During the five-month NBA lockout, Commissioner David Stern and team owners lobbied for their superstar players to remain with small-market teams, and not depart for the bright lights of the big city, for the sake of competitive balance. Wednesday night, the reigning two-time scoring champion, Kevin Durant, lifted his Oklahoma City Thunder to a 98-95 victory over All-Star Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies, in a showdown of the league’s most prominent small-market teams.
Despite missing six of his first seven shots, Durant scored nine of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter to help OKC remain undefeated. He made all three of his shots from the field in the quarter and tallied two assists before converting a pair of free throws with a second remaining to spoil Memphis home opener at the FedExForum.
The game was an early contest between two of the West’s young up-and-coming teams, who met in last season’s conference semifinals, in which the Thunder won in seven games. The atmosphere at the FedExForum had the intensity of a playoff game, with both sides scrapping and jostling for control in the seesaw matchup. Memphis starting point guard Mike Conley went down early, after the first possession of the game, and was sidelined with an aggravated left ankle sprain. Jeremy Pargo, a rookie out of Gonzaga, who played two seasons in the Euroleague before being drafted, filled in for the injured Conley and surprisingly controlled the Grizzlies offense, finishing with 15 points, seven assists with a single turnover. He pressurized OKC’s All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who had perhaps the worst offensive performance of his career, all game.
Two nights after KD, Westbrook and James Harden combined for 77 of the Thunder’s 104 points in a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves; Westbrook finished 0-for-13, with four points (all on free throws), six assists, three rebounds and four turnovers. The star guard let his emotions get the best of him, as his frustration led to an altercation with Durant during a second-quarter timeout. The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry reported that Westbrook was upset that Thabo Sefolosha passed up a wide-open 3-pointer, off his assist, and yelled at Sefolosha to “shoot the (expletive) ball.” Durant attempted to calm Westbrook down during the break but, instead, the two began a shouting match and had to be separated. The heated exchange is the latest in the Durant-Westbrook saga, as the duo continue to competitively jaw at one another. Durant later patted Westbrook on the head after the timeout, and the two seemed to communicate well throughout the rest of the game.
The Thunder needed every bit to stop a Grizzlies fourth-quarter comeback. Led by Pargo, Memphis put together a 12-6 run to open the second half. Randolph, who finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds and a block, gave the Grizzlies their first lead in the third quarter on a fadeaway to make it 61-60. The teams remained close with OKC carrying a 72-70 lead in the final period. Memphis took a 76-75 lead on a 15-foot shot by Randolph with nine-and-a-half minutes left, but the Thunder began connecting from beyond the arch to compose a 14-1 run. OKC guard Daequan Cook led the charge with two long 3’s, while Durant and Harden had one apiece. Harden, who finished with 20 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal, gave the Thunder its largest lead of the game. Off a Durant assist, he drilled a 3-pointer at the top of the key to increase their lead to 89-77 with 5:23 remaining.
A run like that would have deflated most teams, but Memphis would not back down. Randolph scored six straight Grizzlies points to cut into the deficit. Rudy Gay, who scored 19 points with 12 rebounds, delivered a 12-foot baseline jumper that pulled Memphis with two, 92-90, with 58 seconds remaining. Durant drilled a step-back jumper from the left wing over the outstretched arm of Gay with 35.4 seconds to give the Thunder a 94-90 advantage. After a Thunder turnover, Pargo found Gay for a slam dunk that made the score 94-92 with 5 seconds left. Off an OKC timeout, Westbrook made a pair of free throws with 4 seconds left before Randolph connected on a rainbow 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining to bring the Grizzlies within one, 96-95. But KD was too much for Memphis, as he sealed the Thunder’s victory knocking down a pair of clutch free throws as time expired.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Durant is the only player to record 30-plus points in the first three games in the past two seasons. The Thunder were 24-5 last season when KD recorded 30 points or more. He finished with 32 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Westbrook is the first player to go 0-for-13 in a win since Charlotte Hornets’ David Wesley did so against the Nets in April, 2001, and the fourth since 1985-1986 seasons, joining Gerald Wilkins and Tim Hardaway.
The win bumped the Thunder to 3-0, the first time the franchise has started a season with three straight wins since relocating to Oklahoma City from Seattle. They head home to Chesapeake Energy Arena on Thursday night to face the defending NBA champions the Dallas Mavericks, who are winless on the season after their title run. It will be the fourth game in five nights for OKC and the first of four regular season meetings between the teams. The Memphis Grizzlies fall to 0-2 on the season. They will host the Houston Rockets on Friday.