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Sleepless in Memphis

5/1/2014
After four straight overtimes, everyone in Memphis and Oklahoma City needs to catch their breath. AP Photo/Alonzo Adams

Sometime after 11 p.m. CT on Tuesday night, while most of the basketball world was rightly focused on a momentous night in Los Angeles, two small cities in the middle of the country passed out.

Down a single point, Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka collected an offensive rebound off a now-ubiquitous missed Kevin Durant jumper and laid it into the basket at the precise moment that overtime expired. Ibaka’s teammates, momentarily exultant, leapt upon his supine body. Memphis players looked around in confusion and horror. Referee Bill Spooner signaled -- correctly, it turned out -- that the shot would not count. Tony Allen sprinted to the locker room and fans in both cities tried to pull themselves off the floor.

It's been that kind of series, and if Memphis seems to drift through its mornings in a civic stupor after such games, then I imagine Oklahoma City, on the wrong end of three of a record four consecutive playoff overtime games, is even more severely afflicted.

It’s not just the overtime game after game after game after game. It’s the hypnotic how of it all. Each time, the Grizzlies have lost a multi-possession lead in the final minutes, including three times in the final minute. Three times -- all three Grizzlies wins -- this collapse has included a Thunder four-point play. Each time, the team that builds a double-digit lead earlier in the game loses it but still prevails in overtime. Each time (to borrow a favorite passive-aggressive Allen observation about elite scorers he guards) Durant and Russell Westbrook shoot a lot of shots. Each time, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph cobble together just enough good-but-not-great play to hang around. And each time, a bench shooter -- Beno Udrih in Games 2 and 3, Reggie Jackson in Game 4, Mike Miller in Game 5 -- breaks the perpetual tie.

With a first-round matchup like this one, you almost start to look for signs to figure it out.

Maybe the Grizzlies were just better in Game 5 because Miller -- who drilled two 3s in the first minute of overtime after the Grizzlies could muster only three made shots in the fourth quarter -- chose Memphis over OKC in the offseason.

Maybe Oklahoma City cursed itself way back in the first half of Game 1, when the Thunder inserted Hasheem Thabeet in the second quarter. (Grizzlies fans -- who watched the former No. 2 pick bust out in less than two seasons in Memphis, only to become a solid defensive option in OKC -- took this as a taunt.)

Or maybe it was overtime in Game 5, when, coming out of a timeout, the Chesapeake Energy Arena played a Sun Records standard -- a Memphis song -- Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”

And after all that, there’s still the possibility that Durant will rise from his own ashes in Memphis on Thursday night to reclaim a 3-2 series that somehow could have just as easily been a Thunder sweep.

Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but in this series it’s just breeding exhaustion. These teams don’t look like they want to fight; they look like they want to nap. Especially Durant, who has played 238 of 260 minutes and taken 125 shots through five games, much of it with Allen erecting a second home within Durant’s personal space. All this after leading the league in regular-season minutes.

Gasol, not long removed from a serious knee injury, has played 226 of 260 minutes. His final shot in overtime on Tuesday looked like he was shooting a medicine ball.

Can these teams hold up for what feels like two more inevitable overtimes? And what will be left of the victor? Has it really been only five games?

A victory in Game 6 could give the Grizzlies yet another first-round upset for its résumé, and give everyone in Memphis -- the players, the coaches, the fans -- some much-needed time to catch their breath.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.