At one in the morning, half an hour after his team had lost a thrilling, draining, triple-overtime playoff game to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tony Allen sat alone in his locker, feet in ice, hands clasped behind his head, staring ruefully into the distance of a solemn, exhausted locker room.
Moments earlier, Allen had been surrounded by reporters, one of whom tried to give him a chance to champion his team's fight, it's "grit grind." But Allen, the only Grizzlies' regular with a championship ring in his possession, wouldn't bite. Nearly smirking, he responded, "There ain't no moral victories. We're upset. Now we gotta go get one in Oklahoma City. Like I said, [this game] was a great showcase for fans, but we needed it more than they did."
In this month of firsts for the long-suffering Memphis Grizzlies franchise and their mix of old and new fans, this was another one. If every game has been, almost comically, "the most important game in franchise history," it will be hard to displace this as the most epic.
The beginning was a lifetime ago, a 14-4 opening Grizzlies run in which Allen created — in one way or another — every single point. It swelled to an 18-point Grizzlies lead by early in the second quarter, and as long as these two teams were playing conventional lineups and normal rotations, the Grizzlies remained in control. But, soon, a mix of desperation and foul trouble forced the Thunder into smaller lineups that soon began to turn the game, forcing the Grizzlies to match.
By the late second quarter foul trouble was rampant for both teams — six players entered halftime with three fouls — and the lineup juggling it forced knocked the Grizzlies out of rhythm.
With less than two minutes left in regulation, the Grizzlies were down seven points. But after Saturday night's Game 3 comeback, that "Believe Memphis" slogan is no longer much doubted in FedExForum. And sure enough, there came a 7-0 closing Grizzlies run that culminated in Marc Gasol blocking Russell Westbrook in the lane and Mike Conley hovering around before launching a high-arching three-point shot that found net with 3.5 seconds left.
And again, another deficit. Down six points with 1:19 on the clock a confusing — and perhaps incorrect — out of bounds call gave the Grizzlies back the ball, resulting — two missed shots and two offensive rebounds later — in an O.J. Mayo corner three.
Two Thunder turnovers and two Zach Randolph free throws later, the Grizzlies had the ball, down one, with 32 seconds left. Conley tried another three-pointer eight seconds into the shot clock — a bad decision. His miss and Thunder guard James Harden's rebound — with the shot clock off and a Thunder lead — necessitated a quick foul from Conley. His sixth.
The team's point guard gone and likely needing a three-pointer following a quick foul on the ensuing in-bounds, the Grizzlies made the dreadful mistake of having the team's best three-point shooter, O.J. Mayo, not only in the game with five fouls, but guarding Thunder point man Russell Westbrook, the player most likely the receive the in-bounds pass. Mayo, in apparent confusion, fouled Westbrook and fouled out.
Down three with the shot clock off, what happened? Rookie point guard Greivis Vasquez, just inserted into the game, nailed a fading, shot-put-style three to tie it up again. It was a shot that rendered Conley's end-of-regulation shocker almost mundane by comparison. A defensive stop later, Griz forward Shane Battier was running to the bench, pumping his fists at fans and smiling in disbelief.
Here, with Thunder guards Westbrook and Harden throwing punches, the Grizzlies just held ground: A Battier baseline floater after rebounding his own three-point miss. A ballsy, twisting hoop-and-harm from Vasquez. A tip-in from Gasol. But this time the period ended with a whimper, not a bang — a physical, desperate, volleyball-like scrum under the rim in which Zach Randolph and Gasol missed three point-blank shots, failing to break a 119-119 tie.
And then, 58 minutes into what ended up being a 63-minute game, it came to this: The Thunder closed with two all-star perimeter scorers and shot-creators in Durant and Westbrook — both 22 years old, 1st and 13th in the league in scoring this season, respectively.
The Grizzlies, their two most talented guards fouled out, played the final 10 minutes with a gutsy rookie point guard and two shooting guards — Allen and Sam Young — with shaky shots and shakier handles.
Instead, the Grizzlies were trying to win by relying on their bigs, Gasol and Randolph, who, by the end, had carried their combined 525 pounds though 57 and 56 minutes of elbow-to-elbow combat against a deep, physical Thunder frontline.
Randolph and Gasol had been terrific. In regulation: 49 points and 29 rebounds on 17-33 shooting. Though 15 minutes of overtime in which Gasol played every second and Randolph sat for only about thirty: 3-12 from the floor. Durant and Westbrook in overtime? 22 points on 8-14 shooting.
Great young shot-makers against rookies and non-scorers. Bone-tired bigs trying to keep up. 63 minutes of basketball.
This game contained multitudes, but the shape of its denouement was no mystery.
And so fans are left with an unforgettable game that ended in disappointment. A potential seroes backbreaker for a team that now must recover to win two of three, one of them, at least, on the road.
But that can wait for Wednesday, when the Grizzlies return to Oklahoma City for Game 5.
For now, Tony Allen, you're right: This was a tremendous showcase for fans, a testament to the breadth of NBA basketball at its very best. And, yes, there are no moral victories at this point in the season. Those fans holding up their "BELIEVE" signs tonight wouldn't have bought into this team so totally if it were content with a good effort. If it weren't upset with this loss.
But in a playoff run ultimately more about basketball fans — and the city itself — than about basketball players, let's let a fan have the last say about this one, have the last say about a player who sat, in quiet anger, at his locker after the game.
As the final buzzer sounded and fans began to file out, a long-time season ticket holder sitting just to my left stood, applauding. Another longtime fan walked by, catching his eye. The fan standing and clapping looked down, "Could you try any harder than that?," he asked. "I don't believe I could."