MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Russell Westbrook paraded around the Oklahoma City locker room Wednesday night as reporters anxiously awaited, voice recorders in hand.
In Kevin Durant’s hands, his iPhone, which he sat at his locker and scrolled through after speaking with said media.
Westbrook, perturbed all the plates were gone when he got to the mini postgame buffet, wasn’t as ready to talk after a 90-89 overtime loss against the Grizzlies. When he did though, Westbrook acknowledged what a lot of fans, maybe more Memphis fans than anyone, have a tough time acknowledging.
Memphis is for real.
“They’re a different team, but they still defend. They still play their game. You can’t look past them,” Westbrook said. “They do a great job, especially on their home floor.”
If Miami is streaking its way to the playoffs, Memphis – which won its ninth straight at home – is grinding its way there. And that’s just how a team that labels itself “grit and grind” likes it.
At the sold out Grindhouse, aka FedExForum Wednesday night, the Grizzlies took the season series from the Thunder. The two split meetings in Oklahoma City, the latter just after the much-maligned trade with the Thunder thumping Memphis right out of Chesapeake.
Since then, the traded-for pieces are in place, most notably Tayshaun Prince, who with the game tied Wednesday, kept Durant away from the basket with 3.7 seconds to play in regulation.
“They’re a veteran team. They have veteran guys. Tayshaun won a championship. Tony Allen won a championship,” Durant said. “Put those guys in there with Gasol and Randolph and Conley, they make a good team.
“And they’ve got a great coaching staff, get the best out of everybody, put everybody in a position to be successful.”
Memphis held the Thunder to 22 percent shooting in the first quarter, 35 percent for the game. Oklahoma City, the league’s third-best 3-point shooting team, was held to 2 of 18 from deep. The Thunder had a season-low nine assists.
Durant was plenty successful, finishing with 32 points after a slow start, including 19 straight to give OKC its first lead in the final minute of the third quarter.
Marc Gasol was so excited about the win that he let a slight vulgarity slip on live television during his postgame interview on the court. Who could blame him? The guy had just tipped in the winning shot and gave OKC a mere .08 seconds to attempt a full-court shot.
Westbrook rolled in a layup and strutted down the court with 13.6 seconds to play to give the Thunder an 89-88 lead. After a timeout, Prince inbounded to Mike Conley and Conley, who had a season-high 24, got it to Randolph inside. Randolph missed underneath, but Gasol tipped it in.
Memphis isn’t going for shine. The Grizzlies embrace their blue-collar town and their blue-collar fans and are proud of the grit on their resume. It’s an inside team modeled after the one that won the franchise’s only playoff series two years ago. Zach Randolph and Gasol double-double you to death. Both had double-doubles Wednesday, the 38th for Randolph.
Under the grit is a team 5.5 games back of first-place San Antonio and three games back of the Thunder for second place. Those three spots in the middle of the West are jammed with Memphis, Los Angeles (not the Lakers) and Denver. Yeah, Denver, a team much like Memphis that no one takes very seriously but does not want to see in the first round of the playoffs.
Memphis entered the game as the league’s best defense, allowing 89.2 points per game, a total it took the Thunder an extra 5 minutes to get. Oklahoma City’s 106.7 per game led the NBA. The game went the Grizzlies’ pace and looked like the home team was about to lose a game it controlled and directed the tempo in.
Memphis fans are tough to please. The crowd of 18,119 intensely booed Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware when he was introduced on the jumobtron, booed as much as they boo Blake Griffin every time he exhales in this building.
It’s a tough crowd that has embraced a tough team, a team opposing coaches constantly praise the fierceness of. A lot of that starts with Allen, who doesn’t mind flinging his body around for a loose ball, than bobbing his head to the PA speakers during a timeout.
“What does Tony say? Grit and grind? We believe. We definitely believe,” Gasol said. “I thought that Zach’s shot was going to go in, but no. I just crashed the boards and got lucky.”
Wednesday’s win was every bit Memphis’ grit-and-grind motto, until the last second of overtime. The Grizzlies trailed by six with 1:17 left in regulation and treated their fans to a very long final 15 seconds. After Durant missed a long jumper, Conley drove in for an easy two to pull his team within 78-76 with 15 seconds left. Westbrook made 1 of 2 for a three-point lead with 12.4 left. Bayless and Westbrook combined for eight straight free throws before Bayless’ tying 3.
Westbrook’s free throw could have ended it. But he also didn’t get his first point until a free throw with 4:12 to play in the first half and finished the first quarter with more technicals than points. Maybe that’s why he was so upset. Or maybe it was the missing plate.