From the first tip-off, you could tell the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder series would be one of those grind-it-out joints that goes the distance. Game 1 didn’t disappoint. Two postseasons ago, these squads went seven games, and Game 1 went down to the final possession, giving us another Durant highlight finish.
After Derek Fisher poked the ball out of Mike Conley’s hands as he penetrated the lane, Durant raced down the floor and Brooks didn’t even waste time reining him in. Durant dribbled just inside the arc, pulled up, elevated and drilled a picturesque jumper to give the Thunder a one-point lead with 11 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Marc Gasol received the ball on the wing, but was so closely guarded that he had to look for a teammate to dump it off on. Instead, he bailed out by throwing an ill-advised pass to Conley that was deflected by Thabo Sefolosha and gave the possession back to the Thunder.
This isn’t the first time that the Grizzlies have been slashed by killer closers. In Game 2 of their first round series, Chris Paul singlehandedly put the Grizzlies defense in a blender and banked home a buzzer-beater to give the Clippers a 2-0 series lead.
Memphis’ frontcourt size makes the Thunder’s first round opponents look prepubescent, but they differ from Houston (and Oklahoma City) with their lack of a crunch-time perimeter finisher.
The Grizzlies have traded punches with the Thunder before, and there have been lingering concerns about where they’d find points in late-game situations when the defenses are tighter and the post gets bogged down.
Even the ‘04 Pistons, the golden standard of blue-collar squads, had “Mr. Big Shot” Chauncey Billups. Game 1’s sloppy offensive finish was a glaring example of Memphis’ lack of a top shelf closer.
The Grizzlies have some bite in the post. Zach Randolph and Gasol mauled Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka down in the mud, but they can be neutralized by simply doubling down in the post. They lack a silky clean perimeter scorer that can create space and drop buckets like stones in a pond when the situation arises. In the absence of Rudy Gay, Mike Conley took more of those shots in the regular season, but he’s never done it in the playoffs.
Even with Russell Westbrook as a spectator, the Thunder don’t have that problem. When the clock’s winding down, and the other nine guys on the floor tighten up, Oklahoma City knows who’s getting the kill shot. The Grizzlies are masters of efficiency, but they lack a finisher on Durant’s level.
Durant finally appears comfortable as Oklahoma City’s solo star. Scott Brooks won’t devise awe-inspiring pick-and-rolls and cutters on his clipboard. The Thunder’s final possessions are gonna be as basic as a Catholic school dress code. Give Durant the ball and let him find the nylon.
After Memphis took a commanding lead in the fourth, Durant flipped the switch and became their cold-blooded executioner.
In the final 3:46, Durant scored eight of the Thunder’s final 11 points. The Grizzlies scoring-by-committee attack worked for the first 39 minutes, but this series features the type of hotly-contested games that won’t be decided until the postgame press conference.
Gasol gave the Grizzlies a three-point lead with 1:07 remaining, but that was the last basket they’d score for another minute. Meanwhile, Durant had the Grizzlies tugging on a leash, but he was in control the entire time. In the final minute, he put them down.