May 14, 2011, 12:54 AM EDT
From Games 2 through 5, Oklahoma City had kept the force of nature that can be Zach Randolph in check. They had packed the lane, threw multiple long defenders at him and never let him get comfortable. He shot just 32 percent in those four games.
But it all changed Friday night, starting with Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins putting shooter O.J. Mayo with the starters to spread out the Thunder defense and give Randolph a little more room to operate. He got going early and was even stronger as the game went on. It was a masterful performance from one of the best offensive big men in the game.
Randolph finished with 30 points on 22 shots and the Grizzlies won 95-83 to force a deciding Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday.
It seems corny to talk about a game won by heart and grit, which can often be the crutch of bad analysis. But I’m at a loss for another phrase to describe the Grizzlies’ second half. When a lot of teams just roll over — we’re looking right at you, Lakers — Memphis fought back. They executed better under pressure, something the Thunder have struggled with at times.
The Thunder made their plays in the first half and were up 10 at halftime. The Grizzlies offense got stagnant in the second quarter and missed jumpers led to Russell Westbrook and James Harden getting out in transition. The Thunder took their lead with Kevin Durant having just seven points, and you expected this to become a rout like the second half of Game 5.
But Shane Battier hit a 3-pointer right before halftime, and the Grizzlies came out on an 11-2 run to start the third quarter. And that was about grit and heart. About refusing to die. Memphis won the third quarter 28-14 as their shooters got hotter and more confident.
Meanwhile, Durant never got going, finishing with 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Battier, who has struggled to slow Durant this series, had a fantastic game.
Outside of Randolph, the Grizzlies didn’t light it up on offense — as a team they shot just 43.4 percent and averaged one point per possession. For some perspective, over the course of the season only three teams averaged less offense than one point per possession (Washington, Cleveland and Milwaukee).
But the Thunder were at 0.87 points per possession. They were 4-of-16 from three and 5-of-13 from 16 feet out to the arc – the jump shots were not falling. Westbrook (27 points) and Harden (14) had good games, but after that the rest of the Thunder struggled to score.
So it is off to Oklahoma for a Game 7. A game where Durant is fully capable of bouncing back and taking over. Or Randolph’s confidence could carry over to another huge game. Or both. And someone unexpected will invariably rise up.
This series has been a lot of fun, complete with improbable comebacks and thrilling overtimes. And now it all comes down to one game. This is going to be one of the highlights of these playoffs. You can just feel it.