When the third quarter of Game 3 ended, Oklahoma City seemed in total control of their second-round series with Memphis.
The Grizzlies thrive when they can create turnovers and get the ball in the open-court, and the Thunder played right into their hands in Game 1, going at a break-neck speed and coughing it up 18 times. But by Game 3, the series had slowed to a crawl, with the Thunder up 76-63 as the fourth quarter began.
More importantly, their interior defenders -- Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka -- had rebounded after a disastrous Game 1 when Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined to score 54 points on 21-33 shooting. Ibaka's been one of the break-out stars of this year's playoffs, and his combination of length and athleticism has given Randolph a lot of trouble.
Z-Bo vs. Ibaka.
Oklahoma City was also able to give a liberal amount of help inside, as neither of Memphis' starters on the wing -- Tony Allen and Sam Young -- are knock-down three-point shooters.
But what made the match-up between these two teams so intriguing was the duo's ability on the other side of the ball. Young's defense has earned the second-round pick a spot in the league while Allen earned his chops in Boston's run to the NBA Finals last season, going toe-to-toe with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Vince Carter and Kobe.
Durant, the leading fourth-quarter scorer in this year's playoffs, has put himself in that company.
Allen wasn't able to knock him out of his groove until the fourth quarter of Game 3, when he held Durant without a point in the last 8 minutes of the game.
Tony Allen doing work.
And while Oklahoma City can throw waves of athletic, defensive-minded big men (Ibaka, Perkins, Collison) at Randolph, and Memphis can do the same (Allen, Young, Battier) to Durant, the third All-Star in this series -- Russell Westbrook -- has no such problem.
Westbrook has the clear physical edge against the much smaller and slower Mike Conley, but that's been as much bad as it has been good for the Thunder. At times in this series, he's been doing his best Steve Francis imitation, pounding the ball into the ground and gunning for mid-range jumpers.
The primary ball-handler for Oklahoma City, it's his responsibility to limit the team's turnovers and keep Memphis out of the open-court. It's no coincidence that he's had seven turnovers in both of their two losses and only four in their Game 2 win.
Silliness from Westbrook.
Yet despite his many mistakes, Westbrook's physical edge over Conley allowed him to get into the lane and create shots at will. That's why the key tactical move of this series so far was Lionel Hollins' decision to start OJ Mayo in the second half of Game 3 and switch him onto Westbrook.
While Mayo isn't an elite perimeter defender by any stretch, at 6'5 200, he has much more size to combat Westbrook. And on the other side of the floor, his ability to knock down 3's (a career 38% shooter from long-range) gives Memphis some desperately needed floor spacing in the half-court.
Most importantly, his repeated forays to the basket in the second half convinced Thunder coach Scott Brooks to insert defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha into the game for James Harden.
Mayo's offense was a huge factor in Game 3.
Without Harden in the game, Oklahoma City played three offensive non-factors -- Sefolosha, Ibaka and Perkins -- in the last five minutes of Game 3. And for all the talent Westbrook and Durant have, no one can consistently score 2-on-5.
But despite the magnitude of the Grizzlies comeback, the Thunder have no reason to panic going into a must-win Game 4 on Monday night. Momentum in a playoff series is a very fickle thing, and in the 24/7 media environment, perspective is often the first thing that is lost.
After Brandon Roy's incredible Game 4 performance in the Portland/Dallas series, many were ready to write the Mavericks off. In reality, Portland had just protected home-court and the odds were still against them.
** NBA players are big boys. They've played a lot of basketball games in their lives. Far too much time is spent analyzing their psyches and debating about how they will "recover" from a tough loss. **
Going forward, Harden's play will be key for the Thunder. If Memphis sticks Mayo on Westbrook and slides Conley on him, he has to be able to take advantage. And with Durant battling against the best perimeter defender in the NBA, Oklahoma City needs their third-best scorer to step up.
While the Thunder have to play Ibaka and Perkins to counter the Grizzlies' big men, they don't particularly need Sefolosha's defense on the perimeter in this series.
Harden was the #3 pick in the 2009 Draft for a reason, and he has become one of the best bench scorers in the NBA, with a per-36 minute average of 16 points on 44% shooting. If he can establish himself in this series, there's nowhere Memphis can hide Conley on defense.
And if all of the Thunder's young players play up to their capabilities, if Ibaka can continue defending Randolph in the post, Westbrook can limit his turnovers and Harden can get buckets, Oklahoma City will advance to the Western Conference Finals. But if any are off their games in Game 4, it will be very hard for them to come back from a 3-1 deficit against a tough Memphis team.