MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some of the new owners of this franchise now treading on historic playoff ground leaned up against the wall outside the Memphis Grizzlies’ locker room. Hair was frazzled, faces were flush and breaths were still coming heavy as if they had just outrun the Boogie Man.
In some respects they had.
Monday’s 103-97 overtime victory over the shorthanded and succumbing Oklahoma City Thunder turned scary from the jump. Kevin Durant set the early tone, animated, vocal and doing his thing. Serge Ibaka suddenly rediscovered his shooting touch, Kevin Martin was hitting and young Reggie Jackson was doing his best Russell Westbrook impression.
The visitors had the bounce and the confidence early. The Grindhouse crowd grew restless, boos came down when Durant buried a 3-pointer, his third without a miss, to put OKC ahead 46-29 with 4:26 until halftime. They’d since seen this horror flick before. Game 4 against these Thunder two years ago was a hot topic at practice the day before. OKC was then the team that trailed by 17 and came back all the way back to win it in triple-overtime to tie the series and eventually win it in Game 7.
Games 1 and 7 at home last season against the Clippers. Series over. Season wiped out.
To not take this Game 4 by the throat, to walk off the floor with tails tucked between their legs in front of a sellout crowd, to drag a 2-2 tie instead of riding a 3-1 lead back to Bricktown would have been a travesty.
“Our whole mindset was get it to 10 by halftime and we got it to eight,” Tony Allen said. “Coach [Lionel Hollins] came in the locker room. He’s good with those speeches. We wanted to respond.”
These Grizzlies, more mature, more clutch than any incarnation before, refused to let it happen. Tayshaun Prince and Allen clamped down on Durant, who missed 17 of his 27 shots, missed all four in overtime and missed his third clutch free throw in the last two games. Mike Conley scored 24 points and for a time matched Durant 3-pointer for 3-pointer. He played 48 minutes, 40 seconds — 21 ticks more than Durant and turned the ball over exactly once.
Then it was big Marc Gasol, with 23 points and 11 boards, swishing the game-winning jumper from the foul line. Then it was Allen, the original grit-and-grinder who was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team earlier Monday, making the game-sealing steal. It was his 10th of the series, this one on Derek Fisher‘s crossed-up inbounds pass.
“How do you like this ownership thing now?” one of the new guys was asked as he wiped his brow.
“It’s a lot more fun when you win,” he said.
Inside the Grizzlies’ locker room, the emotion wasn’t exuberance, but sheer relief.
“We’re not done yet,” said Zach Randolph, who rebounded from a tough Game 3 for 23 points and 12 rebounds. “We’re not done yet.”
The Grizzlies can close this series out in Game 5 on Wednesday night back at Oklahoma City. It won’t be easy. All four games have been up for grabs in the final three minutes of regulation. None have been won by more than six points. But a win on Wednesday — or in any of the next three games — will send Memphis to the Western Conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s 18-year history, the first six spent in Vancouver and without a postseason appearance.
A first playoff series win didn’t come until 2010. Here they are at the doorstep of a franchise-first on what has been a strange season. The coach, Hollins, the man who made it known that champagne tastes can’t be had on a beer budget, still doesn’t have a contract for next season. The new management team busted up his bench in one mid-season trade and then sent away his leading scorer Rudy Gay for the declining Prince and a couple of bodies that Hollins has no intention of putting on the floor in playoff situations.
“I said all along we are a team that just plays hard and doesn’t quit,” Hollins said. “We scratch. We claw. They say grit-and-grind. I don’t know what that means, but we go out and just battle. We just compete. We’re not the most talented team that’s in the playoffs when we started out and we’re not the most talented team that’s left in the playoffs, but we go and compete.”
The Thunder fall into the same category. Without Westbrook (and, remember, no James Harden), OKC is pushing Memphis to the max. But after a Game 1 victory, it can’t gain the upperhand down the stretch. Durant, trying to do everything but cook the team meals, looked like fatigued prize fighter when he took the podium to discuss the game.
In the fourth quarters and one overtime of the two losses at Memphis, Durant, the Game 1 hero, is 3-for-17 from the floor, 0-for-2 from beyond the arc and 1-for-4 from the free-throw line. A make here or there, a late defensive rebound a turnover the other way in any of the last three and maybe this series is completely flipped.
Barring a tremendous three-game run, OKC’s season — once bound for a Finals rematch against the Heat — is headed for a premature ending. A quicker-than-expected end partially due to an injury to Westbrook, whose fist pounding the scorer’s table after Rockets guard Patrick Beverley careened into his knee that night will be an enduring image.
“We’re playing hard every day. It’s just not going our way,” Durant said. “We just have to get ready for Game 5. It’s at home, so it should be exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”