The Memphis Grizzlies were not demonstrably better than the Oklahoma City Thunder. The fifth and decisive game of the Western Conference Semifinals, like the first four, was decided by fewer than six points, an 88-84 battle between a team that shot 37.0 percent and one that shot 36.9 percent.
But when the final buzzer sounded, three things stood out: a healthy turnover margin, a giddy Zach Randolph and a flustered Kevin Durant. And those three things meant the Grizzlies were going to their first-ever Western Conference Finals.
There aren't many statistics where one side was significantly stronger than the other in this series. Neither team shot well at any point in the series. Some games, the Thunder dominated the rebounding battle. Other games, the Grizzlies did. The one thing that stands out is turnovers: Memphis had 46 in the series, Oklahoma City had 70.
The advantage was twofold: for one, Mike Conley and the Grizzlies have been tremendously secure with the ball, maintaining a perfect 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the playoffs. As a team, that's unheard of. Rarely was it better demonstrated than Wednesday night, as Memphis didn't turn the ball over through the first 18 minutes of the gameand Mike Conley had 11 assists to just two turnovers.
And their defense is hounding. Every starter but Tayshaun Prince had no fewer than two steals, from Conley's sneaky swipe off an inbounds pass down to Marc Gasol's surprisingly deft taps for the ball under their own hoop. While most of their turnovers were dead ball, many of their forced turnovers were steals, and although the turnover differential Wednesday was "just" 14-9 in favor of Memphis, the Grizzlies scored 22 points off turnovers as opposed to just nine for the Thunder.
Dude was at his bullying best, plain and simple, but he added in some finesse Wednesday night. After a mediocre eight-point Game 4, Randolph exploded for 28 points and 14 boards, both playoff highs in a postseason where he has become America's gravitationally challenged folk hero.
His pet move -- crashing violently to the paint, swiftly spinning and accurately shoving the ball over his left shoulder into the hoop -- was there over and over again, but those weren't his only big buckets.
After a freaky play where Tony Allen threw a shirt onto the court resulting in four points for Oklahoma City, Randolph barrelled back, hit his defender with a crossover -- a crossover, by the least nimble-looking human alive -- and drilled a stepback. He was responsible for seven points in a 10-2 run to start the fourth quarter, giving the Grizzlies a decent cushion after the Thunder had somehow cut the lead from double-digits to two.
The Thunder threw different defenders at him, but nobody could stop him from getting to the free throw line. He stepped to the stripe 16 times and he made 11 of the first 12 before missing three of four.
Lionel Hollins described him perfectly in a post-game presser:
He came out snorting and grunting from the beginning. He carried us offensively most of the night.
I just do what i do. i've been playing against them guys for a long time. They're all great defensive guys and very physical, so i just played my game. Pick and chose my spots.
How did the second-best defensive team in the NBA stop the second-best scorer in the NBA? At first, it looked like they couldn't, as he posted 35 and 36 points on efficient nights in Games 1 and 2.
But in Games 4 and 5, he took 48 shots to score 48 points. Wednesday, he missed 16 of his 21 attempts, and although he'd get to the line to get points, a raucous defensive effort appeared to get to him.
Hollins described the team's defensive strategy on Durant:
He played 48 minutes. I thought he really wanted to carry his team, wanted to get a win tonight, came out really trying. But we just tried to get the pressure on him, get fresh bodies on him. He was their go-to guy, and we knew that.
The Grizzlies were defensively talented enough from top to bottom that they didn't have to stick just one guy on KD. Sometimes, it was the yapping tenacity of defensive first-teamer Tony Allen. Sometimes, it was the sheer length of Tayshaun Prince. And whoever the lead defender was, the rest of the guys were beamed in on Durant, knowing without Russell Westbrook, they'd live with anybody else beating them.
Nobody else did. Durant, worn out after being his team's No. 1, 2 and 3 option since Russell Westbrook's injury even missed when there was nobody on him. His 11-for-15 performance from the free-throw line was the second time in three games the 90 percent free throw shooter missed four attempts. In the fourth quarter, he cued up a perfectly open three -- and airballed it. And with his team needing two points to tie for a potential overtime, he juked the typically sound Allen with a simple hesitation dribble. No help came for Allen, but none was needed. Durant missed the shot, completely uncontested.
Perhaps there's no explanation for one of the NBA's best scorers having a few off games. But the wear and tear of grit and grind certainly appeared to catch up with Durant, saddled with a whole bunch of weight on his thin-set shoulders.