MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Kevin Durant insisted the Thunder facing elimination was all the motivation he needed.
Thanks to the NBA’s best scorer, the Thunder remain alive and can finish off the Memphis Grizzlies back in Oklahoma City.
Durant scored 36 points to break out of a slump, and the Thunder routed the Grizzlies 104-84 on Thursday night to force a deciding seventh game in the first-round Western Conference series. His performance came on a day where the hometown newspaper questioned his struggles with a headline calling him “Mr. Unreliable.”
“We needed to win this game,” Durant said. “That’s more motivation than anything, so our team responded. We’ve got to do an even better job in Game 7.”
Russell Westbrook added 25 points for the Thunder, who haven’t been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs since 2010. They took control early with Durant scoring 14 points in the first quarter, led by 15 at halftime and never let Memphis get that close again in the second half in the first game in the series that didn’t go to overtime since the opener.
“You don’t get to his level as an NBA player and a great player as he is to have other people motivate you,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s self-motivated. He’s a tremendous kid and does everything for his team, for our organization. We’re proud of him because he gives everything he has. That was the only focus for tonight’s game.”
Durant also had 10 rebounds and made 14 of 15 free throws. Reggie Jackson had 16 points off the bench for the Thunder, who will host Game 7 on Saturday night.
Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said the Thunder simply wanted the game more and called the loss embarrassing in front of a sellout crowd.
“Now, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot, and we have to go to a hostile environment now and pretty much show where our heart is at,” Allen said.
Marc Gasol had 17 points and Zach Randolph 16 for Memphis. Guard Mike Conley strained his right hamstring, briefly returned and left for good with 8:48 left. Conley went down in the third quarter near midcourt dribbling when Kendrick Perkins reached in for a steal. The Memphis guard returned briefly, but Conley was limping noticeably.
With the Thunder in control, Conley went to the locker room again and didn’t return.
Nick Calathes currently is suspended for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy, leaving Memphis with only Beno Udrih at point guard. Memphis coach Dave Joerger said Udrih will play a lot of minutes if Conley can’t. Conley said he will be re-evaluated Friday and receive as much treatment as possible before tipoff Saturday.
“I plan on playing,” Conley said.
Durant had to answer questions after the shootaround Thursday about that headline in The Oklahoman newspaper. Durant said he had no problem with the headline and that he just needed to hit shots and be more aggressive.
Smiling just before tipoff, Durant did just that. The man who led the NBA scoring 32 points a game during the regular season opened by hitting five of his first seven and finished 11 of 23 from the floor. He continued to struggle outside the arc where he missed all six of his attempts.
The Grizzlies had a chance to advance to their third semifinal in four years on their own floor. Yet they couldn’t shoot well or match the Thunder’s intensity with a sloppy performance in front of a sellout crowd that tried to energize the Grizzlies. Oklahoma City outrebounded Memphis 47-36 and easily outshot them 49.3 percent (37 of 75) to 37.3 percent (31 of 83).
“We knew sooner or later our shots would fall,” Brooks said.
Brooks also benched Thabo Sefolosha and started Caron Butler.
“This is why you play the game to prove doubters wrong, and adversity builds character,” Butler said. “This team has a strong character and a will.”
Memphis last led 6-4. A team that thrives off defense, the Grizzlies couldn’t knock down shots even when they managed to get consecutive stops.
The Grizzlies got to 42-37 with 3:08 left on a steal and fast-break layup by Conley. The Thunder finished the half with a 14-4 run for a 56-41 lead. The Grizzlies missed their first six shots to open the third quarter, finishing any hopes of a comeback.
James Johnson scored 15 points off the bench for Memphis, and Allen added 13.
Notes: This will be the second Game 7 between the teams in four years. Oklahoma City beat Memphis in seven in the 2011 conference semifinals. … The Grizzlies are 4-1 with a chance to close out a series. … Steven Adams blocked a career-high five shots off the bench for the Thunder.