Although a 100-99 win for the Grizzlies in Game 5 broke their 2-2 tie with the Thunder, this series remains one of the most closely contested of the first round.
• No matter the outcome, these two teams are evident equals. For the fourth consecutive game between the Thunder and Grizzlies, regulation wasn't enough to determine a victor. Even then the winner wasn't revealed until the final microseconds of overtime. It was in that flicker that Serge Ibaka nearly shifted Game 5 in Oklahoma City's favor; after Kevin Durant's fading attempt at a game-winning three-pointer skipped out, Ibaka managed to catch the ball and quickly shove it back towards the rim. A delicate roll guided the ball through the hoop as the buzzer sounded, which the Thunder and their fans took as a sign of victory.
Video replay revealed otherwise, though only after being slowed to a frame-by-frame view. The difference between Memphis or OKC winning the all-important Game 5 was contained in a tenth of a second. In that slim margin Ibaka would likely have released his shot cleanly before the buzzer rang, leaving the Thunder triumphant after a 20-point comeback and the Grizzlies reeling toward a potential elimination game. Instead, Ibaka's shot was rightly called as late following video review, shifting the burden of survival to an OKC team that now must win in Memphis to extend its season.
Any game this tight rides to result based on countless individual factors. Every forced shot -- and there were many, again, for the Thunder -- seems brutal in retrospect. A single turnover out of OKC's 17 could quite literally have decided the final outcome. A missed free throw, like the one Durant shorted with 27 seconds remaining in overtime and the Thunder down 100-99, could have made all the difference. To say that this was a game of inches would be an overestimation of scale, as any playoff game between the Thunder and Grizzlies seems to be decided in millimeters at most. This is wonderful, riveting, excruciating basketball between two perfectly matched teams. The only shame is that it's nearly through.
• Memphis survived another of OKC's second-half comebacks. These Grizzlies are run-breakers. They enter games with the energy and focus to build a lead and over the course of the first half grow it. An opponent like the Thunder, though, won't soon fade under those circumstances. The comeback sprint is inevitable; on Tuesday the Thunder rattled off a 19-5 run spanning the third and fourth quarters to trim their deficit to single digits, just as similar bursts keyed OKC in the first three games of this series.
There were points throughout and beyond that run where the game threatened to tilt out of the Grizzlies' control. Memphis shot just 1-for-12 from the field during that 19-5 stretch. Caron Butler and Kevin Durant had three open long-range looks between them that could have bolstered the run. Those were precarious minutes, yet Memphis managed to snap out of its funk by resetting its offense through Mike Conley (17 points, four assists). What saved the Grizzlies from then on was the capacity to draw fouls; of Memphis' 14 fourth-quarter points, eight came off of free throws. Overtime could have been avoided altogether had Tony Allen made a ninth free throw for the Grizz with 30 seconds remaining, though instead Memphis ended up securing the offensive rebound only to then lose possession -- and the lead -- on a Russell Westbrook (30 points on 31 shots, 10 rebounds, 13 assists) strip.
Plays of that ilk -- in which a likely win degrades to a break-even tie -- can be fatal to some teams. It's deflating to have your star point guard and surest hand ripped at the top of the floor when the end is in sight, though the Grizzlies did a marvelous job of rallying to defend and score just well enough to win the extra period. Memphis didn't commit a single turnover in those five minutes, whereas Oklahoma City gave away two possessions. Mike Miller (21 points on 11 shots, six rebounds, three assists), riding high on a hot-shooting night, nailed two gutsy three-pointers to give the Grizz just the dose of scoring they needed. It wasn't pretty and it very nearly ended in defeat, though there's nonetheless something admirable in the way that Memphis keeps its cool following every Thunder stampede.
• OKC's small-ball lineup had its moment in the sun. This series is one in which Kendrick Perkins -- notorious grump and tactical lightning rod -- has very clear value. Few players on the Thunder roster are so capable of matching up with the likes of Marc Gasol (11 points, 15 rebounds, four assists) and Zach Randolph (20 points on 15 shots, 10 rebounds), which in itself explains (and possibly justifies) Perkins' increase in minutes from the regular season. As usual, though, his presence on the floor is a complicated matter. For all that Perkins might do to help Oklahoma City's interior defense, he's proven to hurt their scoring efforts slightly more.
Perkins is an empty offensive piece. Memphis has no incentive to pay him any mind when he sets a screen or loiters on the weak side. Oklahoma City, too, contributes to the problem through its understandable reluctance to pass Perkins the ball. The result is a scenario in which Gasol, one of the best and brightest defenders in the game, can wander freely from Perkins to pressure, crowd, and deny the Thunder's best players as he sees fit. This is the fundamental reason why Durant's work has been so excruciating in this series; the clamp-down efforts of Tony Allen have drawn worhty praise, though it's often because of Gasol's help and positioning that Allen is free to be his most disruptive self.
In an effort to shake loose of that lock, Thunder coach Scott Brooks came to lean more heavily on a smaller lineup in Game 5 that featured the floor-stretching Caron Butler (15 points, 4-of-8 from three, five rebounds) in Perkins' stead. The lineup itself is not new; OKC has employed some variation of that group whenever one of Gasol or Randolph has subbed out of previous games in this series, knowing full well that Kosta Koufos is not a player to be feared. On Tuesday, Brooks was slightly more proactive with that approach, which the Thunder responded to by erasing a 20-point deficit. That kind of explosion is generally what happens when Oklahoma City decongests the paint, though in this series Brooks must balance that objective with the unfavorable matchups (and massive disadvantages in post defense and rebounding) that result from going small. As is always the case when dealing with Memphis' defense, there are no easy answers.
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