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Fran Blinebury

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Russell Westbrook committed seven turnovers in Sunday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Ronald Martinez/NBAE/Getty Images

Normally a strong suit, Thunder looking for more effort


Posted May 3 2011 9:07AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The always helpful media were happy to arrive at the Thunder practice facility Monday ready to offer more adjustments than a tailor at a weight watchers meeting.

Maybe double-team Zach Randolph. Or triple-team him. Or hog-tie him and toss him into a supply closet.

Maybe find a way to switch out the rough-and-tumble Marc Gasol for that Euro-soft brother of his who's often being handed the blame for any of the shortcomings that ever befall the Lakers.

Maybe replace all of the Xs and Os in the playbook with a couple of different letters that might help to reinvent the game.

Russell Westbrook had a different idea.

"Play with more effort," he said. "That's the biggest adjustment we can make. We were in the right spots, but weren't playing with a lot of effort."

Huh?

How does a team that a year ago was the darling of the basketball world for the way they hustled and chased after the Lakers on their loud and rowdy home court and just a week ago was celebrating its first playoff series win in its new hometown and just days ago was being whispered as dark horse threat to win a championship right now, not bring effort?

"I don't know," Westbrook said. "That's a question we asked ourselves. We came out a little sluggish and Memphis never took their foot off the gas."

If it happens again, the Grizzlies might never take their foot off the OKC necks.

That, of course, is the danger of running into the buzzsaw of a No. 8 seed.

"Let's face it. We've been playing with house money ever since we got into the playoffs," said the Grizzlies' Shane Battier.

It is also the danger of being a young team on the rise that hasn't yet had to live up to great expectations.

For all the headlines and hurrahs, Kevin Durant (22), Russell Westbrook (22), James Harden (21) and Serge Ibaka (21) are still greener than Earth Day.

There is a reason that conventional wisdom says there's a learning curve to the NBA playoffs that usually comes with skinned knees, bloodied noses and bruised psyches. For every Magic Johnson and Larry Bird who enter the league and drum up championships before they can even remember their way to the locker room, there's another 30 years or so of hard knocks.

The Thunder will consider themselves fortunate if Sunday's 114-101 knock from the Grizzlies in the series opener only jars them back to the task at hand for Game 2.

Effort?

Coach Scott Brooks was, well, thunderstruck that he would have to face the subject.

"That's not something that we usually talk about here and that's a good thing," he said. "Very rarely do I have to mention that or coach effort. It happens. I don't think our effort was as good as it needs to be."

Not if the Thunder want to see a Game 5.

From the opening minutes on Sunday, Memphis and OKC seemed to be playing on two different levels. The Grizzlies rode the dazzling early offense of Randolph, which lit the fuse that set off the entire fireworks display. The Thunder appeared content to loosen up with some 1-on-1 calisthenics.

Could the Grizzlies have benefited from playing -- and surviving -- what was essentially a bare-knuckle six-game street fight in the first round against the Spurs, while the Thunder took a less physical and less taxing five-game win over the Nuggets?

Could the Grizzlies, just 37 hours after their close-out celebration in Memphis, have taken the court for Game 1 fueled by adrenaline and momentum, while the Thunder got a little too comfy with two extra days of rest?

Could it simply have been a case of youth being underserved? After all, there were plenty of times when it felt like the Thunder were waiting for the noise and the emotion and jolt of energy from the famous OKC Arena crowd to lift them like a rising tide and carry them home.

To be sure, the Grizzlies deserve the credit for strutting into their second consecutive road playoff opener and seizing the series by the throat. They are growing smarter by the day, tougher by the hour and more confident by the minute. Go ahead, leave a window cracked and they'll be right in to swipe the silverware.

What the Grizzlies have not been is an offensive machine. They averaged 99.9 points per game during the regular season and hadn't rung up so many since 120 against lowly Sacramento on Feb. 26. But given 52 points in the paint and 11 offensive rebounds that produced 22 second-chance points, they might as well have been shooting fish in a table-top aquarium.

The Thunder allowed Memphis to treat the paint like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet and watched Z-Bo and Gasol and Sam Young and Tony Allen and Shane Battier and Darrell Arthur attack and outhustle and outwork them on the glass. The Thunder were careless with the ball, committing 18 turnovers, and just sloppy with their attitude.

"We didn't make plays and didn't get stops," Brooks said. "It seems like every time we had a defensive stop they got a put-back or we turned it over and those are back-breaking plays. But the effort, we're going to be much better."

For a change, it was something to talk about.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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