The first-round series between the No. 2-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and No. 7-seeded Memphis Grizzlies has been a hard-fought, bizarre series full of dramatic moments and tight finishes. But nothing could have prepared NBA fans for the crazy and confounding end of Game 5 in Oklahoma City. From a near buzzer-beater to a crazy referee decision to an amazing play to extend the game, this one had its fair share of huge moments.
Let's start at the very end of overtime, because that's when the game was most clearly decided. With the Grizzlies up 100-99 and 2.9 seconds on the clock, Kevin Durant took the inbounds pass and immediately jacked up a 3-pointer. His shot missed, but forward Serge Ibaka was there for what would have been a game-winning putback. However, referees ruled that it was late, which was confirmed by video review. Take a look:
However, the Thunder might not have needed Durant or Ibaka to bail them out if not for a confounding decision from referee Joey Crawford seconds earlier. With 27 seconds left in the extra period and the Grizzlies up 100-98, Durant went to the line for two potential game-tying free throws after a foul by Tony Allen in the scramble for a rebound. Durant hit the first and already had the ball for his second attempt when Crawford stopped him, took the ball and scampered over to the scorer's table. When play resumed, Durant missed the shot.
It was initially unclear exactly what Crawford felt needed such immediate correcting as to interrupt a player's rhythm during such a pivotal moment in the game, but NBA TV sideline reporter Lewis Johnson later indicated one of the video boards at the top of Chesapeake Energy Arena was displaying the incorrect number of fouls. Opinions may vary, but I have absolutely no idea why Crawford would take the ball from Durant in this moment. He could have changed it after the shot, or simply noted the error to himself and corrected any misunderstandings in the event of a late foul. It is worth noting, though, that Crawford has a longstanding reputation as the sort of referee who makes game-changing decisions.
While these overtime plays will understandably get the most attention, Game 5 was already pretty exciting even before these incidents. At the 3:43 mark of the third quarter, the Grizzlies held a 72-52 lead and appeared headed for a dominant victory. Yet the Thunder finished the quarter strong, ending it on an 18-4 run to get within six points. Their advantage continued into the fourth, and a Durant 3-pointer gave them a one-point lead 6:46 left in regulation.
However, just as they did in Games 2 and Game 3, the Thunder needed a huge play from one of their stars to extend the game. With 29 seconds on the clock and Memphis up 90-88, Tayshaun Prince rebounded a missed free throw by Tony Allen. Without a timeout to move the ball into the frontcourt, OKC's best chances to avoid a loss seemed to involve either a quick miss by the Grizzlies (unlikely) or a desperation play at the buzzer (unlikely). But Russell Westbrook had other ideas:
Westbrook's steal and dunk forced OT for the fourth consecutive game in the series, a new record for the NBA playoffs. While this play didn't lead to a Thunder win, it did serve as the primary highlight from what was, on balance, a very good game for the much-maligned guard. Westbrook has not played anywhere near his highest level in this series, and a 10-of-31 shooting line is not going to end criticism over his shot selection and tendency to force plays in crunch time. Yet it's also hard to argue with a line of 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds — Westbrook was the dominant force for the Thunder on Tuesday night. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it featured far more good than bad.
Meanwhile, Durant is one loss away from facing a very awkward MVP news conference later this postseason. For a player who wowed the basketball world with his efficiency this season, Durant has been noticeably errant with his shot throughout the series and went just 10 of 24 from the field in Game 5. Since his strong Game 1, Durant has shot worse than 43 percent from the field in four straight games. The excellent defense of Tony Allen and others obviously has something to do with these struggles, but it could be more than that. As tweeted by Michael Erler, Durant played 100 minutes more than any other NBA player this regular season and has averaged 47.6 minutes per game in this series. His seemingly rushed decision-making could be a matter of fatigue.
Durant and the rest of the Thunder will need to come up with a solution to these issues soon. Facing a Game 6 in what should be a raucous FedEx Forum Grindhouse on Thursday night, one of the league's top title contenders throughout the season could be dispatched in the first round. Plenty of teams have suffered at the hands of the immensely tough and resilient Grizzlies, but the Thunder would likely consider an early postseason exit to be an immense failure. If they can't win Games 6 and 7, expect some intense soul-searching this offseason.
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