Grizzlies. Thunder. Overtime. And multiple last-minute, game-changing calls by the referees. As if a pivotal Game 5 of the most competitive first-round series in league history could have been decided any other way.
Luckily, Mike Miller is more than well-equipped enough to handle these pressure-packed situations.
Miller scored 21 points, including six in the overtime period, Zach Randolph got off his playoff schneid for a double-double and Serge Ibaka's game-winning tip-in left his hands just seconds after the buzzer, as the Grizzlies narrowly avoided a frustrating collapse to defeat Oklahoma City, 100-99, on Tuesday night.
In a game and series filled with historical connotations, the final moments of Game 5 were arguably defined by the referee crew. The Ibaka basket, which came after a Kevin Durant missed three, required review and was obviously in his hands as the red light came on.
But it was Joey Crawford's decision to take the ball out of Durant's hands just prior to a free-throw attempt that could warrant a closer look from fans and the league office.
With the Thunder down, 100-98, and Durant at the line for two free throws, he hit the first and was handed the ball for his second before Crawford abruptly swiped it from his grasp and angrily walked over to the scorer's table. After Crawford finished his discussion at the table—the subject of which is still unclear—he handed the ball back to Durant, who subsequently missed the free throw that could have tied the game.
By the time Oklahoma City got the ball back, it only had time for a Durant catch-and-shoot.
The win gives the Grizzlies a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 on Thursday night. Memphis will have the chance to close out the best-of-seven series on its home floor, where the two teams have split their pair of games thus far. In what has been a wildly unconventional NBA playoffs, Oklahoma City is the second top-two seed to move within one game of elimination.
The Atlanta Hawks hold a 3-2 series lead over the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in the East. Atlanta would become the second No. 8 seed in league history to advance since the advent of the best-of-seven first-round format.
While most gave the Grizzlies a better chance than Atlanta—Memphis was tied for the league's most wins post-Jan. 1, after all—few expected the series to go anything like this. Each of the last four games in the series have gone to overtime, an NBA record. It is just the second time in league history a series has had four overtimes, period.
For most of the first half and long stretches of the third quarter, Game 5 had far more in common with Game 1 than any of its three predecessors. In an interesting move designed to free space in Memphis' clogged offense, coach Dave Joerger told his players to pick up the pace against the younger, quicker Thunder.
The against-the-grain strategy worked. The Grizzlies shot nearly 55 percent in the first half, getting into their sets early and feeding the ball into the post for quick baskets. Randolph, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds after being shut down by Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka throughout the series, made each of his six first-half shots.
With Miller locked in from deep and Marc Gasol playing the facilitator role out of the high post, Memphis ran as close to a cogent offense as it had all season. A 12-point halftime lead stretched to as many as 20 with just over three minutes to go in the third until, slowly but surely, the Thunder began mounting a comeback.
Durant followed a Caron Butler three with one of his own, as the tide shifted in Oklahoma City's favor. The Thunder closed the third quarter out on a 20-4 run to bring the game back within striking distance heading into the final 12 minutes.
The fourth proved anything but aspirational for both sides. The offenses stagnated through arguably the worst-played stretch of the entire series, with neither side able to get a bucket when needed. Memphis went only 3-of-15 from the field and Oklahoma City had more personal fouls (nine) than made buckets (seven).
The Thunder sent the game to overtime with a play that might have epitomized the wildly variable nature of the entire series. Ahead by two with little difference between the shot and game clocks, the Grizzlies attempted to run a pick-and-roll play for Mike Conley, which Westbrook snuffed out, pick-pocketing the ball and going in for the dunk with four seconds remaining.
Westbrook's very best and worst habits were on full display Tuesday night. He had 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds for his first triple-double of these playoffs.
But his 30 points came on just 10-of-31 shooting, as he missed both of his attempts in the extra period. For all of the electricity he brings to the offense and playmaking skills he showcased Tuesday night, there are times when Westbrook's worst instincts take over. His off-the-dribble threes early in the shot clock, wild careening into the lane for layup attempts and turnovers stalled the offense as often as his play ignited it.
Westbrook has yet to make half his shots in a game during this series and has shot below the 40-percent mark four straight games.
Durant (26 points) has his own efficiency questions heading into Game 6. He wasn't nearly as bad as his 5-of-21 shooting performance Saturday night, but rarely did he resemble the world-beating MVP favorite we saw during the regular season. Hounded by Tony Allen for almost every minute he was on the floor, Durant missed seven of his first-half attempts and was only intermittently effective the rest of the way.
Game 4 hero Reggie Jackson managed just six points on 2-of-7 shooting. Oklahoma City shot 39.1 percent from the field, its fourth consecutive game below the 40-percent mark.
Much of the credit goes to Memphis' defense for never giving up on that end. Yet it's becoming increasingly easy to question Scott Brooks' coaching decisions. The Thunder lack a consistent go-to set beyond their initial play and often find themselves in limbo when that first option fails to materialize. That stagnation forces the worst out of Westbrook, and Durant has been absolutely bottled by Allen this series.
For a team with championship aspirations coming into these playoffs, all that's left is questions. About Durant and Westbrook coexisting. About Brooks' acumen as a head coach. Maybe even about the James Harden deal still hanging over the franchise's head.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies' constant grind has positioned them within a win of a historic upset.