Now that we've put a cap on last season, time to look ahead to the summer, where the Grizzlies have one big decision to make. But first, where the roster stands headed into the off-season:
Est. Salary: $16,460,532
Coming back from the first serious injury of his career, Gay followed an up-and-down season with an up-and-down playoff debut: He followed bad stretches — particularly in the first halves of Games 3 and 4 — with good stretches. He overcame early struggles to make big plays in the fourth quarter of every game except for Game 7, where he was the Grizzlies most effective player for three quarters and was then a non-factor in the fourth. Aside from perhaps an efficient Game 2, where he did most of his work early, Gay never really put a full game together in these playoffs. It was that kind of season. In large part, it's been that kind of career. Gay is a second-tier player with a first-tier contract and though he can still fine-tune aspects of his game and learn from his first taste of post-season intensity, that reality isn't going to change in any meaningful way.
But, because Gay's struggles can tend to be more frustrating than those of most players, I think the criticism tends to get a little one-sided. Increasingly, a segment of the fan base looks at Gay the way many think Lionel Hollins looks at Tony Allen or the dearly departed Greivis Vasquez: Fixating on the negatives while downplaying the positives. A few facts to put Gay's playoff debut and regular season in context: Gay had the second-best +/- rating among Grizzlies players in the series (after Tony Allen) and had a better shooting percentage than Zach Randolph (including a significantly better shooting percentage from inside the three-point arc). Despite some rough shooting stretches, Gay's scoring efficiency in the series (based on points scored per shot attempt) was higher than any perimeter player except Vasquez (who averaged 11 minutes) from last season's playoff run. He had the sixth-highest PER among small forwards in the NBA this season. Warts and all, Gay's playoff debut was far from the disaster some made it out to be and he's very close to being a Top 5 player in the league at his position.
If the Grizzlies trade Rudy Gay this summer — and you can make a very strong case that they should — it will be for financial, not performance, reasons.
Est. Salary: $16,500,000
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Randolph was not capable of putting up a 30-20 game in these playoffs. But he rebounded well, scored well in stretches, and, even with Randolph in a diminished capacity, the Grizzlies were a better team when he was on the floor. The only question going into next season is whether Randolph can get all the way back to his pre-injury form. And though there's no guarantee until it actually happens, most people around the team seem optimistic on this front. Randolph's knee injury healed without surgery and he returned to a reasonable level of effectiveness on schedule. He's still relatively young — he'll turn 31 this summer — and his game has never been predicated on leaping or explosiveness. The odds seem good that an off-season of conditioning work will return Randolph to something close to last season's peak form. If so, he'll return to his rightful place as the Grizzlies' offensive alpha dog next season regardless of what other moves the team makes.
But, with that out of the way, I sat down Tuesday afternoon, before my weekly appearance on The Chris Vernon Show, and went through the last 15 minutes of the game again. This gave me not only a different look at the action than I got from my upstairs media seat, but the ability to pause, rewind, re-watch, etc. And four things jumped out to me as major factors in the Grizzlies' struggles, particularly on the offensive end, where the team mustered only 16 points on 4-18 shooting in the final quarter:
1. The Arenas/Haddadi Substitutions: The Grizzlies used lineups at the end of the third quarter and at the beginning of the fourth quarter that they hadn't used in the series to that point, with Marc Gasol and Hamed Haddadi paired at the end of the third and Haddadi and Gilbert Arenas paired to start the fourth. And re-watching confirms that the Haddadi and Arenas substitutions really hurt the team.
Arenas hadn't been effective in his limited minutes all series, of course. But, in fairness, Lionel Hollins had played Haddadi important second-half minutes in two other games — 4 and 6, I think — and gotten good results from this move. But it didn't work in Game 7, and I think it had a lot to do with the situations in which Haddadi was placed. Haddadi is a quality backup center when he sticks to within five feet of the hoop, but in this game he was routinely forced to handle the ball on the perimeter — usually after running a pick-and-roll with O.J. Mayo, in which Mayo was trapped — which, unsurprisingly, resulted in turnovers and low-percentage shots.
2. Fatigue was Real: In his post-game press conference, Hollins cited fatigue as a factor in his late-game substitutions, and that certainly seems legitimate. On the game, the four players who logged the most minutes — Rudy Gay (40), Mike Conley (40), Zach Randolph (39), and Marc Gasol (37) — were all Grizzlies. Chris Paul (35) was the only Clipper to top 30 minutes. The Clippers' superior bench play was one of the stories of the series and it was definitive in Game 7. There are a couple of times in the fourth quarter where Conley, playing with flu-like symptoms, looks like he's going to collapse. The play before Randolph controversial trip to the bench in the middle of the quarter, he was jogging back on defense while Kenyon Martin was streaking past him for a dunk. On the crucial play late when O.J. Mayo got a steal and had a chance to cut the Clippers lead from six to four, both Chris Paul and Reggie Evans tracked him down to contest his shot. Not a single other Grizzlies player even crossed half court.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins declined to respond to a question about fourth-quarter performance in his post-game press conference, calling the issue “far-fetched,” but in a seven-game series where the teams seemed to be so evenly matched, the issue is unavoidable. The Grizzlies out-scored the Clippers 640-635 on the series, but the Clippers won the fourth quarters and overtimes 183-146.
The Grizzlies have often been able to build leads early in this series, but not today in an ugly first quarter that saw teams shoot a combined 13 for 47 and the Clippers take a 16-13 lead through the first 12 minutes. The Grizzlies responded to a 10-point Clipper lead midway through the second by closing the half on a 15-6 run that featured the kind of energy and intensity that eluded the Grizzlies for most of the game. But when the Clippers built another lead with an 11-2 run in the early minutes of the final quarter, the Grizzlies couldn't respond, as the Clippers' bench led a 27-16 fourth quarter.
And that was another series-long trend that became more prominent in this game. The Clippers entered this post-season with the reputation as a pretty, high-flying team. But, in the playoffs, hard-nosed, defensive players like Eric Bledsoe, Kenyon Martin, and especially Reggie Evans emerged into bigger roles, especially in the fourth quarters, transforming the character of their team.
At noon on Sunday, Memphis will witness yet another first as an NBA city: A Game 7 at home.
The Grizzlies made this possible by beating the Clippers 90-88, in what had been their own kind of game. In this series, the Clippers have won the nail-biters — of their three wins, two have been by a single point and the other in overtime. And the Clippers have typically been the team erasing fourth quarter leads.
But in a potential elimination game Friday night in Los Angeles, it was the Grizzlies making a fourth-quarter comeback to win a tight game. Down 68-76 with 8:30 to play, the Grizzlies got an unlikely boost from Hamed Haddadi — the unlikely part being that he was in that game at all in the fourth quarter of an elimination game — and then closed with their starting lineup.
A Rudy Gay three-point play gave the Grizzlies a 78-76 lead with 6:28 to play and they never trailed again. Mike Conley knocked down consecutive jumpers. Zach Randolph completed a two-hand flush off a high-post bounce pass from Marc Gasol. And Tony Allen was the God of Chaos: He had steals, he had turnovers. He missed jumpers, he snared defensive rebounds. And he leaked out when the Clippers were asleep at the free-throw line, getting fouled at the rim and pushing the Grizzlies lead from four to six in the final minute.
The Grizzlies got an awful lot of help from subpar Chris Paul and Blake Griffin performances, neither player at 100%, but also overcame a 20-7 negative turnover disparity and continued disappointing play from Gay and O.J. Mayo.
But the rediscovered post play of Gasol and Randolph was there again — combining for 42 points and 25 rebounds. Mike Conley was steady again — 13 points and 9 assists. And the team defense was solid despite not turning the Clippers over. And as long as those three elements are in place, this Grizzlies team can hang with anybody.
Game 7 will tip at noon on Sunday. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday at all Ticketmaster outlets, by calling 800-745-3000 or 901-888-HOOP, by visiting the FedExForum Box Office or online at grizzlies.com or ticketmaster.com.
In advance of the game, my take on a few elements of the series:
First and Last Take on the Booing Incident: With barely enough time to cover what's happening on the court, I've been reluctant to wade into the sideshow “controversy” over Grizzlies fans booing when Blake Griffin went down late in the third quarter. Eric Freeman, over at Yahoo's Ball Don't Lie, does a nice job explaining the psychology of the moment, the Boy Who Cried Wolf-bred cynicism that I alluded to on Twitter as it was happening. (And, frankly, a cynicism that was only strengthened in the aftermath: After laying prostrate on the floor for several minutes, surrounded by the entire Clipper team, Griffin got up and played most of the rest of the game, a subsequent MRI confirming that he only suffered a sprain.)
The crowd's rejection of perceived theatrics was presumptive and certainly against accepted fan protocol, but that initial reaction was soon transferred toward a Clipper fan shown on the arena's video board. I gather that the sustained booing was presented on the telecast as being directed at Griffin on the floor, but that's not quite what was happening.
Injury Updates: Griffin, with his sprained knee, and Paul, with his strained hip, are both listed as “game-time decisions” for tonight. Obviously, they're going to play. But whether either is limited is potentially the most important aspect of the game. Keep an eye on Paul especially.
But when Randolph took his first breather the Grizzlies led 35-22 and he and Gasol had combined for 27 points on 12-14 shooting. This was a return to the inside game more ferocious than any reasonable fan's wildest hopes. They attacked Clippers star Blake Griffin — a dynamic scorer but mediocre defender — relentlessly, happily feeding whichever post scorer Griffin guarded. As much as the upcoming Van Halen concert being advertised around the arena, this was a reunion show, and mixed in with the palpable relief in the building was a mix of gratitude (“We missed you guys so much!”) and frustration (“Why did it have to come to this?”).
That first quarter was a thrilling display of offensive execution — eight of the post duo's 12 made field goals were either assisted or off offensive rebounds; this was not an iso show — matched by staunch defense, especially from Tony Allen and Gasol on the Clippers' stars, Chris Paul and Griffin, respectively.
The first quarter was reminiscent of the series-opening explosion early in Game 1. And, troublingly, so was the rest of the game.
The biggest concern tonight as the Grizzlies return home for an elimination Game 5 might be the general mood — on the court and in the stands. I'm concerned that complaints about scapegoating and various attempts to assign specific blame for team failings might suggest cracks in the team focus and chemistry. I also worry if the fans will really bring the heat tonight. Have a great couple of seasons erased the fickleness bred from the many bad seasons that have preceded it? Is the fan base that has sold out eight straight playoff games for real now or just along for the ride when times are good? Tonight will provide some answers on both of these subjects.
As for on-court specifics, here are five series factors I've been thinking about:
1. Two Stars Are Better Than None: The biggest difference between the Clippers and the Grizzlies? The Grizzlies worry about which player is going to take the big shot. The fans argue about it. It's a hotly contested issue. The Clippers? They don't really care who takes the big shot. They worry about getting the best shot. In Game 4, Chris Paul took over in the extra period with his own scoring, but that's not always the case. He's arguably the best crunch-time operator in basketball and every possession will start in his hands, but they don't always end there. It might be a Nick Young open in the corner. It might be Blake Griffin or even Reggie Evans under the basket. Paul will get the ball to whoever has the best shot. It's the way basketball is supposed to be played but rarely is when things get tight.
And yet, the Clippers execute this way with the luxury of one true superstar and another potentially emerging one.
The Grizzlies went down 3-1 in their first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 101-97 overtime loss Monday night. Of the Clippers three wins, two were by a single point each and now a third in overtime. So this series has been very, very close within each game, but the Grizzlies are finding that it's very hard to win close games against a team led by Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
The series returns to Memphis for Game 5 at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday. I'll have a preview up for Game 5 sometime that day.
With a frustrating 87-86 loss yesterday afternoon, the Grizzlies now find themselves in the same place they put the Spurs and Thunder in last spring: Down 2-1 on the road.
The Spurs lost Game 4 on the road to the Grizzlies before finally falling in Game 6. The Thunder rallied to win their Game 4 roadie — in triple overtime — on the way to taking the series in seven games. So the Grizzlies have a couple of potential templates for which way this series might head. Game 4 Monday night isn't “must win” — I'm pretty sure Wednesday's Game 5 will still be held regardless of Monday's outcome — but it will profoundly impact the series odds the rest of the way: Even the series up with two of three remaining on their homecourt and the Grizzlies will become the favorites again. Lose, and the odds become very steep of getting out of the first round again.
Through three games, the Grizzlies have outscored the Clippers 289-284. Much more meaningful, however, is that the Clippers have outscored the Grizzlies in the final six minutes 50-27. This included a 13-1 Clippers run in the final minutes Saturday afternoon to turn a six-point deficit into a six-point lead before Rudy Gay's two late three-pointers gave the Grizzlies a final shot to win it, with Gay's desperation heave unable to give the Grizzlies a miracle win to (kinda, sorta) match the Clippers' from Game 1.
1. Grizzlies in Control?: While that whole “giving away Game 1” thing has imperiled the Grizzlies chances of winning the series, they've clearly looked like the better team through two games with the Clippers. The Grizzlies have controlled six of eight quarters so far, only faltering in that disastrously complacent Game 1 fourth quarter and in the Game 2 first quarter, where it took them a little while to adjust to the Clippers' increased physicality. Through 96 minutes of basketball so far in this series, the Grizzlies have led for 80:08.
2. Defending Rudy Gay: With Caron Butler out with a hand injury and journeyman Bobby Simmons and slight scorer Nick Young as his primary defenders, Rudy Gay was very strong in Game 2. He missed his first three shots — a contested 17-footer and a couple of strong drives where lay-up attempts rimmed out — and was then 9-10 from the floor the rest of the game.
That opening shot was the only long two-pointer Gay took the entire game. Gay's lone three-point attempt — his only miss from the mid-first-quarter on — came when Kenyon Martin switched onto him on a pick-and-roll and pushed Gay out with the shot-clock about to expire, forcing a 35-foot prayer. Gay's other 12 shots — including a fastbreak lay-up attempt where he was fouled — all came within 15 feet. All game long, Gay used his size and strength advantage to drive or back down Simmons (against whom Gay was 4-7) and Young (a perfect 5-5) into the paint for a series of short jumpers and hooks.
Not Wednesday night at FedExForum. The Grizzlies and their fans had spent two days trying to forget the unimaginable collapse at the end of Game 1. But just before Game 2 tipped, the big board went off the usual script: It highlighted failure. Rudy Gay's missed shot. The Clippers running to center court to celebrate. And then one Memphian after another looking into the camera saying, “I believe.”
That kind of cornball defiance drove last spring's playoff run for the then-upstart Grizzlies. But opening a series at home as a favorite, christened far and wide as “the team no one wants to play,” it's hard to feel like the underdog, even against a glamor team from Los Angeles.
So while the Grizzlies and their fans would most certainly prefer to have a Game 1 victory instead, the humbling loss seemed to help the team get that defiant, hungry feeling back.
The Grizzlies return to the court at 8:30 tonight at FedExForum in a spot they were able to avoid last spring: Down 0-1 and fighting, early on, to keep hope alive.
Can they recover from a historic collapse and a game that functioned like one the greatest cases of unintentional rope-a-dope ever seen? The mood at practice the past two days has seemed relaxed but determined. If anything, I'd worry about a hangover for the too-quiet, nail-biting fourth-quarter crowd than from the players themselves.
I had a chance to re-watch Game 1 last night for the first time, and it looked a little different than in the blur of the moment.
With that in mind, here are 10 takes on the state of the series heading into Game 2:
1. Offsetting Improbabilities and the Sensible Center: The fourth quarter of Game 1 was like a rock slide: In the four minutes that the Clippers cut a 24-point Grizzlies lead down to 12, it was like a few small chunks of stone were falling down the hill. Something to take note of but not be too concerned about. When that lead held for the next two-and-a-half-minutes — a 12-point lead with less than three minutes on the clock? — the quiet felt like everything had stabilized. And then Nick Young hit three three-pointers in the span of exactly 60 seconds and the whole mountain came tumbling down.
To lose a 24-point lead in eight minutes and then a 12-point lead in under three takes everything going wrong. We won't see anything quite like that again. But some of what built that lead was pretty improbable too: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combining for more personal fouls (4) than points (3) in the first quarter. Grizzlies perimeter players connecting on 10 of their first 12 three-point attempts.
It felt like the Grizzlies dominated the game until those last eight minutes, but they only really dominated the first quarter. The Grizzlies' 34-16 explosion in the first was balanced by the Clippers' 35-13 explosion in the fourth. Those quiet, comparatively forgettable middle quarters — in which the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 51-48 — are probably more indicative of what to expect going forward.