By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — This first-round series, so close now to slipping away from the Oklahoma City Thunder, is testing Kevin Durant‘s limits and his patience as it volleys from the strange to the surreal and now to the truly bizarre.
For the first time in NBA history, a playoff series has had four consecutive overtime games. The suffocating Memphis Grizzlies have won three, including Tuesday’s 100-99 thriller in which the game’s most devastating scorer and sure-fire MVP amazingly served as a decoy for the majority of the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.
Then in overtime came the incredible. After Durant made the first of two free throws to close to a one-point deficit with 27.6 seconds left, veteran referee Joey Crawford took the ball from Durant’s hands at the stripe, marched to the scorer’s table and instructed the scoreboard operator to show that both teams were in the bonus on the overheard scoreboard.
“I looked at KD and we were both like, ‘What is Joey doing,’ we had no idea,” Memphis guard Mike Conley said. “But, hey, I guess it worked.”
Durant, an 87.3-percent foul shooter, missed the potential game-tying free throw, and the game ended with that same one-point differential. A few moments later his 3-point attempt to win thudded off the back iron and Serge Ibaka‘s breathtaking put-back was ruled too late after a replay review.
“I was just trying to stay focused and knock the free throw down. Unfortunately, I didn’t,” said Durant, who missed half of his six free throw attempts in the game. “I don’t know what happened. I have to make that free throw.”
Said OKC coach Scott Brooks: “It was an awkward situation, I’ll tell you that.”
But that’s not all that was awkward in a game that game the The No. 7-seed Grizzlies blew a 20-point third-quarter lead, but hung on to take a 3-2 series lead. Mike Miller provided the difference for Memphis with 21 points that included five 3-pointers. Memphis can eliminate the No. 2-seed Thunder at home on Thursday night.
Yet to discover his rhythm this series, Durant buried a deep 3-pointer with 6:46 to go in regulation that gave OKC its first lead of the game, 79-78. The crowd erupted and seemed to sense an elusive Durant scoring binge brewing at just the right time. Only he never got the chance.
Brooks instead pushed Durant to the weakside corner on possession after possession in an attempt to space the floor for Game 4 hero Reggie Jackson and cold-shooting point guard Russell Westbrook.
“Sometimes you have to be a decoy out there. I’m fine with that,” Durant said. “If I want the ball I got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break. I trust my teammates with whatever decisions they make. I just got to do better for them.”
To get a touch in the final minutes of a nip-and-tuck, pivotal playoff game, the league’s four-time scoring champ has to get a defensive rebound and bring it up the floor himself?
“We had some plays where he has to space the floor,” Brooks said of Durant. “We were giving Reggie some opportunities. We did that in the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities. They did a good job of guarding it.”
Durant didn’t get a shot off on 12 consecutive possessions. He touched it only three times. Meanwhile, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Westbrook combined to miss five of six 3-point attempts. The one Butler made, he was also fouled and converted the Thunder’s third four-point play of the series, without which, this series wouldn’t be the overtime bonanza that it is.
Durant’s next opportunity came as the clock ticked below one minute to go and he lost it trying to slice into the lane. His next shot finally came with 33.9 seconds left, more than six minutes after his lead-grabbing 3. He missed. Durant took five shots while playing all 12 minute of the fourth quarter.
As confounding as that may be, the Thunder have a laundry list of issues to address if they hope to bring this series back to OKC. Durant, one of the most efficient scorers throughout the season, is staring at the prospect of becoming the first MVP — his winning seems only a formality now — since Dirk Nowitzki (of the 2007 Mavericks) got the award after his team was ousted from the playoffs.
Tayshaun Prince, Tony Allen and the Grizzlies’ defense have managed to take Durant out of his comfort zone just as they did in last year’s conference semifinals when Westbrook was injured. Westbrook’s dynamic playmaking ability was supposed to change that this time around.
Instead both have dented the rim far more than worn out the nets. Durant finished 10-for-24 in Game 5 for 26 points. He had just two assists and six turnovers. He’s now 50-for-125 in the series (40 percent) and 12-for-42 from beyond the arc (28.6 percent).
Westbrook delivered a triple-double Sunday that spanned the spectrum of amazing to dreadful. He finished with 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. He was 10-for-31 from the floor and 1-for-7 from 3-point range. He made what might have been the play of the game, picking Conley’s pockets and going in for the game-tying dunk with four seconds left, but then was guilty of allowing Conley to blow by him twice early in the OT.
There is little flow to the Thunder offense. Westbrook has too often played recklessly and launched too many shots in the early portion of the shot clock. Durant is being well-defended, but also seems to have lost the killer confidence that defined his historic run this season.
The frustration is mounting and time is running out.