MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Late in the first quarter Kevin Durant wanted a foul on emerging nemesis Tony Allen and put up an awkward shot that bounced off the backboard and triggered an Allen breakaway. To prevent a layup, the retreating Durant leaped and fouled Allen on the way to the rim, came down, punched the air in frustration and told referee Ken Mauer of his possession at the other end: “That was a foul, man.”
All the while Allen shot his free throws, Durant pleaded his case. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Allen blanketed Durant and he fell to the floor. During the quarter break, Durant, with a towel draped around his shoulders at mid-court, continued to address Mauer.
Durant pounded the chest of struggling forward Serge Ibaka after he missed a free throw. After a near-steal by Memphis’ aggressive team defense, Durant animatedly jabbed at the sky with his index finger and urged second-year guard Reggie Jackson to throw the ball higher when he’s backing down his man.
Durant, asked to bang with burly Grizzlies center Marc Gasol on the defensive end, took an inadvertent elbow from the big man square in the jaw, doubled-over and covered his face with his hands.
As Game 3 was ticking down Saturday evening to a Memphis Grizzlies 87-81 victory for a 2-1 series lead, Durant crouched down and planted both hands on the floor, tired and realizing that it is up to him to pick up this fight, to keep the season going, in 48 hours. With Allen now hounding him for chunks at a time, Durant finished with 25 points on 9-for-19 shooting after starting 6-for-8. He had 11 rebounds and five assists. He logged 45 minutes, 44 seconds, which might or might not have contributed to him going 2-for-5 from the free throw line in the second half.
He had two points in the fourth quarter. In the last two fourth quarters, starting with the final 3:18 of the Thunder’s Game 2 loss at home when the hard-edged guard Allen truly started to stick to Durant, the three-time scoring champ is 1-for-7 from the floor and 0-for-2 from the free throw line.
“Tony’s great man,” Grizzlies teammate Zach Randolph said. “Tony’s a dog, man. He’s in the mud.”
Welcome to KD’s world. The reality of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook — Allen’s more natural counterpart –being shelved is in full effect and it’s not pretty. The Grizzlies are doing all they can to grit-and-grind their way to making life as uncomfortable as possible for Durant, forcing his teammates to step up, and especially late in these games, each of which have been up for grabs in the final three minutes.
“I’ve said it before, when a guy has the ball and has to score like that it takes energy, and the more you make him work, that’s the best you can do,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “You can’t stop Kevin Durant, he’s a great player, but he played 45, 46 minutes and he’s asked to carry a huge load for them. As the game goes on other people for them, they start taking the load away from him a little bit, but I don’t think that we can stop him. I’m not attributing it to us.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Durant’s heavy minutes were not a factor in going 3-for-11 after his great start and 1-for-4 in a second consecutive poorly executed final few minutes.
The 24-year-old Durant continues to say he can shoulder any load. But, he has to have help. Ibaka is a mess offensively, clanging 11 more shots in Game 3 — unfathomably including two dunks and a 1-foot hook, and running his series shooting percentage to 33.3 percent. This from a man who shot a career-best 57.3 percent in the regular season.
Since Ibaka missed that difficult put-back under the rim at the end of the Game 4 loss to Houston, his shooting has plummeted from 22-for-38 to 23-for-66. Durant acknowledged that Ibaka’s mind is a mine field.
“We have to get him confidence,” Durant said. “We have to get him some shots and get him going. We can’t let him put too much pressure on himself. It’s all in his mind. If he thinks he is going to make those shots, then he is going to make them. I have to pick him up and that is what I have been doing.”
Kevin Martin shouldn’t need picking up in his ninth season, although this is the first pressurized postseason of his career. No matter, he is nearing bust status when his team needs him most. He, too, missed 11 more shots as his 50-point, two-game breakout to close out Houston and to get OKC off to a 1-0 start against the Grizz appears more like a mirage. His shooting stats in the last two games: 8-for-28 from the floor and 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
In this series, Durant is averaging 32.0 points on 33-for-66 shooting from the floor. The rest of the Thunder are 62-for-172 (36.0 percent). They’ve struggled to score against Memphis’ gritty defense, averaging 85.6 points — 20 below their season average. Yet they’ve been right there, in position to snag the last two games.
Game 3 was theirs to take. They outrebounded Memphis, limited their turnovers, held Randolph to eight points and one offensive board. OKC was unusually spotty from the foul line (12-for-19) and awful from beyond the arc (5-for-18), but Derek Fisher’s 3-ball tied it at 81-81 with 1:58 to go. Much like Game 2, they wouldn’t score again.
Durant and Brooks both reiterated that they won’t change their approach offensively. Durant won’t play hero ball. He’ll continue to look for teammates in the structure of the halfcourt offense, which Durant said is working fine. They just need to make shots, he said.
“We missed two dunks, we missed three or four layups in the paint, we missed some wide open 3s,” Durant said. “We’re getting the right shots. We’re getting shots that our offense gives to us. We just have to knock them down.”