In the swirl of a dramatic opening round of the 2014 NBA playoffs, the Thunder-Grizzlies series has been a chaotic mess unto itself. This isn't the slick back-and-forth of Rockets vs. Trail Blazers. It doesn't have the glossy dunks-and-threes appeal or overpowering off-court storylines of the Warriors-Clippers series. Unlike Hawks-Pacers, it doesn't feel like there's a true underdog.
At its core, Grizzlies-Thunder has been about a contrast in styles and a battle to control the pace. It's played out in just about the most unhinged way possible.
The 20-point lead Memphis held in the third quarter of Game 5 on Tuesday night would have felt safe in any other series, but not this one. As Russell Westbrook stripped Mike Conley at one end and threw down a game-tying dunk at the other with four seconds left, Grizzlies-Thunder headed into overtime for the fourth straight game. Memphis would win by one point to take a 3-2 series lead into a closeout game at home on Thursday, but not before the occurrence of a few more brain-bending moments that have come to define the series.
There was Joey Crawford, stealing the ball out of Kevin Durant's hands just before a second free-throw attempt that would have tied the game so the referee could double-check foul totals on the scoreboard. Durant missed, of course. On the Thunder's next and final possession, Serge Ibaka put-back a Durant miss at the buzzer that briefly appeared to give Oklahoma City a one-point win. After video review, it was ruled no good, but just barely.
As the series moves to Game 6, it's hard to even remember all the thrilling moments that got us here. This calls for a quick refresher:
Game 1: Memphis was down 25 points before a furious rally got the Thunder's lead down to four. Durant would deny the comeback late, scoring 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter to give OKC the opener. It was the only time in this series Durant has really looked like himself and the only game thus far to end in regulation.
Game 2: The Grizzlies had a five-point lead with 18 seconds left before the series received its first showstopping moment. Durant hit a three from the corner as he was run over by Marc Gasol. The four-point play. Oklahoma City had a chance down two in the final possession after Conley split a pair of free throws, but KD wasn't getting the ball. Westbrook fired an off-balanced three from the wing that missed badly, but was corralled and put back by Kendrick Perkins at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. Yes, that's the same Kendrick Perkins who posted a negative PER in the playoffs last year and is averaging under four points per game in this series.
Memphis would still win in overtime, and the series officially started getting real.
Game 3: This was the Tony Allen game. Memphis had a 17-point lead in the fourth before going ice cold the final seven minutes. The Grizzlies' only two field goals came from Allen, who swiped the ball from Westbrook and raced down the court for a layup to give the Grizzlies a four-point lead with 33 seconds left. That was erased in one play, as Westbrook came around a screen and drilled a three as he was fouled by Allen.
Memphis would win in overtime again. The real story was Allen's defense on Durant, who finished the night 0-of-8 from three-point range.
Game 4: Durant and Westbrook combined to go 11-for-32 from the field, but Reggie Jackson was there to save the Thunder's season. Jackson went off for 32 points, including five in the final minute to tie the game. Ibaka swatted away Allen's potential game-winning layup at the end of regulation, and Conley missed game-tying three in overtime to give Oklahoma City the win.
It would have been a bigger upset if Game 5 didn't carry on this series' fine tradition of being completely bonkers. It's a safe bet that a potential closeout game at FedEx Forum in Game 6 should be equally insane.
All of the late-game drama has belied that this series has really been about tempo. The Thunder played at the ninth fastest pace during the regular season, but are playing at a speed in this series that would have ranked last in the league by a significant margin. The Grizzlies know their only chance was to slow the game down so Gasol and Zach Randolph can go to work in the post.
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph battle Russel Westbrook for a rebound in Game 5/Photo credit: Ronald Martinez
So far, it's been devastating for the Thunder's offense. Oklahoma City's offensive output has dropped from 108.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season to just 99.7 in this series. Allen deserves much of the credit for his ability to limit Durant to 40 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent shooting from three. Over the course of the series, Memphis is 13 points (per 100 possessions) better with Allen on the floor, according to NBA.com's stats page.
The other thing that's helped Memphis: Westbrook completely falling apart in overtime sessions. Westbrook is 0-for-11 from the field across four overtime games in this series, which is as big of a reason as any why the Thunder have lost three of them. Conley and Courtney Lee have done a nice job sticking Westbrook, but the point guard's shot selection has been shaky at times too.
Welcome to Loud City
Welcome to Loud City
The Thunder entered the series as the favorite, but Memphis might just be the better team at this point. The Grizzlies made such short work of Oklahoma City in the playoffs a year ago that Westbrook's presence hasn't made all that much of a difference.
Memphis won six fewer games this season than they did last year, but so much of that can be contributed to injury problems. Gasol missed 23 games during the regular season and Allen missed 27. Since Gasol returned on Jan. 13, the Grizzlies went 33-13, just percentage points behind the Spurs for the best record in the league. Since Gasol returned, only the Bulls allowed less points per 100 possessions defensively.
Durant is already admitting that Allen is in his head. Coach Scott Brooks is drawing heat for his rotations and lack of creativity in getting Durant and Westbrook clean looks on offense. The Thunder just can't seem to find a groove. Still, whether this series ends as the biggest testament to the Grit-n-Grind era in Memphis yet or is only setting the table for more heroics from the Thunder's young stars remains to be seen.
It's been such a wild series through five games, there's no point in trying to guess what will happen next.