2013 Conference Semis: Thunder-Grizzlies

Upbeat Westbrook Says He’ll Return A Better, Smarter Player

.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook typically ranks talking with reporters right up there with, oh say, having knee surgery. But on Thursday morning, in his first appearance since undergoing season-ending knee surgery 12 days ago to repair a meniscus tear, Westbrook was disarmingly charming, open, honest and remarkably upbeat for a player who had never missed a game and now must sit out what was to be a charge back to The Finals.

The All-Star point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder might be out, but he said his teammates can still get there.

“They’re tough, man,” Westbrook said. “The group of guys we have, I think we have enough to get a ring. Honest opinion.”

Westbrook will remain on crutches for up to a month and he won’t be able to travel with the team to Memphis as the semifinal series tied at 1-1 shifts to Memphis for Games 3 and 4 starting on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).

He has begun daily limited rehab. He wears a brace that runs nearly the entire length of his right leg. It keeps him off the bench during games, but Westbrook has remained a constant presence around the team. He’s still attending practices, watching film and spending time in the locker room before games and during halftime.

He’s more a fan when seated high above the court in a suite, and then a coach when he heads to the locker room talk to second-year guard Reggie Jackson, his replacement, or to Kevin Durant, his superstar teammate now charged with so much responsibility.

“It hurts me not to be able to go out there and help my team,” Westbrook said. “Even though I’m out, I still have a voice and I can still help my team, still find a way where I can communicate things to guys. Maybe they don’t listen, maybe they do, but I still can use my voice and try to find a way to help my team.

“As a point guard and a leader of this team, my job is to find a way where I can help my teammates, coaching staff and the organization. They’ve been a big supporter of me and my job is to give it back, help them as much as I can with my input.”

Westbrook said the most surreal moment of the past two weeks was awakening from surgery, the first of his career, laying in a hospital bed with his mom by his side, disoriented, his knee immobile. The event that put him in that position occurred just before halftime of Game 2 in the first round series against Houston. (more…)

Going Small Key For OKC & Golden State?

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — With each of the four conference semifinals tied at 1-1 (for the first time since this round went to seven games in 1968), it’s a great time to mine the lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats for trends, anomalies, and whatever information might be useful … or at least interesting.

The eight teams remaining have only played between six and nine games, so we’re not looking at very big sample sizes here. But small sample sizes are all you have to go on in the playoffs. Decisions have to be made on how players or player combinations have played in that series and against that opponent. Even if you include numbers against the opponent in the regular season, that’s at most four additional games of data.

We’ve already seen some of these teams change lineups mid-series. And sometimes, like when the Dallas Mavericks decided to start J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a lineup change can make a big difference.

So, as we take our first day off of the playoffs, here are some notes from 53 games worth of postseason lineup data…

The drop-off in Indiana
The most-used lineup of the playoffs should be no surprise. The Pacers’ starting lineup of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert have been getting it done on both ends of the floor and were a terrific lineup in the regular season as well. Though Indy ranked 19th defensively overall, this lineup scored at a rate that would have ranked fourth, playing the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league.

It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.

Indy coach Frank Vogel talks often about his emphasis on defending without fouling. That’s key to not only keep the Pacers’ opponents off the line, but also to keep their starters on the floor.

Over their eight playoff games, every Pacer starter has a positive plus-minus and every sub has a negative one. So maybe the Pacers can benefit as much from three days off as the banged up Knicks can, with an ability to use their rested starters for heavy minutes in Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

Time for OKC to go small?
Setting a minimum of 35 minutes played, the best lineup (offensively, *defensively and overall) of the postseason has been Oklahoma City’s small lineup of Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. This unit of two point guards, two scoring wings, and a versatile big has outscored its opponents by 46.5 points per 100 possessions and had its best run in Game 6 in Houston, outscoring the Rockets 31-20 in 14 minutes. It was a plus-7 in seven minutes of Game 1 against the bigger Grizzlies, but Scott Brooks didn’t use it at all in Game 2 on Tuesday.

If you remove Nick Collison and just look at the four smalls together, they’ve been just as effective (OffRtg: 130.2, DefRtg: 80.9, NetRtg: +49.3) in a slightly larger sample of 51 minutes (43 against Houston and eight against Memphis).

With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have other small-lineup options. And thus far against the Grizzlies, they’re a plus-13 in 14 minutes playing small. They’re a minus-17 in 82 minutes playing big and their starting lineup (Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has shot a brutal 13-for-47 (28 percent) in its 28 minutes together.

That, of course, will be something to keep an eye on as the series heads to Memphis for Saturday’s Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).

*The best defensive lineup with a minimum of 35 minutes played was actually the Thunder’s original starting lineup, which allowed the Rockets to score just 73.1 points per 100 possessions in the first two games of the first round. But Russell Westbrook‘s injury puts that lineup out of commission.

Small works in the other West series too
Both Gregg Popovich and Mark Jackson changed their starting lineups for Game 2 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moves that worked out better for the Warriors. Their (small) lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is a plus-17 in the series (plus-12 in Game 2), the second-best mark of the conference semifinals thus far.

It was a mini lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw that pulled off the Spurs’ amazing comeback on Monday, racking up a plus-13 in 10 minutes over the fourth quarter and two overtimes. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter healthy, Popovich didn’t use that lineup at all in Game 2.

Supersubs in Chicago
Obviously, Wednesday’s blowout in Miami makes for some funky lineup numbers in that series, but the Bulls do have a lineup – Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah – that’s a plus-14 over the two games (plus-13 in 16 minutes in Game 1 and plus-1 in three minutes in Game 2). It was a plus-7 in 21 minutes in the first round and was a strong plus-20.3 points per 100 possessions in 129 minutes in the regular season. If Kirk Hinrich and/or Luol Deng return for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be interesting to see how much time that lineup plays together going forward.

A change of fortune in Miami
The Heat had a killer lineup – Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that Erik Spoelstra used rather sparingly (only 112 minutes), but outscored its opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. That lineup was a plus-12 in 10 minutes in the first round against Milwaukee, but is a minus-13 in six minutes in the conference semis, having allowed the Bulls to shoot 6-for-9 (3-for-3 from 3-point range) in the closing minutes of Game 1.

Offensive struggles in New York
The best offensive lineup in the regular season (minimum 200 minutes) was the Knicks’ lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, which scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes together. With Kidd, Smith and Anthony all struggling, that unit has scored just 86.6 points per 100 possessions in 18 playoff minutes, and has been even worse defensively.

Thunder Big Men Must Make More Noise

.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Seven-foot-1 Marc Gasol sat at his locker, both knees buried under a mountain of ice wrapped in plastic as bruise-brother Zach Randolph slowly made his way to the showers, teetering from side to side as if walking on wooden pirate legs.

Yes, the bludgeoning has begun in this anticipated battle between a half-ton of big men. The Memphis Grizzlies’ old-school duo (and inarguably the craftiest low-post offensive tandem going) are so far doling out the type of punishment that has to be concerning for Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks and his defensive-minded tandem of Serge Ibaka and the ever-scowling, always-scrutinized Kendrick Perkins as this series, tied 1-1, moves to Memphis’ Grindhouse.

This matchup has yet to devolve into the dislike and sumo-wrestling tactics seen in the first round when Randolph battled Los Angeles Clippers nemesis Blake Griffin. But Randolph stressed that nothing has come easy in attaining his and Gasol’s impressive totals through two games: 38.5 ppg on 29-for-55 shooting (52.7 percent), 16.5 rpg and 6.0 apg.

“We’re just playing hard. I’m trying to stay away from that,” Randolph said, referring to the extracurricular activity between he and Griffin. “I’m just trying to play my game, play physical. I’m not trying to get into no altercation, ain’t trying to be like last series, me and Blake, just trying to go out and play.”

And for an extra tweak aimed at the vacationing Griffin, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph said this of the Thunder’s combo of Ibaka and Perkins:

“They are tough. They’re tougher than the Clippers — Ibaka and Perkins — they’re tougher than Blake. So yeah, they’re tough and they’re strong.”

In Tuesday’s Game 2, when Kevin Durant did everything imaginable and it still wasn’t enough, he was asked to take a turn defending the 265-pound Gasol. That strategy that backfired as Gasol scored seven of his 17 first-half points in a span of 96 seconds that flipped a 39-35 Thunder lead into a 45-42 deficit.

Late in the third quarter, Ibaka and Perkins each sat with four fouls, halting what might have been their best defensive quarter. Perkins held Gasol without a shot attempt until heading to the bench with about three minutes left, and Randolph scored four points on two shot attempts.

Down 54-51 at halftime, OKC managed a 74-69 lead after three.

But the fouls kept Ibaka, who has 10 rebounds and six blocks in the series, on the bench from the 4:29 mark of the third to 8:40 of the fourth as Memphis surged. Perkins sat out until the final 3:03 of the game when reserve forward-center Nick Collison fouled out. Perkins also drew the wrath home fans during that third quarter after bumbling plays where he couldn’t convert offensive rebounds and clumsily threw away two other possessions. (more…)

Mature Conley Coolly Leads Grizz, Ties Series


.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike Conley might still have that smile of a schoolboy, but the Memphis Grizzlies point guard now has the courage of a warrior.

In years past, Conley might mot have taken the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:58 to go. He might have passed on the jumper over 6-foot-7 defender Thabo Sefolosha with 1:04 left that hit nothing but net. But this is Conley now: calm and cool when his team must have it.

“That’s how he’s grown as a player,” teammate Zach Randolph said following Memphis’ 99-93 Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that tied the Western Conference semifinal at 1-1 with three days off before Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis.

Only moments earlier during a fantastic fourth quarter that boasted five ties and five lead changes in a game that had 27 in all, Kevin Durant looked to be composing yet another masterpiece. He was closing in on his first career playoff triple-double and OKC was nearing a 2-0 series lead, a mere two nights after he sank the game-winner with 11.1 seconds to go.

Neither would come to pass.

Durant missed his final three shots and lost the ball with less than a minute to play, with Memphis leading 94-90. Bulldog defender Tony Allen, who said he finally got paired up on Durant in Game 2 out of desperation, stepped back instead of putting his body on Durant as he turned his back to the basket to gain leverage on the smaller Allen. Durant lost his balance, fell to the floor and lost the ball.

“That was just a last-minute thought in my head,” Allen said. “I just thought it would work and I was fortunate enough for it to work.”

Durant finished with 36 points, nine assists, 11 rebounds and five turnovers in 43 minutes. Without Russell Westbrook, Durant’s fingerprints are everywhere as he brings the ball up the floor and sets the attack or calls for the ball almost as quickly as point guard Reggie Jackson crosses mid-court.

ESPN Stats & Info tweeted out a telling stat after the game: Durant has averaged 264 dribbles per game since Westbrook’s injury. His season average was 134. Thunder forward-center Nick Collison was asked if Durant has to do too much in crunch time: “I mean, what are we going to do?” Collison said.

Durant certainly was in control until it slipped away late. He started the fourth quarter 4-for-4, but ended it 0-for-3. Meanwhile, the quiet Conley drained five of six shots for 13 points in the quarter. He finished with 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting, nine assists and 10 rebounds.

Allen, perhaps Conley’s biggest fan, took responsibility for the missed triple-double with his errant attempt from under the bucket after Conley had secured an offensive rebound with 1:23 to go.

“I’ve been saying it for a long time, he’s up-and-coming,” Allen said. “Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league whether anybody likes it or not. I know a lot of people got their favorites and who they think should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now. He’s able to do these things on the court night-in and night-out.”

On this night his performance was huge. A 2-0 deficit is not the end of the series — the Grizzlies proved that last round when Conley and Co. took down Chris Paul and the Clippers in four straight after falling into the 0-2 hole — but it’s not the way anybody wants to go about a series with the West finals at stake.

Conley’s 26 points tied his regular-season high. So did his 11 field goals. His season-best rebounding game was seven. Conley got that number in the fourth quarter alone.

He’s scored at least 20 points in these playoffs four times, has dished out at least nine assists four times and has put up three double-doubles. And it’s the second time now he’s rebounded from an otherwise dull night with a big effort.

On Tuesday, Conley, just 25 and in his sixth season with Memphis, was aggressive, streaking into the lane and finding teammates. And with the Thunder sagging down heavily to defend Marc Gasol and Randolph, Conley took the jumpers afforded him.

Having already dispatched Paul in the first round, and with the injured Westbrook watching from high above in a suite, Conley is taking control.

“I didn’t come in looking at it like that. I came in looking at if that what I need to do for our team to win, I’ll do it,” Conley said. “If I have to score, I’ll score. I have to be a facilitator, I’ll do that. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win.”

Defensive Specialists Allen, Sefolosha In Unfamiliar Spots

OKLAHOMA CITY — The most intriguing chess match for the two coaches in this second-round series isn’t about big vs. small, but how to best utilize their defensive stopper. In Game 1, Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha and Memphis’ Tony Allen were like two fish out of water.

Normally charged with checking the opposition’s most dangerous scorer, Allen and Sefolosha are stuck guarding each other in this series, which resumes with tonight’s Game 2 at Chesapeake Arena (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Allen would typically be hounding Russell Westbrook, but he’s out of the playoffs following knee surgery to repair a meniscus tear. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins has already said he will no longer play his 6-foot-4 grinder on Kevin Durant, whose long frame is stronger than a few years ago, allowing Durant to punish Allen on the post.

Durant is Tayshaun Prince‘s responsibility, and went mostly without the aid of a double-team in Game 1. So Allen, one of the top on-ball defenders in the league, is left to guard Sefolosha, a good corner and wing 3-point shooter, but easily the Thunder’s fourth or fifth option even with Westbrook out. Sefolosha played just 18 minutes in Game 1, scored four points and missed his lone 3-point attempt after averaging 4.6 attempts from beyond the arc in the first-round series against Houston.

“It is kind of odd because you know there’s not really a prolific scorer in my size range,” Allen said. “But it’s about the Grizzlies playing a better game than the Thunder. We’ve got to keep that mindset. But whatever he [Hollins] wants me to do on the defensive end, I’m willing to fill that void.”

The logical maneuver then is to put Allen on sixth man Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting and got to the free-throw line seven times in OKC’s 93-91 Game 1 victory. But because Allen starts and Martin comes off the bench, pairing the two can be tricky. Hollins played Allen just 20 minutes in Game 1 and he was on the floor with Martin, who logged 32 minutes, for all of seven minutes.

“They are different without Russell Westbrook,” Allen said. “The last game I was trying to float because I didn’t really know who to key in and lock into. Kevin Martin comes off the bench and I’m starting; when I come out he’s coming in so that’s kind of tough. But we got our feet wet in Game 1. Now it’s Game 2, we know what to expect without Westbrook, we know who are their main characters now and we have to do a better job on Martin, obviously, and you know, not let [Derek] Fisher get so many big-time timely shots, and just try to do a better job on those other guys.”

It wasn’t too unlike Game 1 in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers for Allen. He played 17 minutes while Jerryd Bayless got bumped up for offensive purposes and had to guard Clippers sixth man Jamal Crawford. In Game 2, Allen logged 39 minutes and he averaged 30.5 mpg in the final four games.

So Allen figures to be on the court much more tonight and he must take advantage of the loose defense Sefolosha played on him in Game 1 to knock down open looks (Allen was 1-for-5 from the floor for three points) and use the open space to chase rebounds.

“He’s barely even sticking me,” Allen said.

That’s because Sefolosha is more concerned with dropping down and helping big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins defend Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Allen can alter that strategy by making baskets, which in turn helps to free up Memphis’ talented big men.

“My focus is to help the bigs,” Sefolosha said. “Help them rebound, help them get in a situation where Zach and Marc Gasol can’t get too deep in the paint, so basically helping off a little bit. But at the same time, Tony does a lot of good things without the ball and I have to be aware of where he is on the court.”

Pondexter Deals With Missed FT, Criticism

a


a
OKLAHOMA CITY —
What did a deflated Quincy Pondexter do to shake off a crucial missed free throw with 1.6 seconds left in Sunday’s Game 1 followed by an endless barrage of R-rated — and downright shameful — Twitter criticism that followed?

He went out to dinner with teammates and saw Iron Man 3, rated PG-13.

“I was telling him we’re built for this situation,” Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said after Monday’s practice. “We’re built to handle the negative, we’re built to handle the positive and I think he should be proud of how he played and all the effort he’s given us. Because I’d much rather have him in the game than sitting on the bench.”

Pondexter has had a productive postseason with four double-digit scoring games in the last five. He was set up to be the unsung hero of Sunday’s eventual 93-91 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second-round series opener. He already had 12 points and three 3-pointers, including a halfcourt heave to end the third quarter that put a temporary stop to the momentum shift that favored the Thunder.

But with 1.6 seconds left in the game and OKC leading 93-90, Pondexter, positioned at the left wing beyond the arc, got the ball and went up with the potential game-tying shot only to be inexplicably swiped on the arm by young Thunder guard Reggie Jackson. The third-year Grizzlies forward went to the line for three free throws.

He missed the first, effectively ending the game. After it he took to Twitter to take responsibility:

https://twitter.com/QuincyPondexter/status/331148976176898050

But that didn’t stop the immediate and vitriolic knee-jerk tweets that piled upon Pondexter and ignored the numerous opportunities the Grizzlies lost, including Conley being stripped from behind by Derek Fisher with 20 seconds to go and Marc Gasol‘s errant pass with less than five seconds to go.

“It’s part of the job,” Pondexter said after Monday’s practice on the Thunder’s home floor. “I just use it as motivation. It’s not the first time people have told me stuff like that it won’t be the last probably. You just got to take it all in stride and move on from it, and I’m going to be a lot better person and player from it.”

Pondexter even retweeted some of the nastier comments.

“I probably just retweeted because I was angry at the time. It was a tough situation,” Pondexter said. “Just to say, ‘You know what, I’m taking it all in stride.’ I probably think the same about myself of what those people were thinking.”

Athletes must have short memories no matter how difficult social media might make that these days. Pondexter said he’s ready for Game 2 on Tuesday night when the Grizzlies will try to even the series before heading back to Memphis for Games 3 and 4.

“People will remember the end of the game. I know I remember the end of it; I won’t forget it for the rest of my life,” Pondexter said. “I’m a tough kid, man. I’m as tough as any kid, and no matter what, nothing like that is going to ever break me down. So I’m looking forward to getting back on the court and if I get another pressure situation like that again, I’m going to knock it down.”

Out Of Funk, Kevin Martin Finds A Flow

.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Martin was in a deep funk and the pressure, bearing down on him from multiple angles, was starting to crush him.

For one, Martin had sat on the postseason sidelines since 2006 when he was a 23-year-old, third-year scorer for the Sacramento Kings, so his adrenaline raced to overload levels as he started the 2013 playoffs for the title-contending Oklahoma City Thunder. Two games in and Russell Westbrook tears his meniscus and is declared out for the remainder of the playoffs, instantly and drastically altering Martin’s role from a sixth-man spot-up shooter.

His burden, though drove much deeper. He was matched up against his old team, the Houston Rockets, and the first-time All-Star he was traded for, James Harden, a beloved figure during his three seasons with Oklahoma City. Failure here would be personally damaging and very likely make for an abbreviated stay with OKC when he becomes a free agent this summer.

Martin is an unrecognizable 17-for-69 from the field through the first give games, 9-for-32 in the first three games without Westbrook and 1-for-10 in a Game 5 home loss that brought the Rockets from down 3-0 to 3-2 with Game 6 in Houston. Martin seemed zapped of confidence and to be losing the battle against himself.

“I think it was all the above,” Martin said. “I hadn’t been to the playoffs in a while. I didn’t know what to expect when I was 23, I was just a kid and I was out there running around as really the sixth or seventh option on that Sacramento team. And then being in the series with Houston, I got a lot of friends over there and had some good years there. It was just an emotional series all the way around.”

Then came Game 6 on his former home court and Martin sprung to life. He started becoming aggressive, becoming playmaker again, slashing, cutting, driving off the dribble, getting to the rim and the free throw line. He dropped 25 points on Houston as the Thunder surged ahead in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to move into the semifinals.

On Sunday, Martin did it again, scoring 25 points to help the Thunder to a 1-0 lead in their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Consider the difference: In the first five games against Houston, Martin made just five field goals and went to the free throw line 17 times. In the last two games, he has nine field goals (15-for-27 overall and 6-for-10 beyond the arc) plus 15 free throw attempts. He’s getting in the paint and making the opposition pay.

“Throughout the year I knew my role, I had to be that third-leading scorer beside K.D. [Kevin Durant] and Russ,” Martin said. “And now I need to be that second option. That’s just what the team needs out of me and that’s what I’ll do.”

Martin’s Game 1 production — 8-for-14 from the field, 3-for-5 from 3-point range and 6-for-7 from the free throw line — will force Memphis coach Lionel Hollins to reassess his decision to largely allow Martin to roam without defensive specialist Tony Allen guarding him.

Allen played less than 21 minutes in Game 1 and fewer than seven minutes came with Martin on the floor. And during a three-minute stint in the second quarter when Martin scored 15 of OKC’s 33 points, he burned Allen backdoor for an and-1 layup and then buried a 3-pointer.

During the season with Westbrook in the lineup, Martin’s shooting often told the story of OKC’s outcomes. When he scored in double-digits, the Thunder largely won. And when he didn’t, they struggled, particularly against playoff teams. Now it’s a question of consistency. Martin won’t average 25 points as he has in the last two games, but for OKC to beat Memphis — and beyond — he must continue to be a multidimensional playmaker and shoot at a high percentage.

“We want him to move. He’s our best mover,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “We don’t run an offense for him to stand around in the corner, but he has to do that at times because we have some other dynamic players. But I thought his effort, moving and cutting and allowing himself to get easy shots and get to the free throw line, that’s his game.”

Durant Wins It, But Not Without Help


.

OKLAHOMA CITY — News that All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook would miss the entire playoffs rippled across the NBA like an earthquake tremor. The epicenter was Oklahoma City where the shock was sudden and the aftermath is fueling new opportunities for a team that still aspires to win it all.

“It was kind of a gut-punch initially that day at practice, and the whole day you could tell guys were disappointed and down,” reserve forward-center Nick Collison said. “Of course we’re at a deep disadvantage without him, but I don’t think we work that way really. We do a good job of seeing what’s right in front of us.”

As the Memphis Grizzlies frustratingly discovered on Sunday afternoon, count out the Thunder at your own peril. Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on its own home floor, rallying from 12 down late in the third quarter to take a 93-91 decision on a go-ahead, pull-up jumper by Mr. Clutch, Kevin Durant, with 11.1 seconds to go.

“My teammates did a great job of setting me up all game,” Durant said. “I missed some easy ones, some chippies, and I was able to hit that one.”

Let the box score show Durant with a game-high 35 points on 13-for-26 shooting, 15 rebounds, six assists, a couple blocked shots and a steal in 44 exhaustive, mandatory minutes. Yet the opportunity for OKC’s Big One to put his team ahead for good was supplied, as much of the Thunder’s gusto on this day was, from role players coming up big in Westbrook’s absence.

As OKC continues to adjust and tweak on the fly, it is discovering what lies beneath.

They’re finding a resilient Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points, 15 in a critical second-quarter stand when OKC scored 33 points without Durant attempting a shot. Martin’s game, which also included a season-high seven rebounds and a late fourth-quarter swat of Quincy Pondexter in the lane, came on the heels of scoring 26 in the clincher at Houston after being left for dead and his OKC future being questioned, following his Game 5 stinker.

Derek Fisher proved he can still bring it in the clutch at age 38, hitting both of his 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the first to start the period with OKC down nine. Then he’s making the defensive play of the game with 20 seconds to go, stripping driving Memphis guard Mike Conley from behind just before he can ascend to the rim and triggering a rush the other way for Durant’s big bucket.

The moment once again didn’t swallow second-year guard Reggie Jackson, who starts in place of Westbrook but watched from the bench while Fisher played down the stretch until the final possession when Memphis had to foul with 3.5 seconds to go — a sequence set up by Thabo Sefolosha’s deflection of an errant Marc Gasol pass. Jackson calmly sank both free throws, as he did against Houston, to make it 93-90 with 1.6 seconds left.

Fisher and Jackson totaled 20 points with a couple of assists and just one turnover. Conley, coming off a big series going toe-to-toe with All-Star Chris Paul, finished with 13 points, three assists and two turnovers. The final one cost Memphis the game.

“We got a nice little flow going right now,” Martin said. “I think we settled in, realizing that we’re not going to have Russell, and guys are stepping up.”

How about Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who absorbs criticism at times for stubbornly sticking to lineups? When he deployed a small unit for the first time in the game as he sensed it getting away at 70-58 with 1:57 left in the third quarter, the momentum shifted drastically in OKC’s favor. A 15-5 run — with three of the Grizzlies’ points coming on Pondexter’s halfcourt heave at the end of the third — cut Memphis’ lead to 75-73 with 10:10 to play.

And his trust in Durant to take the turnover created by Fisher’s poke of Conley uninterrupted by a timeout proved masterful. The ball came to Durant who pushed it up at his coach’s insistence. With Memphis trying to get back, Durant pulled up from 19 and banged it home.

It was a game the resolute Thunder could have lost and one the Grizzlies believe they should have won.

“I feel like we gave it away, honestly,” said Zach Randolph, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds.

But that’s not giving the Thunder enough credit. OKC’s big men, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, were atrocious offensively, going 2-for-16 from the floor, and Perkins nearly blew OKC’s chance altogether when Durant’s routine inbounds pass slipped through his hands, leaving Durant rolling his eyes and Memphis with the ball up 90-87 and 1:07 to go.

But the Thunder’s inside duo made Memphis’ Randolph and Gasol pay a physical price in the paint. Perkins played 34 minutes, the most of OKC’s starters other than Durant, and played big in holding the inside-oriented Grizzlies to just 32 points in the paint and four second-chance points on eight total offensive rebounds.

It wasn’t always pretty — OKC missed its first 10 shots and scored 31 points in the first and third quarters combined — and it won’t be the rest of the way. But in taking Game 1, the Thunder, down a star, are coming up with alternatives.

“We know what Russell brings to our team,” Brooks said. “He’s an amazing player and an incredible leader that has been missed, there’s no doubt. But we’ve changed in different ways. We’re different, but we’re still a good team and on both ends of the floor we present problems.”