Heading into Tuesday's Game 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies knew that despite letting a series-opening win slip through their fingers on Sunday, they still had an excellent chance of leaving Oklahoma with a split, if they could just tie up a couple of loose ends and get bounce-back games from the starting backcourt of Mike Conley (5 for 15 from the floor with only three assists in Game 1) and Tony Allen (three points on 1 for 5 shooting, no steals and some bad off-ball defense that helped Kevin Martin get loose).
The Grizzlies stuck to the script on Tuesday, playing what head coach Lionel Hollins called "kind of our game" — getting the foul line more often (32 attempts, up from 24 Sunday) and making freebies at a higher clip (71.9 percent, up from 58.3), forcing more turnovers (21, up from 10) and scoring off them (29 points, up from 14) — in a 99-93 win that evened their best-of-seven series at one game apiece heading back to the friendly confines of FedEx Forum for Saturday's Game 3.
In a series where the primary storylines have focused on the all-around brilliance of Kevin Durant (another monster game, with 36 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, a ridiculous chasedown block and a withering crossover-and-flush through the Grizzlies defense) and the continued dominance of Memphis bruisers Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (39 combined points on 25 shots, 13 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks), it was Conley who proved to be the real difference-maker down the stretch.
The Ohio State product turned in an "unofficial triple-double", scoring 26 points on 50 percent shooting, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing nine assists, with potential 10th dimes scuttled on Allen misses twice late in the fourth quarter. He really took over in the second half, scoring 19 on 8 for 12 shooting while looking for his own offense much more after intermission, which Conley said in his postgame interview was something the Grizzlies discussed at halftime as an adjustment to capitalize on Oklahoma City's aggressive defensive pressure on Gasol and Randolph down low.
"It was a conscious effort, I think, by my whole team," he said. "[They] did a great job of getting me open. I think we ran a lot of plays for me. Our big guys set a lot of good screens; we kind of used Zach as a decoy a lot of the time, and they did a great job of buying in and letting me finally get a little groove and get going, and down the stretch I was in a good rhythm."
That rhythm resulted in six points in the final two minutes, including a key right-elbow jumper that gave Memphis a two-possession lead with 1:04 left:
The quiet, unassuming lead guard doesn't necessarily profile as a late-game killer, but it's a responsibility with which he's found himself entrusted more often since Memphis bid farewell to Rudy Gay at the trade deadline.
"For this team, after we lost Rudy, it was tough," Conley said. "We didn't know who was going to be that guy down the stretch and, you know, I've kind of had to assume that role, grow into it and live and learn from it. Sometimes I make shots, sometimes I don't. I'm kind of getting used to it, and tonight was just one of those nights where it fell in. [...]
"If I have to score, I'll score; if I have to be a facilitator, I'll do that," Conley said. "I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to win."
The same was true of Allen, who followed up a quiet Game 1 with a much more active, aggressive and productive Game 2. His shots — including those pesky layups — still weren't falling, as the former Oklahoma State star finishing just 4 for 13 from the floor. But he attacked the basket, grabbing five offensive rebounds and earning six free throw attempts to finish with 12 points, was much more active in the passing lanes to come up with five steals, and late in the game, took responsibility for checking Durant.
After the game, Allen downplayed the decision: "I assume we just got desperate." And while Hollins' concerns about the 6-foot-5 Allen's height disadvantage against the (at least) 6-foot-10 Durant being too great to overcome seemed justified early in the fourth quarter, as Durant scored 10 points in his first 6:20 of final-frame play, Allen and his teammates got the job done late, holding Durant without a bucket in the final 3:18.
"I understand that guy ... he is who he is," Allen said. "You know, he's a prolific scorer — he's the best scorer in the league, obviously — but you know, the things I can do out there probably just cause havoc the best way I can. [...] If we can get the ball out of Kevin Durant's hands as much as possible, that's a plus for us."
Allen was quick to credit his teammates for their role in securing the crucial late-game stops to get out of OKC with a win, shouting out the efforts (often unsuccessful though they were) of wing defenders Quincy Pondexter and Tayshaun Prince, and especially the attentive help of Memphis' Gasol-led back-line.
"When our bigs are more alert of what [Durant is] doing and what he's trying to do, it helps a guy like myself and Q and whoever's guarding him," Allen said. "We got a team-set defense; it ain't about me, it's about the Grizzlies."
To be fair, Tony — it was at least a little about you, as captured in this final-minute steal and runout dunk:
... and in the way you tagged the moment, as relayed by Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
Game 2 flow: Tony Allen just walked by scorer's table and yelled: "First team all defense (expletive)!"
— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBlog) May 8, 2013
That's a big reason why Memphis loves its stopper, a big reason why the Grizzlies' backcourt combination — the quietly efficient point guard and the rambunctious havoc-wreaking shooting guard — works so well together, and a big reason why Oklahoma City now heads to the Grindhouse in need of a service break of their own.