OKLAHOMA CITY — With yet another June trade, we officially close a pivotal chapter of Oklahoma City Thunder history.
This trade had nothing to do with Oklahoma City. It has everything to do with the Memphis Grizzlies — the ancient rival in the earlier days of Thunder lore.
Memphis traded Mike Conley, Jr. to Utah for Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver and draft compensation.
With Conley’s departure, the “Grit and Grind” era is officially done. Marc Gasol was traded away to the Toronto Raptors at the trade deadline. Zach Randolph left Memphis after eight seasons in 2017 along with former Oklahoma State star Tony Allen.
With that in mind, let’s take a stroll down memory lane. Two franchises that needed each other at the exact right time.
In 2009, there was little to be excited for in OKC and Memphis.
They had soon-to-be exciting players in Durant, Westbrook, a rookie in James Harden. The 2007 4th overall pick Conley with other up-and-comers like Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. Not to mention project players like Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Each team also had their junkyard dogs who weren’t afraid to get a little bloody in Allen, Randolph and Kendrick Perkins.
It would seem these two franchises would be destined for some great playoff battles. Luckily for us, fate fell in line.
While the Thunder’s stars launched into the stratosphere of the NBA in the 2009-10 season with help from Harden, the Grizzlies’ development took more time. OKC found itself in an exciting first round series with the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. Memphis watched at home as they enjoyed their 16-game win improvement from the previous season. The Grizzlies finished 40-42 in 2009-10.
OKC lost in six games to the Lakers, but their date with Memphis was set. One side had the glamorous stars with iconic styles of play and looks. The other was developed through enduring two 20-plus win seasons. The Grizzlies were failing, but improving in the dark.
The Thunder provided the light.
By the 2011 postseason, Oklahoma City and Memphis had met 11 times since the franchise’s first season in 2008. The Thunder held a 6-5 edge in a series that included three overtime games — the most OT games OKC had endured with an opponent at that point.
Two franchises who took different but in some ways similar paths were meeting in the second round. The Grizzlies had upset the first-seed Spurs but many gave Memphis little chance against the young, athletic Thunder.
The First Playoff Series
Memphis announced themselves as more than just fortunate eighth-seed in Game 1.
The Grizzlies jumped on the Thunder early. OKC’s youth and emotions were used against them as the just-as-young but somehow more experienced Memphis squad bullied the home team.
It appeared to be a case of two separate classes. Where the Thunder enjoyed the lights and glamour of a team led by scoring champion Durant, athletic-supernova Westbrook and the crafty Harden, Memphis used its past failures and struggles to manifest a true identity.
OKC beat you with finesse. They had better athletes, could outscore you and would have fun doing it. Memphis punched you in the mouth — a trait that would ironically bite them down the road — with all the malice built up from being a forgotten basement dweller the past five seasons.
The Thunder would bounce back in Game 2. Durant and the Thunder would pounce on the Grizzlies in the first quarter feeding off an energetic Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd with a 28-17 edge.
It was the following quarters that signaled the birth of that Memphis identity as well that this series would not be easy for Oklahoma City. The Grizzlies would outscore the Thunder 85-83 the rest of the game before losing 111-102.
Tony Allen’s defense of Durant was becoming a storyline. Gasol and Randolph’s toughness in the paint cut off many potential drives for Westbrook and Harden.
Once OKC came to Memphis for Game 3, that Grizzly identity was finally revealed. “Grit and Grind” was born. Of course, Memphis led the league in steals that season, committed Allen and Shane Battier to high-pressure defensive schemes, played inside-out on offense, but it was this series that truly provided the light in the dark.
Game 3 went Memphis’ way. A 10-point fourth quarter for OKC gave national media pause on crowning the Thunder as the next-best thing following the 101-93 defeat. Perhaps the Thunder was too young, too soft even for the overwhelming Grizzlies.
Triple Overtime Classic
Remember the multiple overtimes throughout the years between these two franchises?
This back-and-forth slugfest would include multiple lead changes, a Conley buzzer-beater and a… wait for it. Greivis Vasquez buzzer-beater to force two of the three overtimes.
The third overtime is where the young Thunder legs were able to outwork the exhausted Grizzlies. OKC outscored Memphis 14-4 in the decisive five minutes.
It is easy to see this game as a huge turning point for the Thunder. If OKC loses this game, they are staring at a 3-1 deficit — a hole they would likely not be able to crawl out of. Perhaps the Thunder still reach the NBA Finals the next season, but it can be argued the experience gained in this series and their eventual defeat in the 2011 Western Conference Finals played a large role in their Finals run. Does James Harden become the player he became as quickly? If not, is Sam Presti able to keep him in the summer of 2012?
For Memphis, this game foreshadowed their “Grit and Grind” run during the next five seasons. They were so close to reaching the top of the West. They were never an easy opponent despite obvious talent gaps. But overall, Memphis was never able to put it all together to consistently threaten the upper-tier of the West in that span.
Maybe if they win this game, they reach the Western Conference Finals and have the matchup advantage to stop Dirk Nowitki and the Dallas Mavericks?
This Game 4 was that important.
Memphis Gets Their Series
You know the rest of the story. OKC would win that series in 2011. The Thunder and Grizzlies were far from being done with one another however.
In 2013, Oklahoma City and Memphis met once again in the second round. The Grizzlies all looked familiar, the Thunder however did not.
Westbrook had been lost in the first round thanks to Patrick Beverley, leaving OKC to depend on the young Reggie Jackson. Harden had been traded away in the prior offseason for Kevin Martin in the short term. Durant was still Durant, but had yet been able to reach his Most Valuable Player status.
With a short handed squad, the Grizzlies overwhelmed the Thunder in five games in typical “Thunder U” vs “Grit and Grind” fashion — every game was within six points or less and included one overtime experience.
Even the decisive Game 5 came down to some late-game heroics for both sides.
Memphis would go on to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Reggie Jackson’s Heroics and Steven Adams’ Face
The following season would see Durant reach the pinnacle of his career at that point. He won the MVP despite Westbrook missing significant time recovering from his knee injury.
OKC and the Grizzlies would meet in the first round this time. Once again, the Thunder would find themselves down 2-1 playing on the road in Memphis. Once again, the Thunder would look their season in the face as the Grizzlies took control of the fourth quarter in Game 4.
Then Reggie Jackson had the best game of his life.
Jackson’s shot making and clutch free throws saved the Thunder from defeat. His 32 points led all scorers and was by far the reason OKC left the FedExForum with a win while Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka shot a combined 17-of-56.
With OKC regaining momentum in the series at 2-2, Memphis stole it back on the road. If Jackson’s Game 4 saved the Thunder in the series, Game 6 provided the death knell for the Grizzlies.
Steven Adams provided his own physicality against the bigs of Memphis. Since this time, Adams has gained a nasty, but respectable reputation as a dirty player. That stigma can be traced back to the 6:44 mark of the fourth quarter of Game 6.
With OKC down 3-2 in the series, the Thunder controlled Game 6. They held a 88-71 lead in the fourth before Randolph had grown tired of Adams’ physicality and antics. Randolph and Adams ran down the floor together following a missed-Mike Miller shot. Then Randolph pushed Adams away but not before hitting Adams in the face.
The Thunder won Game 6. Randolph was suspended for Game 7. OKC would win the series easily against a short-handed Memphis squad.
Grit and Grind/Thunder U Coda
Following the 2013-14 season, the Thunder grew up.
Durant and Westbrook were no longer young players and OKC was no longer viewed with such optimism. Their window of opportunity was closing quickly as injuries piled up and contracts grew closer to their conclusion.
With that “Thunder U” just became the Thunder. Title contenders who dealt with the disappointment and criticism that came with not reaching their goals.
OKC would miss the playoffs in the 2014-15 season thanks to an injury plague. Memphis would reach the playoffs once again.
The Grizzlies would dominate the Portland Trailblazers before running into the Golden State Warriors in a six-game series.
While both franchises were Western Conference playoff contenders the next few seasons, they never met in the postseason again. Durant eventually left OKC and injuries piled up on Memphis. With the league becoming more outside-in, the Grizzlies “Grit and Grind” would fade into NBA obscurity.
These two franchises, separated by 466 miles down Interstate-40, were locked into a season-by-season struggle. Seven overtime games — with nine overtimes overall — single-digit deficits and 19 playoff games became the trial for each organization. One would reach the upper-tier in the West, the other would be a tough middle-tier.
Both teams needed each other. Both teams provided fun series’ for NBA fans. It is with the Conley trade that we now must wave goodbye to “Grit and Grind.”
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12, in addition to weekly guest spots on “The Franchise Drive” on Tuesdays and “The Franchise Morning Show” on Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports