While Zach Randolph was gettin’ busy in Game 6 of the Western Conference semis, there was another battle raging. One that determined the outcome in a way that took the league’s most prolific scorer out of the contest.
Much has been made of the points in the paint in the Memphis Grizzlies-Oklahoma City Thunder playoff series. But there’s another fascinating facet to it –what’s gone on, on the perimeter.
Before the series started I felt this would be key in deciding which inexperienced team would move on to the Western Conference Finals, knowing there was a good chance that Kendrick Perkins/Serge Ibaka may well cancel out Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph at times.
While it’s true that the team that’s won the points in the paint battle has won each of the six games played in the series thus far, I feel like the tipping point has been the perimeter, specifically from 16-23 feet and 3-point land.
We knew going in that the Grizzlies front line was capable of scoring in bunches, and that their counterparts are two of the better post and help defenders in the NBA.
We also knew that Kevin Durant is a dynamic scorer, leading the regular and postseason in points at around 28 per game, and that Tony Allen has a history of defending him well.
But it was Shane Battier’s 4th quarter defense of Durant that sealed this victory, ensuring us of this year’s first Game 7 spectacular.
With 8:52 remaining in the 4th quarter, and the Thunder down by only three, Durant enters the game. OKC has to like their chances down only one possession on the road with one of the most consistent scorers in the game getting ready to try and close it out.
Randolph scores in the post, Westbrook gets blocked while driving at the other end, and Randolph scores again.
Time for Westbrook, much maligned throughout the series for not getting the ball to the star scorer enough, especially late in games, to find Durant and finish this.
But Battier is having none of it.
Battier fronts and denies Durant the ball, even as Durant runs a gauntlet of screens trying to get free. Westbrook tries repeatedly to get the rock to KD but cannot due to Battier’s stifling defense, time and again denying the two-man game so critical to the Thunder’s success.
The ball bounces back and forth a bit until Westbrook corrals it, then throws it away while trying to get it to Durant on the left elbow in transition. Randolph would again score (prompting the PA system to take us back to 1993 with a Whoomp!).
After a Scott Brooks timeout Westbrook would again bring it down, looking for Durant, who would get the ball on the angle right only to find Battier there waiting for him, prompting him to kick it back out to the top for a reset.
OJ Mayo drives for an easy bucket and Westbrook again brings it down looking for Durant. The whole way.
Durant would circle with a Shane shadow the entire time, looking for an opening as Westbrook calls for a brush-off screen to free him.
Okay, not really.
Durant would complete his short journey around the key to find himself finally free and with the ball in his hands. 27 feet from the basket. With Gasol and Battier closing fast.
We’re now halfway through the closing quarter with the league’s scoring champ stuck on 11 points and I suddenly realize, “Hey! This might just be that game…”
Zach Randolph is on fire and adds a couple more free throws to his 4th Q tally, but this isn’t a problem if Durant can spring himself. Thus far KD has gone high post, elbow left, elbow right, screen, run, screen, screen, run, but hasn’t managed to find the twine.
He resolves to keep trying to find a way, this time setting up near the low post. Battier again fronts.
Battier is still there.
Westbrook goes “Screw this,” and misses a 25-footer.
A handful of possessions later the Thunder are still hanging around keeping it in single digits due to Westbrook’s aggressive driving ability. He scores once, twice (netting a pair of freebies for his trouble), and goes for a third time. This one just rolls off the rim.
But Durant is there, in position and ready to uncoil his six-foot ten-inch frame for a putback.
But so is Battier.
Durant has tried to score in almost every way conceivable, and been denied the ball time and again by Battier. Randolph would nab this loose ball and another Mayo jumper would leave the Thunder calling for time to talk it over.
Brooks calls for a different set coming out of the timeout, yet another attempt to un-cuff KD. He hasn’t given up on him yet.
Where Westbrook has been blamed for previous losses in the series, this one’s on Durant and coach Scott Brooks.
Durant is terrible at using screens to free himself for looks, too often settling for lame-duck, contested jumpers. To this point, Scott Brooks and Kevin Durant have been able to rely solely on KD’s athleticism to put up points, and Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins has this pegged.
By switching off on Durant with a pair of the NBA’s best wing defenders in Tony Allen and Shane Battier Hollins and the Grizzlies have now painted the Thunder into a corner, one in which they may not find a way out of in time. Unless Brooks has some sort of miracle crash course in team fundamentals lined up it might be too late.
Westbrook won’t be waiting around for his ‘mate to figure out to free himself from his grizzly drape, that’s for sure.
You can follow Clint on Twitter at @Clintonite33
Subscribe to all the Shoot Hoops news and articles straight to your RSS reader.
Sign up and get all the Shoot Hoops news straight to your inbox.
Follow us on Twitter and get in-stream messages