By Randy Renner
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks and his players have had a pretty simple philosophy this season, continuing something that started the first season the team was here, 'just get better,' has been the message.
We heard it again last night.
"They're obviously going to want to play better and so are we," Brooks said after a 100-86 Game 1 win over Memphis. "We want to keep playing good basketball and we want to continue to find ways to improve our play."
That mission began Easter Sunday afternoon going over film of Saturday night's win and identifying areas where things worked so well in the first half, broke down in the third quarter and then got better again in the fourth.
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook stepped up and took the blame for what went wrong in a 31-13 Memphis third quarter.
"It's on me man, I just gotta do a better job," he admitted. "I turned the ball over a few times, the pace got real slow. I was lagging. It's my fault, but it won't happen again."
Westbrook's coach was proud that he was willing to take the fall but Brooks made it clear, the troubles in the third quarter didn't rest squarely on Westbrook's shoulders.
"It's not on him, we all know we could have done a better job in that third quarter," Brooks said, "but that's when you know you have a good team, when everybody takes ownership of their play and they look themselves in the mirror and figure out how they can get better and how they can help the team get better and Russell does that constantly."
Going forward it's pretty clear the Thunder need to keep pushing the pace. The Grizzlies admitted they ran out of gas in the fourth quarter from fighting an uphill battle all game long.
And Thunder guard Derek Fisher who has now played in 241 NBA playoff games pointed out it may have been more than just in the fourth quarter.
"I think there were times throughout the game when we sensed that the pace that we are capable of playing at is difficult for them to keep up with," he said.
And there were times when the Thunder were getting up and down the floor in the first half, building up that big lead, you could see that Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and even Mike Conley were having some trouble keeping up.
"And that's something we need to understand," Fish pointed out, "it's tough to play from behind for a whole game and even when you make a run and get back into it there's only so much energy you have left to try to then get over the hump and win the game."
That was pretty obvious in the fourth quarter last night when the Grizz got that 25 point lead down to just two. A big dunk by Caron Butler and a block by Serge Ibaka energized the fans again and spurred the Thunder on a 13-1 run to push the margin back out to 14 and out of the Grizzlies' reach.
Now comes Game 2 on Monday and what could very well be the most important game of the series.
Will the Thunder force their will on the Grizzlies again and wear them down and out? Or will Memphis change things around and even things up?
"In my experience Game 2 is always substantially different from Game 1," Fisher warned. "The team that lost the game is gonna come back with a renewed effort and focus and an intensity level that's really high because they don't wanna go down 0-2."
Fisher believes the Grizzlies will do just that, take the fight right to the Thunder. "So the question then goes to (us) what type of focus and mindset and concentration do we as a team bring to the game? And that's where I think the difference will lie."
In last season's semi-finals against Memphis the Thunder also won Game 1 and then didn't win again. In the NBA Finals the season before the Thunder won Game 1 and then didn't win again.
This time around the Thunder are determined to change the script.