OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant admitted it himself. He's a liar.
"You guys motivated me a little bit even though I told you that you didn't," he said following the Thunder's decisive 120-109 Game 7 win over Memphis.
Could some silly headline really have turned this series? That seems to be a bit to trite for me to really believe, but there's no denying the change in Durant once The Oklahoman ran its now infamous "Mr. Unreliable" headline. In Game 6, it was 36 points, giving the Thunder new life. In Game 7, it was 33 on more Durant-like 12 of 18 shooting, including 5 of 5 from 3.
Durant's struggles throughout the series came with two obvious explanations: 1. The Thunder's oversimplistic offensive structure that didn't provide any counters or secondary options other than just getting a great scorer the ball and, 2. Tony Allen.
The MVP-to-be was hounded all seven games, finding space difficult to come by with Allen making things like dribbling and posting up challenging chores. But things opened up a bit more in the final two games of the series for Durant, and he says it was because of finding a bit of inner peace.
"I got out of my own way," he said. "I was thinking too much, I was worried about what you guys were saying, I was worried about how many shots I was going to shoot throughout the game. I was thinking too much. The game of basketball is played on instincts. And I realized I started playing this game to have fun and I didn't want to take the pure fun out of the game. I was thinking too much so I just released everything and enjoyed and I knew if played as hard as I could and did the work for my team the results were going to show. I just forgot everything and played my game."
The other big change: His running buddy started playing much, much better. Russell Westbrook, who is known for his erratic and relentless aggressiveness, was a bit over the top in Games 2-5. He was shooting too much, passing too little and trying to assume too much of the responsibility as he watched Durant struggle.
That changed a bit in Game 6 as Westbrook found better spots to shoot, hitting 9 of 21, while resisting the low-hanging fruit on the floor. He quit jacking 3s and contested long 2s, instead finding a much better flow and rhythm, starting by attacking the paint and locating his midrange sweetspots.
In Game 7, despite seven turnovers, he may have played the best game of his career. And that's saying something, because not only has he played some great ones, but seven turnovers are a lot. But Westbrook settled into an ideal tempo, displaying the playmaking and decision-making that everyone has always thought capable of him. In the third quarter, he attacked aggressively but under control, drawing defenders and setting up teammates. In the end, he popped the Grizzlies for another Game 7 triple-double (he had one in 2011 against them) with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists.
"I was shooting too many, like Kevin said, we were shooting too many walk-up 3s, off the screen and that's what they wanted," Westbrook said. "And I just looked at film and saw where I could find open ones and when Kevin would drive, those are the ones I would try to take. I tried to stay attacking the basket and getting my teammates open."
In the first five games, Westbrook had attempted 38 3-pointers. In the final two, just two. It was a clearcut adjustment for Westbrook, and something that put everyone on notice of just how devastating he and Durant can be when things find that point.
But this game also had another angle. The Grizzlies were playing without Zach Randolph, and had a severely limited Mike Conley. It was destined to be an uphill battle, likely taking a miracle to survive the Thunder in Game 7 in OKC. And as they look back on the series, they're going to regret Game 6 much more than the way they played in the finale, blowing the chance to finish things on their home floor with a full-strength squad.
Instead, they left the door open for Westbrook and Durant. Everyone was waiting on them to play their best game, and knew it was eventually going to happen. And as the Thunder move on and put behind them the grit and grind of a difficult, frustrating Grizzlies team, they may come out better off for it. They were tested, they were challenged. Durant had to face the music in Game 6 and responded. Westbrook looked himself in the mirror and changed the way he played in Game 7.
And as they lick their wounds from these seven games and prepare for the second round, they might actually be able to look back on those final two games as a touchstone moment to something bigger. For them, they got their four wins, even if it came harder than expected.