By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MEMPHIS – Facing elimination, on the road, ground down by the pushing and banging of the Memphis Grizzlies and worn out from a playoff-record four consecutive overtime games, Oklahoma City’s players squeezed into the narrow hallway outside their locker room in the moments before the anthem, intros and tipoff.
In the middle of their scrum, the man who has played in the most postseason games in NBA history: Derek Fisher. He was talking. His teammates were listening – OK, Russell Westbrook was spinning and fiddling with a basketball but he presumably could hear Fisher, too.
Kevin Durant was nodding. And smiling.
More than three hours later, after the Thunder put on their most complete and dominating performance of the series to force Saturday’s Game 7 back on their court, Fisher shared some of the old-head wisdom he’d imparted.
“With this team, it’s all about relaxing and playing our game,” Fisher said. “We don’t want to be thinking about playing the perfect game. We can’t be worrying about making mistakes. I’ve seen it – if we play our game, we win.”
OKC won big, 104-84. It pumped its lead to 20 points three minutes into the second half, never let it dwindle below 17 and had it right back at 20 by the end.
There’s relaxed. This was planking (uh, we all remember planking, right?)
“I think [staying relaxed is] when we’re at our best, to be honest,” Fisher said. “We all want to do so well and we expect great things from ourselves, but in these types of situations, I’ve seen this team since I’ve been here do exactly this: Win a game on the road when it’s necessary to win. We didn’t bring the baggage from the last game or Game 3. Anything before tonight was irrelevant.”
Said Westbrook: “We did a great job of just being calm. A great job of coming in and being cool, calm and collected as a unit. For 48 minutes, we had that. We didn’t take a long dip – we just kind of went up and down [the court].”
None of the Thunder players wanted or needed to relax more than Durant. None was in a worse position to do so, though.
His world, all sweetness and light for so much of 2013-14, was rapidly turning sour and dark. His offense was AWOL. Assuming he gets named the NBA’s 2014 Most Valuable Player, he was on the brink of the quickest ouster for a league MVP since 2007 (Dirk Nowitzki) and one of only a handful not to survive the first round. As a group, Oklahoma City had many of the same criticisms and reactions headed its way as are hanging over Indiana, which also survived a while longer (in less convincing fashion).
Even the hometown paper, The Oklahoman, piled on Durant Thursday morning with a headline that overreached and triggered such an outcry, you figured Donald Sterling wrote it: “Mr. Unreliable” the newspaper dubbed OKC’s star in bold, block letters, using a blunt ax where a scalpel was required.
The fascinating thing was, Durant already had laid out his strategy for Game 6 before he ever learned of the silly headline. Consider what he said in the morning, when the FedEx Forum was mostly empty and quiet:
You can talk about Xs and Os, what we have to do. But it comes down to laying it all out on the line, for you brothers, for your city, and playing as hard as you can. I think everything else is going to take care of itself. I really believe in that.
We have another chance to play another basketball game. We’re guaranteed 48 minutes. … We tend to take things for granted, but I get to play another basketball game. Something I love to do. You never know, this could be our last time stepping on this court, so I’m going to play as hard as I can. That’s what motivates me.
Durant did exactly what he said, against the backdrop of all that urgency, by staying relaxed and finding fun where others might see only stress. He scored 14 points in the first 12 minutes (the Thunder are 5-0 in playoff games when Durant has done that), 18 by the break and another 18 after halftime. He got to the line for 15 free throws, more than in the past two games combined.
And Durant quickly found the openings and the rhythm in which to assert himself, which isn’t as simple as you might think, superpowers or not.
“It’s hard for someone like him,” said Caron Butler, a surprise starter in coach Scott Brooks‘ lineup in Thabo Sefolosha‘s place. “He has so much responsibility here. He’s got to figure out every game, ‘Should I look for my own offense? Should I get other guys going?’ It’s not easy knowing what’s needed and when to do it.”
Afterward, Durant talked about making those decisions with a 3-2 imbalance in games, in a best-of-seven series, bearing down.
“I just tell myself to cut hard, play hard and [see what happens],” he said. “If I see a shot, shoot it. If I see a pass, pass. I just try to keep it as simple as possible. If I clog my mind with anything else as far as where the passes are going to be and whose guy is going to help off, all that type of stuff, it makes me play on edge, not on instinct.”
Other Thunder players helped more this time by adhering to the plan and the habits that got them this far.
“All we can really do is go into the game and say, ‘We want to play the right way,’ ” reserve forward Nick Collison said. “There are a lot of things that lead up to that. If we execute our offense, he’s going to catch the ball in better areas. He’s going to catch the ball in rhythm and he’s going to have more space to play in. That’s the biggest thing – if he’s catching the ball at the 3-point line with four guys staring at him, ready to help, it can be hard for him. That’s not good for us either.”
Things aren’t good for Memphis now. The Grizzlies head to OKC where, yes, they’ve won twice in three tries but where the Thunder were 34-7 in the season. That crowd there is a force with which to reckon, and getting blown out at home in what could have been a happy, clinching game was a lousy way to prepare.
The grindiest thing in the Grindhouse Thursday was Memphis’ offense, sagging under its poor shooting (37.3 percent) and eventually from point guard Mike Conley‘s sprained right hamstring, injured in a third-quarter loose ball pile-up. He was done after 28 minutes and 2-for-10 shooting.
“I don’t think we played very well so it shouldn’t be like we have a good taste in our mouth,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “We’ve been playing 21 days of must-win games. This is it. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, hurt, nicked up or not. This is the performance that we’ve been looking for all season long. Unfortunately it didn’t come tonight. So for Game 7, it has to be there.”
So does this, if Durant and the Thunder are to serve as any guide: relax.