The paper hit the streets this morning, so if you're an in-town reader you can pick it up all over the place. The story will be online tomorrow morning.
As for Game 7: No real mystery to it. The entire series had been about the Grizzlies trying to overcome the Thunder's shot-making advantage and that element went haywire for the Grizzlies in Oklahoma City on Sunday. Looking back: If you set that Game 1 anomaly aside, the subsequent three games in Oklahoma City were convincing Thunder wins. All three games in Memphis were wars. Amazingly, the Grizzlies were a triple-overtime home loss away from potentially winning that series in six games. But, in the end, it's hard to deny that the best team ended up taking it.
Zach Randolph: "Behind the Music": GQ.com's NBA blog, "Balls Out!" published a "through the years" style piece on Zach Randolph this morning, featuring contributions from multiple writers on different phases of Randolph's career. I weighed in with a few thoughts on Randolph's tenure, so far, in Memphis. Thanks to David Roth and Bethlehem Shoals for inviting me to take part.
Grading Myself on Preseason Predictions:
With the season now over, it's time for that annual ritual wherein I unearth my preseason predictions and see how they panned out. These are all from a sidebar in my season preview piece back in October:
Grizzlies-Thunder. Game Seven. 2:30 p.m. ABC.
Five thoughts ahead of the action:
Matching the Energy: The Grizzlies fed off crowd energy in Game 6. Now Oklahoma City will have a raucous home crowd at their backs. Look for the Thunder to open the game with a burst of energy. The Grizzlies will have to match it. Obvious, but still key.
Putting the Best Lineups on the Floor/Shrinking the Rotation: My pre-game for Game 6 was in large part about how the team had faired in the post-season with different combinations of players on the wing and about how the most-common lineups (Tony Allen and Sam Young) were not the most effective (O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier, Mayo and Allen). I called for lineup and rotation changes and though I'm sure that had nothing to do with the outcome, we got them: Mayo and Allen started, Mayo and Battier mostly closed, and, interestingly, the Allen/Young combo never played together. The result was good for Zach Randolph and good for the team.
My quick calculation of the Game 6 plus/minus for each wing combo:
In the first playoff elimination game in Memphis since 2006, the city threw everything it had at the Oklahoma City Thunder: The right Reverend Al Green — his appearance uncertain until very near the tip-off — fluttered and weaved his way through the national anthem. Local hoops legend Penny Hardaway and Congressman Steve Cohen — who, earlier in the week, had displayed a gold "Believe Memphis" "growl towel" on the House floor — flanked opposite corners of the court. A pre-game video interspersed shots of an overflowing Mississippi River with defiant man-on-the-street testimonials. A giant head of President Barack Obama, adorned with a Griz headband, floated in section 116, appended with a sign noting — in reference to the President's Monday visit to Booker T. Washington High School and in Tony Allen-speak — "He Wit Us!" And, during the first timeout of the third quarter, Jerry Lawler turned Friday night at FedExForum into Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum by "chairing" a guy in an Oklahoma City Thunder t-shirt.
The civic cup was running over, but, for nearly 24 minutes, the basketball team at the center of this happy madness was not totally cooperating.
The Grizzlies opened tonight's game with a great burst of energy, forcing 8 turnovers in the first quarter. But, as in so many games in this series, energy wasn't matched by execution. The team managed to score only seven points off those turnovers, and nothing in transition. The offense — helped, in great part, by a lineup change that exchanged O.J. Mayo for Sam Young — was generating good shots, but they weren't going down: Short Marc Gasol jumpers, open Mike Conley mid-range shots, O.J. Mayo runners, all rarely finding the net.
Through 12 minutes, despite an enormous +9 possession advantage (including 5-0 on the offensive boards) and only four minutes from Thunder star Kevin Durant due to two early fouls, the Grizzlies only lead by two, 23-21.
Anyone who had been watching this series closely — from a Grizzlies perspective anyway — couldn't feel good about this start. Too many opportunities wasted by poor shooting — 36%. We'd seen this play before.
The Grizzlies return home tonight for Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. A few thoughts in preparation for what could be the season finale:
Elimination Game: In both Game 6 of the San Antonio series and Game 5 of this series with the Thunder, Lionel Hollins deflected pressure by pointing out that the team would still be playing regardless of the game's outcome. No more. Tonight will be the Grizzlies' first elimination of this post-season — first playoff elimination game since 2006. How the team — and the crowd, frankly — responds to the pressure will be compelling to watch. This game could be wild, could be triumphant, could be unbearably tense, could be deflating. Win or lose, this could be the final home game of the season. If so, let's hope we go out with a good performance and a fun game.
Offensive Drought: Game 5, in which the Grizzlies managed a mere 72 points, was obviously a disaster. But it was a continuation — culmination, hopefully — of a downward trend that had been developing since Game 2. The Grizzlies' team shooting percentages since the second game: 44%, 38%, 36%, 36%. These struggles start with the team's best scorer, Zach Randolph, who has had a national coming out party in these playoffs but whose production has actually been off his regular-season averages of the past two seasons. Randolph is shooting only 32% over the past four games. And, more recently, Mike Conley has joined him in his funk, shooting a combined 6-28 over the past two games.
Past Time for a Lineup Change: Randolph has complained that the Oklahoma City defense is sagging into the paint too much and the Grizzlies aren't doing a good enough job spacing the floor and stretching the defense. And he's right.
Yesterday, in the run-up to Game 5 between the Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder, I posed five questions that would factor in the outcome of the game. But when the answer to the first question — "Is the Tank Empty?" — came back affirmative, nothing else mattered.
Palpably suffering from some form of team-wide exhaustion — physical, mental, emotional — even if the players themselves refused that excuse, the Grizzlies played even with the Thunder for a quarter, but weren't capitalizing on Thunder turnovers. And when Oklahoma City finally got into an offensive groove, it was over fast.
ESPN.com's John Hollinger, who has been covering the whole series, was in Oklahoma City, and fleshes out the details here.
Now, coming home for Game 6 — which tips at 8 p.m. tomorrow night — the Grizzlies face their first elimination game of this post-season. And while there are many questions about this game, again there's one that can wipe out the rest: Can this team rally? Up until last night, this team has been incredibly resilient. But forcing a Game 7 against the surging Thunder will be the biggest challenge yet.
More on Game 6 tomorrow.
The Grizzlies and Thunder face off in Game 5 tonight in Oklahoma City. Tip-off is 8:30 p.m. Broadcast is TNT. Five questions whose answers could be key to the outcome:
1. Is the tank empty?: This is setting up as a letdown game for the Grizzlies — coming off a grueling triple-overtime home loss in which Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol played a combined 113 minutes to play on the road against an opponent and fan base sensing a chance to take control of the series.
Then again, the last time we — okay, I — thought the Grizzlies were set up for a tough game — in Game 1 against OKC — they responded with their most convincing buzzer-to-buzzer win of the post-season.
2. Can the Grizzlies counter the Thunder's small-ball lineup?: Oklahoma City's small lineups were a problem for the Grizzlies in Game 4. Kevin Durant's length helped him be effective fronting the post on Zach Randolph and kept the Grizzlies from taking advantage of a potential mismatch. On the other end, the Grizzlies found themselves trying to find somewhere to hide one of their bigs (Zach Randolph on Daequan Cook?) and didn't seem comfortable defensively. OKC is sure to go small again, the thought here is that the Grizzlies should try to stay big and make them pay for it, which may mean being more aggressive and creative about getting Randolph the ball inside.
3. Can Darrell Arthur be a difference maker?: One thing that could help the Grizzlies counter the Thunder's small ball while still staying "big" is getting good minutes from Darrell Arthur, something that hasn't happened in series outside of a short stretch in Game 2.
At one in the morning, half an hour after his team had lost a thrilling, draining, triple-overtime playoff game to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tony Allen sat alone in his locker, feet in ice, hands clasped behind his head, staring ruefully into the distance of a solemn, exhausted locker room.
Moments earlier, Allen had been surrounded by reporters, one of whom tried to give him a chance to champion his team's fight, it's "grit grind." But Allen, the only Grizzlies' regular with a championship ring in his possession, wouldn't bite. Nearly smirking, he responded, "There ain't no moral victories. We're upset. Now we gotta go get one in Oklahoma City. Like I said, [this game] was a great showcase for fans, but we needed it more than they did."
In this month of firsts for the long-suffering Memphis Grizzlies franchise and their mix of old and new fans, this was another one. If every game has been, almost comically, "the most important game in franchise history," it will be hard to displace this as the most epic.
The beginning was a lifetime ago, a 14-4 opening Grizzlies run in which Allen created — in one way or another — every single point. It swelled to an 18-point Grizzlies lead by early in the second quarter, and as long as these two teams were playing conventional lineups and normal rotations, the Grizzlies remained in control. But, soon, a mix of desperation and foul trouble forced the Thunder into smaller lineups that soon began to turn the game, forcing the Grizzlies to match.
By the late second quarter foul trouble was rampant for both teams — six players entered halftime with three fouls — and the lineup juggling it forced knocked the Grizzlies out of rhythm.
With less than two minutes left in regulation, the Grizzlies were down seven points. But after Saturday night's Game 3 comeback, that "Believe Memphis" slogan is no longer much doubted in FedExForum. And sure enough, there came a 7-0 closing Grizzlies run that culminated in Marc Gasol blocking Russell Westbrook in the lane and Mike Conley hovering around before launching a high-arching three-point shot that found net with 3.5 seconds left.
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.
If the Pattern Holds: As I've already written, the first two games in this series have mirrored the first two games in the San Antonio series. If the pattern holds, then Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol (42 points on 15-34 shooting in Game 3 vs. the Spurs) will settle into a good but not dominant level of production and we'll be looking at a tightly contested game that could swing either way down the stretch. Though hopefully, this time, it won't take a Zach Randolph three off a broken play to seal victory.
Extra Possessions as X-Factor: All season, the Grizzlies have overcome their shooting deficiencies and mediocre field-goal percentage defense by racking up extra possessions — offensive rebounding, forced turnovers, taking care of the ball. Against a Thunder team where Kevin Durant can get 30 points against even good defense, that might be even more important.
So far this post-season, the Grizzlies are 3-1 when they win the turnover battle and 2-2 when they don't. They won it big (-10) in winning Game 1 at Oklahoma City and lost in Game 2 when the turnover differential was even. This will bear watching today.
The Bench Battle: The Grizzlies bench was outclassed in Game 2. Coming home offers better hope in this area, however. Rookie backup point guard Greivis Vasquez scored 20 points and notched 9 assists in three home games this postseason. In five road games, he's scored 9 points with 8 assists. Similarly, Vasquez's frequent off-the-bench alley-oop buddy, Darrell Arthur, has had his strongest games at home, shooting 50% or better in all three home games while doing so only once in five road games. The bench could be the difference maker today.
The déjà vu series continued for the Grizzlies last night, as they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-102.
If Game 1 in this second-round series was reminiscent of Game 1 in the first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs — only better — then Game 2 in OKC was reminiscent of Game 2 in San Antonio — only worse.
In both series, the Grizzlies have stolen homecourt advantage on the strength of dominating play from frontcourt tandem Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol — who combined for 49 points on 19-25 shooting in Game 1 against the Spurs and 54 points on 21-33 shooting in Game 1 against the Thunder.
And now, in both cases, opponents have come back strong in desperation Game 2s with better focus and effort in stopping the Grizzlies' interior duo, which fell off sharply with only 23 points on 7-23 shooting against the Spurs and 28 points on 5-22 shooting last night in Oklahoma City.
Adjustments and counter-adjustments made, those first two games in San Antonio ended up being the most and least productive games of the series for Randolph/Gasol. I'm betting that pattern holds in this series as well.
The Grizzlies started their second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder the same way they started their first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs: By stealing Game 1 on the road — and home-court advantage along with it.
And they did it in much the same way: By riding their Big Trains — the frontcourt tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. In Game 1 against the Spurs, the Randolph/Gasol combo notched 49 points on 19-25 shooting, with 23 rebounds. Today in Oklahoma City: 54 points on 21-33 shooting, with another 23 boards.
But the comparisons end there.
This was a more surprising win: The Grizzlies had been looking for the Spurs for at least a week and had clear, significant match-up advantages in the paint. With the Spurs' best player, Manu Ginobili, out for the first game, the Grizzlies were well positioned to open the series with an upset.
This time, the NBA schedule-makers had put the team at an apparent disadvantage: Despite being the final team to advance from the first round, the Grizzlies were scheduled in the first of the second-round games. Roughly 36 hours after leaving FedExForum following an emotional series clincher against the Spurs, the Grizzlies tipped off in Oklahoma City — with very little prep time — against a Thunder team rested and waiting for them. It was a recipe for a letdown — mental exhaustion would have been understandable, even expected.
The Grizzlies' second-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder tips off at noon today. With very little time to work through this match-up, a quick, instant-reaction take on how this series may shape up:
1. What does the first-round tell us about these teams?
As impressive as the Grizzlies were in upsetting the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder might have been even more impressive with their five-game dismissal of a surging Denver Nuggets team.
Both the Grizzlies and Thunder come into this series with their "A" game clicking: For the Grizzlies, that means frontcourt duo Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who combined to average 36 points and 21 rebounds while physically controlling the series. For the Thunder, that means dynamic perimeter duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined to average 56 points a game in an uptempo series against the Nuggets.
As with the Spurs series, this will be a battle of "inside" vs. "outside." Inside prevailed for the Grizzlies in the first round, but this time the team faces a younger, more dynamic opponent that seems to be peaking at the right time.
2. How meaningful was the regular-season series?
Not very. The Grizzlies won the season series with the Thunder 3-1, but all the games were in single digits, two featured injured Griz star Rudy Gay, and, most crucially, none of them featured the Thunder's new starting center, former Celtic Kendrick Perkins. The Grizzlies' road win at Oklahoma City, in overtime, was one of the most memorable games of the season, played without both Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, and featured perhaps the greatest performance — on and off the court — of Tony Allen's career:
But it's probably not worth investing much faith in the regular-season results of this match-up.