MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- You know it's a classic when fans of the losing team give a standing ovation at the end of it.
Few people who were in FedEx Forum on Monday will forget it anytime soon. One can safely say Game 4 of the Grizzlies-Thunder series will become a staple of future NBA TV daytime programming, after the two sides slogged through three overtimes, two miraculous game-tying 3-pointers, and three missed buzzer-beaters for the win before Oklahoma City finally won the war of attrition 133-123.
We can also safely call this series "evenly matched." Through four games and four overtimes, we're tied at two games apiece with a composite score of 440-438. Each side has stolen a win on the other's home court, and each has stormed back from a huge deficit to win -- with Oklahoma City's rally from 18 down Monday offsetting Memphis' comeback from a 16-point deficit two days earlier.
Memphis also came back from a double-digit deficit in this one, trailing by 10 with five minutes left before rallying to tie it on Mike Conley's 3-pointer. Even more improbably, the Griz tied it at the end of the first overtime on a wild fling by backup point guard Greivis Vasquez, after 3-point options A and B, Conley and O.J. Mayo, had both fouled out.
"We had the game won a few times," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "They made some incredible shots."
At that point it seemed the Grizzlies' Cinderella story was adding one more improbable chapter, but as Monday rolled into Tuesday and the game dragged on, the advantage tilted to the younger legs of the Thunder. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played 108 minutes between them but hardly seemed worse for the wear. Durant scored six points in the final OT to put the game away; in the second OT, Westbrook scored seven and assisted on a crucial James Harden 3 to keep Oklahoma City afloat.
Memphis' Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, meanwhile, labored after playing 57 and 56 minutes, respectively. The defining moment came when Gasol tried to elevate for a jump hook in the third OT but had nothing left in the tank and barely got off the floor; his shot was easily spiked by Serge Ibaka. Memphis' two frontcourt stalwarts missed their final six shots combined.
"It became a matter of just not having enough bullets," said Memphis coach Lionel Hollins.
The war of attrition went deeper than those two. Losing Conley deprived the Grizzlies of their main pick-and-roll creator, but even worse was unnecessarily losing Mayo at the end of the first overtime. With Memphis down one and playing defense with 19.9 seconds left, Hollins subbed in Mayo after Conley had picked up his sixth foul.
Hollins said he told Mayo not to foul, but Mayo did anyway. In hindsight, obviously, a more effective strategy would have been to insert Vasquez or Sam Young instead of Mayo when Conley fouled out. It seemed the Griz might survive the gaffe when Vasquez dribbled across the top of the key and hit a contested, lunging triple to tie the game, but eventually it came back to bite them.
It might never have gotten to that point if not for an earlier astute adjustment by Brooks. One game after Hollins had made all the right moves in the Grizzlies' comeback win, it was Brooks' turn to shine. In particular, his decision to go small in the second quarter helped turn around a game that looked like a Memphis blowout early.
The Grizzlies built up an 18-point lead by combining punishing, physical defense with heavy doses of Gasol and Randolph. After scoring only 19 points in the final 20 minutes of Game 3, Oklahoma City generated only 18 in the first 15 minutes of Game 4.
At that point, Brooks inserted Kevin Durant as his power forward and played Westbrook, James Harden and Daequan Cook on the perimeter. The unit took the court trailing by 17 and briefly fell behind by 18, but by halftime they had cut the deficit to just four points.
The unit produced added benefits when the Grizzlies had trouble fielding an effective lineup against it due to foul trouble. Once Conley, Mayo and Shane Battier all had picked up three fouls and Hollins didn't want to risk a third on Tony Allen, Memphis even turned to little-used Ishmael Smith.
It also marked one of the first times the Thunder had dictated the matchups, and while it didn't work quite as well in the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies' starters, it afforded Oklahoma City a series-saving advantage in the second quarter against the Memphis bench. One presumes the Thunder will go back to the well in the second quarter of Game 5 unless the Grizzlies can adjust.
As for Memphis, it faces a difficult road ahead on two fronts. First, the Thunder have reclaimed home-court advantage, and with it, historically, a better than 75 percent chance of advancing to the conference finals against Dallas.
But the Grizzlies' greater concern isn't distant history but the immediate history. Having played Gasol 57 minutes and Randolph 56 in Game 4, they risk being dead-legged on Wednesday night and will need a heavy contribution from a bench unit that has been badly outplayed in the two Thunder wins. In particular, top frontcourt reserve Darrell Arthur will have to step up after a near-invisible performance Monday.
The game featured four great individual performances that warrant special mention -- Gasol had 26 points and 21 rebounds and Randolph had 34 and 16 for Memphis, while Durant (35 and 13) and Westbrook (40 points) were equally brilliant for Oklahoma City. And we should give special mention to the free throw shooting. Memphis was a spectacular 37-of-40 at the stripe, and while the Thunder were hurt by two late misses from Kendrick Perkins, overall they hit 42-of-50.
As per usual, the Thunder had more quality and the Grizzlies more quantity. Memphis shot just 36 percent but stayed in it, as ever, by outworking the Thunder for more possessions. Memphis had a plus-7 advantage in offensive rebounds and turnovers for the game, and is now plus-31 for the series.
But despite that advantage and a pair of miraculous shots, the Thunder have reclaimed the advantage by the narrowest of margins in the quest to join Dallas in the Western Conference finals. Given how slim the margin has been between these two teams, one suspects we won't know the Mavs' opponent until Sunday.