A hangover for one, momentum for the other. That’s the easy explanation for what transpired Wednesday night at Oklahoma City Arena. It’s not the only one.
The Thunder certainly didn’t look like a team 48 hours removed from a triple-overtime slugfest, getting spry performances from many of those who logged big minutes Monday night. The Grizzlies could’ve used another night’s slumber, vacillating between sleepwalking and irritation when the game was won in the middle two quarters.
Oklahoma City gains control — for now — in this Western Conference semifinal after the 99-72 romp in front of another sold-out sea of white. Memphis gets its chance to knot the series at 3-3 back at FedEx Forum on Friday, while the Thunder need just one win to lock up a Western Conference finals date with Dallas.
But to just chalk up Game 5 as merely a residual of Game 4 isn’t fair to the Thunder and fails to take into account the Grizzlies’ self-destructive tendencies. Memphis can’t blame being on the brink of elimination on fatigue.
"They’re not tired," Grizzlies stopper Tony Allen pointed out. "Tired isn’t the reason. We have to compete for 48 minutes, and that’s what it is all about."
Zach Randolph, the backbone of Memphis’ remarkable postseason run, never found his footing. He wasn’t involved early, getting hounded by Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins, and was frustrated late. For the past two games, Mike Conley hasn’t been the same clutch guy he’s been through the rest of the playoffs. Sure, his 3-pointer forced the first overtime Monday, but he also has shot 6 of 28 in the past two losses, including 4 of 16 in Game 5.
Oklahoma City dominated the boards, got out on the break and simply bullied the Grizzlies. Considering how the previous game played out, the turnaround was startling.
"We got embarrassed tonight," Conley said.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook get top billing for the Thunder, but they weren’t forced to shoulder the burden alone. After playing a combined 108 minutes two nights prior, the two All-Stars took it relatively easy. Neither played in the final period. With the blowout in hand, Nate Robinson even got some fourth-quarter burn.
There was no way these West upstarts could outdo Monday’s 63-minute drama, but Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins had to expect more. Especially from his heavy lifters. Conley and Randolph didn’t step up, shooting a combined 4 of 18 from the floor in the first half. Marc Gasol had taken just three shots by the break.
"Not only were we physically down, we were probably mentally down, too," Hollins admitted. "I’m not making any excuses for our group, but we didn’t play very well."
It didn’t get better in the second half. Randolph typified the lifeless performance. His needless foul on a made Thunder free throw midway through the third quarter was his fourth. Durant pumped his fist at the site of Z-Bo headed to the bench. Randolph then tried to run an ill-advised one-man fast break at the end of the third, only to fail to get a shot off.
"All of our bigs really did a good job battling all night," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I thought the energy in the building was good, but that is what we expect. Our guys really did a good job staying focused and in the moment, and now it’s time to just move on."
Brooks was talking about moving on to Game 6. Moving on to one round shy of the NBA Finals would seem to be on the minds of the Thunder fans and perhaps the players after such a dominating showing. If it was, they weren’t letting on.
"We have to worry about Game 6 and how we can get better," a backpack-wearing Durant said humbly.
Energy figured to be an issue in Game 5 after Monday’s marathon. Yes, both teams are young, but the conventional wisdom was that Memphis would have the heavier legs at more crucial spots. Big bodies Gasol and Randolph were sucking wind in the third overtime, while Durant and Westbrook continued to bounce around.
"Everybody keeps talking about 22-year-olds and young legs," Hollins countered before the game, "but 56 minutes is 56 minutes."
But it was OKC that won the battle of recuperation. Durant said the Thunder spent Tuesday’s off day doing "maintenance" and working to re-energize. Thursday figures to be even easier after Durant played just 31 minutes. Westbrook checked out after 25. And having 18,000-plus emptying their lungs didn’t hurt in the refueling department.
"We got a little juice coming into tonight," Durant said after scoring a game-high 19 in the relatively stress-free outing.
The stats say the winner of Game 5 in 2-2 series goes on to win the vast majority of the time. Maybe so, but no one would be surprised if these two teams are back here Sunday. The same sugar-rush high the OKC faithful delivered will surely be duplicated off Beale Street on Friday night.
"We have to bounce back now," Gasol said. "We have to bounce back because we have no other choice. We have to win the next game. There’s no other choice."