OKLAHOMA CITY — Memphis has branded itself as team that plays hard nosed, physical defense. Once it knows what an opposing team likes to do, they clamp down and find a way to take it away.
However, when the Grizzlies faced Oklahoma City Sunday, they met up with a man who hasn’t seen a defense he can’t solve.
Kevin Durant scored 12 fourth-quarter points to lead the Thunder past Memphis 93-91 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena and give Oklahoma City a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series.
“Kevin is a smart basketball player,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “He was a playmaker to his team. I thought he was great. I thought he did a great job in making the right decisions.”
Durant was particularly effective when his team needed him the most.
Trailing 90-87, Oklahoma City came up with a stop on defense. Durant drove downcourt and hit a jumper to close the gap to one point with 30 seconds left.
Once again the Thunder made a defensive play. Derek Fisher deflected the ball to Durant and no time-out was called. Then, with Tayshaun Prince in his face, Durant drained a long jumper to give Oklahoma City a 91-90 advantage with 11.1 seconds on the clock.
“I knew he was going to touch ‘em up,” Kendrick Perkins said. “KD lives for those type of moments. He’s just got a gift.”
Memphis attempted to go to Marc Gasol, who passed it back out to Mike Conley. But Thabo Sefolosha forced the Grizzlies into a turnover with 3.5 seconds left.
Memphis fouled Reggie Jackson to send the second-year pro to the line under pressure. He calmly drained both free throws, putting the Thunder up by three.
However, Jackson fouled Memphis’ Quincy Pondexter while attempting a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left. With a chance to tie the score, he missed two and the Thunder held on.
Game two is Tuesday in Oklahoma City.
“We knew that’s how the series is going to be,” Kevin Martin said. “It will be a grind-it-out-series. It felt like we would be in great position if we came out in the right defensive mindset. So that’s what we did.”
Durant finished with 35 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. It was his play in the final minutes that stood out.
“We made a good defensive play, and they have such a great team defense,” Durant said. “I just wanted to get it up the floor as quick as possible and find a shot. That was the only shot I could find, and by the grace of God it went in.”
Kevin Martin came off the Thunder bench to score 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field. Jackson added 12 points.
Gasol paced Memphis with 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. Zach Randolph scored 18 points and had 10 rebounds. Conley chipped in with 13 points and three assists.
Oklahoma City couldn’t have started the game any worse than it did. They missed their first eight shots from the floor and spotted the Grizzlies a 7-0 advantage before the first time-out.
But Durant began to assert himself. There had been talk before the game that Prince could guard Durant by himself and free up the rest of the Grizzlies defenders. Durant put that to rest quickly with 10 points in the first quarter.
Martin continued his hot shooting from Game 6 against the Rockets. He came out of the first-round series with more confidence in his offensive skills. Instead of just settling for open 3-pointers, he began to take defenders off the dribble and create his own shot.
“It was moving without the ball, guys getting screens and guys finding me,” Martin said. “We’ve got a nice little flow going right now. We’re just making an extra effort to get everyone involved.”
Game 1 Notes:
Grizzly matchup: Memphis enters the Western Conference Semifinals with a reputation as being the best defensive team in the playoffs. Only the Spurs in the Western Conference allowed fewer points in the first round than the Grizzlies. Oklahoma City is no slouch either. The Thunder are fifth in the playoffs in field goal percentage allowed at .424. Memphis is allowing teams to shoot .467. In Game 1 Oklahoma City held Memphis to 42.7 percent and outrebounded them 43-41. “That’s what we pride ourselves in is defensive toughness,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I thought tonight, with both teams, when both teams are being serious like this, you have to earn every inch of the court.”
Free points: Free-throw shooting will continue to be an important factor for Memphis, which leads the league in attempts at 34.3 per game. Coach Lionel Hollins said his team will not do anything different to keep getting there. “The last few years we’ve always gotten to the foul line. That’s just the way we play,” Hollins said. “When you go inside, if you attack the basket, you get offensive rebounds, you are going to get foul shots. If you just take jump shots ... the fewer free throws you are going to get.” However, it was Oklahoma City who made a living at the line Sunday. It was 22-for-25 compared to the Grizzlies 14-of-25.
MVP voting: For the second straight year Durant was runner-up in the MVP balloting, which was announced Sunday. He finished behind LeBron James, who received 120 of 121 total first-place votes to win the award for the fourth time. Durant received 93 second-place votes, 21 third-place votes, two fourth-place votes and three fifth-place votes. Carmelo Anthony, who finished third, got one first place vote to keep James from the unanimous choice.
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