Game Notes: Thunder at Grizzlies
Durant and Westbrook make it look easy.
by Evin Demirel
Trivia: In ’08-09, Oklahoma City rookies and sophomores scored 60.1 percent of the team’s total points, the highest such percentage of the season. What was the last team to post a higher percentage of total points by rookies and second-year players? The answer is at the end of the game notes.
An hour before tip-off: The Memphis media relations people handle hungry journalists right. The media center’s dining room BBQ had my kind of zing.
Twenty minutes before tip-off: I settle into press row, and meet an Israeli sports journalist who is devoting three months to covering NBA basketball in the United States. He said he’s covered Israeli basketball for Jerusalem-based publications for years, but wanted to experience NBA culture after watching the game on satellite his whole life. Now, he wants to be the first Israeli to write a book about the NBA while in the U.S.
Naturally, I was curious to get his take on Memphis’ Iranian center Hamed Haddadi, who some weeks ago greeted Sacramento’s Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the League. Although my new friend had been in Memphis for a week, and spoken with such megastars as Shaq and LeBron, he hadn’t yet approached Haddadi for an interview. He said he planned to some time in the next week, but wasn’t quite sure what to say yet.
Five minutes before tip-off: Despite Memphis’ relatively successful recent run (three-game winning streak and a nice OT home victory over the Cavs on Tuesday), and nosebleed section seats dipping to $3, the FedEx Forum isn’t packed. Final attendance: 13, 048.
Three minutes before tip-off: It’s clear early on this Thunder team is tight-knit, and Durant’s leader of the pack. Green, Westbrook, Harden et al are dancing and prancing, while KD is slapping coaches’ and teammates’ hands like crazy. For sure, that chemistry has helped the team to its 12-9 start.
10:25 Westbrook hits a three from the top of the key and is on his way to a 1st-half line of 11 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. Before the game, Mike Conley praised Westbrook’s strength, quickness and jumping ability. If Westbrook develops a consistent outside shot, he’ll soon develop into an All-Star. And as Western All-Star mainstays Steve Nash and Jason Kidd continue to age, you would think at some point in the next few years there would be an opening for Westbrook.
Soon after, as the shot clocks runs out, Z-Bo vomits up a nasty-looking three-point attempt that splatters off the rim. As he rumbles back down court, he licks his fingers. I’d be trying to get that taste out of my mouth, too.
8:20 Nothing emetic here: Durant penetrates the Grizz D, jumps straight up and feeds Kristic for an 11-4 OKC lead. His game’s so well-rounded, so smooth, with a range so deep, that I feel Durant is basketball’s embodiment of the eerily perfect sphere found at the bottom of the ocean in Michael Chricton’s sci-fi thriller.
7:20 Not too perfect though: Gay strips KD as he cuts to the hoop, and the ball bounces of Durantula’s spindly legs and out of bounds. Despite losing the battle, Durant would win the war between he and Gay – a match-up of last season’s two highest scoring players under age 23. Durant finished the game with 32 points and 10 rebounds, while Gay had 16 and 7 on 25 percent shooting.
Jeff Green easily flushes home a Westbrook alley-oop. Pre-game, I was speaking with an advance scout who said Green’s versatile skill set had impressed him, and that Billy Owens woud be a good comparison. However, Green’s a lot more athletic than Owens, he added.
They weren’t kidding about Thabo’s long-armed D, as he just batted OJ’s floater into the seats, preserving OKC’s 18-10 advantage. I later notice Sefolosha has an arm tattoo declaring “The game chose me,” with an image of a basketball with a crown atop it. Bashful, this Swiss is not.
0:35 Durant makes the Cirque du Soleil shot of the night, as he storms down the right side, explodes, contorts through defenders, is fouled and flips in an awkward left-handed shot from nearly below the rim. While waiting to take his free throw, even he has to watch the replay.
Break between 1st and 2nd quarters
The Grizzlies organization honors legendary college basketball coach Gene Bartow, who led the Memphis State Tigers to the 1973 championship game, for his Nov. 22 enshrinement into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Dude got his own honorary Grizzlies jersey.
I’m curious — has any NBA team done this before? That is, publicly celebrate someone who was so affiliated with a local college team, but not with the NBA organization itself?
After getting him at the end of the 1st quarter, Thabeet again blocks a Harden shot. For a flash, he looks every bit the intimidating enforcer the Grizzlies need. Still, his lack of athleticism and offensive polish are clear, and the Tanzanian plays no more than 3 minutes and 26 seconds in the first half.
FYI nation: Thabs is one of four 7-footers on the Memphis roster, each hailing from a different continent (Steven Hunter, USA; Marc Gasol, Europe; Haddadi, Asia)
As the Thunder start pulling away, a couple of thoughts occur:
1) Is Thabo Shaun Livingston’s doppelganger? I want to know if there is another pair of teammates in professional basketball who so closely resemble each other in height, build, color and facial expressions.
2) Alternate History Scenario: It’s 1989 and the story of Scott Brooks, a plucky Californian point guard from who scrapped his way up the professional basketball mountain, rivets the nation. Movie producers look to capitalize. Any doubt as to who should play the future OKC coach in this searing biopic?
2:29 After missing a couple of three-pointers, Durantula spins a web of profanity as he heads to the bench during a break. He’d miss all four tries in the first half.
Six quick points by Westbrook put OKC up 56-42 heading into the half.
I spot my high school classmate Ross Glotzbach, who one year in the late ’90s was the only white guy on our Joe Johnson-led Little Rock Central High School team. Ross, a Memphis native and Grizzlies season-ticket holder, tell me he’s been chatting up Master P. The rapper didn’t think either team was playing with enough “heart” in the first half, Ross said. Turns out P’s in town to promote a toy drive. I get some peanuts and a pretzel and mull that.
The Grizzlies scrap back, and pull within 59-64 with 4:26 left.
These teams are the youngest in the League (Grizz average 25 years, 76 days: Thunder 25 years, 88 days), and sometimes it shows.
To wit: with four minutes left, Westbrook drives into the teeth of the Grizzly D, and, without a teammate in sight, throws a nice two-handed chest pass entry pass to… the Toyota logo on front of the basketball goal structure.
0:38 Z-Bo shows nice court awareness. He gets a steal in the open court, and immediately passes it to a trailing Conley before spurting ahead of the pack. Conley then feeds him with a bounce pass, leading to a layup that puts the Grizz up 70-66. Randolph has a nice third quarter, as he vacuums in 13 rebounds and finished the quarter with 16 points and 17 rebounds overall. I was surprised to learn that going into the game Randolph and Gasol made up the second-most prolific rebounding frontcourt in the NBA, trailing only Noah and Deng in Chicago.
Serge Ibaka, OKC’s 20-year-old from Democratic Republic of the Congo, has the makings of an elite defender. He’s 6-10, wiry and gets very low in his defensive stance. He consistently got his hand right into the face of Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph. Because of his quickness, he was able to body up on Randolph and stifle his jumper, which the slower-footed Kristic wasn’t able to do.
After a 73-73 tie, the game slides the Thunders’ way as they catch fire from deep.
4:00 OKC’s most hirsute player — Harden — wins a “beard-off” with OJ Mayo, who shies away from facial hair as much as he does shot attempts. His 16-footer at this juncture was swatted away from behind by Harden, who I swear actually flexed his beard afterward. OKC up 88-76.
As we watch an injured Kevin Ollie faithfully cajole his teammates on the sidelines, my new Israeli friend tells reminds me that Ollie played with Doron Sheffer, one of Israel’s best players, at Connecticut in the mid-’90s. He tells me that apparently Sheffer returned to Israel and went on a spiritual odyssey of sorts, involving a trip to India and discovery of cancer. Now, my friend tells me, Sheffer is a practicing Hasidic Jew who sports a full beard and kipa (little hat) and gives lectures around Israel.
As we watch Z-Bo bat the ball against the rim a a couple of times before converting the layup, the Israeli tells me that Shaq reeled off Hebrew phrases at him when they met before the Memphis-Cleveland game. In Shaq’s Hebraic linguistic arsenal, I am told, is the phrase “Hello friend, how are you doing?”
OKC wins 104-92.
Trivia Answer: Rookies and sophomores scored 68.7 percent of the ’97-98 Boston Celtics’ total points. That squad boasted youngins’ like Antoine Walter, Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty.