OKLAHOMA CITY — Memphis players follow the lead of coach Lionel Hollins and like to say they have accomplished nothing yet. That may be true of the long run, but after surviving a furious rally at Oklahoma City on Wednesday night for an 88-84 victory, the Grizzlies are headed to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Memphis again won four straight playoff games to clinch a series and now awaits either San Antonio or Golden State.
Here are three observations from a win that wasn’t decided until a pair of Tony Allen free throws in the final seconds:
1. In an up-tempo NBA, Memphis is playing the big bully. That attitude starts on defense
Memphis bucked the trend again. In an up-tempo league, the Grizzlies have bullied their way to the conference finals, beating two high-powered teams to open the playoffs. Memphis believed it could beat Oklahoma City with or without Russell Westbrook, and now a scary team at home has become a scary team on the road.
The Grizzlies were here in late January with seven players after trading away their leading scorer, Rudy Gay. Less than four months after leaving on the wrong end of that blowout, Memphis held Oklahoma City to 37-percent shooting and got 28 points and 14 rebounds from big man Zach Randolph.
“We were winning 20 games a year just four or five seasons ago,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. “Management did a great job, got Zach here, got Tony (Allen) here. Now we have Tayshaun (Prince), a new group. We’ve kind of floated under the radar. Now we’re here.”
OKC fans began heading to the exits with 3:30 to play and Memphis up 12. That was before the Thunder closed the game on a 16-8 run and had a chance to tie on Durant’s 16-foot jumper. He missed and Allen clinched it with two free throws.
Prince kept Durant in check in the first half (2-for-11 shooting) and Memphis frustrated the exhausted star again. His first field goal came with 1:02 left in the first quarter and he finished with 21 points on 5-of-21 shooting and seven turnovers.
2. The new Mike Conley is here to stay
Conley probably wouldn’t have even tried the circus layup he made in the first quarter last season.
Before the game, Hollins talked about the team’s experience in a two-round run two seasons ago — which ended in a Game 7 loss to these Thunder. Hollins said the experience was nice, but specifically mentioned the improvement since then of Gasol and Conley. Conley has taken an even bigger leap this season, seemingly overnight. The point guard scored 13 points in the clincher, hit Allen for an alley-oop in the third quarter for one of his 11 assists and had seven rebounds.
“Over the years, we’ve grown to handle situations, the good and bad down the stretch. I think that’s that difference between our teams from the last few years in the playoffs,” Conley said. “We’ve been able to get stops when we need them, get buckets when we need them.”
Conley may never be a loud leader, but he is as vocal as he’s ever been and is now commonly referred to as a top-five point guard, and still climbing.
3. What had Zach Randolph so steamed up?
Randolph let out a yell after a made basket in the first half Wednesday. He seemed particularly angry from the start. Z-Bo is now making the first conference finals appearance of his 13-year career.
“Zach was huge. He came out snortin’ and gruntin’ from the beginning,” Hollins said. “He was ready to play.”
Randolph scored six straight points in the fourth quarter after Oklahoma City had trimmed the lead to two. Memphis needed all 28 points with Gasol scoring only 10. Gasol, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, contributed elsewhere. He had seven boards, three steals and three blocks.
There was plenty of emotion to go around. Hollins couldn’t hold back anger on a missed block-out, stomping onto the court during a timeout. His frustration peaked when Allen flung a shirt from the bench — accidentally? — trying to distract Derek Fisher on 3-point attempt in the third quarter.
Fisher missed but was awarded the points, followed by a Durant technical free throw that cut what was a 14-point Memphis lead to two with a 13-4 run to close the quarter.