OKLAHOMA CITY — The Memphis Grizzlies are showing a knack for closing out tight games against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
All that’s left to prove is whether they can finish off a playoff series that’s been nip and tuck throughout and move on to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
In each of the first three games of the series, the go-ahead bucket was scored in the final 2 minutes. Then Game 4 went to overtime, with Memphis winning 103-97 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series and put the Thunder on the brink of elimination. Game 5 is Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.
"It’s not like any of the games that it was handed to us. Every game has been right down to the last 2 minutes," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Tuesday as both teams took the day off. "That gives you hope."
For Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City, a once-promising season now comes down to desperation time. Without injured All-Star Russell Westbrook, the Thunder need to win three in a row if they hope to reach the West finals for a third straight season or make their second straight trip to the NBA Finals.
For his career, Durant is 1-3 when facing elimination. The only win came in Game 7 against Memphis two seasons ago in the West semifinals.
"One thing about Kevin, he’s going to come back and give everything he has," Brooks said. "He’s not an excuse guy. He’s not going to blame anything on nobody, other than put the pressure on himself to perform every night. That’s what makes us a good team, because of that attitude that he has."
Durant has had to do it all since Westbrook had knee surgery prior to Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. He’s averaging 30.8 points, 11 rebounds and 6.8 assists in this round, and also hit all the key shots down the stretch in the Thunder’s Game 1 victory.
But over time, Memphis — the league’s top defensive team in the regular season — has made it harder for Durant to excel with the game on the line. After going 10 for 16 from the field with 22 points in the fourth quarter of the first two games, Durant has gone 3 for 17 and scored seven points in the fourth quarter in Games 3 and 4 plus overtime on Monday night.
His shooting percentage in crunch time has gone down in each game.
"We’ve just got to find a way to make those plays. We’re playing hard every day. It’s just not going our way," Durant said. "We just have to get ready for Game 5. It’s at home, so it should be exciting. I’m looking forward to it."
While Oklahoma City is at risk of bowing out, the Grizzlies are one win away from the next big step in their progression as a franchise. Before this season, they had won only one postseason series, against San Antonio in 2011.
"It’s still a game. Still we have to play another game, and we have to win another game. There’s no greater magnitude," coach Lionel Hollins said. "It’s just a game that we have to go out and play well to win. It’s just like when were down 0-1, just like when we were 1-1, just like when we were 2-1. It never changes. It’s a game that has to be played to the best of your ability and the winning and losing takes care of itself."
With two teams that have been so closely matched, there don’t figure to be any more major adjustments at this point. Brooks was happy with his decision to have power forward Serge Ibaka guard 7-footer Marc Gasol instead of counterpart Zach Randolph, given that Ibaka emerged from a shooting slump for 17 points and 14 rebounds.
"I think it loosened him up, just his mind, so he can focus on what he does well. We need his scoring, we need his shooting and I thought last game was good," Brooks said. "Hopefully we can get it again."
It still wasn’t enough to change the final result — the third straight Memphis win by exactly six points.
"As hard as they came out on us (Monday) night, they’re going to come out even harder when they get home. It’s desperation for them," Hollins said. "And we can’t anticipate or think that it’s going to be an easy game. We have to go out and be ready for a heavyweight battle."
Brooks said the three straight losses haven’t changed his team’s mindset, which remains "we expect to win and if we don’t, it’ll be disappointing." And he doesn’t want the win-or-else mentality to create mounting pressure on his players.
"The pressure is not to make every shot. The pressure is just to compete as hard as you can for your team, and wherever that takes you, you live with it," he said. "I think our guys are ready to commit to one more great effort game, and we’re looking forward to it."
After the loss Monday night, Brooks had a light-hearted moment and mentioned knowing that there’s a barbecue festival in Memphis on Friday, when Game 6 would be played.
"We want to be able to win in front of our home fans and have another game in Memphis and see what we can do there. I like our ability to come back in tough situations, within games and even to the next game. This is obviously not the greatest position to be in but we still have a chance to be a part of history," Brooks said.
"There’s not a lot of teams that have come back from 3-1 but we have the talent, we have the teamwork, we have the effort and teamwork to do it."