By The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kevin Durant is learning to be patient if he gets off to a bad start shooting.
Durant showed the new approach Wednesday night, scoring 32 points, despite missing six of his first seven shots, as the Oklahoma City Thunder remained undefeated with a 98-95 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
“You know, I think I’m maturing as a player,” Durant said. “Last year, if I got off to a slow start, I would have let it affect me. But I try to keep my composure and believe in myself and know I worked hard.”
The shots started falling after the inaccurate start, as Durant made nine of his next 10 before converting the clinching free throws with a second left.
“I started off terrible,” Durant said. “I thought I was going to have a really, really bad game after the first shot I took. It didn’t even touch the rim. But I just stayed with it and continued to believe in myself.”
James Harden finished with 20 points, while Kendrick Perkins added 10 for Oklahoma City. However, point guard Russell Westbrook had an awful offensive night, finishing with only four points, all on free throws while misfiring on 13 shots from the field.
He and Durant also had to be separated after shouting at each other during a second-quarter timeout, The Oklahoman reported on its website. Westbrook wasn’t available for comment after the game.
He made a pair of free throws with 4 seconds left before Memphis’ Zach Randolph connected on a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining to cut it to 96-95.
“I think you come to expect the game to be as physical as this game was when you come to play against Memphis,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “It was a heck of a game. I thought both teams gave everything they had. .Every possession was difficult to get off a good shot because both teams were competing on that end of the floor.”
Randolph finished with 24 points, while Rudy Gay scored 19 and Marc Gasol added 16 points. Each had 12 rebounds, as Memphis held a 49-41 advantage on the boards.
Jeremy Pargo, filling in for point guard Mike Conley, who aggravated a left ankle injury in the game’s early stages, had 15 points and seven assists, while committing only one turnover.
“He played with a lot of confidence, and that’s great. We need that,” Gasol said. “He is very aggressive. I think he’s going to get better, too, as far as reading the game and knowing what’s going on offensively and defensively.”
The game was an early matchup between two of the West’s young up-and-coming teams, who met in last season’s conference semifinals, won by the Thunder in seven games.
And at times the atmosphere had the physical play and intensity of a playoff game. The jostling under the basket was rough, and the reaction of players to calls and no-calls was indicative of postseason play rather than an early contest.
“It was like a playoff game. Their fans were loud,” Harden said. “…We knew it was going to be a tough battle. We came out here and fought and did everything we needed to do to win.”
Memphis missed 12 shots before Randolph made the Grizzlies’ first field goal with 4:04 left in the first quarter. Oklahoma City continued to lead through the second quarter despite Durant continuing to misfire until the final minutes of the half. He had 13 at the break, including hitting all six of his free throws. Harden added 10 for the Thunder.
Meanwhile, Westbrook missed all five of his first-half shots and didn’t record a point. But despite Memphis’ poor shooting and the loss of Conley to the ankle injury just over a minute into the game, Oklahoma City’s lead at intermission was only 54-49.
Pargo, a rookie, who played two seasons in the Euroleague after playing at Gonzaga, continued to pester Westbrook and Memphis put together a 12-6 run to open the second half for the Grizzlies’ first lead at 61-60 on Randolph’s fadeaway with 6:33 left in third.
The teams remained close the rest of the third period with Oklahoma City carrying a 72-70 lead into the final quarter as Durant tallied 10 in the period.
“In the first three quarters, we had some good opportunities,” Harden said. “(Brooks) said to stick with it and keep shooting open jump shots. We got some to fall.”
Memphis took a 76-75 lead on a 15-foot shot by Randolph with 9:40 left, but Oklahoma City began connecting on 3-pointers to compose a 14-1 run. Daequan Cook had two long-range shots in the rally, while Durant and Harden had one apiece, Harden’s giving the Thunder its biggest lead of the game at 89-77 with 5:23 left.
The Thunder shot 10 of 25 from outside the arc, while Memphis was only 2 of 16.
“We don’t make threes; we are not a good 3-point shooting team,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “We would love to have a couple of guys that could make threes consistently, but we don’t.”
Randolph scored six straight Memphis points to whittle away at the Thunder advantage after the 3-point shooting barrage. Gay’s 12-foot baseline jumper pulled Memphis within 92-90 with 58 seconds left, but Durant answered with a 15-foot jumper of his own and the Thunder held on.
NOTES: Last year’s conference semifinals solidified the similarities between the two teams. Durant noted that both are small-market teams with young players in key roles. But Thunder coach Scott Brooks said the seven-game series doesn’t translate into a rivalry yet. “Both teams grew up in that series,” Brooks said before the game, adding: “I think it’s probably too early. In rivalries, it takes years of playoff battles. It’s one great playoff battle for sure.” While the Thunder won the semifinal playoff series, Memphis was 3-1 against Oklahoma City during the regular season. .Durant has recorded at least 30 points in the first three games, the only player to do that the past two seasons. The Thunder were 24-5 last season when Durant recorded 30 points or more.