The Memphis Grizzlies have been typecast, ever since we decided they were relevant enough to be typecast at all, as the unlikely success story with an unlikely GM and an advertised bad streak. They have "blue collar players" for a "blue collar town." The Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, have slid into the category of young guns with fresh legs and a proclivity for streaky shooting. They're also quite humble, we're told, given how stuck in Oklahoma City they are.
Last night, we'll bashfully acknowledge, both the Grizzlies and the Thunder eased into those stereotypes for the final frame of regulation, and then for the final three overtimes of what has already been labeled a "classic". For a watered-down analysis, the Grizzlies survived by unleashing impossible, defiant threes as time wound down on a game that would never end, and the Thunder survived with a quicker step and by turning to the right shooter at the right time. And while the "classic" label is sometimes too easily applied, we'll also acknowledge that this game was a special kind of classic for the NBA.
The Memphis-OKC series has been such a joy to watch in part because of the quality of the hoops, but also because — in a playoff field so packed with All-Stars and veterans and Big Threes — we're getting the chance to watch some of the finest younger (or simply unheralded) players in the league play with and against one another. Consider that the four players to take and make game-changing shots in last night's epic were aged 22, 22, 23, and 24.
Those are the players that still had their legs at the 63rd minute, and that's why the game felt like it could go on forever. That's why a second-round game stretched to three overtimes and totaled 256 points. That's why Kevin Durant could do this to Shane Battier in his 56th minute of play — interrupting, with his crossover, Mike Fratello's suggestion that, up six with 30 seconds to play, "there's no rush here." Durant wasn't in a rush, though.
With these teams, you're still not sure who you want taking the final shot. It should be Kevin Durant, you think, until it's Russell Westbrook (and that's a quiet power struggle that's still working itself out in this series, although it's worth pointing out that Durant is shooting 50 percent in the clutch in the postseason, and Westbrook 27 percent). And you never think, for the Grizzlies, I like Greivis Vasquez leaning into a contested three for this shot, or Yeah, Michael Conley can drill a rainbow three in Kendrick Perkins's eye, until it happens. With the other remaining teams, everyone knows the guy: the Bulls will go to Derrick Rose, the Hawks to Joe Johnson, the Mavs to Dirk Nowitzki, the Celtics to Paul Pierce, and the Heat will figure it out as soon as LeBron decides whether he'll dish or shoot after his jump-stop.
It's all contingency with these teams, and that's why the matchup is so great. Neither Durant nor Zach Randolph would guarantee a series win for their team, because they don't yet know what it feels like to be able to do that and because, I'm guessing, there's the neophyte's fear on both sides that he doesn't quite belong just yet. This must be torture for the players and the fans themselves. For the rest of us, it's a lot of fun.