Posts Tagged ‘Memphis Grizzlies’

Relaxing amid urgency, Durant gets bonus 48 minutes — Game 7 vs. Grizz

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: OKC rolls over Memphis to force Game 7

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.

VIDEO: Durant, Westbrook discuss Game 6 win


Credit Grizzlies for contesting Thunder

By John Schuhmann,

VIDEO: Mike Miller and Russell Westbrook duel in Game 5

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Oklahoma City Thunder rank first in postseason defensive efficiency, having allowed the Memphis Grizzlies to score just 99.1 points per 100 possessions. But the Grizzlies were the worst offensive team among Western Conference playoff teams. The 99.1 points per 100 possessions they’ve scored through five games is 4.2 fewer than they scored in the regular season.

The Thunder’s efficiency, meanwhile, has dropped off twice as much, making it clear that the Grizzlies have been the better defensive team in the series.

Biggest drop-off, regular season to playoff OffRtg

Team Reg. season Rank Playoffs Rank Diff.
Oklahoma City 108.1 7 99.7 14 -8.4
Memphis 103.3 16 99.1 16 -4.2
San Antonio 108.2 6 105.7 7 -2.5
Charlotte 101.2 24 99.6 15 -1.6
Atlanta 103.4 15 101.9 11 -1.5
Dallas 109.0 3 107.5 5 -1.4
Toronto 105.8 9 104.7 10 -1.1
Golden State 105.3 12 105.2 8 -0.1
Indiana 101.5 22 101.5 12 -0.1
Chicago 99.7 28 100.4 13 +0.7
Miami 109.0 2 109.8 4 +0.7
Washington 103.3 18 104.8 9 +1.5
Houston 108.6 4 110.4 3 +1.7
Brooklyn 104.4 14 106.3 6 +1.9
L.A. Clippers 109.4 1 111.9 2 +2.5
Portland 108.3 5 112.5 1 +4.2

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

Using the same method, the Clippers have been the best offensive team in the playoffs, scoring 12.0 more points per 100 possessions (111.9) than the Warriors allowed in the regular season (99.9).

The Thunder have also had the biggest change in pace from the regular season. At 90.5 possessions per team per 48 minutes, the series has been played even slower than the Grizzlies’ pace of 92.2, which was the slowest in the regular season.

A look at OKC’s offensive numbers show that it’s all about the shooting. They’ve gone to the line a little less frequently than they did in the regular season, but they’ve rebounded better and turned the ball over less.

And SportVU helps us understand why their shooting numbers have suffered so much. Only 49 percent of the Thunder’s jump shots have been uncontested, down from 63 percent in the regular season. The other 15 teams have been uncontested on 67 percent of their jump shots.

Biggest drop-off, percentage of jump shots uncontested

Team Reg. season Playoffs Diff.
Oklahoma City 62.7% 48.6% -14.1%
Houston 74.7% 67.5% -7.2%
Golden State 68.4% 61.3% -7.1%
Charlotte 66.2% 60.2% -6.0%
Miami 76.1% 70.7% -5.4%
Chicago 69.3% 64.0% -5.3%
Dallas 62.7% 58.1% -4.6%
Atlanta 75.4% 71.5% -3.9%
L.A. Clippers 71.0% 68.6% -2.4%
Toronto 60.4% 58.4% -2.0%
Portland 68.6% 67.0% -1.6%
Washington 72.7% 72.2% -0.5%
Brooklyn 65.3% 66.3% +1.0%
San Antonio 74.3% 76.1% +1.8%
Indiana 70.1% 72.3% +2.2%
Memphis 74.0% 77.4% +3.4%

Jump shot = FGA from outside 10 feet
Uncontested = Where a defender is not within four feet of the shooter.

According to SportVU, Kevin Durant (64 of his 89 total jumpers) has taken 20 more contested jumpers than any other player in the postseason. Next on the list is Russell Westbrook (44 of his 81).

Scott Brooks needs to find a way to get his star more open, but credit the Memphis defense, which has been far better than any other D in the playoffs so far, and which can put the Grizzlies into the conference semifinals with a win in Game 6 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

The downer that is OKC and KD

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: Despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double, the Grizzlies took Game 5 in OT

Full disclosure: I picked the Oklahoma City Thunder to win it all this season. I have defended Russell Westbrook as a worthy co-pilot for Kevin Durant, going so far as to declare them the most dynamic duo in the league. I’ve written that Scott Brooks deserves less criticism as a tactician and more credit as a talent developer and team builder.

These defenses are crumbling right along with the Thunder’s title hopes. So perplexing are their performances that the Oklahoma City fans, a tremendously friendly and faithful base, booed their boys during a particularly lethargic patch when they got down by 20 in Tuesday’s 100-99 overtime loss that moved my hand-picked champs to the brink of elimination.

And now everything I thought I knew about the Thunder is flapping in the wind.

The argument that the 50-win Memphis Grizzlies are not a typical No. 7 seed and a bear of a matchup for any opponent is valid. They have played solidly and a scheme to make the league’s scoring champ and soon-to-be named regular-season MVP miserable has worked.

A playoff-record four consecutive games have gone to overtime, three won by the Grizzlies. Rationally, it can be touted that a favorable bounce here, a shot lipping in instead of out, one extra tenth-of-a-second, and the Thunder own this series. But even the Thunder wouldn’t go there.

Suddenly Thunder general manager Sam Presti, the bright, young and bespectacled executive credited with creating this juggernaut is 48 minutes from facing a mountain of questions he didn’t see coming.

All the past criticisms are more real than ever, and things don’t turn quickly they swirl around the compatibility of Durant and Westbrook, and Brooks’ ability to make it work. Westbrook, the force-of-nature point guard who plays with no restrictor plate at all times, has said sitting out last postseason provided him new perspective of his position and role within the team. But as the Thunder offense devolves into an alarmingly high rate of isolation and heavy dribbling, his shots, some too early in the shot clock, some bewilderingly off-balance and from awkward angles, keep mounting.

His shot attempts have increased from 17.2 in the regular season to 25.6 in the playoffs. That he’s shooting only 34.4 percent overall and 18.4 percent from 3-point range, is as troubling as Brooks’ inability or unwillingness to reign in him at key times.

After Game 5, Westbrook said his shot selection can get better, but if Memphis is giving him the 15-foot jumper he’ll make it nine times out of 10.

Unfortunately, he finished Game 5 10-for-30 overall and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc. And never was his complexity more apparent. He totaled a triple-double with 13 assists and 10 rebounds, plus a critical steal, pick-pocketing Memphis point guard Mike Conley that ensured overtime. He also allowed Conley to blow by him twice in overtime.

As for Durant, a cold-blooded killer during his historic regular season,  he is just cold. His smile has vanished, his body language has slumped. With grinding defender Tony Allen or long-limbed Tayshaun Prince hounding him on the perimeter and Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol waiting in the paint, getting to the rim against the Grizzlies isn’t for the faint of heart.

But Durant’s perceived passivity — Brooks, and even Conley, said he remains aggressive — is removing a major part of his scoring arsenal, the free throw. According to SportVU stats, Durant has made fewer drives to the basket than Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson, and Dallas’ 37-year-old shooting guard Vince Carter, while playing in one more game than all of them.

It’s resulting in two fewer free throws a game than he averaged in the regular season, and more stunningly, he’s making just 71.8 percent (28-for-39). He is an 88.2 percent free throw shooter over his career and eclipsed 90 percent last season. Durant was 3-for-6 in Game 5 and missed the potential game-tying free throw with 27.6 seconds to go. Is that a sign of fatigue for the league’s far-and-away minutes leader during the regular season?

After Game 5, Durant said he was “fine” with being used as a decoy in the final six minutes after knocking down a 3-pointer that capped a 27-6 run and gave OKC it’s first lead of the game. He then went 12 consecutive possessions without getting off a shot. He only touched it three times as Brooks made the curious decision to use Durant in the corner to space the floor for Reggie Jackson to drive.

The Thunder haven’t looked like the team expected to make a run at the title since it came out smoking in the first half of Game 1. Maybe they figure things out and turn it on in Game 6, and maybe Durant regains his MVP groove that saw him accomplish multiple feats that hadn’t been done since Michael Jordan.

But then, that was the plot line for Game 5, and it didn’t happen.

Dirk knows Durant’s first-round pain

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: The NBA TV crew previews Game 5 of the Grizzlies-Thunder series

DALLAS – During their 2011 Western Conference finals matchup, Dirk Nowitzki called Kevin Durant the future of the league. Three years later, the Thunder superstar is the runaway leader to win his first MVP award.

But he’s been scuffling so far in the first round and the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, seeking a return to the NBA Finals for a second time in three seasons, find themselves in a dogfight against the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. After Durant scored just 15 points on 5-for-21 shooting (1-for-7 from beyond the arc) in Saturday’s 92-89 overtime win, OKC is fortunate to be going home tied 2-2 for Tuesday’s Game 5 (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

About a month ago, Durant said Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are his favorite players in the league. He lauded Nowitzki for his humble, low-key style and said he studies Nowitzki’s moves and his training regimen. However, there’s one Nowitzki footstep Durant doesn’t want to follow.

In May 2007, with top-seeded Dallas knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by upstart Golden State, Nowitzki gritted his teeth through an uncomfortable and admittedly depressing MVP ceremony.

“I’ll still look back once my career is over [and think] it’s unbelievable that I won the MVP coming over from Germany,” Nowitzki said Sunday afternoon, one day after the surprising Mavs took a 2-1 lead over the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs. “But in the back of my mind it will probably always be connected to the first-round loss because I think we had a great chance that year.”

Durant has yet to find a rhythm against Tony Allen and the Memphis defense. He’s 40-for-101  (39.6 percent) from the floor and 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Those figures are way off his season marks of 50.3 percent and 39.1 percent.

His slump actually started after his Michael Jordan-eclipsing streak of scoring 25 points or more in 41 consecutive games ended on April 8. In the final five regular-season games, Durant went 54-for-124 overall (43.5 percent) and 7-for-34 from deep (20.5 percent).

His first-round struggles harken back to Nowitzki’s 2007 MVP campaign. He averaged 24.6 ppg and accomplished the rare 50-40-90 trifecta — 50.2 percent shooting overall, 41.6 percent from 3 and 90.4 percent from the free throw line. But in the first round, Nowitzki’s trademark accuracy waned and with it went the Mavs’ hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. Dallas lost to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals.

            Nowitzki vs. Warriors (2007)                 Durant vs. Grizzlies (2014)

                   FGM-FGA    3M-3A                                    FGM-FGA    3M-3A

Game 1        4-16                0-2                                          13-25                3-7

Game 2        7-15                0-2                                          12-28               5-12

Game 3        7-16                0-1                                          10-27               0-8

Game 4        9-19                2-5                                           5-21                 1-7

Game 5        7-15                2-3                                             —                     –

Game 6        2-13                0-6                                            —                     –

Total              36-94            4-19                                     40-101              9-34

                     (38.3%)          (21.1%)                               (39.6%)          (26.5%)

“Once you lose in the Finals one time, I think your mindset is always anything but the Finals is a disappointment,” Nowitzki said. “The pressure’s high, but I think that’s what we compete for; we don’t compete [to] not make the playoffs, so yeah, we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform.

“I think he’ll snap out of it, I really do. That was a big win for them [Saturday] night. I watched the fourth quarter and they were able to come back. Now they’ve got two home games, so I think they’ll be OK.”

Durant’s miserable Game 4, which wasn’t helped by slumping point guard Russell Westbrook also scoring 15 points on 6-for-24 shooting, nearly put the Thunder in a 3-1 hole, just as Nowitzki and the Mavs found themselves seven seasons ago. Reggie Jackson‘s 32-point effort evened the series and breathed new life into the Thunder’s championship hopes.

“We felt if we get through the first round [in 2007] we would have had a great chance to compete for a championship again,” Nowitzki said. “So, yeah, it’s a little of mixed feelings, always. I think, honestly, it helped me later on in ’11 be the closer that I was.”

As Nowitzki knows, title chances are fleeting, and unpredictable. Dallas didn’t get beyond the second round again until that 2010-11 season, when Nowitzki put it all together and led the Mavs to the franchise’s lone title.

Footsteps Durant would just as soon skip.

Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Thunder’s X factor saves day, helps even series

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Highlights of Reggie Jackson’s big Game 4, lifting the Thunder over the Grizzlies in OT

MEMPHIS – It’s part of the sport’s vernacular now, in the way MLB has its “walk-off homers” and the NFL its “pick sixes.” Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson had a “podium game” Saturday night, scoring 32 points – more than Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined – and earning his crew an overtime victory over the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum to even the best-of-seven series at 2-2.

Only he didn’t get his podium.

The Thunder always send Durant and Westbrook into the interview room – where they sit behind microphones at a table on a platform or podium, if you’re into etymology – win or lose. It’s a tradition that’s become a box because now, if they play poorly or OKC loses, they dare not skip the postgame session or they might look as if they’re ducking something.

So a guy like Jackson can have the night of his young life, but he doesn’t get to punctuate like a thoroughly modern athlete, sitting next to a prop sports drink and fielding questions as if at a White House briefing.

Not to worry. Jackson did talk about his big night to a circle of writers and cameras in the cozy visitors’ dressing room. And he got something better than a podium – he got a hug from Durant that had him choking up a bit.

“We told each other we love each other,” Jackson said. “I never expected something like this would happen, especially in these playoffs.”

Modesty talking, probably, because Memphis coach Dave Joerger had referred to Jackson as the Thunder’s X factor days ago and was just waiting – and flinching – for Jackson to catch up. Through the first three games, the legit Sixth Man candidate had averaged just 5.0 points on 15.8 percent shooting (3-of-19, 0-of-6 on 3FGAs). That was some serious regressing off his 13.1 ppg and 44.0 percent accuracy during the season.

Frustrating as that might have been for Jackson, the Thunder and their fans as the team slipped behind in the series, right to the brink of a 1-3 hole, the third-year point guard from Pordenone, Italy, by way of Colorado Springs and Boston College picked the opportune time to get involved.

Durant was having an uncharacteristically miserable night shooting the ball – 5-of-21 – and Westbrook was more haywire than usual at 6-of-24. No matter that the game ground on for an extra five minutes – by then, they were happy to yield the hardwood to Jackson, who scored eight of OKC’s 12 points in overtime after nailing its final five to tie in regulation.

The Thunder had led by as much as 14 in the third quarter, but trailed 80-75 with 1:14 left. Out of a timeout, Jackson shook off both Durant and Westbrook and brazenly launched a 3-pointer from the right wing that hit. After a Memphis turnover, it was Jackson again, his runner from 9 feet at 30.6 seconds ordering up the OT.

“Coach [Scott Brooks] kinda called my number when I had the ball a few times and I was bringing it up,” Jackson said. “Nobody really said anything. It was more the look in their eyes.

“Unfortunately the shots weren’t going down for [Durant and Westbrook]. As a whole, as a team, it seems like it’s been like that the whole series. I was happy to be in the moment, go out there and have fun with the game.”

As cockeyed as the two Thunder stars shot, there wasn’t a moment when the Grizzlies players guarding them exhaled. Their threat at least spaced the floor, which gave Jackson seams to attack at hyper-speed.

“You’ve got to stay honest,” forward Caron Butler said. “Now those doorways start looking like streets. You get in them lanes and the defense kind of loosens up.”

Memphis’ defense opened up for Jackson but few others. Both teams shot under 38 percent and Oklahoma City had quarters of 15 and 16 points and turned over the ball 21 times.

Let’s put it this way, the Grizzlies picked a bad night to miss 10 free throws.

And so this series shifts back to Oklahoma after three consecutive overtime games and eight between the teams since the start of the 2010-11 season. The Grizzlies and the Thunder have totaled 7,478 minutes of basketball head-to-head in that time, including the postseason, a number that dwarfs the NBA’s No. 2 showdown (Miami and Boston, 6,605).

The teams have thoroughly scouted each other and, by this point, don’t much care for the guys lined up across from them. Now Memphis has to win one more, at least, on OKC’s court and, as limited as its own offensive options are, it has an extra Thunder gunner to worry about now.

“I think this is a great matchup for TV ratings,” said the guy who doesn’t know podia.

‘Iron Man’ Mike Miller? Surprisingly so

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Mike Miller is still a sharpshooter from 3

MEMPHIS, – Had Kendrick Perkins sat on Mike Miller at any point in the past three seasons the way he did Thursday night in Game 3 of the Oklahoma City-Memphis playoff series, a team of EMTs immediately would have rushed to the court carrying a Gulliver-esque spatula. Whatever parts of Miller hadn’t already gone splat would have been scraped up and deposited in the Grizzlies’ trainers room, perhaps not to be seen again until preseason camp.

But here in 2014, that Miller – the one held together with duct tape and baling wire when he managed to play, which wasn’t all that often – is gone. He’s been replaced by one who can laugh off Perkins’ little in-game sitdown and, more important for Memphis, by a guy who did this:

Played in all 82 games.

Miller spent three seasons with the Heat without ever doing that. He topped out at 59 appearances last season and managed to play in only 80 games in 2010-11 and 2011-12 combined. He missed the start of the post-lockout season in December 2011 recovering from sports hernia surgery, and he has had chronic back problems for quite a while. There have been times when Miller, so valuable as a floor spreader and 3-point shooter but so fragile, seemed like he might bruise from a stiff breeze.

Yet here he is at 34, getting healthier. He hadn’t played in 82 since his 2000-01 rookie season in Orlando.

Had Miami known he would be so downright durable, it might have found some way to keep him rather than amnestying the final two years and $12.8 million of his contract last July. (LeBron James and crew hated losing him, but the move did save the Heat about $17 million in luxury tax.) Miller double-dipped by signing with Memphis for the veteran’s minimum of about $1.4 million.

“To be honest, I was healthy last year,” Miller said before the Grizzlies’ practice Friday at FedEx Forum. “It’s just that, when you’re playing behind Hall of Famers, you don’t get that opportunity. I went through a lot with my back and obviously with the sports hernia and stuff like that, but I was fully recovered last year. And just continually got better. I haven’t put a lot of mileage on my body the last three years.”

Miller was available enough in the 2012 playoffs to help Miami win the first championship of its Big Three era. He went 7-for-8 from the arc and scored 23 points in the Game 5 title clincher against Oklahoma City.

Last spring, Miller helped the Heat win again, starting four games in The Finals against San Antonio, shooting 59.1 percent overall and 11-for-18 (61.1) on 3-pointers. But Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was leery of Miller breaking down and kept him carefully on the shelf for stretches of the regular season.

No kid gloves for Miller in Memphis, though. He averaged 20.8 minutes, more than in any of his Heat seasons, and ranked second in the NBA in hitting 45.9 percent of his 3-pointers (53.8 percent after the All-Star break).

And get this: Only 23 players in NBA history have played a full 82-game schedule in their 14th season or later.

“He’s been tremendous,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “He’s done a great job with his body in the offseason, just staying lean and staying in shape. He’s done that without pounding on his body.

“You can try to be in great shape but you can do things to your body that just wear it down. He did a great job of keeping himself fresh in the offseason, and our training staff has done a good job with him all season.”

Staying lean without pounding? Sounds like swimming and yoga.

“It pretty much is,” Miller said, laughing. “I didn’t do the swimming part, but I’ve done the 10,000 reps [in the weight room]. I used to do three or four hours in the gym. A lot of that is the reason why my back and stuff were bad.

“Now it’s more maintenance. It’s about coming in here and taking care of my body. Shoot as limited as possible, really. And then getting out in the game and having fresh mind and fresh body.”

Allen adds offense to his Grizz appeal

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Memphis holds off OKC for 2-1 lead

MEMPHIS – Tony Allen started shaking his head even before the question was half-asked, a slow, rolling, sheepish shake punctuated with a frustrated fist pump.

Er, about those 4-point plays, Tony?

“I blame it on missed coverages,” Allen said. “Maybe the big probably called a certain coverage and I was in another coverage, which allowed me to foul him. I don’t know, we’ll look at the film and we’ll have to try to get better at that. Because obviously we’ve been doing that a lot throughout the year.”

Allen, Memphis’ ace perimeter defender was ‘fessing up but not just on his foul on Russell Westbrook‘s 3-pointer with 26.6 seconds left that erased the Grizzlies’ 85-81 lead and forced them again to survive in overtime. He got caught tripping Westbrook on his heave from midcourt at the very end, with :00.9 showing on the clock that, had the shot gone, would have put the Oklahoma City guard on the line to tie.

As it was, Westbrook could have tied it the hard way if he had made his first two foul shots, intentionally missed the third, then had a Thunder teammate or himself tip in the miss.

Imagine Allen’s angst had that happened. The first one, forcing five extra minutes at FedEx Forum before Memphis escaped 98-95, was bad enough.

“Yeah, that was a bonehead play on myself. I take full responsibility for battling Westbrook on that specific play,” Allen said.

Allen could apologize with a smile because at night’s end, the Grizzlies had taken a 2-1 lead over the No. 2-seeded Thunder, with Game 4 set for Saturday night. He could apologize, too, because his body of work contained a lot more than a couple bonehead plays.

Most of Allen’s props come from his work as a pest and, if everything lines up right, a stopper. Against Kevin Durant in this series, as fellow Hang Time denizen Jeff Caplan chronicled two games into the best-of-seven series, Allen been a whole lot of the former, making the NBA’s scoring champ work hard (25-for-53) for point totals (33 and 36) that were right at his average.

But in Game 3, Allen veered toward the latter. Durant took 27 shots and made 10 on his way to 30, and came away with nothing for the eight 3-point attempts he missed. It was hard to tell whether Allen was more up in Durant’s shooting stroke or in his head.

But wait, this time there was more: Allen was an offensive factor, an unusual role for him. In 2013-14, the 6-foot-4 product of Oklahoma State and the city of Chicago averaged just 9.0 points and 7.5 field goal attempts. But he doubled that in Game 3, shooting 8-for-15 off the bench and scoring 16 points.

Better yet for Memphis, there were times in another fiercely fought – and frequently ugly – 53-minute game between two evenly matched and overly familiar opponents when Allen, of all players, seemed to have the best idea of what he wanted to do offensively.

Who would have imagined that, given OKC’s firepower and Memphis’ Clydesdales down low? But the X-factor people keep waiting for Thunder guard Reggie Jackson to become in these playoffs, Allen already is.

And yet, when so many others were standing around, Allen was the guy cutting back door to take a simple bounce pass from Mike Conley. Or worming his way into a seam for a rebound and putback for the Grizzlies’ final two points of the first quarter.

Or, for that matter, scoring six straight to open the second quarter and teaming with backup point guard Beno Udrih to string together 18 consecutive points for Memphis, buying time for Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the rest.

Allen mattered late, too, with a baseline drive and dunk and a layup with Westbrook on him. Those two buckets broke the 81-81 and gave Memphis its four-point cushion before, y’know, bonehead.

“People are going to see the highlight of Russell Westbrook hitting a three and getting fouled,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “But the guy [Allen] did 99 percent of everything on the floor and it was spectacular. That’s the guy that we all love with his passion, how hard he plays, and his IQ is off the charts. He was aggressive. He was decisive. He took some shots. He was open. … those shots are going to fall for him.”

Some of Allen’s jumpers are more pancake than parabola. But then, the same might be said in this one of Durant and Westbrook, too (4-for-13 from the arc). They both rushed shots and took some they probably shouldn’t.

Their worst sequence came deep in OT, with Memphis up 95-92 and less than 30 seconds left. Westbrook forced a 3-pointer from 27 feet just to the right of center – completely ignoring a wide-open teammate on the left baseline. The rebound got thrown out to Durant at 29 feet and he clanged his, too.

OKC’s frustrations are the same as always, focused on Westbrook, his irrepressibility-slash-irresponsibility in seeking out his own scoring chances and the offense not dedicating itself to getting Durant better shots. Allen, one could argue, is the Grizzlies’ Westbrook, a nightly adventure, a.k.a., sixty shades of cray.

But Allen is a role player, a defense-first guy, who knows his place in the Grizzlies’ pecking order and can be reeled in as needed. Westbrook? His star is brighter, his role and ego are bigger, and the ever-looping risk/reward of his game is way more interwoven into the Thunder’s dreams and nightmares. If their worst nights were actual physical trauma, Allen’s would be a flesh wound, Westbrook’s would be getting gut-shot.

One of them has a conscience, too, that propels him to make up for his mishaps by returning to his roots.

As Allen said of the 4-point plays, “I hate for myself to be in one of those plays. [After getting caught up in one] I’m trying to get back out there and get another steal or rebound or stop. Force a turnover. Y’know, get it back on the defensive end because I know it was me who made the bonehead play.”

The Grizzlies love their bonehead, three games into this grindhouse series. The Thunder, maybe less so.

VIDEO: Allen discusses Game 3 victory over OKC

Durant can’t let them see him sweat

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: The TNT crew breaks down Game 2 and previews Game 3 of the Grizzlies-Thunder series

Kevin Durant talked all season about rising as a leader. So now is not the time for you to let them see you sweat, Mr. soon-to-be-named league MVP.

Durant allowed frustration to get the better of him during and after Monday night’s Game 2 overtime home loss to the seventh-seeded Grizzlies. He scored 36 points, but nothing came easy. He was 12-for-28 with Grizzlies stopper Tony Allen again applying velcro defense. After the 111-105 defeat, Durant, through slumping body language and dismissive speech, presented an air of fatalism instead of optimism, confidence and determination.

Seated at a dais alongside Russell Westbrook, Durant slouched in his chair, his head hung and shoulders folded inward. He purposefully lowered his voice into the microphone to a barely audible level. One of the more insightful players in the league offered, purposefully, mostly curt, short answers to questions he seemed to deem beneath him. On occasion he sniped back at reporters.

It wasn’t a good look.

If Allen and the Grizzlies didn’t already believe they had Durant flustered by their defensive clamp-job, all they need to do is watch his postgame performance. Durant failed to follow his own words of wisdom spoken just prior to Game 1.

“I always tell myself to be a great leader, a great encourager and a great teammate and everything else will fall right after that,” Durant said.

Frustration is understandable. Allen is again proving to be the most effective Durant antidote in the game. He did it as a mostly fourth-quarter stopper in last year’s semifinal series the Grizzlies won in five games with OKC missing Westbrook. Even with Westbrook back, Durant’s operating space remains as cramped as an airplane lavatory.

“He’s in your face,” Durant, the league’s runaway scoring champion, said. “He’s a smaller guy and smaller guys, when you guard bigger guys you try to get up under him a little bit. I’ve been playing against him for a while. He’s the toughest guy in the league for anybody because he’s so quick and he’s strong. But I just got to rely on my teammates and rely on my work I put in and I’ll be all right.”

Durant didn’t get much help from his teammates in Game 2, an aspect the Thunder will have to address before Thursday’s Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Westbrook was 11-for-28 from the field and forced far too many shots. The bench was unusually impotent with Reggie Jackson failing to make a field goal and Caron Butler going 1-for-4 from the floor.

At least twice during the game Durant expressed frustration with his own team. Early on he glared at Serge Ibaka as play continued and said, “Give me the ball,” after Ibaka had instead passed out an offensive rebound to Jackson standing at the opposite wing from Durant.

Late in the game, Durant flailed his arms and made a B-line to coach Scott Brooks after Brooks called a timeout just as Westbrook had grabbed control of a loose ball at a critical juncture and was gaining speed the other way for a potential transition scoring opportunity.

“No, that wasn’t a key play,” Durant said afterward. “We got a great stop, it looked like a jump ball and coach wanted to be the first one to call a timeout. It wasn’t a turning point in the game. It wasn’t why we lost.”

Durant on Monday described his inner-sanctum as “peaceful,” though the load he shoulders is fraught with pressure. His remarkable regular season included performances and streaks that haven’t been accomplished since Michael Jordan and because of it the MVP trophy is virtually unanimously believed to be his. Now everybody expects him to take the next step and lead the Thunder to the championship, or at least get the chance to avenge their 2012 Finals loss to LeBron James and the Heat.

If not, the pre-title scrutiny that dogged LeBron will ramp up and the undying rhetoric regarding his and Westbrook’s compatibility will heat up all summer long.

All the Thunder has to do is win one in Memphis and they regain control of a series they already knew would be challenging, regardless of seeding.

Durant, 25, has been the game’s most devastating player all season long. Now is not the time to let them see him sweat.

The best advice for him is to simply follow his own words.

“I feel great. I’ve seen it all in the playoffs, throughout the regular season,” Durant said at the start of the series. “Teams are going to try to beat me up, but I’m ready for it. I always feel comfortable because I feel comfortable with myself, I feel comfortable with my game. I’m not the strongest guy, I’m not the quickest or fastest, but I just feel comfortable with myself and I know what I can do out there on the floor.”

Blogtable: On the Grizz’s grit

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe 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.

BLOGTABLE: Indiana awakening? | Game 1 illusion or harbinger | Grading the Grizz’s chances

VIDEO: The Memphis Grizzlies beat the Thunder in OKC in Game 2 of their first-round series

> After that win in OKC, are you ready to pick the gritty Grizzlies over the Thunder?

Steve Aschburner, Not ready. Which is not to say I didn’t find Memphis’ survival in its overtime Game 2 victory to be thoroughly impressive. There were repeated opportunities for the Grizzlies to crack (and potentially have Mike Conley go into some guilt-ridden funk for some late-game mishaps), but they navigated around them. Hey, Z-Bo happened. Still, OKC has so much talent in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook it can win almost in spite of itself most nights. I’m headed to Memphis for Games 3 and 4, while hoping we get 5, 6 and 7 too.

Fran Blinebury, Who exactly was it at Overreaction Central that thought the Thunder were going to sweep every game into The Finals? The Grizzles are rough and rugged and are never easy to beat.  But OKC had the second-best (25-16) road record in the West and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are still too much. Things will be bruising at the Grind House, but the Thunder survive.

Jeff Caplan, Pick the Grizzlies? No. It was one game. Memphis with Tayshaun Prince initially and then Tony Allen, does have a way of frustrating Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook can’t keep launching bad shots — good luck with all that — but the Thunder remain the more talented team. Sweeps are hard to come by and there’s no reason to think Memphis can’t take this to six games. But pick them to win it? Nah.

Scott Howard-Cooper, Still going Thunder. Because I think the previous 82 games mean something and because I think OKC also knows a lot about grit. It played through big injuries, still sees defense as the base of the success and developed young players while finishing with the second-best record in the West. I like the matchup for the Thunder, too. It’s not just tale of the tape with regular-season records.

John Schuhmann, No. And it’s not because the Grizzlies aren’t great. They are. They’re better than what we should expect from a No. 7 seed. But they also had an uncharacteristically good shooting game from the perimeter on Monday and, more importantly, Oklahoma City is better. They’re the No. 2 seed for a reason, they’re strong on both ends of the floor, and they’ll find a way to loosen Tony Allen’s clamp on Kevin Durant.

Sekou Smith, Nope. Not yet, at least. But I am feeling like we have a seven-gamer on our hands for sure. The Grizzlies will pound you into submission with their defense, especially on the perimeter. And they wore the Thunder down and made sure that they had to work for every shot, good and bad (and Naismith knows, the Thunder get up plenty of both), the entire night. That’s a recipe for a Game 7 in OKC that I think we’d all enjoy.

Lang Whitaker, All Ball Blog: The Grizz looked pretty good, to be sure, but for large stretches of the game, the Thunder weren’t really rumbling. The Thunder had their usual array of self-created obstacles to overcome, like Scott Brooks stopping a late 3-on-2 break with a timeout, or like when they needed a 2 to tie with the game on the line and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get the ball to the presumptive MVP of the league, Kevin Durant. That said, these are fixable problems, and I think the Thunder should be able to take care of these things.

Thunder thrive on the good, shrug off the ugly in opening win

By Jeff Caplan,

VIDEO: Thunder weather Grizzlies’ rally to take Game 1

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the dust settled on one of the stranger wire-to-wire victories you’ll see, the Oklahoma City Thunder had to be wondering if what just happened really happened.

In the span of three quarters of Saturday night’s 100-86 Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, once again with Russell Westbrook riding postseason shotgun next to Kevin Durant, showed the world their magnificence, and their warts.

Westbrook started with a turbo blast and it looked like the Thunder might never look back. The lead was 20 before the second quarter was half over. It was 25 — 56-31 — with 6.6 seconds until halftime. Durant and Westbrook had already combined for 33.

Less than five minutes into the third quarter, the lead was down to nine. Nine minutes later Mike Miller drained a 3-pointer and it was Thunder 74, Grizzlies 72.

“They were going to make a run,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I didn’t anticipate the type of run they had in the third quarter.”

The sellout crowd moaned and groaned and hence the very reason Memphis and Dallas clobbered each other for four quarters and an overtime in the season finale for the right to call their shot against the roller coaster erraticism of the No. 2-seed Thunder over the precision performance of the Western Conference’s top-seeded Spurs.

Brooks went on to say it doesn’t matter how you win as long as you win. And that’s true. And maybe the Thunder, so fast, so athletic, so frenetic at either end for stretches of unpredictable length and fury that it’s simply impossible to maintain such a level throughout a 48-minute game; that a letdown is inevitable and that a quality opponent, as the Grizzlies are, will sense an opening.

“We want to play with that type of intensity,” Brooks said. “No question, it’s hard to play it for four quarters, 48 minutes, 85 or 90 offensive possessions, but we want to strive for that. Tonight in that third quarter, probably seven or eight minutes of that wasn’t as well as we would have liked. But, we fought back, we kept the lead and we extended it down the stretch.”

The Grizzlies have to believe they’re in trouble in this matchup. They’ve lost backup point guard Nick Calathes to a 20-game drug policy suspension and Tayshaun Prince left Game 1 early in the first quarter, too ill to continue on. In the third-quarter desperation to keep clawing, first-year coach Dave Joerger stuck with his four starters and Tony Allen for the entire quarter and deep into the fourth.

Marc Gasol played 45 minutes and all but 47 seconds of the second half with Game 2 approaching quickly Monday night. Zach Randolph logged 39 minutes. Together they went 14-for-40 from the field as the Thunder slacked off whatever outside threat Memphis could muster and hunkered down.

What should not be lost in the Thunder’s first step in getting back to the NBA Finals, a mission sabotaged right about a year ago when Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee, is how much deeper and more complete this Thunder squad is than the 2012 team with James Harden and last year’s club that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.

Ten players logged at least 12 minutes. Caron Butler put in 30. Rookie center Steven Adams played 12 minutes and had three blocks in his first six minutes. Serge Ibaka was spectacular with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks, two being skywalking power blocks that will replay on every highlight show over the next 24-hour news cycle. His eight-point third quarter saved the Thunder’s lead.

Westbrook, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Reggie Jackson combined for 18 rebounds, one more than Gasol and Randolph. Durant finished with 33 points on 13-for-25 shooting, seven assists and eight rebounds. Just 8-for-18 from the field, he closed the game 5-for-6 in the fourth quarter.

“We just stayed together and we made plays in that fourth quarter,”  Durant said. “The third quarter was tough for us, but we stayed together. We didn’t stray away. We talked it through and made it work on offense and the defensive end and were able to pull away in that fourth quarter.”

Nitpick if you like. Yes, the Thunder again showed their warts, but they also showed how magnificent they can be. This is a dangerous team, now healthy and eager, that would suggest it is just getting started.