In the first playoff elimination game in Memphis since 2006, the city threw everything it had at the Oklahoma City Thunder: The right Reverend Al Green — his appearance uncertain until very near the tip-off — fluttered and weaved his way through the national anthem. Local hoops legend Penny Hardaway and Congressman Steve Cohen — who, earlier in the week, had displayed a gold "Believe Memphis" "growl towel" on the House floor — flanked opposite corners of the court. A pre-game video interspersed shots of an overflowing Mississippi River with defiant man-on-the-street testimonials. A giant head of President Barack Obama, adorned with a Griz headband, floated in section 116, appended with a sign noting — in reference to the President's Monday visit to Booker T. Washington High School and in Tony Allen-speak — "He Wit Us!" And, during the first timeout of the third quarter, Jerry Lawler turned Friday night at FedExForum into Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum by "chairing" a guy in an Oklahoma City Thunder t-shirt.
The civic cup was running over, but, for nearly 24 minutes, the basketball team at the center of this happy madness was not totally cooperating.
The Grizzlies opened tonight's game with a great burst of energy, forcing 8 turnovers in the first quarter. But, as in so many games in this series, energy wasn't matched by execution. The team managed to score only seven points off those turnovers, and nothing in transition. The offense — helped, in great part, by a lineup change that exchanged O.J. Mayo for Sam Young — was generating good shots, but they weren't going down: Short Marc Gasol jumpers, open Mike Conley mid-range shots, O.J. Mayo runners, all rarely finding the net.
Through 12 minutes, despite an enormous +9 possession advantage (including 5-0 on the offensive boards) and only four minutes from Thunder star Kevin Durant due to two early fouls, the Grizzlies only lead by two, 23-21.
Anyone who had been watching this series closely — from a Grizzlies perspective anyway — couldn't feel good about this start. Too many opportunities wasted by poor shooting — 36%. We'd seen this play before.
And sure enough, the Thunder got going, putting together a 29-11 run in the second quarter, spurred by a series of devastating shots from guards Russell Westbrook (who got to the rim at will all night), James Harden (who knocked down three-pointers on consecutive possessions late in the quarter), and Eric Maynor.
Down 13 with the half nearing a close, the Grizzlies' surprising playoff run was flat-lining. But a rushed, high-arcing straightaway three-pointer by Shane Battier with one second left on the clock restored a heartbeat.
"No it didn't," Battier said when I asked if the shot felt good leaving his hands. "I was trying to get it up. It had a high arc and I was just trying to get it to the rim."
But when the Grizzlies started the second half, they were finally able to match energy with execution. Quick aggressive defense yielded a couple of turnovers and even more long, contested jumpers. Offensively, the Grizzlies moved the ball well (all five starters scoring, six of 10 buckets assisted in the third quarter) and finally got in transition (seven fast-break points), putting together an 18-5 run starting with Battier's half-ending three-pointer to tie the game at the 5:19 mark of the third quarter.
For the next eight minutes it was a back-and-forth game and Grizzlies lead by three, 74-71, with nine minutes left to play.
At this point, the Grizzlies put in a finishing lineup — one that I had made the case for in my game preview earlier in the day: Mike Conley-O.J. Mayo-Shane Battier-Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol.
This lineup went on an 18-10 run, spurred by Zach Randolph, who got into a zone not unlike his final drive at the end of Game 6 against the Spurs. Randolph scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in this run, tormenting a defender — Nick Collison — who had tormented him for much of the previous four games. After one spinning post move where Randolph went to two different counter-moves before banking in a shot just over Collison's fingertips, the Thunder defender looked over at his coach as if to say, "What am I supposed to do about that?"
Meanwhile, with Shane Battier and Tony Allen alternating on Kevin Durant, the league's leading scorer struggled much as he had during the Grizzlies' Game 3 comeback, shooting 1-10 in the second half, with six of his attempts three-pointers.
Randolph had played well all night — effective in the first quarter when no one else was. And there seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between Randolph and the changed lineup that surrounded him.
Tonight, Lionel Hollins made a lineup change for which many of us had been clamoring for weeks, moving Sam Young — the team's fourth best wing player and someone who has been struggling mightily this series — to the bench and elevating O.J. Mayo back into the starting lineup. Since moving to the bench in Game 14 of the regular season, Mayo had only started four times — once when Rudy Gay was suspended, once when Gay was sick, and in the two "tank" games at the end of the season.
But Mayo responded well to the change, scoring 16 points on 6-12 shooting (2-4 from long-range) and playing a nice all-around game (four steals and reasonable defense on an explosive Russell Westbrook). Moreover, Mayo's presence in 39 minutes — and Battier's, who was the second most-used wing player, with 28 minutes off the bench — opened the floor for Randolph.
This lineup change was overdue, but after getting blown out on the road in Game 5, Hollins had apparently seen enough. Mayo worked with the first team in shoot around this morning and Young was apparently informed of the lineup change at the same time, but Hollins kept the change internal until close to the tip.
"We weren't spacing the court," Hollins said, explaining the change. "They were just clamping down on Zach with two or three guys. We felt like if we put a shooter out there they would have to honor him, and they did it. You have to have some balance outside as well as inside. I just felt like in my gut that was the move to make."
Randolph, who had complained about the lack of spacing after Game 5, clearly agreed.
"It definitely makes a difference," Randolph said of the lineup change. "You have to guard O.J. He can make shots from the outside. It opened up a little bit tonight in the paint. We had great spacing. They had to guard our perimeters. It opened up a lot more in this game than it did in other games in this series."
And now, Game Seven — the first in franchise history and the first in this year's playoffs. The Grizzlies have been beat pretty badly the last two games in Oklahoma City, but will take their chances at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, fighting for a chance to face the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals — a position no-one imagined this team would find themselves in back in November.
If tonight's game is any indication, it should be a fierce battle. Russell Westbrook got a technical for shoving Shane Battier. Zach Randolph and Serge Ibaka got double techs for jawing at each other in the immediate aftermath. Later, O.J. Mayo and James Harden got double techs for squabbling at center court. These two teams are sick of each other, but will have to dance for another 48 minutes — at least.
There's a chance, of course, that we've seen this particular Grizzlies team on the FedExForum court for the last time. If so, they went out on a good note, giving the local fans another dramatic, gritty, entertaining performance. For a franchise that had never won a playoff game before last month, this team is now 5-1 this postseason on their home floor, the only loss happening in an unforgettable triple-overtime game.
A playoff run that has surprised at every turn got even better tonight. No one in Memphis wants it to end Sunday, but if it does it's still been an amazing ride.