Though neither team had given in the entire series, something still had to give in Game 7.
The Thunder wound up giving the Cinderella Grizzlies a season-ending 105-90 setback to advance to the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Game 1 is Tuesday at 8 p.m. inside American Airlines Center.
With the victory secured, and a sellout crowd of 18,203 inside Oklahoma City Arena going bonkers, it was easily evident OKC players still had further business – perhaps in a place farther away than the Metroplex.
When Thunder coach Scott Brooks sent in five replacements with 1:50 left in the game, there were no celebrations as players exited the court before arguably the loudest crowd in Thunder history.
Kevin Durant walked off clinching one fist. Russell Westbrook smiled. Nick Collison remained calm. Kendrick Perkins scowled.
Thunder reserve guard James Harden was the last to leave and did what everyone wearing a free blue T-shirt was doing inside the building at that exact moment.
Harden smiled and clapped, before Brooks delivered a congratulatory pat on the back side of his head.
Harden was applauding many things – the moment, the result, the crowd. Harden would have been entitled to applaud himself after finishing with 17 points, four 3-pointers, four rebounds, four steals and three assists.
“We are not done yet,” Harden said afterward. “We still have more games to play.”
The franchise advances to the conference finals for the first time since 1995-96, when the Seattle SuperSonics eventually lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
Unlike several earlier contests in the OKC-Memphis series, Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals was firmly in the winner's grasp.
This time, no double-digit lead would be blown. There would be no fourth-quarter collapse, no late run from the Grizzlies who – living up to their nickname – scratched and clawed until the final buzzer.
As the teams exchanged post-series handshakes, players from both sides looked exhausted. Even both coaching staffs hugged it out. “They deserved to win,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said of the Thunder. “They are an outstanding young team, well-coached and they earned this series. It was a hard-fought series like I thought it would be.”
The series-clincher came compliments of Durant, Westbrook, Collison and Harden.
Durant had 39 points, nine assists, went 9 for 9 from the free-throw line, buried four 3-pointers, blocked three shots and made 11 of his last 16 attempts from the field.
Westbrook had 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for the first Game 7 triple-double since Chicago's Scottie Pippen in the semifinals against New York in 1992.
Collison had 12 rebounds, eight points and three blocked shots. Far more important, he contained potential collateral damage by defending Memphis power forward Zach Randolph, who somehow still managed 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Hollins declared Harden and Collison as the key players in the series. “When we were able to control them a little bit, we had success,” Hollins said. “When we didn't, Oklahoma City had success.”
On Sunday, the Grizzlies didn't.
“Everybody that's been around James, you've seen the development the last two years,” Brooks said of Harden. “His confidence is at an all-time high. His teammates believe in him. He knows his coaching staff believes in him. But he comes in and he just provides.
“He provides an extra ballhandler, an extra playmaker. He's a terrific shooter. He can make threes. He can attack the basket and get to the free-throw line. He's a big part of our success that he's had this series. He's just a great worker.”
John Rohde: 475-3099. John Rohde can be heard Monday-Friday from 6-7 p.m. on The Sports Animal Network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.