It was a typically rambling, entertaining gabfest, and with Rose and Simmons having just spent a few days in Memphis where they were part of the broadcast crew for Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, their take on the city was a big topic.
Simmons and Rose seemed to have a terrific time in Memphis. They raved about Gus' Fried Chicken and Central Barbecue. About the scene on Beale Street. About the rickety downtown trolley. About the friendliness and spirit of the people. About the colorfulness of the Grizzlies' players. And about the authenticity of the relationship between the team and city. In a burst of irrational exuberance, Rose even suggested Memphis would top his impromptu “Black Guy City Power Rankings.”
It was great.
But they also paid respects to what they both called the “Lorraine Hotel” (it's “motel”) and what Rose referred to as “the MLK museum” (it's the National Civil Rights Museum). And that's where it got dicey for a few seconds, with Simmons straining for a linkage between the history and the sporting event he'd witnessed:
“I didn’t realize the effect [the MLK assassination] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
A player-by-player snapshot of the Grizzlies' roster entering the summer, in rough order of probable return:
A couple of hours before tipoff at FedExForum Monday night, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich held his usually curt pre-game press conference in the arena's media room. It was longer than Game 3's two-plus minutes, but not by much. He had somewhere to be. A few minutes later, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins held court in the hallway outside the Grizzlies' locker room, talking for what felt like 20 minutes or more in front of a gradually shrinking gathering of reporters, veering — on request — from questions about this series to back history on his Grizzlies' tenure and his general leadership philosophy, a not-unusual dissertation that, given the circumstances, bordered on the valedictory. Nowhere to go.
Happenstance proved prophetic by the end of the night, as Popovich's Spurs move on to their fifth NBA Finals and the Grizzlies stay home to contemplate an uncertain off-season that only begins with questions about Hollins' future.
If this Grizzlies' postseason was a revenge tour, then perhaps it came to a fitting end. In the opening round, the Grizzlies beat the Los Angeles Clippers, avenging a bitter first-round loss from the previous spring. The next round, the Grizzlies overcame the Oklahoma City Thunder, avenging a second-round loss from two springs prior. And it ended where this team iteration's three-year playoff run began, this time with the Spurs avenging their own 2011 upset first-round loss to the Grizzlies.
Losing to the Spurs in four games after having won eight of their previous nine playoff games was a shock to the team and a bitter reminder for longtime fans of the Grizzlies' playoff past: Before Lionel Hollins was the head coach. Before Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol patrolled the paint. Before Tony Allen transformed NBA culture in Memphis. When sweeps were the norm and they didn't come in the conference finals.
But this was no collapse. The Spurs earned this.
2. Conflicting Trajectories: The Grizzlies' pattern this postseason has been, by and large, to improve as each series has progressed. Even down 0-3, that's been the case in the conference finals as well. Game 1 was a debacle. Game 2 was a potential debacle that got turned around in the second half. Game 3 was a hot start that dissipated, but the Spurs didn't acquire their ultimate double-digit victory until the wheels came off in overtime. Follow that trajectory and tonight, at home, should be a tipping point for the Grizzlies. The problem, of course, is that this potentially too-little-too-late upward trajectory is fighting against the crosscurrents of 0-3 malaise, the tendency for both players and fans to sense ultimate hopelessness and pack it in.
For two nights in San Antonio, the Grizzlies' starting lineup, which had been brilliant defensively in the regular season and again in the first two rounds of the playoffs, suddenly couldn't get a stop. But at the outset of Game 3, that unit's defensive impact returned, more ferocious than ever. The Grizzlies scored their first two baskets off of steals, building an 18-point first quarter lead off seven steals (five from Mike Conley alone) that fed into eight Spurs turnovers and defense that hounded the Spurs into 4-19 shooting when they were able to control the ball.
But it couldn't last.
“We came out with great energy. We got steals, we were running. We just couldn't sustain,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We subbed and tried to get some rest and we didn't get production out of some of the people on the bench and then we couldn't rev it back up when we got back to our starters.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled all five of his starters in disgust seven minutes into the quarter.
“Those guys looked like they'd been asleep since Tuesday,” Popovich said.
I expended most of my time and energy over the past day or so on The Griz Glossary, so this preview is going to be shorter than normal despite the momentous nature of the games in question. Oddly, that feels okay in a series where so much for the Grizzlies right now boils down simply to “play better” and where at least half of their problems come down to “defend the pick and roll better.”
Fave takes ahead of a big game Saturday night:
1. Promise or Mirage?: Here’s how the series has gone so far for the Grizzlies, quarter by quarter:
-17, +3, -2, -6, -2, -13, +3, +12, -4 (OT)
Was that 21-9 fourth quarter the Grizzlies played to force overtime in Game 2 a product of legitimate adjustments or an outlier, fool’s gold that masked ongoing problems?
There’s evidence for either argument but after re-watching it I feel a little bit less encouraged than I did watching it live.
The Grizzlies did plenty of good things.They put more effective lineups on the floor (Quincy Pondexter played the full quarter, Jerryd Bayless all but a couple of minutes), creating the space for Zach Randolph to get into a rhythm (3-5 with four rebounds in the quarter). The energy and, for lack of a better word, spirit was much stronger than it had been for most of the series at that point, with success allowing the team to play with rare confidence.
But even with a more conducive lineup on the floor, it’s easier to get your offense going when the other team’s best defender is on the bench, with Tim Duncan playing only 4.5 minutes of the quarter due to foul problems. On the other end, the Grizzlies' defense played hard, but that out-of-character nine-point quarter for the Spurs was partly the product of a lot of out-of-character missed shots. Matt Bonner missed a three with no-one within seven feet of him. Parker missed open threes. Duncan missed a tip-in. They were tired. Both teams were tired. The Grizzlies missed lots of open shots too, but that’s less unusual.
2. The Comforts of Home: If the fourth quarter of Game 2 presents false hope barring further improvements, so does a return home.
The Grizzlies are undefeated on the Grindhouse floor so far these playoffs and have run their home record up to 19-1 since Lionel Hollins’ post-trade/pre-game address back on February 8th. Hosting a West Finals game for the first time on a Saturday night, the arena will likely be bonkers. All of this should give the team a boost, but that alone isn’t enough. And Hollins knows this.
"We went on the road in every series and lost and have had to come back. We’re at home and we want to come out and play much more aggressive and confident, which teams normally do at home," Hollins said after practice on Thursday. “[But] as I’ve told our team, being at home isn’t going to win anything for us. We have to play much better.”
So far these playoffs, the Grizzlies have notched a -1 point differential on the road and a +9 at home. That 10-point swing is pretty strong, but in San Antonio the Grizzlies lost by 13 a game, so it won't be enough with some significant improvements.
On Saturday night, the Memphis Grizzlies will not only host a conference finals game for the first time in franchise history but will also host, arguably, the biggest sporting event in the city's history. At 5-0 on their home floor so far this post-season and after recovering from a rough first seven quarters to force overtime in a Game 2 loss in San Antonio, the Grizzlies and their fans have plenty of hope for extending the series. But, down 0-2, the prospect of the team's season ending in Memphis on Memorial Day is a real one. And with culture-changing folk hero Tony Allen entering free-agency this summer, there's at least a small chance that we could be witnessing more than just the waning days of a playoff run.
Under Allen's manic influence, the Grizzlies and their fans have developed one of the league's more colorful cultures. For the benefit of those around the broader NBA community turning their full attention to Memphis for perhaps the first time, here's one reporter's alphabetical guide to Griz Land:
"All heart. Grit. Grind." — The origin of contemporary Griz culture, from February 8, 2011, in Oklahoma City:
This now-legendary interview came after a 105-101 overtime road win in which the Grizzlies were playing without ostensible stars O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay. Tony Allen, new to the team and barely in the rotation for most of the first two months of the season, scored 27 points, had 5 steals, and sent the game to overtime with a three-point play in the final minute of regulation.
At the time, it was as much about performance as phraseology, and the best, if largely forgotten, moment — Marc Gasol interrupting Allen's courtside soliloquy for a little head tap of deep gratitude — is unspoken. But this is what launched Allen into the cherished Memphis continuum of subcultural characters and rough-edged raconteurs, with the likes of Sputnik Monroe, Dewey Phillips, and Rufus Thomas.
This was a man who emerged as a transformative on-court force, beloved teammate, and fan fetish object after beating up a teammate in a minor gambling dispute; who turns playing basketball — and, more so, cheering from the bench — into a form of expressive, lunatic performance art; who, obviously, delivers ridiculous, inspirational post-game interviews that evolve into citywide rallying cries; and who generally approaches everything in life with a loopy joie de vivre that reminds us why we enjoy this stuff so much.
Maybe a few dozen fans exulted in the moment on Twitter as it happened, with local radio's Chris Vernon Show turning the audio into a recurring soundbite the next day. But this cult classic didn't become best-seller until later in the season. (See: "Tony Allen T-Shirt") These days, "grit, grind" always seems on the verge of ossifying into a used-up cliché, but the man they now call the Grindfather won’t let it.
Allen Iverson — The only player in franchise history — league history? — to never play a home game and still have his jersey pop up in the playoff crowd.
"Ante Up" — Tony Allen’s self-selected theme song is Future’s “Go Harder,” which now emerges from FedExForum speakers at appropriate moments. But this 2000 ode to desperation and thievery from Brooklyn rap duo M.O.P. is the people’s anthem. On the court, Allen is known to kidnap fools.
The Grizzlies saved Saturday.
Wait, I’ve used that lead before? Through two games, this series feels an awful lot like the first-round series against the Clippers: A discouraging 20-plus-point loss in Game 1 followed by a disappointing but ultimately encouraging close loss in Game 2. In that series, the Grizzlies then won four straight. That’s very unlikely here, but the Grizzlies seem to have regained some confidence and made some adjustments and certainly can return home with more hope than seemed possible at halftime of this one.
The Grizzlies were down three with 5:18 to play in the first half when Mike Conley was called for a phantom third foul and went to the bench. A combination of Conley’s absence, growing frustration, and some searching lineups — abetted by the Spurs’ continuing fine play — sent the Grizzlies into a 15-3 tailspin to finish the half, including one scrum-as-metaphor in which the Grizzlies’ missed six layups in nine seconds.
When problems are this vast, so are potential answers. Here are a few quick thoughts on some of the many issues the team has to try to sort out before tonight’s tip.
Scheme: We knew going in both of these teams were going to have to make big strategic and stylistic adjustments from the way they’d played the previous series, and the Spurs were miles ahead of the Grizzlies in terms of preparation and execution in Game 1.
I’m no coach, but clearly the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll defense was a disaster, from the initial defense to the chain reactions that routinely left deadly Spurs three-point shooters open. This problem wasn’t just about the new buzzword “overhelping,” though I do think that applies in some instances.
Simply — and I know it’s not simple — the Grizzlies need to clean up how they’re defending the basic pick-and-roll plays, which will be especially tough when Tony Parker has the ball and Zach Randolph is the big being picked on. After that, the team needs to make decisions about what it’s willing to give up: A contested Manu Ginobili shot in the lane or a wide open Matt Bonner three? A contested Parker runner or Kawhi Leonard open in the corner? A tough pass for Tiago Splitter to a cutting Parker or an easier pass to an open Danny Green on the opposite wing? Against this Spurs team, I’d be willing to give up anything short of an uncontested lay-up before an open three from one of their good shooters.
Cleaning up pick-and-roll defense and staying home more on shooters is easier written than done, but one problem from Game 1 seems a little bit more correctable. The Grizzlies simply can’t let Bonner have another game like the one he had Sunday, when he was 4-6 from three-point range. Ed Davis lost track of Bonner on one play by helping deep in the paint, but most of Bonner’s damage was done with Darrell Arthur as his primary defender.
In a dreadful start to the series for the Grizzlies, let me start by underscoring four points that I made in my series preview:
1. The key to defending the Spurs has less to do with containing stars than containing team three-point shooting, especially from role players. Tony Parker was splendid on Sunday afternoon, scoring 20 points on 9-14 shooting, with 9 assists. But Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili combined for only 14 points on 5-15 shooting. Instead, the Spurs killed the Grizzlies from outside, hitting a franchise playoff record 14 three-pointers on 29 attempts, the most made threes the Grizzlies have yielded all season. And the bulk of the damage came from secondary scorers Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Matt Bonner, who combined to shoot 11-17 from three.
2. The Grizzlies low turnovers and high rate of free-throw attempts in rounds one and two were not going to be sustainable in this series. The Grizzlies did a good job of taking care of the ball after a rough start, their 12 turnovers only slightly more than the 10.4 average in the first two rounds, but the team’s inflated 31.6 free-throw attempts came down to a more reasonable 20.
3. The Grizzlies’ propensity for funky lineups in Game 1 repeated itself. The Grizzlies were still theoretically in the hunt when the team put out a small-ball lineup of Jerryd Bayless-Tony Wroten-Quincy Pondexter-Tony Allen-Zach Randolphto start the fourth and brought in Austin Daye for Wroten soon after.
4. The biggest key of all for this game was going to be which team could better adjust to the stylistic whiplash from their previous series, and clearly that was the Spurs, in a big, big way. After chasing three-point shooters all over the floor against the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs seemed almost relieved to be in a halfcourt defense against the Grizzlies, crowding the paint and routinely ignoring Grizzlies’ wing players. The Grizzlies, on the other end, couldn’t adjust as quickly to the Spurs’ spread offense and quick, deft ball movement, which provides an extreme contrast to the over-reliance on stars Chris Paul and Kevin Durant that the Grizzlies were able to snuff out in the first and second rounds. As it turned out, playing against Vinny Del Negro and Scott Brooks was poor preparation for playing against Gregg Popovich.
It started a few weeks ago as a revenge tour, with a first-round knockout of a Clippers team that had eliminated the Grizzlies in the first round a year prior. Next, the Grizzlies put down a Thunder team in the second round that had ended their own playoff dreams in the second round two years back.
Now, it comes back to where it started: On a weekend afternoon in San Antonio, where, two springs ago, Shane Battier hit a go-ahead three to kick off the Grizzlies' first ever true playoff run.
Ten riffs in rarefied air:
1. Past as Prelude: As with the Thunder series, this one pits two teams that have played a lot of games over the past three years with the same coaches and roughly the same cores and much of the same supporting casts. Over 18 games in this stretch, the Spurs own a 10-8 edge.
The Spurs team the Grizzlies beat in six games two springs ago was, contrary to caricature, an offensive juggernaut (2nd in offensive efficiency and first in three-point percentage), while merely good defensively (11th), with particular trouble defending the paint.
This season, the Spurs style has swung back to the defensive side a little, where they're up to third, while the offense has slipped slightly, to seventh.
It's not hard to see how this shift in performance has followed a shift in personnel. While Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are as good or (in Duncan's surprising case, especially) better than two years ago, sixth-man Manu Ginobili is in a decline phase. That and the loss of guard George Hill has made the Spurs less dynamic with the ball. But replacing Richard Jefferson at small forward with emerging star Kawhi Leonard (acquired for Hill) has given the Spurs a physical stopper on the wings again, while replacing Antonio McDyess, whom Zach Randolph escorted to retirement in 2011, with an evolved Tiago Splitter has made the Spurs bigger and stronger up front.
The Grizzlies have changed a little less than the Spurs. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Darrell Arthur return from the rotation of 2011, and most other changes have roughly duplicated the quality and style of what existed then:
Tayshaun Prince for Shane Battier
Jerryd Bayless for O.J. Mayo
Quincy Pondexter for Sam Young
Keyon Dooling/Tony Wroten for Greivis Vasquez/Ish Smith
The one area where the Grizzlies have probably upgraded most is somewhere it's unlikely to matter, with now-little-used fourth big Ed Davis a significant upgrade over then-little-used Hamed Haddadi.
Overall, the Grizzlies entered this postseason with a similarly middle-of-the-pack offense and a defense that's morphed from good (8th in 2011) to great (2nd this year).
As for the season series, it went 2-2, with home teams prevailing in all. Two went to overtime and another ended with a Mike Conley game-winner. The Spurs blew out the Griz in the third game this season, but that was during a stretch of particular turmoil and poor play. All but the Conley game came before the Rudy Gay trade and even that one was played without Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan. So, beyond asserting that these teams are fairly evenly matched, I wouldn't put too much stock in the details of the season series.
With last night's Game 6 road win by the San Antonio Spurs over the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference Finals are now set, with the Grizzlies traveling to San Antonio for Game 1 on Sunday. The schedule for the first four games:
Game 1 — Sunday, May 19th, 2:30 p.m. — San Antonio
Game 2 — Tuesday, May, 21st 8 p.m. — San Antonio
Game 3 — Saturday, May 25th 8 p.m. — Memphis
Game 4 — Monday, May 27th 8 p.m. — Memphis
Game 5 — Wednesday, May 29th — San Antonio
Game 6 — Friday, May 31st — Memphis
Game 7 — Sunday, June 2nd — San Antonio
Single-game tickets for Games 3 and 4 go on sale at noon tomorrow.
I've got a series preview in the works. I'm hopeful I can get it posted later this afternoon, but it will be up Saturday morning at the latest.
Even without their all-NBA point guard and with star Kevin Durant smothered to the tune of 5-21 shooting and seven turnovers, it took three daggers to finally eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder on their home floor.
When the Thunder had whittled a double-digit deficit down to five points with a minute-and-a-half to play, Tony Allen got behind the defense in transition, finished with contact and again from the line to give the Grizzlies a seemingly solid 8-point lead with 1:26 to play.
But the Thunder kept coming and the Grizzlies defense suffered some unusual breakdowns and the lead was cut in half before a high-arcing 19-footer from Marc Gasol gave the Grizzlies a six-point lead with only 27 seconds to play.
But still the Thunder kept coming. Abetted by three missed free throws from Zach Randolph, the Thunder managed to get back to within two points with the ball and 10 seconds to play.
That's when Tony Allen finally ended it, recovering to harass Durant's jumper from behind then somehow darting ahead of him and over everyone else for a defensive rebound, followed by two made free throws and a win secured.
Can they do it tonight? Ten takes ahead of the game:
1. Uncharted Territory: The Grizzlies have already matched the franchise record for playoff wins with 7. One more would break new ground for the franchise. Over the past 10 seasons, only 16 of the NBA's 30 teams have reached a conference finals, so it would not be an achievement to take for granted.
Out of curiosity, I jotted down how many conference finals each team has made since 1980. Here's how it breaks down:
Suns, Jazz: 7
Pacers, Sixers, Thunder/Sonics: 6
Heat, Rockets: 5
Knicks, Bucks, Magic, Mavs, Blazers: 4
Kings, Nets, Nuggets: 2
Two teams haven't been there since the 1970s: Wizards/Bullets and Warriors
That leaves six teams that have never made the conference finals: Grizzlies, Raptors, Bobcats, Pelicans/Hornets, Clippers, Hawks (who appeared in some "divisional finals" in the pre-conference era).
A Grizzlies-Warriors West finals would be pretty sweet.
2. Are the Thunder Ready to Break? I can only answer this crucial question with the existential response my three-year-old son now gives to every question we ask: "I can't know."
A 3-1 series lead seems pretty commanding, but every one of these games has been up for grabs in the final minutes. It won't take much for the Thunder to rally on their home floor and force the series back to Memphis, where the pressure would even out with the Grizzlies trying to avoid a road Game 7.
Do the Thunder have it in them or is the trifecta of a 3-1 deficit, no Russell Westbrook, and squandering a big lead in Game 4 all just a bridge to far for this near-broken team?
3. "Clutch Defense:" The Grizzlies' 3-1 lead can be largely attributed to late-game execution. Overall in these three wins, the Grizzlies have scored at a rate of 101.7 points per 100 possessions while yielding 94.5 points per 100 possessions. That's good. But in "clutch" situations — defined as in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, when the scoring margin is within five points, and 19 of a possible 20 minutes in these three games fit that description — the Grizzlies offense has ticked up slightly (106.7) while the defense (64.2!) has been dominant.
On a day in which the Grizzlies put three players on the NBA's All-Defensive Team, each of those players demonstrated their worthiness in a wild final 29 minutes that turned FedExForum back into "the Grindhouse."
The Grizzlies held the Thunder to 33% shooting after halftime and erased a 17-point second-quarter deficit to first force overtime and then take a 3-1 series lead that leaves the team one win away from the franchise's first conference finals.
There was Mike Conley, who made his first All-Defensive team, running down Kevin Durant in transition for a steal that prevented the Thunder from building a multi-possession lead midway through the fourth quarter.
There was Tony Allen, who tied Lebron James with the most first-place votes on the All-Defensive Team, fiercely denying Durant the ball a couple of minutes later and forcing the Thunder into a hurried Serge Ibaka jumper that Marc Gasol blocked.
There was Gasol, who became the second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year to fall to the All-Defensive Second Team, stepping up with 81 seconds left in overtime to take a charge against Thunder guard Reggie Jackson and preserve a precarious one-point lead.
And there was Allen, finally, recovering from what he admitted was a blown assignment to make an instinctual game-sealing steal of a Derek Fisher in-bounds pass with the shot clock off in overtime and the Grizzlies up three.