(left) and the Grizzlies
scratched out their third straight win. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
The Grizzlies defeated the Thunder 103-97 in overtime to win Game 4 and take a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinals series.
• Summer for the Thunder is now one loss away. The panicky impulse reaction to Russell Westbrook's knee injury -- "Welp, there goes the Thunder's season" -- has nearly materialized a little more than two weeks after he underwent surgery. After dropping its third straight game that went down to the wire, Oklahoma City stands one loss from a second-round exit that would be filed under disappointing, in the heartbreaking sort of way. They weren't supposed to go out like this; the last three games seem like a sharp departure from the script.
But, as The Point Forward noted after Game 3, that's becoming the Grizzlies' trademark. The Thunder managed to play their brand of basketball for nearly 20 minutes, building a solid double-digit first-half lead with seemingly everything clicking. Kevin Durant was hitting, Serge Ibaka emerged from his brain funk and Kevin Martin was backdoor-cutting the Grizzlies to death, finding point-blank looks through savvy activity. Then the Memphis squeeze started to set in.
"They say grit and grind," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said, referencing his team's well-known motto. "I don't know what the heck that means."
Memphis's defense just squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, until Durant hit a wall, Ibaka disappeared again, and Martin returned to the bench, replaced by Derek Fisher, whose most memorable moments were hitting the shot clock on a jumper and passing to his invisible teammate on arguably the game's most critical possession (see below). Yes, the Thunder blew a 17-point lead but their collapse wasn't through lack of effort, just as in losses in Game 2 and Game 3, the loss in Game 4 was the product of superior late-game play by the Grizzlies.
Memphis's late points came in unusual ways: a cheeky off-hand runner from Mike Conley, a Zach Randolph putback on an offensive rebound that started with him surrounded by defenders and with the ball on the floor, and a bail-out, lean-back jumper from Marc Gasol that provided a three-point cushion in overtime that wouldn't be relinquished. On the other end, Gasol came up with a key block on Ibaka, Durant went zero-for-five in overtime after playing 43 minutes in regulation, Gasol slid in to take a charge on Reggie Jackson and the Thunder couldn't muster more than three points in the extra period.
"Each game has gone down to a two-minute game," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Nothing to be ashamed of. I just wish we could have gotten a win or two."
Everything about this series has been extraordinarily tight, except for the varying body language between the coaches after this one: a wide-smiling Hollins was a picture of pure elation while Brooks dejectedly fumbled for his words
"It's not over yet," Brooks said. "They're in a good position but our challenge is not impossible. It's something that we can do."
The challenge might not be impossible, but the Grizzlies' focus and defensive principles make this a truly steep hill. Game 4 might have been Memphis's most impressive victory of the series because of how methodically they pulled the Thunder back down into their way of doing things. No panic, back-to-the-basics stuff, as Conley and Jerryd Bayless provided some timely three-pointers while Gasol and Randolph both kept bashing away on the inside. The big man duo combined for 46 points and 23 rebounds while Conley added a team-high 24 points, including four three-pointers, and five assists.
"It's just going their way," Durant lamented, after finishing with 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. "You can see it out there. They got steals, we missed shots. I don't know. If I knew, I guess I would change it. They're just making the plays."
Hollins, whose own playing career dates back to the mid-1970s, has been around long enough not to get ahead of himself. His conspicuous joy is the result of his team winning without gimmicks, by their book. There might be a little relief mixed in -- Gasol's jumper sure seemed to arc with the help of fate -- but he sure acted like a man who wasn't surprised his team is where it is and wasn't particularly fearful that his team would self-combust or fall victim to overconfidence.
"I don't think anybody who left their house tonight could say they want their money back," he smiled. "This team over in that other locker room is not dying. We have to go win this series."
• Derek Fisher throws it away. If the Grizzlies do wind up closing out the Thunder, there's little doubt which sequence will be replayed on an endless mental loop by Oklahoma City fans. With 22.8 seconds remaining in overtime and the Grizzlies leading by three, Fisher inbounded the ball from the sideline. In a slow-developing setup, Martin moved down through the paint and then out to the near corner, briefly flashing open as Tony Allen dropped back near the free-throw line. Seeing a supposedly uncovered Martin, Fisher led Martin with a bounce pass to open space. Or, space that was open until Allen made an absolutely incredible play on the ball. Take a look.
With his back essentially turned to Fisher, Allen broke hard into the path of the pass, picking it off cleanly right after the bounce and well before it got to Martin. On first watch, it looks like Fisher simply threw it to a ghost. On a rewatch, it's clear that Allen suckered Fisher into thinking Martin was much more open that he actually was. A better, firmer pass might have still made it to Martin, but Allen would have recovered in plenty of time to cut off any scoring opportunity.
Hollins compared Allen's technique on the play -- how he manipulated the empty space -- to both a defensive back and a centerfielder.
"Tony is very good at baiting," he said. "He just baited him. All of a sudden Martin is open and Tony just fell back into the ball."
Now is the perfect time to mention that Allen was the leading vote-getter among coaches for All-Defensive First Team.
• Durant comes up short at the end ... except for that one shot. Westbrook's absence clearly changed everything for the Thunder and Durant, and as the losses mount, "everything" could include the volume of criticism directed at the All-Star forward. Westbrook has been a lightning rod in recent playoffs, as has Brooks, and James Harden's no-show in the 2012 Finals provided some cover for Durant. With no Westbrook or Harden and two straight below-par late-game performances -- missed free throws at the end of Game 3, an oh-fer in Game 4's overtime -- some might be tempted to suggest that Durant, as the series' only true superstar, should be having a bigger influence on the results of these games.
That's nonsense, of course, considering the inconsistent play from Ibaka, Martin and others, Durant's playing time load, Durant's increased responsibility on both sides of the ball (way more offense-initiation and matching up with Gasol at times on the other end), and the Grizzlies' excellent defense. The Thunder have now been in four straight close games with the Grizzlies for the following reasons, in order: Durant, Durant, Durant, Durant, Durant, Jackson, Ibaka, Collison, Fisher.
For his part, Durant didn't want anyone blaming the fatigue for his poor closing in Game 4.
"I'm a little sleepy because it's past my bed time but other than that I'm good," he said. "We've been playing hard. It's just not going our way."
Should you encounter someone worried that Durant's clutch gene was somehow damaged over the last few weeks, remind them that overtime happened because Durant beat two defenders, took two long, loping, hanging strides to get from the three-point line to near the baseline, and then uncorked a finger roll so massive that it was practically an arm roll. All that with the clock running down and the Thunder trailing by two.