulted in a one-point overtime loss, Durant was dubbed "Mr. Unreliable" by his local newspaper. The paper's sports editor later issued an apology, and Durant went on to say that the headline wasn't worth getting upset over.
Before Game 6, he explained his reaction to the headline (via The Oklahoman):
It’s all good. I don’t really care. Coming from my paper back at home, that’s what they’re supposed to write. I didn’t come through for the team. So they got to write that type of stuff. As a player and as a competitor, it’s going to be good and bad days. People are going to build you up. They’re going to break you down. They don’t allow you to stay even keel, and I think that’s what I am. My teammates love me. My family loves me. That’s all that really matters to me. It is what it is. We got another opportunity tonight.
He also said, regarding how it may have motivated him for the game that evening, "Headlines, what guys write, I used to care about that stuff when I was a younger player in this league. But now it doesn’t matter because I know what I do."
One look at Game 6's box score would indicate that it may have mattered to KD. Even if only a little.
He totaled 36 points to go along with 10 rebounds and helped give the Thunder the series' first convincing victory in either direction.
The primary issues Durant has to focus on, though, isn't a bogus headline or anything written in a newspaper.
First: Kevin Durant is many things. Elite scorer is one of them. Decoy is not.
During Game 5, Durant went numerous possessions without even touching the ball late in the contest, which Scott Brooks simply can't allow to happen—not to the game's most lethal scorer.
“Sometimes you have to be a decoy out there. I’m fine with that,” Durant said, according to NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. “If I want the ball I got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break.”
It's plain and simple: That cannot be the only way your star scorer gets the basketball.
But here's how Scott Brooks saw it, via HoopsHabit:
“We had some plays where [Durant] has to space the floor,” Brooks said. (h/t CBSSports.com) “We were giving Reggie some opportunities. We did that the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities.”
In Game 6, Durant saw his usage rate spike to its highest point of the postseason, up to 37 percent after failing to eclipse 29 in Games 4 and 5. For context, his regular season mark was a league-leading 33 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.
|Kevin Durant: 2014 Postseason|
Durant will need the ball in his hands more often than not when a play needs to be made, and that's something Westbrook must realize, also. The point guard has averaged 25 points per game this postseason, but on 25 shots—he's shooting just 41 percent on two-pointers and 20 percent on threes.
Mostly all of Memphis' core will need to succeed in order for them to come away with the series. All of their big-minutes players have specific roles, and they've fit together as perfect puzzle pieces during the team's playoff push over the second half.
But, with the season on the line, perhaps their biggest talent in Mike Conley is seriously hampered. After tweaking his hamstring in the second half of Game 6, the point guard was on the court for a time thereafter but wasn't effective in the least.
Conley says he'll give it a go, but if he can't, Memphis will need positive contributions from their midseason-acquisition backup point man, Beno Udrih.
The 31-year-old was dumped by the New York Knicks following the trade deadline, after Mike Woodson spent a half-season misusing—or simply not using—the reserve guard. Udrih only found his way into 10 games for Memphis during the regular season, averaging just 5.5 minutes per, but has averaged 16 minutes per game in the postseason. He's shot 46 percent from the field and has averaged two assists and 1.3 turnovers.
If Conley is ineffective early on, Dave Joerger shouldn't hesitate to pull his point guard in favor of the reserve. Udrih is a disaster defensively, but he could be a better option than Conley if the starter looks as hobbled as he did at the end of Game 6.
On the Oklahoma City side, a potential difference-maker is Serge Ibaka, who is a threat the Thunder have to match up with Memphis' size.
Ibaka has posted three double-digit rebound games in the series, and has shot better than 50 percent in every game for the Thunder. According to Basketball-Reference, the Thunder's offense is near nine points per 100 possessions better with Ibaka on the floor.
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph aren't easy to compete with down low, Ibaka isn't one to match their offensive output. But he is capable of deterring their game on that end, while being a competent role player on offense.
However, Randolph will be suspended for Game 7, so that's one less big body the Thunder will have to deal with.
Key Matchup: Tony Allen vs. Kevin Durant
You probably saw this one coming.
Allen versus Durant has been the matchup of the season to this point, and Allen has come out mostly victorious. As a shooting guard matched up with a player with center length, even Tony Allen was expected to have trouble keeping up with the league's dirtiest scorer.
Six games in, Durant has been the one that's come up small. In Games 1 though 5, Durant had connected on just 36 percent of his shots with Allen on the floor, according to NBA.com. That number has gone up marginally since Game 6, but hardly. Allen and Memphis' team defense's effect on the scoring champion has been evident all throughout this series.
It'll be up to Durant to find a way around Allen, which he hasn't been able to do for a full 48 minutes yet. The winner of this matchup should determine the series victor.
If Durant doesn't find a way to beat Allen in the individual matchup, the onus will fall in multiple places, with Durant's shoulder only being part of the equation. Westbrook's distribution tendencies will play a role here, as will Scott Brook's unimaginative offense.
The series that has featured more overtime contests than any in NBA history will come to an end Saturday, and another extra-minutes bout would shock no one.
What started as a series between a 59-win Western Conference powerhouse and a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs has turned into a classic matchup between contrasting basketball ideologies. And it's been fun to watch unfold.
In reality, this game could just as easily go to one team as it could to the other. Based on how the series has gone, it seems as if the winner of the Allen-Durant marathon battle should push their team on to victory.
And, based off the sample we've seen through six games, Allen just knows how to stop KD.
It isn't easy to bet against the game's best scorer, but Allen is the league's best perimeter defender, and perhaps the one man who can put a halt to Durant's menacing offensive ability.
If Allen is able to to what he's done though most of the series, the Grizzlies could have the chance to hand Oklahoma City a playoff exit for the second straight year. If Durant prevails, the Thunder will roll.
Prediction: Thunder defeat Grizzlies, 103-92.
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