By Randy Renner
Turns out that whole headline flap with The Oklahoman has a bright side, two of them actually.
No one with the Thunder organizaton will actually admit it but you get the feeling the distraction got their minds off Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen for a little while, helped them circle the wagons and then get all fired up to show the world just how by God reliable Kevin Durant is.
KD goes off for a big game, so does Russell Westbrook, Scott Brooks even shakes up the starting lineup and the Thunder win in a landslide.
And the other bright side came in the form of Thunder fans from all over the world, but especially from Oklahoma and Oklahoma City, reaching out to Durant via social media.
Tweeting him messages of support, telling him to give ‘em hell, but no matter what just showing him some love.
200 or so fans met the team charter at Will Rogers World Airport, most of them holding up signs for Durant. And then came the clincher.
“When I was riding home from the airport at about 1 o’clock in the morning and I seen a ‘OKC Loves KD’ billboard and I was thinkin’ man that’s taking it a little too far.”
Because Durant maintains he understandsthe reasons behind the headline, even though brass at The Oklahoman say the words were too harsh and went too far.
“My mom and my brothers and my friends were so upset, but I was like it comes with the territory,” he told a throng of reporters after Friday’s practice session.
“It’s all part of it and I understand that and I have to play better. I have to look at myself in the mirror and own up to it. But the support here in Oklahoma City, I didn’t really need it, I wasn’t down on myself but the people just, were unbelievable. They really showed me a lot of love and I appreciate it.”
The Thunder now find themselves in a pretty good spot. Yes, it’s another do-or-die game coming up on Saturday but at least they will play at home and they will play with a lot of confidence after dominating the Grizzlies from start to finish for a change.
The Thunder made their big run and the Grizz never answered, never got back into the game. The Thunder finally had a chance to breathe easy toward the end instead of sweat out another overtime finish.
Durant said the reason was pretty simple.
“We just played as hard as we could, that’s what we wanted to do, play as hard as we could,” he said, “not worry about Xs and Os, we know what we have to do in that area but just play extremely hard on offense and defense and I think we did an okay job but we’ve got another level we can go to.”
That’s probably the last thing the Grizzlies want to read about. Thursday night they were knocked back on their heels and then knocked down.
They took 1-2 punches from Durant (36 points) and Westbrook (25) who were back in sync for really the first time in the series. And there was the added dimension of dealing with Caron Butler in the starting lineup, a player whose 3-point shooting they were forced to respect.
“I tried to just stretch the floor and create gaps for KD and Russ and Serge (Ibaka) so they could get open looks and I just tried to be aggressive,” Butler said.
It was the first time Brooks had made that sort of dramatic change in his starting unit since benching Earl Watson in favor of Westbrook back in Russ’ rookie season, the same season Brooks had taken over from P.J. Carlesimo.
“One thing about Caron,” Brooks said, “he’s been there before, he knows how to play. He understands spacing, he knows defensive angles, he plays with toughness.”
Not to say that Thabo Sefolosha, than man Butler replaced, doesn’t play with those same things it’s just that with Butler he has a long reputation for being a cold-blooded sniper from out beyond the arc.
That forced Memphis to alter some things defensively.
“He’s a shot maker from three, he has the ability to make shots and our guys understand that and he has a confidence about him and our guys see that and you see that on the floor with how he plays.”
Brooks will go with Butler in the starting lineup on Saturday too and so now it’s Dave Joerger’s what will the Memphis coach do to counter the curveball Brooks threw right at their noggins on Thursday?
Does he put Tony Allen in at the beginning to try to slow Durant down? Does he stay with the formula that’s gotten the Grizzlies this far? And perhaps the even bigger question is how far can Mike Conley go?
The outstanding Memphis point guard strained his hamstring Thursday night, came out of the game for a few minutes, came back in and then couldn’t go. Deciding not risk further injury in a game that was out of hand in the hopes he can play meaningful minutes on Saturday. Though before he got hurt, Conley was having all kinds of trouble hitting a shot.
The question for the Thunder is can they bring it again? They haven’t been able to string together two straight wins in this series yet and even worse they’re just 1-2 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It’s win or go home,” Brooks said, “so we have to get it done.”