The Grizzlies won this tight game for much the same reason they had lost Game 1 in Oklahoma City; free throws. The Grizzlies converted 23 of 28 attempts at the line (82%), including a perfect 6-6 from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in the game's final two minutes, while Thunder star Kevin Durant — a career 88% foul shooter — suffered a devastating empty trip with under a minute to play. Those Grizzlies free throws were the only points scored in the game's final two minutes, which began with the teams tied 81-81.
In addition to Durant's missed free throws, the Thunder also watched Derek Fisher, so strong in Oklahoma City, miss an open three off a turnover on the subsequent possession.
With Lionel Hollins astutely managing offense/defense substitutions down the stretch to mitigate potential mismatches against the Thunder's small-ball lineup and with Conley and Gasol coming up clutch from the charity stripe, the Grizzlies' late game execution pulled them through what had been a shaky performance for much of the game.
"I feel like every game we have gotten better and today we were not better than the last game," Gasol said afterward.
Conley echoed these sentiments. "We were fortunate down the stretch that some plays went our way," he said. "Obviously, they beat us in a lot of areas tonight. For us the come away with the win, we are very happy. We'll take it, but it just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do."
In a series where neither team has been able to get much distance from the other, the Thunder made some expected adjustments in Game 3 that paid dividends.
After playing centers Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet an average of 37 combined minutes a game in Oklahoma City, Thunder coach Scott Brooks benched Thabeet completely and played a still-ineffective Perkins only 17 minutes. With third big Nick Collison still only playing 14 minutes, the Thunder instead leaned much more heavily on small ball, playing — by my count — 27 of 48 minutes with only one "big" on the floor. The Thunder squeaked past the Grizzlies in those minutes, 55-53, while being outscored 34-26 in the 21 minutes with a conventional lineup on the floor.
Particularly troubling for the Grizzlies was that the Thunder, despite playing smaller and not shooting much worse, beat the Grizzlies handily on the glass. The Thunder managed to corral a quarter of their own misses, while the Grizzlies, with only five total offensive rebounds, got fewer than 12% of their own missed shots. Gasol and Zach Randolph combined for half as many offensive rebounds (2) in 73 minutes as Collison had in 14. In the fourth quarter, Randolph consistently got his mitts on missed Grizzlies' shots but was never able to secure one.
As for the offensive rebounds the Grizzlies surrendered, especially the nine in the first half, Gasol explained the Thunder's good offensive rebounding with smaller lineups as a consequence of forcing the Grizzlies to help too much defensively.
"We go to help and what happens is that it is hard to box out when you lose your position defensively. Then the offensive guy has position for the rebound and he is usually going to get it." Gasol said.
If rebounding was a problem for the full 48, the Grizzlies got knocked off their game in the second quarter as a result of a Gasol foul and a series of made Jerryd Bayless jumpers. The Grizzlies led by a game-high 10 points at the 9:02 mark of the second quarter when Gasol got his second foul and came to the bench, where he stayed, surprisingly, for the rest of the half. Bayless had hit three jumpers in a row just before Gasol exited, but with Bayless hot and Gasol on the bench, the team seemed to get jumper-happy. Bayless shot 0-4, all on long jumpers, the rest of the quarter as the Thunder outscored the Grizzlies 27-16 with Gasol on the bench.
The Grizzlies didn't make the same mistake with Gasol in the second half, sticking with their normal rotation despite Gasol picking up a fourth foul with 4:20 to play in the third quarter.
"We talked about it," Gasol said of staying in the game with four fouls. "Lionel looked at me and I told him that I could stay." Gasol picked up a fifth later on, but didn't foul out.
Gasol lead a balanced effort offensively with a team-high 20 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists. He did most of his damage in the third quarter —scoring on three consecutive trips at one point, all from the left block — notching 12 points in the period to help the Grizzlies regain the lead that had been lost with him on the bench.
The Grizzlies made their own adjustments as well, largely on the defensive end and mostly a carry-over from a successful fourth quarter in Game 2.
This time, the team didn't wait until the fourth quarter to put Tony Allen on Durant, shifting him there late in the first quarter and then using him on Durant for much of the game when both players were on the floor.
Durant finished with a 25-11-5 line, on 9-19 shooting — subpar by his exalted standards — but struggled in the second half (9 points on 3-11 shooting) and did most of his damage in the first half when Allen wasn't on him.
Durant scored eight points on 3-3 shooting to start the game before Allen got the switch, and then another six points on three consecutive possessions in the early second quarter with Allen on the bench. That accounted for 14 of Durant's 16 first-half points.
While Allen got a little shot-happy in the third quarter, it's increasingly clear that he's the most disruptive, most effective defender the team has against Durant, and Allen's frustraing offensive misadventures have been mitigated somewhat by strong work on the boards and by generally responding to the Thunder's relative inattention less with jump shots than baseline drives, which are more likely to generate trips to the free-throw line.
With Allen spending more time on Durant and Tayshaun Prince continuing to struggle — Prince shot 1-5 in the game and spent 14 of his 22 minutes playing with the team's full starting lineup, which explains his incongruous +9 on the game — the Grizzlies used the combination of Allen and Pondexter together more in this game.
Overall, the Grizzlies held the Thunder to 36% shooting, clamping down on Durant in the second half and benefiting from the continued struggles of Serge Ibaka (6-17 from the floor) and equally quiet performances from would-be marksmen Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher (a combined 9-25, including 2-8 from beyond the three-point line).
It's too facile, but Durant's nearly shocking missed free-throws in the final minute almost seemed like the exhausted sigh of a player being asked to shoulder too much of the burden for his team.
If Durant seemed tired but determined after the game, Conley and Gasol seemed unsatisfied and unimpressed with their own performance.
"We're still hungry," Conley said when asked if his team was now the favorite in the series. "We're not thinking we're above anyone."
In a series where every game has come down to late execution and the Thunder seem to have made some effective adjustments, a one game lead and precarious home-court advantage are no reason for overconfidence.
This tight battle continues in Memphis Monday night.