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Fran Blinebury

O.J. Mayo has put the regular season behind him and is making his presence felt in the Grizzlies' playoff run.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Improbably, the Juice is loose in Memphis

Posted May 8 2011 5:31PM

MEMPHIS -- Up is down. In is out. Day is night.

O.J. Mayo won a game with his defense.

Go ahead. Pick which one is more improbable.

No matter what you choose, it certainly won't be any more improbable than O.J. Mayo's season.

Not even close.

He was punched out by a teammate over a card game. He was suspended for violating the NBA's drug policy. His father was arrested and jailed. He lost his spot in the starting lineup. He was traded. Then he wasn't.

Down at the end of Lonely Street, as Elvis used to sing around here, he's also the night manager at the Heartbreak Hotel.

Well, he could be.

And maybe Mayo could get a room or 12 ready for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Preferably on the ground floor, so they won't get hurt if they jump out the windows. He knows the urge.

"Yeah, there were times when I had to stop and sit down and try to get myself back together," Mayo said. "You have all of this stuff going on and it's like one more thing can be the last one you can stand.

"The last one was when I thought I was traded at the trade deadline. You think your team doesn't want you. Then the trade doesn't go through and what happens next?

"You tell yourself it's a business and that's what you do. You take care of your business."

That was Mayo, acting like a bigger shark than those Wall Street traders in Game 3, not only doing what he does best -- score -- but also doing what nobody usually thinks of him doing -- defend.

"I think I am (a good defender)," Mayo said. "Whenever I'm tuned into the game. A lot of times I let certain things mess with me mentally and it takes me out of the game. Tonight I was tuned in."

He was tuned in as clear and crisp as satellite radio when coach Lionel Hollins gave Mayo the job of defending Russell Westbrook, who had torched the Grizzlies and Mike Conley for 13 points in the third quarter when the Thunder were threatening to run away and hide with an unrelenting double-digit lead.

Mayo stuck to Westbrook like white on rice. He fought over screens and through them. He was in Westbrook's face every time he tried to turn a corner, practically inside his uniform each time he attempted a shot. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Westbrook went just 1-for-7 from the field and scored only four points.

"I thought O.J. was very credible playing Westbrook from the terms of they're the same size," said Hollins. "We didn't have to worry about him shooting over him or overpowering him in the post."

Mayo's teammates definitely noticed.

"Just giving him a different look and made Westbrook take a lot of tough jumpers," said Shane Battier. "I definitely think Juice is MVP in my vote today."

"O.J. was the player of the game," said Zach Randolph. "He gets the game ball."

Mayo also scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and dealt four assists.

But it was how he dealt with Westbrook and how he's dealt with a season's worth of problems that was just as significant.

This is how playoff rides sometimes unfold. A team wins a game here that is unexpected. Things change. Guys change. Stuff starts to happen that nobody could ever have predicted and nobody can even explain and, next thing you know, it's late May or even June.

The playoffs are not just about the superstars who live in the headlines, but also about the players who find a way to sprout up like weeds through the cracks in the sidewalk. You can't seem to get rid of them.

"I told Juice after the thing with the trade that he just had to deal with it," said Hollins. "Hey, he's not the first guy to get traded. He's not the first one that was traded and then it didn't go through.

"Is it tough? Yeah, maybe for a day. Then you come back into the gym and you go back to work. Do you do it because you want to prove them wrong for thinking about trading you? Maybe. That doesn't matter. The point is you just do it."

The Grizzlies did it with their top defender Tony Allen scratching, clawing, battling -- the whole Grind House thing -- with Kevin Durant down the stretch, knocking him completely out of his rhythm and off his game. Of course, that's what Allen does. It's the reason the Grizzlies brought him in from Boston, to give them an edge.

Mayo, of course, is the one who might have gone over the edge at any point this season.

"That's the playoffs," Hollins said. "In order to go further, you always have to be in games where you have to do something miraculous to win the game."

O.J. won it with defense.

The parting of the Mississippi River is next.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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