Hollins earned the perspiration and the celebration. In a game where his team looked physically overmatched for most of three quarters and trailed by 16 late in the third quarter, Hollins found a way, keeping the team alive and finally turning the game around with a series of astute decisions:
Going Big: Late in the first quarter, with the Grizzlies down five, Hollins threw a curveball at the Thunder by going big, pairing little-used reserve center Hamed Haddadi with, first, Marc Gasol, and then Zach Randolph. It worked, as the Grizzlies went on a 16-9 run with Haddadi getting 5 points, 2 offensive rebounds, and a block — and also, as tends to happen when Haddadi plays well, energizing fans and teammates. What Hollins said: "I felt like they were hurting us on the boards, in the previous two games actually. And I kept saying that I needed to have a bigger guy on the court. I kept thinking about it, all last night and all day today, and I told one of the assistants, I think I'm going to go big when I sub."
Halftime Lineup Change: With the Thunder packing the paint and O.J. Mayo playing well early (8 first-half points off the bench), Hollins did something he rarely does — changed his starting lineup at the break, inserting Mayo for Sam Young. The Grizzlies played the Thunder a little better than even for the first five minutes of the third, until Russell Westbrook lead a 9-0 Thunder run (scoring the first seven and assisting on the eight and ninth) to build what would be the Thunder's largest lead, 68-52 with five minutes left in the quarter.
Going Small: With the Grizzlies still down 15 late in the third and struggling to mount a comeback, Hollins went small, putting out a lineup of Mike Conley-O.J. Mayo-Tony Allen-Shane Battier-Darrel Arthur. With Sam Young subbing for Allen at one point, small-ball lead to an 8-0 Grizzlies run capped by a Sam Young dunk that got a tense FedExForum crowd back into the game. What Hollins said: "I thought us going small [turned the game around]. We started getting consistent stops and then were able to run out and score, and when we came back with the big guys, they were able to continue the effort. I thought that was the real difference. We just got aggressive."
Going Away from Post: When Hollins came back with his bigs, the energy was back, but he also changed strategy. With the Grizzlies struggling against physical Thunder interior defense for much of the game, the Grizzlies went away from pure post offense to more pick-and-roll, getting their perimeter players more involved and taking pressure off the bigs. What Hollins said: "Offensively, we went away from the post and started running pick-and-roll. I told the small guys at halftime that the big guys had gotten us to this point and they had to do their part."
Putting Mayo on Westbrook: This was the big one. Shane Battier joked after the game about the Grizzlies using "the rope-a-dope theory" to win the game. But that was sort of what happened with Russell Westbrook tonight. Through three quarters, Russell Westbrook was overpowering and out-quicking Mike Conley, controlling the game while racking up 19 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds and only two turnovers.
But the Grizzlies switched O.J. Mayo onto Westbrook midway through the fourth. With better strength and length, Mayo did a great job containing Westbrook and contesting his shots, and Westbrook kept playing the same way. Over the game's final 19 minutes, Westbrook was 1-8 with five turnovers and the Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 40-19.
The big problem for the Thunder wasn't that Westbrook wasn't giving the ball to Kevin Durant, who struggled himself, going 2-10 in the fourth quarter and overtime thanks, in part, to some inspired defense from Shane Battier and, particularly, Tony Allen. It was that the Thunder, facing tremendous defense on Durant and Westbrook, didn't try to make the Grizzlies pay for switching Mike Conley off Westbrook.
For most of the closing run in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had non-scorer Thabo Sefolosha in the game, giving the Grizzlies an easy option to switch Conley onto. And even when the Thunder came back with bench scorer James Harden, they weren't going to him. It wasn't until the final 2.5 minutes of overtime, down 6 now, that the Thunder finally tried to exploit Conley defensively, scoring consecutive baskets off Harden drives. But it was too late. What Hollins said: "We had that [switching Mayo onto Westbrook] in our pocket all along. Mike had played so many minutes and I wanted to give him a breather, and I thought that O.J. was very credible playing Westbrook. They're the same size, so we didn't have to worry about Westbrook shooting over him or overpowering him. And that gave Mike a breather and let him come back fresher on the offensive end." [Note: Conley had 8 points on 4-9 shooting, with 3 turnovers in the first three quarters. In the fourth and overtime he had 10 points on 4-6 shooting, with zero turnovers.]
Put it all together and it added up to a startling comeback. Local fans had seen a lot in these playoffs already — a first win, a first home win, a first home blowout win, a first series win. And here was a first dramatic comeback win, a first overtime win, in front of the home crowd. And as tremendous as Hollins and Mayo were, in particular, in this game, the home crowd — tense for much of the first three quarters — probably deserves a share of the game ball.
Down the stretch, as the improbable comeback started to look more and more real, the fans were no longer waving the gold "growl towels" given out before the game. They were simply holding them up, displaying them: Letting that "BELIEVE MEMPHIS" logo stare down at the court, almost defiantly. From the outside it might seem silly, but it was a great moment for NBA basketball in Memphis, made more so for how long-in-coming it was.
What happened out there tonight? Let's turn that over to Zach Randolph, who fought his way to 21 points and 21 rebounds against some fierce Thunder defense. "It was heart," Randolph said after the game, appropriating the Tony Allen language fans long ago turned into a mantra. "Heart, grit, grind. This is the Grindhouse. We had to protect that."
And now, as in the previous series, the Grizzlies will have a Game 4 at home, on Monday night, with a chance to put a more celebrated opponent on the ropes. Against all odds, this post-season run just keeps getting better and more dramatic.