24 seconds into the Memphis Grizzlies' home opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Mike Conley rolled his ankle. He didn't return to the game. And so began a tight, physical four quarters of ball that saw Memphis fighting deficits all night, staying close but ultimately failing to grab and secure a lead of any real weight. This one reminded us how evenly these teams seem to line up when playing one another -- and in turn, of course, of last season's epic Western Conference Semifinal.
Last night's 98-95 Thunder victory brought back those memories, but there were also plenty of new additions and wrinkles to this showcase of Who's Got Next in the Western Conference that, if an 0-2 Grizzlies start didn't already, drive home this fact: Last season was last season, and things aren't quite the same as we left them in the spring.
The Grizzlies built their reputation on being the on-court bruisers, wearing down opponents with their strength. Oklahoma City's ability to roll out Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed certainly seemed to put a dent in Memphis's advantage in the paint, even when the Thunder bigs got in foul trouble early. Clean looks were tough to come by, and although both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph notched double-doubles, their effectiveness was sporadic. On the perimeter, attackers were often met with high hands and contested shots; it wasn't until Jeremy Pargo, who played very solid at the point in Conley's absence, got comfortable that the offense seemed to open up and flow a bit more in the first half. In spurts, the offense was there in the second half, but it faltered just a few more times whereas Oklahoma City got open looks and did not.
But hey, the Thunder are a legitimate contender. Along with last night's stifling defense, they can attack you in multiple ways (Russell Westbrook, feeling bad about his Grizz counterpart, did his part to level the playing field by shooting 0-for-13 from the floor). That's where they currently hold the advantage over Memphis. Rudy Gay had stretches where he controlled the Grizzlies' game offensively; it's just that some were good stretches and some were forced. All told, many Grizzlies took ill-advised jumpers, as nothing felt like it was easy last night. Gay's friend Kevin Durant, on the other hand, hit every big shot he took in the fourth -- he followed a smooth crossover and floater in the lane with a dagger three and a final fallaway jumper to seal the deal. James Harden and Daequan Cook also hit crucial triples late in the final frame as well to give the Thunder breathing room.
Memphis, throughout this one, didn't stop trying to make something work, but their offense was never consistent enough, and while the defense was generally strong, the late-game lapses that led to open shots for the guys on Oklahoma City's deadly perimeter squelched any final comeback bid. That's the other factor: three-point shooting. Memphis is now 5-for-23 through two games from downtown. A lack of outside scoring will only put more pressure on the guys inside, so somebody will need to start hitting some treys to free up floor space going forward. Last night boils down to Oklahoma City being able to, for the most part, match the Grizzlies' physicality, and Memphis being unable to find the ingenuity and/or quality look(s) on offense to get the big buckets like the Thunder could.
All that said, the Grizzlies lost their starting point guard, in turn got some encouraging glimpses of promise from Pargo in a leading role, and, like everyone else in the league, are still working on tightening basically everything up. They were toe-to-toe with Oklahoma City last night, a well-constructed squad that's apparently very prepared to start this condensed season with flying colors. Memphis has not slipped so much as they haven't taken off on all cylinders yet. There remains plenty of time for that.