Much is made of the first day of the NBA Playoffs. Game 1’s set the tone for the series, provide validation for the teams that captured home court advantage, and display an opportunity at redemption for those who did not. Game 1 is a time to set the table for the series ahead, a time to make an opening statement.
And did the Oklahoma City Thunder ever make a statement Saturday night.
The Thunder showed they were a team on a mission against the Grizzlies in Game 1. They looked fast and athletic. They looked explosive on offense and suffocating on defense. Kevin Durant’s squad came out with a razor-sharp, championship-caliber focus that absolutely demolished Memphis’ hopes in the first half.
With a double-digit lead, and two of the game’s best players on their side, the Thunder looked the part of the best team in the league. The Grizzlies could not get a shot to go against the more athletic Oklahoma City club, and were being dominated in transition because of their offensive ineptitude. This game looked like it was going to be a thirty point blowout when it was all said and done.
And then the third quarter happened.
The Grizzlies, in a microcosm of their entire season, came back with a herculean effort in the second half. A 31-13 advantage in the third cut a 22 point lead to 4 entering the fourth quarter. Tony Allen had emerged as a force guarding Durant, and more surprisingly a catalyst for the Grizzlies offensive turnaround.
The game would remain relatively close (the Grizzlies had the lead down to 2 at one point) until the Thunder began to take control towards the end of the quarter when the Grizzlies had clearly ran out of gas trying to re-establish themselves after falling flat out of the gate. The end result of the game was 15 point setback for Memphis, but the comeback that had occurred a quarter earlier had quite obviously gotten the Grizzlies back into the game mentally, and prevented the Thunder from setting such a dominating tone going forward in the series.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, this is a game the Thunder needed to win. The Grizzlies still have the chance to grab Game 2 and head back to the Grindhouse tied 1-1. Of course, stealing a game that saw them down over twenty points would have been ideal, and turned the series in a big way. However, coming out flat against a team on a mission for vengeance and walking away confident in the end is nothing to overlook.
Tayshaun Prince falling ill was blessing in disguise for the Grizzlies, as it forced them to go with Tony Allen almost exclusively on Durant. Allen did an excellent job on the presumptive MVP, and one has to wonder whether that confidence spilled over to Allen’s offensive game, which helped turn around the game for Memphis.
Going forward, it would interesting to see more minutes out of James Johnson, who is an athlete the Grizz can throw back at the Thunder, and help defend the three-headed monster of Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka. Johnson’s versatility and athletic ability will allow the Grizzlies to run a bit more when they get the opportunity, and defend more efficiently when they are forced to go small.
There are some mistakes the Grizzlies made that must be addressed; less quick shots to limit the Thunder in transition, and the shooting efficiency from three and the free throw line come to mind. However, the comeback in the third quarter shifted the momentum of the series just enough for the Thunder to be thinking about it.
Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City made a statement on Saturday night. They announced to the league that they are focused, and they are only content on winning a championship.
The Grizzlies responded, and they are not going away without a serious fight.