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OKLAHOMA CITY – Midway through the season, the Memphis Grizzlies came through Oklahoma City and left with questions swirling about the franchise's future after leading scorer Rudy Gay was traded away in the club's second big deal in just over a week.
Months later, the Grizzlies left town with a far different feeling.
Memphis is headed to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 88-84 on Wednesday night, finishing off the second-round series in five games.
Not bad for a team that seemed to be slashing salary in a bid to stay competitive for years to come.
"We were struggling that day, obviously," said point guard Mike Conley, who had 13 points and 11 assists in Game 5. "We thought we lost a family member in Rudy here in Oklahoma City. We played the game with seven players and got blown out. We didn't know what to expect the rest of the year, but we pulled it together.
"Somehow we pulled it together, we trusted each other, we just played as hard as we could and now we're one step closer to getting where we want to go."
There have been some giant leaps in the past four years.
Back in 2009, the Grizzlies were finishing off a miserable three-year run — twice winning 22 games and then 24 — before hiring Lionel Hollins as coach. Before 2011, the team had never even won a playoff game. And before this current run, it only won one playoff series.
But there's no sense of satisfaction for just making it this far.
"We're trying to do something really special. We want to go as far as we can go," Hollins said. "To get there, we had to get through Oklahoma City. And now, we have to get through either Golden State or San Antonio to get further."
The West finals will start no earlier than Sunday, and Hollins said players would have the day off Thursday before returning Friday to work toward making even more history.
"This is the first time, so it definitely means a lot. I'm happy, but we've still got work to do," said All-Star power forward Zach Randolph, who had 28 points and 14 rebounds in the clincher. "I want to win a ring."
It hasn't been easy getting this far.
The Grizzlies rebounded from the emotional blow of losing Gay and reserves Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and Hamed Haddadi to earn the fifth seed in the West, then fell behind the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
Memphis reeled off four straight wins to advance, then did it again after losing Game 1 to the Thunder.
It was a series filled with games that went down to the wire, and the finale fit right in — even though the Thunder trailed by 12 with 3 minutes left. Oklahoma City came back with a 16-6 rally, and Reggie Jackson's 3-pointer cut the deficit to 86-84 with 14.3 seconds remaining.
Randolph missed two free throws with 11.3 seconds on the clock to give the Thunder one last chance to save their season. Durant got the ball beyond the 3-point line on the left wing and navigated around Tony Allen before missing a 16-foot jumper with 6 seconds left.
He ended up 5 for 21 from the field, the third-worst shooting performance in his playoff career.
"I gave it all I had for my team. I left it all out there on the floor," said Durant, who scored 21 points and committed three of his seven turnovers in the fourth quarter. "I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting, I kept being aggressive. That's all I can ask for."
Durant was the hero in Game 1, hitting six of nine shots in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead jumper with 11.1 seconds left. After that, Hollins started including Tony Allen — the top vote-getter for the NBA's all-defensive team — among those guarding Durant. The three-time scoring champion's effectiveness declined as the series progressed.
"They had to play him and he had to be the go-to guy, and we knew that," Hollins said. "We just tried to just make him work for everything."
Durant's only two worse shooting performances in the playoffs came in Game 6 against the Lakers in the 2010 first round (5 for 23, 21.7 percent) — also an elimination game — and in Game 6 of the 2011 West semifinals against Memphis (3 for 14, 21.4 percent).
He faced increasing pressure after All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook had knee surgery two games into the first round and was lost for the rest of the playoffs. Durant averaged 45.6 minutes during the series and played all 48 minutes in Game 5.
"He wasn't going down. He didn't want to sit and watch and go down," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He wanted to play."
Oklahoma City trailed by as many as 14 before it got a breath of life with a bizarre play midway through the third quarter when Derek Fisher's missed 3-pointer turned into a four-point possession. Allen, who was on the bench, waved his arms to try and distract Fisher on his shot and a shirt slipped out of his hands and onto the floor near Fisher's feet.
Referee Marc Davis ruled that Fisher's 3-pointer should count, and Durant hit the free throw resulting from a technical against Allen to get the Thunder within 60-53. Oklahoma City got as close as 64-62 by the end of the quarter, after Fisher's 3-pointer and a layup by Thabo Sefolosha.
But the Thunder missed eight of their first nine shots to start the fourth quarter to fall behind 76-64, then couldn't quite recover with their star struggling so badly.
NOTES: NBA Commissioner David Stern attended the game and sat eight rows from the court. ... Sefolosha wore a brace on his sore left hand. He played just six minutes in the first half, then played the entire third quarter. ... It was the second straight game the Thunder scored the first seven points, only to give up the lead a few minutes later. ... Nick Collison picked up three fouls in the first 2:35 of the second quarter and got pulled. ... After the third-quarter buzzer, Jerryd Bayless made a shot from three-quarters court that did not count.