Kevin Durant stood at the free throw line with 27.5 seconds showing and a chance to tie the score with a successful second foul shot.
In these situations, in games of this magnitude, Durant doesn’t miss.
But after throwing him the ball for the second attempt, official Joey Crawford raced in and interrupted Durant just before he went into his patented routine. Crawford strolled over for a conversation with the scorer’s table, stopping Durant’s rhythm and leaving a packed house which already was on pins and needles confused.
When he finally got the ball back, Durant missed.
The scoreboard never moved again.
“It was an awkward situation, I’ll say that,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Oklahoma City didn’t drop a 100-99 overtime decision to Memphis in Game 5 on Tuesday night because of officiating. But the last thing Durant needed was Crawford stepping in and disrupting his rhythm after Grizzlies guard Tony Allen did plenty of that for the fourth straight game.
A slow start and more struggles in the final minute are the reasons the Thunder is now staring at a 3-2 series deficit. Oklahoma City clawed back from a surprising 20-point, second-half deficit but, for the third time this series, again saw the game get away in the extra five-minute session.
It’s been the story of the series for the Thunder, which has had trouble closing out games despite being the more experienced team.
Russell Westbrook, who carried OKC with a game-high 30 points, 10 rebounds and 13-assists for his second career postseason triple-double, missed a driving layup with 50.5 seconds left that could have tied the score at 100.
Serge Ibaka, again stellar with 15 points and 12 rebounds, missed a corner 3-pointer with 27.9 seconds remaining. It would have put the Thunder ahead by one.
Durant then missed the free throw. But he didn’t use Crawford as a crutch afterward.
“I was just trying to stay focused and knock the free throw down,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. But I got to make that free throw.”
Crawford, screaming at the scoreboard operator, wanted five fouls to be displayed, an indicator that the Grizzlies were in the bonus.
After Grizzlies forward Mike Miller missed a late 3-pointer, the Thunder had one final chance to win with 2.9 seconds remaining. Durant hauled in an inbound pass from Thabo Sefolosha but settled for a 28-footer on a catch-and-shoot.
The rebound fell into the hands of Ibaka, but his putback was ruled no good after replay showed that it left his hands a half a second after the final buzzer.
“It looked good when it left my hands,” Durant said of his final attempt. “And Serge’s tip was just a half a second late. But we just got to move on.”
Brooks said he left the decision up to Durant.
“He has opportunities to catch and drive...but I give KD that decision to make a play,” Brooks said. “It was a tough shot. No question. It was a tough shot.”
And another tough break in crunch time.
In Game 2, the Thunder suffered a 111-105 overtime loss when, in the final 30 seconds, Ibaka traveled and Durant missed two 3-pointers.
In Game 3, Durant missed a questionable off-balanced 3-point at the end of regulation and Westbrook and Durant both fired ill-advised 3-pointers with the Thunder down just three with more than 20 seconds showing on the game clock. The Thunder walked out of that one on the wrong side of a 98-95 decision.
“A couple of plays here or there could have went our way,” Brooks said of Game 5.
Instead, the Grizzlies, staying true to their grit-and-grind philosophy, stole them.
They’ve now done it twice in Oklahoma City.
“We’re a team that’s able to bounce back from adversity,” said Grizzlies guard Mike Conley “It just says a lot about the resiliency of this team and the focus of it.”
Now, the Thunder, on the brink of what would be an alarming first-round exit, must find a way to get another one in Memphis, inside the rowdy arena affectionately nicknamed “The Grind House.”
“We got to impose our will from the beginning of the game,” Durant said.