"A little bit long," Pondexter groaned. "Just a little bit long." As he sat on a metal folding chair in the locker room after the 93--91 loss, rubbing the Jesus head in his right hand, his Twitter account filled with hideous messages: "You're the Definition of Trash"; "Go home & cry yourself to sleep"; "You deserve too F------ Die." Teammates took turns consoling him—"If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have been in position," one insisted—but Pondexter's contributions seemed as irrelevant as a day-old box score. "It's all gone," he said. "I don't even care about that half-court shot. I let down my team." He wished the game had been at night so he could climb into bed. "Now I've got hours to think about it."
While the Grizzlies dragged Pondexter across the street to the Bricktown 16 movie theaters, where they commandeered their own row for a showing of Iron Man 3, coach Lionel Hollins retreated to his room at the Skirvin. There he pulled out a five-by-seven-inch note card and scrawled a plan to get even.
MONDAY, MAY 6
Off day, Oklahoma City
Hollins can sound like a character from a Steinbeck novel. He was born on the plains of Arkansas City, Kans., and raised in the desert north of Las Vegas. His parents divorced when he was three. His mother died when he was 13. He has one early childhood memory of his father, and he's not sure it's real. His grandmother, Margaret, used to tell him, "Life throws you knives. You either catch them with the handle or the blade." Hollins thought about Grandma Margaret on Monday. "If you win by 50, you never find out anything about yourself," he says. "But if you overcome and battle back and deal with adversity, that's when you're rewarded."
After every game, Hollins fills a note card with his thoughts, which set the agenda for the following practice. Monday's card was jammed with strategies to slow Durant, who has become Oklahoma City's 6'9" primary point guard. "We have to treat KD the same way as Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul," Hollins said. "He can't just dribble down the floor and see one guy. He has to see three guys." The Grizzlies spend roughly 60% of practice on defense, and with Chesapeake Energy Arena silent except for Hollins's voice, they fortified their plan for Durant. Two help defenders would shade toward him, far enough to obstruct his line of vision, but not so far they couldn't scramble back to open shooters.
Two players missed the bus back to the hotel. One, guard Jerryd Bayless, took extra shots. The other, Randolph, made a wrong left turn out of the arena and wound up near a Quiznos on Robinson Avenue. "I got lost in downtown Oklahoma City," Randolph acknowledged, not an easy thing to do. A Thunder staffer spotted the amiable giant, posing for pictures with fans on the sidewalk and steered him to the Skirvin. Shortly after Randolph surfaced, point guard Mike Conley piled into a taxi with Pondexter and backup forward Jon Leuer, bound for The Cheesecake Factory at Penn Square Mall, haute cuisine for the mid-20s NBA set. Hollins requested a slice of lemon meringue to go.
The Cheesecake Factory has become a basketball landmark in Oklahoma City because it's where guard James Harden fielded the call in October telling him he had been traded to the Rockets. When Conley studied the first-round series between Houston and Oklahoma City, he noticed how easily Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley snuck into the lane without Westbrook in his path. But Houston, thanks to all its snipers, is able to spread the floor in a way Memphis cannot. Conley found the paint clogged in Game 1, which is why the Grizzlies spent much of practice setting higher screens. "We've got to get Mike in space," Hollins told the team. "If we pull up, they're happy. If we attack, they're not happy."
Conley has been attacking since Jan. 30, when Memphis shipped small forward and leading scorer Rudy Gay to the Raptors in a three-way blockbuster that pared salary and netted Prince. "We wanted to bet big on Mike Conley," said CEO and managing partner Jason Levien. The Grizzlies' front office features two former agents (Levien and Stu Lash) as well as two former sportswriters (John Hollinger and Chris Wallace, the longtime G.M.). Their approach is heavy on analytics, but their club is defined by its guts, one quality that still can't be quantified.
In a locker-room meeting a few days after Gay left, Conley said, "This is who we've got. We don't have superstars. We have to be the hardest-working team in the league." Without Gay, Conley was emboldened to look for his own shot, and he examined how Paul and Tony Parker sustain their dribble to probe defenses. Memphis won 14 of 15 games, and after the All-Star break, Conley averaged 16.7 points and 6.3 assists—both better than his career highs. Levien's bet paid off. "I got a chance to show the world I can do the same thing as those other great point guards," Conley said, over a Shirley Temple and a Cheesecake Factory creation called Buffalo Blasts.