-- OKLAHOMA CITY -- After a few middling weeks that made them susceptible and clearly shook their confidence, the Oklahoma City Thunder sounded a statement in their roaring two victories to finish the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Western Conference playoffs have provided a wonderful first round of parity and drama that's filled these past two weeks with endless enjoyment. But all that had not yielded a favorite. This is not the case any longer after the Thunder blasted the Grizzlies in both Game 6 and in Game 7, which they took 120-109 Saturday night.
The Grizzlies were despondent Zach Randolph had been suspended for the game and were further dealt a bad hand with a hamstring injury to Michael Conley and an eye issue affecting Tony Allen. In truth, though, it probably wouldn't have mattered if Memphis been at full strength. This version of the Thunder team is the championship contender.
Kevin Durant played generally subpar for five games, getting caught up in his matchup with Allen and getting distracted by the Grizzlies' schemes aimed at unbalancing him. Russell Westbrook took the bait, too, breaking off into his freelance game that can be and often was downright maddening.
When pushed, though, they both snapped out of it, as did Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who simplified his rotations and his game plan. The result was devastating, Durant following up his 36-point Game 6 with a 33-point Game 7 that came on just 18 pure shots. Westbrook had a triple-double that came with as many assists (16) as shots. It was a world of difference from Westbrook's triple-double in a losing Game 7 in which he hoisted 31 mostly ridiculous shots as the Thunder felt their heels on the cliff.
The Grizzlies knew their game plan wouldn't work forever, and the expiration came swiftly.
The combination of focus, aggression and balance that Westbrook and Durant showed to close out the series after getting down 3-2 is the blueprint. As happens from time to time, they just forgot where they put it. The rediscovery is how a series goes from having a record four consecutive overtime games to back-to-back blowouts.
"I got out of my own way," Durant said. "I was thinking too much, worried about what people were saying, worried about what shots I was going to take throughout the game. I started to play to have fun, I released everything and enjoyed it. I forgot everything and just played my game."
When they get over the emotion of the defeat and have some perspective, the Grizzlies will likely regret Game 4 back in Memphis. They led by five points in the last minute before Reggie Jackson bailed the Thunder's season out with a row of ultra-clutch shots, rebounds and steals.
By all rights the Grizzlies should've gone up 3-1 that night, the Thunder having generally been outplayed from the second half of Game 1 until Jackson's miracle finish that night. That prime opportunity slipped, and the rest of the West might end up furious the Grizzlies failed to grab their chance to knock the Thunder out. Durant, who was mired in an Allen-created malaise, and Westbrook, off on one of his aimless tangents, are just too dangerous to be afforded extra outs in a long series.
Saturday, their combined line looked like this: 22-of-34 shooting, 18 rebounds, 18 assists and 60 points. The points are the irrelevant part, they always get points, but the efficiency and the togetherness was devastating.
Some of it was coming -- Durant had been an untenable 4-of-29 from 3-point range over the previous five games, so his 5-of-5 felt just. After taking 37 3-pointers in Games 2 through 5, Westbrook took a total of four in Games 6 and 7. Not surprisingly, he got better results and made both tries Saturday.
"When you're the opposing coach and you're looking at the [low] shooting percentages they'd been putting up, you know what is coming," Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. "We just didn't have enough."
Desperate without Randolph and unsure how much Conley could give, Joerger changed his lineup and started Allen and put Mike Miller in Randolph's spot. Then he went down the bench and promoted little-used Jon Leuer, giving him 20 minutes.
Conley was fantastic despite clearly being limited, putting up an admirable 20 points with nine assists. Marc Gasol had his best offensive game in the series, scoring 24. Putting up 109 points in regulation is a dream night for Memphis and it didn't even matter.
This has been such a fragile season for the Thunder as they dealt with Westbrook's two knee setbacks and seemed to go from awesome to average week to week. If the awesomeness carries over, especially when it comes to the Durant-Westbrook dynamic, they will be an absolute monster.
It's hard to say if it lasts. That uncertainty factor is right up there with the health of Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, the mental makeup of the Indiana Pacers and the stamina of the San Antonio Spurs' big three as the cruxes of the entire postseason.
But the Thunder have it now and couldn't been better positioned to keep it, getting the Los Angeles Clippers at home within 48 hours.
"Memphis did a great job of mixing things up and making things tough for myself and Kevin," Westbrook said. "We've got our minds right now."