Game Notes: Grizzlies at Thunder
Kevin Durant: History-maker.
by Todd Spehr
Oh, how times have changed. My preceding visit to Oklahoma City was last season, about mid-January – on assignment for the since-defunct but never-to-be-forgotten Handle magazine – to research a story on a significantly less hyped Kevin Durant and his significantly less successful team. If I remember correctly, the night I spoke to Durant, before a contest with the Heat, I didn’t exactly have to jostle with other reporters for position; present in the locker room that night were Durant, myself, and some errant tumbleweed.
Tonight, it’s safe to say circumstances were different. The Worldwide Leader was here to beam the reigning SLAM coverboys across the country for just the third time this season (people are curious), the Thunder were aiming for their fiftieth win of the season (so much for not skipping steps, hey Presti?), and the folks at the media table were punching their calculators trying to figure out how many points LeBron James needed to outscore Durant by tonight to steal the scoring title. (Hint: What number did Bird wear for Boston?) The only thing that was remotely familiar is that Oklahoma City is still Loud City – except now they’re loud for a reason.
The game carried with it more buzz than usual; a rare visit from ESPN will do that to you, but in reality, it was all about Durant and his pursuit of history: Youngest scoring champ ever. When the overhead gave the season statistical leaders prior to the tip, the place erupted when it came to “Points Per Game.” There was some speculation in the day prior to the game, since it was essentially meaningless, that the Thunder might rest its regulars. But Scott Brooks put that to rest, telling reporters he would find it “shocking” if some would ask to sit out. It’s probably a compliment to his three leaders – Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green – that the team is now shaped in their image: All coachable, all want to work, no days off.
Two youngest teams in the leading squaring off. To the notes:
- Durant draws a three-shot foul by raking his arms through his defender’s to draw contact, so there’s that nightly routine out of the way. His trip to the foul line is followed by strained “MVP” chants. Even they know LeBron’s getting it.
- Thunder assistant Mo Cheeks seems captivated by the timeout “Parachute Drop” of t-shirts.
- Speaking of timeouts, ESPN was in the house so timeouts lasted for an eternity. Both teams, clearly not used to the National TV love, often stopped at midcourt on their way out of timeouts, stood, and chit-chatted…and waited….and waited.
- Little-used Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi, who, by the way, is sporting an underrated mullet, gets his feet tangled in one of the 469 ESPN cameras surrounding the Memphis huddle.
- Rumble is the hardest working mascot in the League. Warrants mentioning. At one point he’s blasting rubber balls into the crowd at the ESPN table for a good 30 seconds, and not once does Hubie Brown look up. Focus.
- There was a game going on too, and after a Durant dunk it’s 53-32 Thunder in the second. No one for the Grizzlies, outside of Rudy Gay (whose surname is of particular delight to a young fan behind us), seems intent on giving a yelp in this game before they head off for summer.
- Oklahoma City’s chemistry is even more noticeable in person. The guys are thrilled for rookies Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor, both having career nights.
- Things are getting so out of hand that Ibaka leads the break, fumbles it to Durant, eventually ending in a Green layup. Mo Cheeks is giggling.
- Word filters down that LeBron James didn’t go in Atlanta tonight; KD’s got ‘er locked up, people.
- DeMarre Carroll misses a box out and gives up a layup, which is followed by a Zach Randolph stare down. Yikes.
- Halftime: OKC 71 Memphis 49; the lead was as high as 25; Durant’s got 20 on 12 shots and no one’s sure if he’s even sweated yet; Maynor is playing a near-perfect game off the bench, as is Ibaka.
- Haddadi and Randolph cut a lonely figuring as they’re the only two Grizzlies warming up for the second half. I wonder what they could possibly find to talk about.
- A lead that immediately grows to 27 is now slowly dwindling, and Scott Brooks isn’t overly thrilled.
- Observing the Thunder coaches is interesting: Assistant Ron Adams is the elder statesman, kind of like grandpa – he understands what’s going on, has seen it all before, and worries about the youngsters; Brooks is like dad, he gets angry when they screw up, stresses a bit, doesn’t overly praise but does show affection; and Mo Cheeks is like your favorite uncle, looks like he’s having fun.
- The Grizz are starting to play: Mike Conley is getting in the lane, both Gay and O.J. Mayo are starting to flow, and Zach Randolph, who in reality was thought to have had a quiet game, is staring a 20-10 in the face. Here they come.
- Eric Maynor is really, really solid. You mean Utah couldn’t use him?
- Ibaka has a lot of Theo Ratliff in him: Tries to block everything, has some post skills, changes games. If you think that’s an insult, Ratliff was an All-Star in 2001. Look it up.
- James Harden shows that sneaky athleticism for the second straight game in sticking a dead sprint oop on the break.
- Durant hits a step back that even the out-stretched, athletic Gay doesn’t come close to (must be nice never having to worry about getting a shot blocked) and that settles matters after the Grizz, thankfully, made this entertaining.
- Mark it down: 2:15 left and the first ‘Beat LA’ chants start.
- OKC 114 Memphis 105: Durant gets 31 on 18 shots; six place in double figures for the Thunder, but it’s Maynor (who kept Westbrook out in the fourth) and Ibaka who led; Gay led Memphis with 25, Randolph had 21 and 10.
- After the final buzzer there is love being thrown around everywhere. First, Durant officially is announced as scoring champ and the crowd goes crazy – they love the guy. Then, everyone is asked to stick around and watch the overhead, which is a tribute to arguably some of the best fans in the NBA. Nice touch.
Durant slipped on a polo shirt, had the look of someone who “might” be finished dressing, and that was good enough for a 15-strong contingent of media that swarmed like bees on honey to the man who had just made history. It wasn’t until then, the final day of the regular season when all had been secured, that Durant finally divulged that he did care about the scoring title. All year he’d insisted the scoring title wasn’t important but in truth he kept it “in the back of my mind” and only now did he throw us a bone and show that going after it meant something to him. Anytime you can erase Max Zaslofsky from the books you know it’s a record that took a while to be bumped off (62 years, actually). “It feels good to be part of history,” KD said. “That’s something I’ll always remember. That’s a blessing and something I can’t take for granted. I have to just continue to work from here.”
On Kevin Durant: “I love Kevin Durant. I love what he’s about. He handles himself with class and respect for the game.”
On the journey from last season to this: “I’m proud of a lot of people. A lot of people worked towards making this happen. Sam Presti has given me good guys. Very coachable. Great work ethic. They challenge each other.”
On Playoff possibilities: “We’ve had a good year. We have a chance for it to be a special year.”
On playing the Lakers: “It’s a great opportunity for us to play against the best and you always find things that you need to work on against the best. I don’t see our players getting overwhelmed.”