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Thunder's killer instinct in Game 5 shows growth of a young team

by | CBSSports.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It took three overtimes for the Thunder and Grizzlies to settle things in Game 4. In Game 5 Wednesday night, it took just three quarters.

After the marathon game Monday night, this one had the feel it was about who was going to have the energy and who was going to have the legs. One team definitely had some. The other most definitely did not.

Oklahoma City used a 16-4 run to close the second quarter to break away from the sluggish Grizzlies, taking a pivotal Game 5, 99-72, to go up 3-2 in the series. Memphis, for really the first time this postseason, didn't appear ready to play. The effort, energy and focus just weren't there.

"I don't know if fatigue was a factor. It was not on our end," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It is always good to play on your home floor. Our crowd was terrific tonight, but I thought we just played good basketball."

With the way things started, though, it was hard to ever see Game 5 finishing the way it did.

Grizzlies-Thunder: Game 5
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The Thunder went four minutes without a point, turned the ball over nine times and scored just 17 points in the first quarter. The good news was Memphis had only 17 too.

Pretty much everybody was thinking the same thing: That triple-overtime Game 4 hasn't quite worn off yet.

But whether it was the home crowd, a killer instinct that manifested from within, or just a switch that flipped on, the Thunder turned things up a notch in the second quarter. And the Grizzlies were left in the dust.

While the Thunder had the luxury of a rocking arena to pick them up and give a boost, the Grizzlies were left to manufacture some on their own. And they just never were able to muster any.

"It probably was," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said on fatigue being a factor. "It is always better for the home team in these situations and the team that won the game. Not only were we physically down, but we were probably mentally down too."

The Grizzlies missed a ton of layups, shot just 35.9 percent from the field and only had one player score in double-figures (Marc Gasol, 15 points). Between Zach Randolph and Gasol, Memphis got only 24 points and 12 rebounds. A far cry from the production the Grizzlies had been getting from their two towers.

You can certainly credit the Thunder defense which was, fantastic. Giving up just 72 points and holding anyone to the percentages they did is commendable, no matter the circumstances. But the Grizzlies really did just miss a lot of shots. They were just 8 for 24 on shots at the rim, missed nine free throws and on top of it, were killed on the glass 50-33. They were anything but themselves Wednesday night and the result was a 27-point dump-trucking by the Thunder.

And in the biggest game of the series, no less.

But that's where you have to give a nod to this young Thunder team. They went to Memphis for important games after losing home court in Game 1. They had to win a game there. In Game 3, they blew a 16-point lead and were forced to answer a ton of questions about chemistry, their point guard and then look in the mirror and deal with letting one slip away. Then in Game 4, they had to come back from 18 down, survive two miracle heaves from the Grizzlies and outlast a team on the road in three overtimes.

But they did it. And now, they're better for it.

"Going through that kind of molds our character and brings us closer together," Kevin Durant said. "It's all about us sticking together all the time."

The Thunder organization preaches development more than anyone, with general manager Sam Presti always using the word "process" to describe the path to the top for his team. And looking back on those two road games in Memphis, coupled with this Game 5 pasting, you can see some real growth. This was the most important game of this team's young existence, a 2-2 swing game. And they were completely locked in and ready to go. That's a statement right there.

For the Thunder to have that killer instinct in such a big, important game says something. It says something about the players, the coaches and the organization that maybe, just maybe, they're ready to do some big things this season. These guys were just tough, both mentally and physically Wednesday. There was no squandering leads in this one or questions about Russell Westbrook. The Thunder had a chance to put their foot on the Grizzlies' throat and they left no doubt.

Of course, nothing is settled yet. The Thunder have an opportunity to close now in Memphis, but Game 6 absolutely will not come easy like this. The Grizzlies won't miss layups. They'll rebound better. The effort will be better. They are going to bring a different mindset, a different mentality and a different energy. That's not a team that lies down.

"I still believe in my team and I still believe we'll come back," Hollins said. "For us, it's a one-game series."

You can't feel too good about this one for too long because Game 6 and a rabid, hungry, towel-waving FedEx Forum crowd awaits. But after such a tight, nip-and-tuck series for four games, the Thunder made a loud, clear statement in Game 5. They were ready. And Memphis better be in Game 6 because the Thunder don't appear to be getting tired.


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