NBA playoffs: Thunder defeat Grizzlies in triple-overtime thriller

NBA playoffs: The Oklahoma City Thunder, in the first triple-overtime NBA playoff game since a 2009 Celtics-Bulls contest, defeated the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night at Fedex Forum. Their second-round series is now knotted at two games apiece.

Mark Weber/Reuters
Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant (C) drives to the basket past Memphis Grizzlies Zach Randolph (50) and Shane Battier (R) during the first half of NBA basketball action in Memphis, Tennessee, May 9.

Monday night’s Game 4 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies was reminiscent of Game 5 in the the 1976 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns, known variously as “The Longest Day” and “The Greatest Game” in NBA annals – taking three heart-pounding overtime periods to complete.

To most fans, that classic match-up appeared seemingly out of the blue, but has since entered the collective consciousness of NBA fans worldwide. When the Thunder-Grizzlies encounter entered its third overtime session, you could sense a similar atmosphere in Fedex Forum.

In the end, the Thunder fought back from the brink, weathering two Memphis three-pointers – by guard Mike Conley at the end of regulation and rookie guard Greivis Vasquez with ten seconds left in the first overtime period – to gut out a critical 133-123 win. But the outcome of the game seemed almost incidental to the remarkable performances it featured.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook tallied 40 points, while teammate Kevin Durant added 35; the Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph (34 points) and Marc Gasol (26 points) rounded out the top scorers. And Westbrook, who has taken heat lately for his relatively poor shot selection, was more patient with his jump shots, and only had three turnovers in over 50 minutes on the floor.

Oklahoma City was the essence of steely resolve last night – coming back from a 17-point deficit with six minutes left in the first half to close the gap to 53-49. But as the night went on and the fouls mounted, both they and the Grizzlies were forced to go to the reserve well.

With the Thunder’s big men, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, in foul trouble, reserve center Nazr Mohammed came in to score 7 points and pull down 4 rebounds. Memphis, with Conley and O.J. Mayo each fouling out toward the end of the first overtime, inserted rookie Vasquez, who added 14 points in 27 minutes of play. But also instrumental in the Thunder’s victory were reserve guards James Harden, who added 19 points, and Daequan Cook, who hit for 10.

The Thunder, down in one instance by 18 points, used a technique Memphis used in previous games to wear down their opponent – putting out a smaller five who would drive the basket and look to rack up the fouls on Memphis. It worked.

On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma City was initially timid in the paint, having allowed 20 points in that category at one point. But by becoming more aggressive inside as they went along, and wearing down Gasol and Randolph, they eventually surmounted the Grizzlies by scoring 56 to Memphis’ 50 points in the paint.

And with rebounds essentially even between the teams – Memphis held a 55-54 edge – and the lead changing over a dozen times late in the game, turnovers became a big factor. As Memphis’ big men were getting in foul trouble and ceding points inside to the Thunder, Grizzlies’ turnovers were more commonplace. In fact, a winded Gasol and Randolph, who played a combined 113 of a possible 120 minutes, had 11 of Memphis’ 18 turnovers.

And how big was this win for the Thunder? The scene now shifts to Oklahoma City for Game 5, where historically, teams returning to their home floor after knotting a series at 2-2 win the next game. Had they lost this game, looking solely at precedent, they’d have had little chance of taking the series.

But leaving statistics aside for just a moment, one is left with the powerful impression of two teams playing as hard as any two teams fans have seen in a long time – certainly every bit as much as those Phoenix and Boston squads who fought it out on Boston Garden’s parquet floor nearly 35 years ago.

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