On Thursday night, after getting a few days off, the Grizzlies and Thunder renewed their intense series. This time, the setting was in Memphis. With the series tied 1-1, both teams knew the importance of winning this game even if they didn’t know that during the last 24 years, when a series is tied 1-1, the winner of Game 3 goes on to win the series 78.6% of the time.
The 1st quarter went just as the Grizzlies hoped it would. The Thunder struggled to score the basketball and Zach Randolph got into a groove early, scoring 8 points and notching 2 rebounds. The only concern for the Grizzlies was that Marc Gasol committed 2 fouls, which limited him to 6 minutes. But still, the Grizzlies held a 24-18 lead at the end of the 1st quarter, and things overall were going according to plan. Durant had 7 points at this point, but nobody else on the Thunder, including Westbrook had done much to help him.
The Grizzlies extended their lead midway through the 2nd quarter largely due to good ball movement, spacing, and rebounding. Beno Udrih was once again a factor in this quarter much like he was in Game 2, scoring 7 points in 6 minutes off the bench. I mentioned earlier that the absence of Nick Calathes was a big deal going into this series, and once again Beno Udrih stepped up to fill the hole left by Calathes at the back up point guard position. Another key factor in the Grizzlies’ success in the 2nd quarter was Marc Gasol being able to play extended minutes and avoid getting into further foul trouble. He was able to log in 11 minutes in the 2nd quarter and have 8 points and 3 rebounds going into the half in which the Grizzlies possessed a 44-36 lead.
During the 3rd quarter, the Grizzlies extended their lead to 71-61. While Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook started to find their groove in the 3rd Quarter, their bench continued to struggle. The Thunder had only 9 bench points after 3 quarters of play, which explains the low scoring by the Thunder. Tony Allen and Beno Udrih alone had combined for 22 points off the bench for the Grizzlies. Up to this point that really seemed to be the major difference in this game. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley had support off the bench and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant did not.
The Grizzlies continued to find success as the fourth quarter begun, continuing to play good defense and not allow the Thunder to gain any ground. With less than 5 minutes to go with an 83-71 lead, the Grizzlies were in great position to win this game because the Thunder looked like they would be lucky to crack 80 points. If you read my article “It’s all about the 80s”, you would know that when the Grizzlies keep teams under 90 points and in the 80s they rarely lose. Keeping the Thunder to this low of a score indicates that the game is being dictated the way that they want to, which is a style that directly clashes with what the Thunder want to do. The Grizzlies want to grind it out and slow it down and the Thunder want to fly up and down the court like gazelles. All the Grizzlies had to do during the last few minutes was maintain that intense grind it out play and Game 3 would be theirs.
However, the Thunder went on a 5-0 run (which in games like this feels like a 10-0 run), cutting the Grizzlies’ lead to just 3. The looks on the faces of Grizzlies fans in FedExForum expressed worry since close games usually mean it’s time for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do their thing. A little later on, Westbrook knocked down a clutch three and was fouled which resulted in a 4-point play, tying the game up at 85 with 26 seconds to go. The Grizzlies had the ball and all they had to do was run one good play to win the game. Unfortunately, Mike Conley was unable to capitalize on the play drawn up for him to take Westbrook in isolation, and he missed a layup that was rebounded by the Thunder with 2 seconds to go. The Thunder now had a chance to win the game. Fortunately, Kevin Durant missed the game winning attempt, which resulted in overtime with an 85-85 score.
Overtime started with Kevin Durant getting a 3-point play, but Marc Gasol struck back with a big bucket inside followed by a 3-point shot and fast break layup by Mike Conley. It would have been easy for the Grizzlies to fold after Durant’s 3-point play, but they instead responded and took charge, using it as motivation rather than as an excuse to lose. Kevin Durant tried to lead the Thunder to victory by himself, but every time he scored, the Grizzlies found a way to answer. As was true to the nature of both teams, the Thunder had to rely on their MVP caliber superstar Kevin Durant to win them the game and the Grizzlies had to rely on an all-around team effort.
In the end, it was the all-around team effort of the Grizzlies that won this game by the final score of 98-95. Rather than pointing out individual stats or performances, I would like to point your attention towards the fact that the Grizzlies’ bench outscored the Thunder’s bench 34-9. That is a glaring statistic that speaks to the difference between these two teams. The Thunder rely on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to both carry the team on their shoulders whereas the Grizzlies spread the wealth around more evenly among more players with the key players Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph leading the way.
I think tonight’s game is a huge indicator of where this series is going. The Thunder simply don’t have enough support for Westbrook and Durant and the Grizzlies play good enough defense to slow those guys down and beat the Thunder with their balance and more even distribution of responsibility. If the Thunder don’t win this series, they have some serious concerns to address in this offseason now that they don’t have a third scoring threat like James Harden on their team. As for the Grizzlies, tonight’s win reminds us of why they are so dangerous. They defend, rebound, play unselfishly, and also have guys able to make big plays. They are showing that basketball is a team sport and not a sport won by teams that rely so heavily on just 2 players.
—Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord