Mayo leads Grizzlies to Game 6 victory
Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo has gone to hell and back this basketball season.
First, he lost his starting job in November because Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins wanted more scoring off the bench, so Mayo was the unfortunate chosen one.
For a guy who'd been a starter from the first time he put on a uniform as a kid, that was tough to handle.
Then, there was Mayo's fight with teammate Tony Allen on the team plane over a card game.
Oh, and don't forget Mayo's 10-game suspension for unknowingly taking a substance banned by the NBA.
And then he was dealt at the trade deadline to Indiana for Josh McRoberts, but the trade didn't go through because Memphis was too slow on the trigger.
So, with the Grizzlies trying to stay alive Friday night in their Western Conference semifinal series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who did Hollins decide to start in place of Sam Young for the first time since November?
"I just felt like, in my gut, that it was the move to make," said Hollins, who watched Mayo score 16 points, grab four rebounds and make four steals in a 95-83 Grizzlies' victory that forced a series-ending Game 7 on Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City. "We weren't hitting shots and getting the spacing we needed for Zach (Randolph). We felt if we put a shooter out there like Juice (Mayo), they would have to honor him. He hit some shots early, and they really had to honor him. It got Zach off early."
To his credit, Mayo didn't waver one iota every time adversity slapped him across the face this season.
"All year, I trusted the decision that Coach Hollins makes, and I've got his back 120 percent," Mayo said Friday. "He told me in film session today before shootaround that he was going to put me in the starting lineup. It was my responsibility to come out, give us a great start and stretch the floor for Zach and Marc (Gasol) to let them go to work."
Mayo's been a steady, solid contributor all through the playoffs, but it was all off the bench prior to Friday. In Memphis' Game 3 win over the Thunder, the Grizzlies trailed by 11 points in the fourth quarter when Hollins decided to stick Mayo on Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
In the game's final 12:43 — the last 7:43 of regulation and the five-minute overtime — Mayo held the enormously talented Westbrook to four points on 1 of 5 shooting from the floor, and the Grizzlies came back for an improbable 101-93 OT victory.
Mayo's never been accused of being an exceptional defensive player, but even in Friday's victory, he again stopped Westbrook just enough down the stretch for Memphis to come back from the dead.
Mayo, a former USC standout, and Westbrook, a former UCLA star, have a history that began as a friendly, fierce Los Angeles crosstown rivalry.
"We were in the same draft, so I paid a lot of attention to him," Mayo said. "During the summer, we played pickup ball every day. I guarded him and he guarded me.
"He's gotten better and better and better. He's become an All-Star in this league."
And Mayo, a first-round draft choice by Minnesota in 2008 who was swapped on draft night for Grizzlies first-round pick Kevin Love, isn't an All-Star.
But this season, especially when he had to sit out the 10 games because he drank an energy beverage that had some banned substances, he learned some things about himself.
"The guys in this locker room didn't let my 10-game suspension become a distraction," Mayo said. "I tried to work out twice a day to keep my wind, practice, go on trips and be around the guys.
"But it humbled me because I couldn't play and I wasn't allowed in the arena. I had to sit there and watch games on TV. Every three of four minutes, they were talking about the suspension."
His teammates never abandoned him.
"I can't tell you how many calls I got from them while I was suspended and the day I almost got traded," Mayo said. "This is the best locker room I've been in."
Mayo's teammates look at him as the adversity poster child. He's gone through the fire and come out the other side. That's why when he made the start Friday night, everyone had total confidence it was the right move, especially Randolph, who had the spacing to score 30 points.
"That kid has had such a tough year," Randolph said. "But he stuck with it. He'd come in the gym late at night, shoot, doing the little things to get better. That's what the NBA is all about."