2013 Conference Semis: Thunder-Grizzlies

‘Fluke Play’ In Third Quarter Nearly Costly For Allen, Grizzlies

.

OKLAHOMA CITY – One moment, Tony Allen‘s on the bench, ambitiously waving his towel above his head like he’s back at Oklahoma State in the Final Four or something. The next moment, he’s slinking into his chair as Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins glared at him and barked something at him as though Allen had just asked out the coach’s daughter.

“[I said the] same thing I said to him when he didn’t block out [Kevin] Durant on a shot,” Hollins said. “What the hell are you doing?!”

What in the world happened as the third quarter of Wednesday’s Game 5 wound down to five minutes to play, with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher shooting a corner 3-pointer in front of the Grizz bench and, out of nowhere, Allen’s blue warmup jersey fluttering five feet into the air and landing five feet out on the court?

“That never happened in my career. It was just a fluke incident,” Allen said, shaking his head. “It (the jersey) was tied up in the towel, and I knew it, but it just slipped. I saw it on the floor. I think I’m the only one that saw it because everybody else had their eyes …”

Allen, who had just subbed out of the game seconds earlier, stopped to sort through the surreal sequence.

“I don’t know, it was just a fluke play man,” Allen said. “I just thank God we were able to get out of here with a win.”

Had they not, and they almost did not, there’s no telling what Hollins might have done to his defensive bulldog who had defended Durant so well in helping lead the Grizzlies to a five-game, semifinal playoff victory over the top-seeded Thunder.

Memphis led 60-49 and was in seizing control of the game when Allen’s towel went haywire and spit out his warmup. Fisher’s 3-pointer missed, but the whistle blew the play dead with the foreign object resting on the floor. The ruling: OKC was awarded three points and a technical foul was assessed to Allen for interference. Durant made the free throw for a four-point play without an actual field goal being made.

Now it’s 60-53 and what was a subdued sellout crowd at Chesapeake Arena roared as the Thunder found sudden life.

62-55.

62-57.

64-60.

64-62.

End of the third quarter.

“Man, I thought when they made that run,” Allen said, “I was saying this is all my fault.”

He probably doesn’t want to know what Hollins was really thinking. When Hollins told reporters what he screamed at Allen, the room chuckled, seeing as all had ended well for the Grizz. But Hollins still didn’t smile and he offered a curt retort.

“That was huge. They counted the three points and then they got a free throw,” Hollins said. “That was a four-point play and from that point on we scored four more points in the quarter.”

Said Allen: “He was pretty upset and I can understand why. I shouldn’t do that as a veteran. It was just a bad play considering what was at stake. That could have come back and haunted us, but for the most part we’re a group that’s together and thank God that he didn’t scold me. But he did tell me to get my head out of my butt and get out there and keep playing.”

Memphis again gained control, going ahead 80-68 with 4:13 to go and the franchise’s first trip to the West finals nearing reality. Then the Thunder charged again.

82-75.

83-79.

86-84.

“I just felt like if I get a chance to go back into this game I want to do something to help the team,” Allen said. “I don’t care what it is.”

And so with 3.3 seconds left in Game 5 and the Grizzlies up two, Allen, a career 74.1-percent career free throw shooter, went to the line for two. Either he ices it or he does the Thunder a second big favor and leaves them one last chance.

Bang and bang.

“Luckily, well not luckily,” Allen said, “thank God we were able to get out of here with a win.”

Durant And Thunder Bow Out Of Playoffs Quietly, But Both Will Roar Again

x

Series hub | Game 5: Notebook | Box score

OKLAHOMA CITY – This wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Not this game. Not this series. Not this postseason. Kevin Durant’s historic offensive regular season came to a cringing, clanging conclusion Wednesday night, smothered for a fourth consecutive game by a focused Memphis Grizzlies defense.

Only the sixth player in NBA history to finish a season shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 from 3-point range and 90 from the free-throw line, Durant went down like this: 5-for-21, 0-for-4 and 11-for-15. Even his auto-dial free throws betrayed him in this series, 13 alone failing to go down in the final three games, likely flattened by fatigue as he played all 48 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 5 and 229 of 245 in all, and swarmed by defenders to the bitter end.

His first six shots failed to drop in the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder’s 88-84 defeat, just like his last one with 4.9 seconds left. It was a good look from 16 feet away, the kind he makes in his sleep, but this one caught a chunk of rim and had no prayer of rolling through like the mesmerizing, high-bouncing 3 that beat the Rockets in Game 3, the first game OKC played without Russell Westbrook.

And so there will be no Finals return. No revenge matchup against the Miami Heat. And for Durant, at least, there is no remorse, no regret.

“I gave all I have for my team. I left it all out there on the floor,” Durant said. “I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting, kept being aggressive, and that’s all I could ask for. It is what it is. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I’m sure we’re going to look back on this down the line and really appreciate this tough time. It’s something we’ve got to embrace and get better from. It’s tough to lose your last game in the playoffs so you’ve just got to move on.”

On the other side, Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph came up large in the biggest game of his career. He went to work in the low post early and finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds. He missed two free throws with 11.3 seconds to go to leave the door cracked for the Thunder’s late surge that closed an 80-70 deficit to 86-84 and a fifth consecutive game that came down to the wire. (more…)

Durant Keeps The Faith As Game 5 Nears

.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Asked about the mood of the Thunder these last 36 hours or so after the Game 4 overtime loss that put them in a 3-1 hole, Kevin Durant said everyone should know one thing.

“It wasn’t like we were going to a funeral,” Oklahoma City’s superstar said.

Durant is averaging 31.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 6.3 apg this postseason, yet he has struggled to score late in the last three games, all Memphis Grizzlies victories, all by six points. He was 2-for-13 in the fourth quarter and OT in Game 4.

“Everybody came through except for me and that’s the toughest thing about it, that’s a tough feeling,” Durant said. “Tonight we’ll try to get that taste out of mouths and try to get a W.”

Durant looked like a heavyweight fighter who had just gone the distance only to lose on a split decision. He was fatigued and seemingly out of answers. The Thunder returned to OKC in the early-morning hours Tuesday. Coach Scott Brooks didn’t put his team through a practice after they finally got some sleep, content to allow his players to get treatment and focus on tonight’s do-or-die Game 5 (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

“We’re a team that’s always been resilient, always perseveres through things and always just fights it to the end,” Durant said. “We’re going to continue to keep fighting. We’ve got a great opportunity on our home floor and, you know, you either win or you go home.”

Durant said the team is drawing on other adverse times such as losing the first two games to the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s West finals, only to storm back to win four in a row. But, obviously, that team had All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook at the helm. That Westbrook’s new Brand Jordan/Champs Sports commercial was revealed Wednesday — one full of pre-knee-injury dunks — surely makes Thunder fans wistful.

Westbrook’s absence has allowed the Grizzlies to focus on Durant. They’ve given him doses of Tayshaun Prince and then Quincy Pondexter with sporadic looks at Tony Allen for the first three quarters. The fourth quarter has largely been all Allen with teammates swarming Durant from every angle.

Since his Game 1 heroics that had Durant being praised as the game’s most clutch player, his shots have mostly clanged in the final two minutes of these games, each one a two-point margin with two minutes to go.

“I just got to get it done either way,” Durant said. “I got to try to force my way into the lane and maybe that draws even more guys and I kick it out to my teammates, or sometimes I got to shoot over two or three guys. So there’s no excuses no matter how many people are guarding me. I’ve just got to get it done.”

Durant, better than a 90-percent free throw shooter during the season, will try to get there more in Game 5. Brooks was a bit miffed that Durant got to the free throw line just three times in 48 minutes of Game 4, and one of those came via a defensive 3-seconds call.

Don’t expect Durant to alter the way he plays. He’ll continue to try to create for himself and his teammates even though they’ve been cold. Among Serge IbakaKevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, Collison has the highest shooting percentage of that group in the series — 41.7 percent.

“I don’t have to say anything really, just pass them the ball and they know I got confidence in them,” Durant said. “I tell them all the time to shoot with confidence, don’t worry about it if they miss a shot, so what? Just keep getting back on defense and playing the great defense that we are. Don’t worry about the shots, just continue to keep shooting them if you have them.

“I’m going to trust in my teammates no matter what, no matter what people say or how many shots they miss or how many shots I miss, I’m going to continue to trust my teammates, myself and all the hard work we’ve put in.”

Blogtable: What To Make Of OKC?




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Week 29: What to make of OKC? | Who can beat the Heat? | The Bulls’ future


Considering the Thunder’s performance lately, has your opinion changed of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or the Thunder? How?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: No change in my opinion of Durant: If he is, in fact, the second-best player in the NBA, he’s No. 2 more than 1A. The step down from LeBron James to the Thunder’s quiet leader is considerable and plain to see with Durant thrust into LeBron-in-Cleveland mode. No change in my opinion of Westbrook, an irrepressible talent whose unbridled game is a nice complement to Durant. But slight change in my opinion of the Thunder. With the premature James Harden trade, they had as big a hand in this iffy postseason as fate (Westbrook’s injury) or Memphis. New CBA or not, front offices should worry about the financial feasibility of keeping a championship team together, not getting out front to shed parts from a contender before its time.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Not at all. They’re a team missing a vital piece. Nobody ever thought Kevin Durant could carry the Thunder to a championship all by himself. I have been a defender of Russell Westbrook for years and always thought those who believed OKC should trade him couldn’t tell the difference between a basketball and a watermelon. Yes, he exercises poor judgment at times. Yes, he takes wild shots and ignores Durant at times. Yes, he’s a fearless, spectacular talent and KD could crawl across broken glass on a bed of hot coals to have all those “problems” in the lineup with him right now.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: No change here. Kevin Durant has shouldered the weight of the franchise admirably. Since Game 1 he’s struggled in crunch time, but he’s had All-Defensive First-Team member Tony Allen all over him and one of the best defensive teams as a whole doing a great job on him late in games. He’s just missed shots, and some free throws, too, which is surprising, but likely a result of fatigue after going so hard all game. I’ve always been Russell Westbrook-backer. To me the guy’s a bullet train and OKC dearly misses his ballhandling and how he runs that offense. Not to mention, he would take Allen off Durant’s case. The Thunder will be back.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: It has probably made everyone appreciate Russell Westbrook more. After all the talk in previous years, especially in the playoffs, of being the guy getting in Kevin Durant’s way, now there is proof of what happens when Westbrook really gets out of the way. But the opinion has not changed on Durant. He deserves every positive comment, still.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Nope. Durant’s a great player, but nobody can carry a team against a great defense by himself. Westbrook, though he makes some questionable decisions at times, is a huge part of what the Thunder do offensively. And though he’s not the best defender in the world, he’s disruptive (and a lot better than Reggie Jackson) on that end. Durant played 84 percent of his minutes with Westbrook in the regular season, so this is uncharted territory. And it obviously should be no surprise that they’re struggling to score against the Grizzlies, the best defensive team in the Western Conference.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: There is nothing to change. All we have is confirmation of Thunder’s fans greatest fear, that if one of their superstars goes down the season comes to an end sooner than expected. Durant is still a spectacular player. But the responsibilities without Westbrook around to help do the heavy lifting increase dramatically. Like roughly 28 other teams in the league, the Thunder cannot afford to lose one of their two best players and maintain the same level of play. If anything, I think Westbrook ends up being the beneficiary (strange as it sounds) of his own misfortune with the knee injury. The Thunder are a really good team without him, but not a team capable of finding its way to the championship round. That speaks volumes about his importance to the franchise.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com: The loss of Westbrook hasn’t affected my opinion of him or KD — I always felt the two needed each other and were each others best chance to win a title. If anything I think Westbrook being out has sort of exposed Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin, the two guys who seemed most likely to pick up the scoring slack while Westbrook was gone. Instead, each player’s scoring numbers have stayed flat, which has been disappointing.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA.com/germany: Not really, no. To me the Thunder always were a two-trick pony, with a bunch of solid-but-not-great role players. Durant and Westbrook both are vital parts of what OKC does and an injury to either one of them was bound to be back-breaking. Westbrook can be a headcase, but that doesn’t take anything away from his talent. And they simply have nobody to replace him. Not after James Harden left. If anything, I was surprised by how great Durant has been as a playmaker rather than the pure scorer that he usually is. He has expanded his game on the fly. Let’s hope he maintains that standard beyond these playoffs. [Philipp Dornhegge is an editor for NBA Deutschland (nba.com/germany)]

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA.com/brasil: Not really. I left the “Russell Westbrook is bad for the Thunder” bandwagon long ago, during the lockout-shortened season. My opinion remains that Westbrook and Durant make a powerful combo, and that the Thunder, when all healthy, are one of the top three teams in the West (if not the entire league). What’s been made even more clear since Westbrook’s injury, though, is they still need more offense from Ibaka and from the bench. Durant is good enough to beat most teams by himself, but even he needs some help against the league’s top defenses. [Adriano Albuquerque is a blogger for NBA Brasil (nba.com/brasil)]

Defensive-Minded: Success For Grizzlies’ Allen’s A Mix Of Trust, Belief, Resiliency

.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Long before Tony Allen became a fixture on NBA All-Defensive Teams and back when the Oklahoma City Thunder still belonged to Seattle, some Oklahoma basketball fans cheered a hard-scrabble Chicago kid who serendipitously landed in rural Stillwater and has never stopped surviving.

Those Oklahoma faithful might now wish the most influential father figure in Allen’s life, a career college basketball assistant coach named Glynn Cyprien, had never left Oklahoma State to later wind up at the University of Memphis. Because the man who delivered the little-known junior-college guard with a knack for finding trouble to Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2003 also greased Allen’s free-agent signing seven years later, leaving the championship-caliber Boston Celtics for the then-middling Memphis Grizzlies.

“We never would have gotten him without Glynn,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who also has longtime ties to Cyprien. “Tony helped put us over the top.”

Named to a third consecutive All-Defensive Team on Monday and a second consecutive First Team selection, Allen is tormenting overtaxed Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant and breaking the hearts of Thunder fans in this semifinal series the Grizzlies lead, 3-1.

Allen and the Grizzlies return tonight to Oklahoma City (9:30 ET, TNT), about an hour drive southwest of Stillwater, to try and close out the reigning-but-wounded Western Conference champs in Game 5.

Memphis had never won a playoff series before Allen signed in 2010. It hadn’t made the postseason since 2006. But this blue-collar bunch, epitomized by Allen’s tireless and genuine grit, is one win away from the team’s first conference final in its 18-year existence.

Allen’s story is all about timing, trust, belief and resiliency. Start with beating back life’s hard knocks — a father in prison, an adolescence set up to be knocked down like bowling pins — with an unbreakable spirit. He’s scraped away at a nine-year NBA career that’s finally in full bloom, having persevered through season after season of seemingly two steps forward, one step back. His is an evolutionary journey of constant self-improvement and forever proving his worth — through six seasons in Boston and, even initially in Memphis under coach Lionel Hollins — just to play.

In his second season at Oklahoma State, Allen carried the Cowboys to the 2004 Final Four as the Big 12 Player of the Year just two years after getting kicked out of his first of two junior-college stops. But that misfortune landed him at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill. That’s where Cyprien was dispatched by Sutton, not to recruit Allen, but to bring back a stud named Antwain Barbour, who would eventually sign with Kentucky and never play a minute in the NBA. It was Allen who kept catching Cyprien’s eye.

“Tony’s statistics weren’t great, but he had an overall good game, he played defense, he ran well and bottom line he was just real tough,” said Cyprien, now an assistant coach at Texas A&M. “When the game got late, he made tough plays.”

It’s his NBA calling card. And Durant and the Thunder are witnesses. Allen tilted the razor-thin margin in this series when Hollins finally called upon the 6-foot-4, self-proclaimed “junkyard dog” to sic the three-time scoring champ in the final three minutes of a nip-and-tuck Game 2. The call could have come in Game 1, when Durant scored 12 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter including the game-winner with 11 seconds to play. But Hollins was sticking to his original declaration that Allen would be no match for the impossibly long Durant.

Allen shrugged and suggested Hollins got desperate as the Grizz were in jeopardy of falling into a 2-0 hole against a team playing without its All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook.

Yet maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be for Allen, nothing ever coming without outside doubt, nothing ever certain, always having to prove himself over again. Even to his coach of three seasons, unless, as Allen was asked after the Game 2 win when he held Durant scoreless in those decisive final minutes, maybe Hollins was trying to inspire him.

“I don’t play mind games. I just go out there and do my job,” Allen said. “My confidence is always sky-high. If you try to limit me, then you limit me. But I will continue to show you that I work and I continue to get better each and every day. Whatever your limitations are on me, I am always ready to prove you wrong.” (more…)

Grizz Grind Step Closer To West Finals

h

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some of the new owners of this franchise now treading on historic playoff ground leaned up against the wall outside the Memphis Grizzlies’ locker room. Hair was frazzled, faces were flush and breaths were still coming heavy as if they had just outrun the Boogie Man.

In some respects they had.

Monday’s 103-97 overtime victory over the shorthanded and succumbing Oklahoma City Thunder turned scary from the jump. Kevin Durant set the early tone, animated, vocal and doing his thing. Serge Ibaka suddenly rediscovered his shooting touch, Kevin Martin was hitting and young Reggie Jackson was doing his best Russell Westbrook impression.

The visitors had the bounce and the confidence early. The Grindhouse crowd grew restless, boos came down when Durant buried a 3-pointer, his third without a miss, to put OKC ahead 46-29 with 4:26 until halftime. They’d since seen this horror flick before. Game 4 against these Thunder two years ago was a hot topic at practice the day before. OKC was then the team that trailed by 17 and came back all the way back to win it in triple-overtime to tie the series and eventually win it in Game 7.

Games 1 and 7 at home last season against the Clippers. Series over. Season wiped out.

To not take this Game 4 by the throat, to walk off the floor with tails tucked between their legs in front of a sellout crowd, to drag a 2-2 tie instead of riding a 3-1 lead back to Bricktown would have been a travesty.

“Our whole mindset was get it to 10 by halftime and we got it to eight,” Tony Allen said. “Coach [Lionel Hollins] came in the locker room. He’s good with those speeches. We wanted to respond.”

These Grizzlies, more mature, more clutch than any incarnation before, refused to let it happen. Tayshaun Prince and Allen clamped down on Durant, who missed 17 of his 27 shots, missed all four in overtime and missed his third clutch free throw in the last two games. Mike Conley scored 24 points and for a time matched Durant 3-pointer for 3-pointer. He played 48 minutes, 40 seconds — 21 ticks more than Durant and turned the ball over exactly once.

Then it was big Marc Gasol, with 23 points and 11 boards, swishing the game-winning jumper from the foul line. Then it was Allen, the original grit-and-grinder who was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team earlier Monday, making the game-sealing steal. It was his 10th of the series, this one on Derek Fisher‘s crossed-up inbounds pass. (more…)

History Says Grizz Can’t Let Up At Home

.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – May 9, 2011. It’s a date the Memphis Grizzlies still can’t let go. Game 4. Triple-overtime. Oklahoma City 133, Memphis 123. Series tied. Back to OKC.

“We all remember that game,” said Memphis point guard Mike Conley, whose team finds itself in the same position tonight entering Game 4 at home with a 2-1 semifinal series lead. “We know how big it is, how it can turn a series. We remember the way they came back to win.”

Conley watched the final two overtimes of that critical, heart-thumping loss dejectedly from the bench after fouling out. He acknowledged that he had already been looking ahead. The day before, the Dallas Mavericks advanced to the West finals with a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We had played Dallas well and we were thinking if we can get by Oklahoma City,” said Conley, then just a 23-year-old reveling in his first postseason. “So we were getting ahead of ourselves.”

Rudy Gay was injured and not playing for Memphis in that series. Oklahoma City is grinding out this low-scoring series with two key components gone: James Harden obviously is now an All-Star with the Houston Rockets, and Russell Westbrook, who scored 40 points in the triple-OT win two years ago, is out with a knee injury.

His absence hasn’t diminished the competitiveness of the series. All three games have been up for grabs in the final three minutes. In Game 3, Memphis nearly coughed up the homecourt edge it seized with its Game 2 win at OKC by losing an early nine-point cushion in the fourth quarter and then seeing a 79-73 lead with 4:19 to go evaporate to an 81-81 tie with 1:58 left.

“We were in this situation two years ago and they came in here and tied it up,” Zach Randolph said. “So we’ve got to come out and play better as a team and make adjustments.”

Applying a foot to the throat of an opponent on their home floor would be an adjustment the Grizz would love to make. They couldn’t do it against OKC in 2011. Last year they blew a 27-point lead with an abysmal fourth quarter and lost Game 1 in the first round to the Los Angeles Clippers, and then ducked out of the series in Game 7 with another awful final period.

Maybe the killer instinct is evolving. Memphis won Games 3 and 4 last round against the Clippers to tie it up and then closed it out at home in Game 6. A win tonight would put the Grizzlies in position to eliminate the Thunder in Game 5 on Wednesday and catch a rest while the San Antonio-Golden State series is set to go at least six games.

“We’re taking it one day at a time, that’s been the motto since Day 1,” Tony Allen said. “We’re not looking back towards [two years ago]. We’re thinking about what’s now, what’s ahead. The better we’re focused, the more we can be engaged of what they’re trying to do, looking at their adjustments, the better we are.”

Marc Gasol, taking nothing for granted, said: “The series is just starting.”

Thunder Getting Desperate To Provide Durant Help


.

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.”

The Grindhouse: Created By A Team, Now Embraced By A City And Its People

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Still alive and rocking is Loud City, the Roaracle, a classic in the Garden and while it’s not old Chicago Stadium, the United Center crowd takes no prisoners.

Moving up the list of loudest NBA playoff arenas, if not yet documented as one of the toughest to snare a road win: The Grindhouse.

Otherwise known by its corporate moniker, the FedExForum, The Grindhouse is unlike the romper rooms of Chesapeake Arena, aka Loud City, in Oklahoma City, and Golden State’s Oracle Arena, redubbed Roaracle for its altered game-day state of delirium.

The Memphis Grizzlies’ home gym didn’t derive its horror-flick nickname from the deafening screams of a zealous fandom. The Grindhouse was born from the team’s sweat-and-blood, grit-n-grind style and bequeathed by Memphis guard Tony Allen, the ultimate grit-n-grind Grizzly.

Yet, with each passing playoff game and series — just ask the hated Los Angeles Clippers — The Grindhouse name has also become representative of the team’s fans and the atmosphere they create inside the joint. There was a time when crowds only packed the Forum for their beloved University of Memphis basketball.

Ever-so-slowly, that is changing. Memphis’ roster, with players like Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who attended high school in the city when his brother Pau Gasol led the first playoff Grizz teams, as well as coach Lionel Hollins are also emblematic of this Southern city and its citizens, making it an easy team for the people to identify with and appreciate as their own.

As a former Memphis Tigers assistant coach said this week of this town on the banks of the Mississippi: “Memphis is a grinding, gritty city of blue-collar people.”

When the Thunder enter The Grindhouse Saturday afternoon for Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) of this semifinal series tied 1-1, they’ll face the Grizzlies and a sellout-crowd of 18,119, the 14th consecutive home playoff sellout going back to the 2010 season when Memphis upset top-seeded San Antonio and then lost to the Thunder in seven heart-stopping games.

Game 4 on Monday night is almost certain to make it 15 in a row. Only a few hundred tickets remain, a Grizzlies official said Friday night.

Grizzlies fans will be there in force and wildly waving yellow rally towels as they did for three games against the Clippers, the team that demoralized the city a year ago with a miraculous Game 1 comeback and then a Game 7 victory in The Grindhouse. It spawned an atmosphere of vengeance this time around with the feel of a WWE asylum on steroids.

Saturday’s Grindhouse crowd won’t have forgotten 2011′s seven-game semifinal loss to OKC and especially the Thunder’s triple-overtime Game 4 win on the Grizzlies’ floor.

“They came into our building and got a win,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the Grizzlies’ Game 2 equalizer Tuesday that stunned and silenced Loud City. “Now we have to go into their building and get a win. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.

“It is going to be tough.”

Around the Bay Area, the refrain reminds of the “We Believe” Warriors of 2007, the eighth-seeded squad that knocked off the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Oracle Arena was just as nuts then and is known for its lunacy even when the Warriors stink.

In Memphis, this certainly is no longer 2006. Pau might not recognize the place that little brother Marc has helped to cultivate. That was the year the Grizzlies suffered a third-consecutive first-round sweep. The Grizzlies’ Game 3 overtime loss against Dallas didn’t sell out and Game 4, a 102-76 thumping, officially drew 15,104, but that number most certainly was inflated as section after section of the upper bowl sat empty.

This season marked the best in franchise history with 56 wins despite Hollins working on the final year of his contract, plus the initially controversial trade of Rudy Gay and an earlier trade that shook up the Grizzlies’ bench. There are season-ticket holders that complain that these days Grizzlies fans don’t show up until the playoffs.

They have a point. Memphis ranked 19th of 30 teams this season in attendance, averaging 16,624 per home game. Of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs, only the Indiana Pacers drew fewer fans (15,269). The Grizzlies played to 91.8 percent capacity, 17th in the league. By comparison, the Thunder ranked 12th in the league in attendance (18,203), but were at 100 percent capacity.

Still, Memphis’ situation has improved drastically since the franchise moved to Memphis from Vancouver for the 2001-02 season. For most of the decade it ranked in the bottom five in attendance.

This is known: The Grindhouse will rock-n-roll on Saturday. But as Memphis fans know, they can only deliver the insanity. Remember at the start of the playoffs when all the talk was about the home teams winning? It didn’t last long. Three of the eight teams that advanced to the second round did not have homecourt advantage — Golden State, Chicago and, yes, Memphis.

After two games in each second-round series, all four were knotted up. If more proof is needed that the loudest, most fiendish home crowds can’t guarantee victory, then check out what happened Friday night at Roaracle. Or Tuesday inside the Thunder’s own bubble called Loud City.

More to come Saturday at The Grindhouse.

Jackson’s Challenging Crash Course

 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Reggie Jackson is on the accelerated learning program. It did not come by design.

In the course of his sophomore season, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was twice sent to the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League in December after averaging 6.9 mpg in 14 games with OKC, and came back and beat out Eric Maynor (eventually traded to Portland) for the right to back up Russell Westbrook.

“When you’re playing behind an All-Star point guard, the minutes are tough,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But we somehow managed to give him 15, 16 minutes a game.”

Those minutes, mostly all spent directing the second unit, are invaluable now as Jackson has stepped into the unenviable role as the injured Westbrook’s replacement, logging more than 30 pressurized playoff minutes a game.

Jackson’s task is to lead the Thunder offense, seek a balance between being an aggressive playmaker and driving to the paint, feeding — and also getting out of the way of — MVP runner-up Kevin Durant, defending Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley and not melting in the glare of the postseason klieg lights.

Jackson’s studying more film and being coached harder. The three-day break between Games 2 and 3 in this semifinal series, knotted up at 1-1, might have been most beneficial for Jackson as he processes information from multiple angles and sources.

“Oh yeah, Coach Westbrook is doing a good job, watching the game, observing,” Jackson said, breaking into a smile. “He’s definitely on me a lot about pedal-to-the-metal and just trying to make plays for others and myself, try to take the load off Kevin.”

Yep, pedal-to-the-metal sounds like Westbrook. Of the many injured stars out of the playoffs, perhaps none is as uniquely dynamic for their squad as Westbrook is for the Thunder. He’s the bullet-train engine that powers OKC’s high-paced offense and keeps defenses backpedaling with powerful bursts up the floor and a pogo-stick, pull-up jumper. His active perimeter defense can be equally as fierce.

“I’m definitely talking to Reggie a lot more, but I also want him to learn and get better,” Westbrook said Thursday during his first public appearance since undergoing knee surgery on April 27. “You don’t want to tell a guy to go out there and do all these different things, you kind of want him to learn, and it’s a learning process for him as well as for me.”

And so, arguably, none of the players filling in for injured stars are being asked to fill quite the vacuum as the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Jackson.

That grand-canyon sized leap he’s making from hold-the-fort reserve to starting  point guard on a team with championship aspirations is intense and potentially mind-spinning. That it came with little time for Jackson and the team to absorb the full magnitude of Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury, to indoctrinate Jackson into the starting lineup and for Brooks to tweak his rotation, is a tremendous challenge. Fortunately for the Thunder, 38-year-old Derek Fisher, signed in late February, has been hot off the bench, easing some of Jackson’s burden.

“I had 24 hours, that’s good enough,” said Jackson, the 24th pick in the 2011 draft out of Boston College. “But it’s basketball. Remember, I started at some point in my career. I understand that coach trusts me, obviously, enough to play me in this moment and to take a new role. He sees something in me; my teammates do, they’re always on me, encouraging me, so I just got to go out there and have fun and just play basketball.”

Jackson, who said his name bears no lineage or linkage to baseball’s Mr. October — which could have come in handy in this situation — is averaging 30.9 mpg in the playoffs, more than doubling his 14.2 regular-season minutes. He averaged 21.0 mpg in the first two playoff games with Westbrook playing, and 31.2 mpg as a starter. He took 11 shots in the first two games. He’s averaging 11.6 since.

He averaged 14.0 ppg in the six games against the Rockets and shot a healthy 46.2 percent from the field. He has produced six consecutive double-digit scoring games. However, against the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense, Jackson has found the space on the floor shrinking and multiple, wide-body blockades in the paint, two vast differences from playing the wide-open, up-tempo Rockets. He’s averaged 11.0 ppg on 43.8 percent shooting against Memphis.

“He just has to play within what his capabilities are,” Brooks said. “If there’s openings, he has to attack. If he has that in transition, great. If he has that in the halfcourt, great. I think he is better when he does attack, he’s a great finisher around the rim.”

And then there’s the other end of the floor. Under normal circumstances, Westbrook and Conley would be facing off in a fascinating duel, and Jackson would mostly be sticking to the streaky shooting Jerryd Bayless. But now the sixth-year and ever-improving Conley, who has juiced his stats to 17.9 ppg and 7.8 apg in the playoffs, is Jackson’s responsibility.

The youngster took Conley’s explosive fourth quarter in Game 2 that nearly netted him a triple-double and pushed the Grizzlies to a 99-93 victory, as a personal affront.

“I can’t let that happen again,” Jackson said. “I feel that great players always take things personal, their matchups, and since Day 1, I always said that I want to be great. I have to do a better job of slowing him down and not let the head of the snake bite us next game.”