May 2nd, 2014
Valuing Every Possession

The Thunder hit first in Game 6, and it resonated throughout the night. In Saturday’s Game 7, it’ll have to do the same.

From the very opening possession, the Thunder’s mentality, mindset and focus were clear. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the NBA’s most dynamic offensive players, were bulldogs hounding their men on defense, with Westbrook slicing over screens to stay in front of Mike Conley and Durant bodying up Courtney Lee at the three point line. Their energy trickled down to their fellow starters and also the reserves, as the Thunder ran away to a 104-84 win, sending the series back to Oklahoma City for Game 7.

“We started off the game physically and just played as hard as we could,” Durant said. “We just wanted to come out and play extremely hard.”

As minutes dripped off the clock in Game 6, it was evident that there would be no lulls in concentration, communication or commitment to the Thunder’s principles on both sides of the floor. Every time Memphis made a push or a run, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club was steady, poised and ready to buckle down and get a stop, or execute with precision on the offensive end.

With the passion displayed on Thursday, the Thunder showed their care for, and value of, every possession on the court. While the team is thrilled with the way it played, it knows that it must bring every ounce of that same commitment on Saturday if it wants to win Game 7 and advance to the a Western Conference Semifinals.

“We want to continue to build off of what we did last game and just focus on doing that for 48 minutes,” Brooks said.

“(The key) will be to understand that we have to play with the urgency that it takes to win in this league,” Brooks explained. “That’s playing from the opening tap, possession by possession defensive mentality and passing mentality. We have to do that one more game in this series.”

On defense, the ability to stop the ball at the point of attack and in the pick-and-roll ensured that Memphis wouldn’t get any easy looks in the lane from its guards, or drive-and-kick chances for its shooters on the perimeter. In the post, the Thunder’s stable of bigs in Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams bodied up Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in attempts to force them into difficult, contested shots throughout the evening.

The relentless defensive approach created opportunities on offense as well, both in transition and in the half court. With Caron Butler in the starting lineup, the Thunder spaced the floor and created angles to attack the lane, getting more uncontested shots in the paint and along the perimeter. By playing both off its instincts and with the principles laid forth ever since training camp, the Thunder as a group hit on some key points of emphasis that veteran guard Derek Fisher believes will be crucial in Game 7.

“We were better able to do what we’ve talked about doing all season and particularly in the playoffs, where every possession does matter and is important,” Fisher explained. “Our decision making was improved and our mindset about the decisions we needed to make was improved and better.

“You have to just stay focused on the details and the things you can control,” Fisher continued. “That’s why coaches and your veteran player s are on you about doing things a certain way, so that when you get to Game 7, it’s not about having to do something different or extraordinary or out of your character. It’s the way you’ve been doing it all season.”

With its back against the wall and in a hostile road environment, the Thunder came through by paying attention to details and relying on the habits it has collectively built all season. In Game 7, the situation will be quite similar. With a raucous and vibrant Oklahoma City crowd in Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder knows it will have energy on its side. However, it must control the pace, tempo and rhythm of the game to its liking by turning that emotion into a locked-in defensive mentality and precise offensive flow. Game 7 is sure to be a dog fight between these two proud Western Conference foes, so it’ll all come down to who makes more plays and can be consistent for the longest stretches.

“You have to win this game or you go home and there are no other chances,” Perkins said. “It’s no different than last night. You just have to clear your head and go out there and play basketball.”