Four OT games later, Durant at a loss
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Serge Ibaka's Oklahoma City Thunder teammates piled on top of him in front of a petrified Memphis Grizzlies bench as the announcer roared his name and the crowd exploded in joyous embraces, the collective bouncing shaking the concrete.
Not 10 seconds later, the fans had been totally silenced, the music was shut off, and the Grizzlies started doing their own hopping and hugging.
That is the narrative of this series in time-lapse form. Wild swings of emotion, unpredictable turns and an it-is-never-over vibe.
Ibaka's tip-in was a half-second late. It really did look good in real time (those fans weren't overzealous), but official Bill Spooner called it correctly instantly. Replays confirmed it, just as Zach Randolph's layup was a half-second late at the end of the fourth quarter before this series went to its fourth consecutive overtime game.
Tony Allen went sprinting off the floor when he got the news -- nearly sideswiping coach Dave Joerger and certainly giving him whiplash -- happy to escape with a 100-99 victory and 3-2 series lead heading back to Memphis for Game 6.
This one had everything: the Grizzlies' seemingly pathological refusal to hold a fourth-quarter lead, including allowing another four-point play; Allen playing his normal role as the merchant of chaos; the endless paradox that is the Russell Westbrook experience; official Joey Crawford snapping in the final seconds; and Kevin Durant wading further toward the edge of a legacy-impacting abyss and doing so with an outrageous passivity.
Let's start with the mild controversy, which was Crawford. With 27.5 seconds left in overtime and the Thunder down by the 100-99 margin that would be the final tally, Durant held the ball with a second free throw on the way that could have tied the game. But then Crawford blew his whistle and took it away from him.
"I looked at K.D., and we were like, 'What is Joey doing?'" Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. "We were both kind of confused as to what was going on."
Crawford had asked the scoreboard operator to indicate that both teams were in the bonus on the scoreboard. This is standard procedure in the last two minutes of any quarter when teams shoot free throws on the second foul. Referees like to be able to look at the scoreboard to determine if a team gets shots on a non-shooting foul. Crawford had just called a non-shooting foul on Allen, and the Thunder were in the bonus but didn't immediately know it because it wasn't on the scoreboard.
But the board didn't change. After seeing it hadn't been fixed, Spooner, the official closest to the scorer's table, repeated the request. When it wasn't corrected, Crawford stopped play and took the ball from Durant, essentially breaking his rhythm and causing a delay. Crawford stomped over and demanded the scoreboard be altered.
In the end, Crawford was right, but it was an odd time and odd reason to call for a break in the action. Crawford has been known to berate scoring officials when he's unhappy, and the scorer's table in Oklahoma City has been known to irk officials at times. Last season, Dan Crawford, another veteran referee, stopped the game to scold a scorer's table employee in Oklahoma City over his actions.
Had Durant hit the ensuing free throw, this wouldn't matter, and maybe it doesn't anyway, but it sure seemed to stick in the craw, as the folks in Oklahoma like to say.
"I was just trying to stay focused and knock the free throw down; unfortunately I didn't," Durant said. "I don't know what happened, but I've got to make that free throw."
That's a lot of words to describe but a sliver of what was another impossibly tight game. Durant comes off a bit as the goat with the missed free throw and a missed 3-pointer moments later before Ibaka's tip-in attempt.
That last try was an ultra challenge, as both Allen and Marc Gasol flared out to interrupt Durant and he forced a high floater that might have gone 20 feet above the court. As fate would have it, had he just shot it 18 feet high the Ibaka tip-in might have counted.
But that was not what was confounding. What continues to dog Durant is a horribly timed slump, often taken out of the game by his own team.
One facet is Westbrook. There might not be a more confounding player in the league. He is the definition of a wild card. He leaves teammates and fans an emotional wreck with his wild shots, highly questionable decisions and breathtaking playmaking.
He had a triple-double in this game with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists. He also had a brilliant steal, picking Conley's pocket in the final minute of the fourth quarter and scoring a tying basket with four seconds left to force overtime.
He also took 31 shots, missing 21 of them, and it seemed like all of them were a bad idea. He sure does make some, but there's no missing the impression that the Grizzlies are giving each other low fives under the bench every time Westbrook rises up and leaves Durant empty-handed. They will accept Westbrook's occasional greatness, a trade-off if it means Durant can't act like the MVP.
Meanwhile, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has elected to take the ball out of Durant's hands and put it into Reggie Jackson's. After Durant hit a 3-pointer to complete a 27-6 run and erase a 20-point Grizzlies lead in the fourth quarter, he didn't touch the ball for seven consecutive possessions. Often he just stood in the corner. This was by design.
"We've got some plays where he's got to space the floor," Brooks said. "We were giving Reggie some opportunities. We did that the game before and were able to get into the paint and get some opportunities. They're doing a good job of guarding him."
Jackson had 32 points and totally bailed out the Thunder in Game 4 in Memphis, sometimes because Durant pulled the defense away. Brooks has his reasons, but this is a stunning development when the most dominant offensive player the league has seen since Michael Jordan is used as a decoy over and over in the fourth quarter of make-or-break playoff games.
It's virtually an admission that they can't get Durant open, often because of Allen's tenacity or because he can't make plays to get open against the Grizzlies' defense. More perplexing, Durant seems to be willing to accept this proposition with a season hanging in the balance.
"Sometimes you've got to be a decoy out there, and I'm fine with that," Durant said. "Once the ball comes my way, I have to be ready and be aggressive when I touch it. If I want the ball, I've got to go rebound it and create something."
That is beyond diplomatic; it's inexcusable. For Durant to say that to get a touch at certain times in the game he needs to get a rebound first is either a cover for the strategy or a too-timid position.
Durant was 10-of-24 in Game 5, taking seven fewer shots than Westbrook. He is shooting 31 percent on jumpers in the series after averaging 41 percent during the season. He is shooting three more jumpers per game and getting three fewer free throws than during the regular season.
This is no way to go out, and the Thunder are one more Durant performance like this away from being eliminated.
"I trust my teammates in whatever decisions they make," Durant said. "I've just got to do better for them."
In the confines of their locker room, practice court and film room, the Grizzlies must rejoice at it all. They faced the impossible task of holding down Durant coming off his best season as he enters the middle of his prime. And they're doing it, by the thinnest of measures, but they're doing it. Not only have they gotten into Durant's head, but they've also gotten into the rest of the team's as well.
The Grizzlies have blown leads in the final minute in the past four games. They blew a 17-point lead in Game 3 and a 20-point lead in Game 5. They have allowed three four-point plays in the fourth quarter when they've been ahead by four or five points. They made three baskets in the entire fourth quarter. Randolph and Gasol went 2-of-15 shooting in the second half.
And they have the lead and home-court advantage, looking to pull yet another postseason upset.
"We're a team that's able to bounce back from adversity," said Conley, who had 17 points. "We always come back."