Somehow, some way, Kevin Durant found an open space. Who knows how? Finding an open shot against these Grizzlies is like finding a parking space in downtown Boston. Memphis plays defense like it has seven players on the court.
Much less when Durant was worn out. More weary than a coal miner after an overtime shift. Carrying the burden of the Thunder franchise on his spindly shoulders, since Russell Westbrook's knee injury the last week of April.
But as the seconds ticked down in the dangdest game you've ever seen in the ‘Peake, there was Durant, somehow breaking free of Tony Allen and rising high for a shot that could forge a tie and cap a comeback no one thought possible.
But just like 15 other Durant shots Wednesday night, this one bounced off. And a Thunder season that seemed so promising just three weeks ago came to a thud.
The Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder 88-84, winning this Western Conference semifinal series four games to one, and the script was amazingly similar. Every game close, down to the last minute, every game in the 80s or 90s.
And it's no shock that while Durant and the Thunder made the plays to win Game 1, the Grizzlies grew stronger, and the Thunder weaker, as the series wore on. Memphis won the final round of all four games in this slugfest. The Thunder clearly was gassed.
Low on energy. Low on emotion. Low on magic. Low on everything, it seemed, except belief. Because this game looked over twice.
Down 50-38 at halftime after perhaps the worst quarter in Thunder history, OKC trailed 60-46 midway through the third quarter. With no Westbrook, the fuel of this team, the Thunder looked not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead.
But somehow, the Thunder found more fire, even with Durant missing shots at an alarming rate. He finished five of 21 from the field, made no 3-pointers, and obviously was frustrated the entire night.
But Allen's brain-lock — throwing a shirt on the court from the bench while Derek Fisher was missing yet another 3-pointer — gave the Thunder a free three points, plus a Durant technical foul shot, and before you know it, this was a 64-62 game. Fisher even had a shot to put the Thunder ahead on the final play of the third quarter, a miss that kept the arena roof attached.
But the Thunder was out of energy. The two guys that tried to fill Westbrook's energy shoes were Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka, with a series of hustle plays. But Ibaka got in foul trouble, and Scotty Brooks benched Thabo in the fourth quarter, a move he no doubt regrets.
The Grizzlies kept the wraps on Durant. In the first nine minutes of the quarter, Durant committed two turnovers and made just one of four shots. Tayshaun Prince, the defensive demon of those great old Piston teams a decade ago, refound his calling. Allen wasn't even needed. Prince bothered Durant plenty enough all series long and was fantastic in Game 5.
Durant had finally been proven human, as if the fourth quarter malaise of Games 2, 3 and 4 weren't enough evidence. He played 48 minutes in Game 5 but clearly was out of energy.
Scotty Brooks didn't want to admit it – “I saw great energy in the fourth quarter. He missed some shots.” – but clearly Durant was frustrated and tired and any other description you can muster for a guy who carried a franchise on his back for almost three weeks.
With three minutes left, the Memphis lead was 80-68.
And somehow, the Thunder still got off the mat. The next time Sam Presti or Brooks or Durant start talking about the Thunder Way or Thunder culture or some such abstraction, we might ponder the idea that they're on to something.
“They showed the heart of a champion,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said.
An offense that was lifeless through much of the game scored on seven straight possessions. And when Zach Randolph finally lost his touch and missed two foul shots with 11.3 seconds left and Memphis up 86-84, the Thunder had a chance.
That's when Durant missed, and finally arrived the end we knew was coming the day Westbrook was lost for the season.
And Durant spoke with wisdom at the finale.
“I have peace going through this round,” Durant said. Without Westbrook, “We really had to come together. Seen us grow as a group. We all kept our spirits up. No matter what happened to us, we kept our heads high.
“Tough to swallow right now. But looking back, we'll really appreciate this tough time. Something we gotta embrace, get better from.”
Great attitude. Think about it this way. If the Thunder could go to the wire with these Grizzlies five straight games, think of the possibilities when Westbrook is back, and he and Durant are a cool 25 years old.
“I can live with myself knowing I gave it all I had,” Durant said. “Sometimes you gotta ride out the storms to get to some sunshine.”
Truth is, there was not going to be any sunshine once Westbrook went under the knife. Not this season. The Thunder went down. But the Thunder didn't go down easy.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.