Thunder have staying power in third OT

Although Oklahoma City’s 133-123 win in triple overtime Monday only knotted its Western Conference semifinal series with Memphis at two-all, the Thunder demonstrated a variety of admirable qualities. Among these were endurance, versatility and, above all, the ability to overcome adversity.

Kevin Durant played a game-high 57 minutes, many of which saw him bumped, banged and ‘bowed by the ornery defense of both Tony Allen and Shane Battier. Indeed, the abusive and relentless pressure compelled Durant to force several shots throughout the game, and also to commit a pair of nearly fatal turnovers in the second OT.

However, while virtually every other player was running on empty during the third extra period, KD stepped up and hit a pair of buckets that iced the game. Durant finished with 35 points on 9-of-20 shooting, plus 16 of 18 from the stripe, along with 13 rebounds, four steals, and five turnovers. But, most importantly, he was OKC’s closer.

Russell Westbrook has an incredibly quick left-to-right crossover, and he accelerates as he attacks the hoop as though he was running downhill. Westbrook took full advantage of the slow defensive rotations of the Grizzlies’ big men, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, by repeatedly zipping into the lane. In his 51 minutes of daylight, Westbrook registered 40 points, five assists, three steals and two blocks — and was the prime mover in OKC’s recovery from an early 18-point deficit.

If Kendrick Perkins was too lead-footed to adequately defend the face-up attacks of either Gasol or Randolph, Nick Collison took up the slack. Credit Collison’s late-game defense on Randolph for keeping the Thunder competitive. Although he only tallied four points in his 35 minutes, Collison was easily the victor’s unsung hero.

Serge Ibaka’s playing time in regulation was filled with mistakes — zigging when he should have zagged, making poor decisions on both ends of the court, and committing a full game’s worth of fouls (5) in only 17 minutes. He was also routinely bullied by the Grizzlies’ big man tandem. But in the last OT, Ibaka had fresh legs and made up for his previous bonehead play by coming up with a critical basket and shot-block.

James Harden scored 19 points in his 49 minutes of action. As ever, Harden showcased his ability to drive through the slightest seam in a defense. But his most significant contributions were his surprisingly tough defense and his game-high seven assists.

On the debit side of the ledger, the Thunder only totaled 16 dimes (as opposed to 17 turnovers) in 63 minutes. That’s because of their reliance on the running game — they scored 26 fast-break points to Memphis’ 12, and at least two dozen more in early-offense situations. When their attack was forced to slowed to a walk, only Durant, Westbrook and Harden looked to shoot — this trio was responsible for taking 64 of the Thunder’s total of 95 shots (67.3%), an unhealthy lack of balance.

Relying mostly on isos was effective against a courageous but defensively challenged team like Memphis, but will prove disastrous if/when OKC moves on to play Dallas.

What other areas are in dire need of improvement in order for OKC to tame the Grizzlies?

The Thunder’s off-the-ball defense was frequently ragged, yet wasn’t fatal only because of the Grizzlies’ inept interior passing.

OKC’s failure to command its defensive glass — Memphis chased down 24 of its misses — enabled the home team to launch 16 more shots.

On several key sequences, Memphis ball-handlers were able to split loose double-teams.

Durant’s help-defense is okay, but finding somebody he can guard straight-up is a constant problem.

KD also needs to be presented with more weak-side screens so that Battier and Allen will have more trouble chesting him and playing deny defense.

Rick Barry must be summoned to Oklahoma City ASAP to give Perkins a crash course in shooting free throws underhanded. Otherwise, having Perkins touch the ball in clutch situations is always risky.

Ibaka has to gain 20 pounds of muscle by Wednesday night.

The Thunder need to come out of the gate with much more intensity, and also tighten their perimeter defense in the endgame.

For sure, OKC is one of the quickest, most athletic squads in the league — attributes that compensate for several deficiencies. And Kevin Durant’s quick release and incredible range can bail out even the most stagnant offensive sequences.

This inspirational win on the road also demonstrated the kind of determination and resilience that are necessary components of any team that aspires to a championship. The sum of these outstanding qualities is precisely how and why OKC survived the Grizzlies’ tenacious challenge and relentless barrage of miracle shots.

The post-marathon Game 5, however, will provide an even more significant test of heart and resourcefulness for both teams.