The Grizzlies defeated the Thunder 88-84 on Wednesday to win Game 5 and advance to the Western Conference Finals with a 4-1 series victory.
• New territory. For the first time in the franchise's 18-year history, the Grizzlies will advance to the NBA's Final Four, earning a spot in the Western Conference Finals with their fourth straight win over the Thunder to close out a tense series that they deserved to win.
The franchise's relocation from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001 makes it easy to forget just how long a road this has been. The Grizzlies have won just 38.3 percent of their regular season games over the 18 years since they started play in 1995. On average, that's a depressing 31 wins per year. 2012-13 now stands as the franchise's Golden Era: the team's 56 wins marked a franchise-best and it's not crazy to think that they could prevail over either San Antonio or Golden State in the next round.
"This moment means a lot to me, it's the first time," Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said, after scoring a game-high 28 points and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. "I'm happy, but we've still got work to do and I want to win a ring."
The Grizzlies' most important player is Marc Gasol: he is everywhere on both ends, he hit multiple clutch shots in Game 5, again, to keep a Thunder comeback at bay, and he's just so reliable as a defensive captain. But Randolph has been the Grizz's closer in these playoffs, even if he missed a pair of late free throws on Wednesday that nearly proved disastrous.
His best performances have been series-changing. Down 2-0 to the Clippers, Randolph had 27 points and 11 rebounds in a season-saving Game 3 victory. Once the first-round series was even at two games apiece, Randolph helped swing the series in Memphis's favor for good with 25 points and 11 rebounds in a Game 5 win and he put the nail in the coffin with 23 points in the closeout Game 6.
Against the Thunder, he had 23 points and 12 rebounds in an overtime win in Game 4 to help ensure Memphis maintained homecourt advantage and firm control of the series. That win made coach Lionel Hollins grin from ear-to-ear afterwards, as it was clear the relentless Thunder were firmly behind the eight ball. Finally, Randolph was the guy for Memphis all night on Wednesday. Mike Conley chipped in early and Gasol delivered a few daggers, but Randolph was the workhorse: 16 free-throw attempts, 10 points in the paint and a constant, physical presence that made life miserable for an Oklahoma City frontline that struggled with foul trouble throughout.
"Zach was huge the whole game," Hollins said. "He came out snorting and grunting from the beginning. He carried us offensively most of the night."
• Kevin Durant exits stage left. One picture; 1,000 words.
"I left it all out there on the floor," Kevin Durant said, after playing all 48 minutes but hitting just five of his 21 attempts, by far his worst shooting night of the playoffs. "I missed 16 shots, I kept fighting, kept being aggressive. That's all I can ask for."
Durant, who finished with a team-high 21 points, was one-for-five in the fourth quarter, as everything came tough against a Memphis defense that continued to commit multiple players to his general direction. With a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds after Randolph missed his free throws, Durant received an inbounds pass and took a quick jumper, as if he wanted to shoot it cleanly as soon as possible because he wasn't sure he would get another look. Unlike previous late-game heroics, he didn't deliver. The ball rimmed off, the Grizzlies iced it with free throws, and Oklahoma City's season was officially over.
"Obviously it was going to KD," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the final play. "He had a great look. That's the shot we wanted. If they collapsed on him we had shooters spacing the court. He had a great look, that's a shot I'd live with 100 times out of 100 times. I live with Kevin's decisions because he has a pure heart when he plays."
Durant added: "I had a good look, it was just too long."
This was a particularly cruel way for Durant's season to end, considering his historic 50/40/90 shooting campaign. Durant's 23.8 percent shooting from the field Wednesday marked his least efficient game of the season, eclipsing his previous worst: a four-for-13 effort back on February 20 against the Rockets. Of course, Wednesday was also the tenth consecutive playoff game in which he had played at least 42 minutes.
"He had a heck of a year shooting but unfortunately tonight he didn't make his shots," Brooks said.
Durant's maniacal work ethic and lust for self-improvement were carefully chronicled by Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins in April. Watching Durant go out like this made one feel genuine sympathy for his personal stat consultant, his trainers, his workout partners and anyone he happens to run across during pick-up games between now and training camp. Already on a revenge mission following a loss in the 2012 Finals to the Heat, there's no way a second-round loss under these circumstances will sit right with Durant.
Despite his sagging shoulders in the photo above, the 2013 MVP runner-up struck a positive tone overall, effusively praising Reggie Jackson's play in place of the injured Russell Westbrook and expressing pride in how the Thunder responded to the loss of their All-Star point guard, a loss that took a huge bite out of their championship hopes.
"I had peace going through this run," Durant said. "The only way it would be frustrating is if we came in here with attitude because Russ was hurt. No one did that. ... Sometimes you've got to ride out the storms to get to the sunshine."
He'll be back.
"I want to commend the Thunder on a hard-fought, gutsy series," Hollins said, before taking any post-game questions. "They showed the heart of a champion and that's why they were the best team in the West all year."
They'll be back, too.
• The Towel Toss. Grizzlies guard Tony Allen just barely avoided the worst kind of infamy.
Midway through the third quarter, Allen was standing up on the sideline as Derek Fisher lined up a corner three-pointer in front of the Grizzlies bench. Allen went to wave at Fisher with a white towel, and as he did so a blue towel (or shirt) came flying out of his hand and onto the court a few feet in front of Fisher, who missed the three-pointer.
Big credit goes to referee Marc Davis for immediately realizing what happened and assessing a technical foul on Allen for the play. To make matters worse for Allen, the referees also scored the three-pointer. Once Durant hit the technical free throw, that made for a four-point play. Wouldn't you know it, the Thunder then went on to close out the quarter on a 13-4 run to cut an 11-point deficit to just two points entering the fourth quarter.
"What the hell are you doing?," Hollins responded, when asked for his message to Allen after the play, which left the All-Defensive First-Team selection looking catatonic on the Grizzlies bench.
The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney dug up the NBA rulebook ruling on bench misconduct of this sort.
Rule 12, Section V, item a: "An official may assess a technical foul, without prior warning, at any time. A technical foul(s) may be assessed to any player on the court or anyone seated on the bench for conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game. The technical foul must be charged to an individual."
Memphis loses this game, and Allen never hears the end of it. They win, and everyone can laugh about the night Tony Allen almost coined the "Towel Toss" game and lived to tell about it. Grit, grind, and grin sheepishly.