OKLAHOMA CITY -- It took the Oklahoma City Thunder a game to learn it, but learn they did. This isn't going to be some pretty series of fast breaks and 3-pointers like they had against the Denver Nuggets.
No, this one's gonna be a street fight.
After the junkyard dogs known as the Memphis Grizzlies pounded them into submission in Monday's Game 1, the Thunder were ready for the rematch. They were the more physical, more aggressive team from the word go, even when it resulted in mistakes -- like the offensive foul on their first trip after a bone-crushing screen by Kendrick Perkins on Tony Allen, or the two early fouls on Kevin Durant.
Oklahoma City's reward was a 111-102 win over Memphis that evened their best-of-seven series at a game apiece; the two sides will retreat to a neutral corner for three days before Game 3 in Memphis on Saturday.
The facts of this series, though, are this: If the Thunder can fight the Grizzlies to a draw on the scrappiness front, or something close to it, they'll win. They're the more skilled team, undoubtedly. As a result, the rebounds, turnovers and points in the paint have to be dramatically in Memphis' favor -- as they were in the Grizzlies' surprise Game 1 win.
Thus, Oklahoma City's mantra of "pack the paint" heading into Game 2. The Grizzlies, who lead the league in points in the paint in the regular season, scored 54 points in the paint in Game 1 but had just 34 Tuesday.
"I thought we did a good job of coming out in the first quarter with the right defensive mindset," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We got into our defensive stance and used our length. It really sounds simple but when we do that you don't see a lot of gaps as a point guard or as an aggressive offensive player. We were just crowding them and making sure they saw bodies, and not giving them an easy lane and easy passes."
"They did a really good job of helping each other," Memphis guard Mike Conley said. "When our big guys took one dribble, they came in from all different sides and were able to clog up the paint."
The most crucial contribution in that respect came from Nick Collison, who had to start the second half after Serge Ibaka banged knees late in the second quarter. Collison totally shut down Zach Randolph, who went the entire second half without a field goal after blistering the Thunder for 34 points in Game 1.
"Nick did a good job of just keeping a body on him and not giving him easy points around the paint," Brooks said.
The other key factor was that the Thunder contested the midrange jumpers of Randolph and Marc Gasol much more aggressively. Those two combined to make 11 shots from 10 feet or beyond in Game 1, on just 15 attempts. While a couple were difficult rainbows from Randolph, many of them were wide open.
Not one this night. The Memphis pair only took eight jumpers from such range and made only one, a difficult fadeaway from Gasol along the left baseline in the first quarter.
"They hit first and I have to give them credit," Gasol said.
While Perk and Collison set the tone, the physicality even came from players you wouldn't normally expect to provide it. Kevin Durant, of all people, thumped chests with Shane Battier off the ball and feverishly battled him for low-post real estate. James Harden tussled with Darrell Arthur on two different occasions and barreled to the rim time and again, earning 11 free-throw attempts.
"Everybody was physical throughout the game," Durant said. "There was a lot of pushing, grabbing and holding from both teams but that is a playoff game."
Of course, all that would be meaningless without some skill thrown in. The reason the Thunder's showing their fangs Tuesday night mattered was because of how well they shot the ball when they got opportunities. Harden scored 21 points on just nine shots, including two high-difficulty contested jumpers with time running out on the shot clock.
And Eric Maynor came off the bench to hit six of seven from the field. Two of them were first-quarter layups when he aggressively took the ball right at an overmatched Greivis Vasquez, while three others were catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. His one miss was a buzzer-beater from just inside half court that caught the front of the rim; his hot hand apparently transferred to the next shooter, because immediately afterward a fan made a half-court shot between quarters and won $20,000.
"I just had good opportunities and stayed aggressive," Maynor said.
Harden also got into some extracurricular activity with Arthur that may be reviewed by the league office, particularly a shot Arthur got in before a timeout in the second half.
"He got me with an elbow," Harden said. "But that's playoff basketball, it's going to be physical and you have to stick with it. My teammates did a great job of calming me down."
All told, the Thunder's bench was simply spectacular, scoring 48 points on just 23 shots in addition to the defensive mettle of Collison and Nazr Mohammed. On a night when Durant and Russell Westbrook were fairly ordinary, it was a difference-maker.
Those contributions allowed the Thunder to build up a 21-point lead before the Grizzlies rallied to within six points in the final minute, helped along by some Oklahoma City mistakes that included a missed dunk by Westbrook. Conley was again superb for Memphis (24 points, eight assists), but the real lesson learned in that fourth-quarter spurt may be that O.J. Mayo's shooting can ease the pressure when the Thunder crowd the paint. He scored 16 points off the bench, all of them in the second half.
Of course, this doesn't change the fact that the Thunder need to win one in Memphis, too. The series moves there on Saturday and it will be a very different FedEx Forum than the Thunder (or anyone, for that matter) are used to seeing -- a rowdy, packed house with blue Growl Towels waving, similar to their own raucous home court at the Oklahoma City Arena.
While that will be a tougher environment for the Thunder, the math remains the same. Plainly, they can outshoot the Grizzlies. It's only when they're outscrapped, as they were in Game 1, that they're vulnerable.