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.
This is a different definition of "clutch" than we're used to, and one that's fitting for this particular team. The Grizzlies have shot only 9-27 in this span, though they have, crucially, taken care of business at the free-throw line (18-22). But the big-time winning plays late in the game — as detailed in my Game 4 post — have by and large been defensive ones. The Grizzlies' success has been less about clutch shots than clutch steals, clutch blocks, clutch charges taken and shots contested and touches denied.
Over three otherwise tightly contested games, the Grizzlies have outscored the Thunder 37-21, held them to 21 points in 19 minutes, on miserable 5-25 shooting.
4. Wearing Down Durant: If there's one factor that seems to be paramount in this end-game dominance, this is probably it. The gang defense on Durant, especially once Tony Allen was added to the defensive matrix near the end of Game 2, seems to have increaslingy worn Durant down, with the Thunder contributing to this problem by playing their star heavy minutes and perhaps over-relying on him as the games have progressed.
Durant has put up huge numbers on the series: 31-11-7 on 46-42-79 shooting. But look how his shooting has morphed as the games have worn on in Games 2-4:
Field-goal percentage in each quarter and overtime — 70%-50%-47%-37%-0%
Field-goal attempts per quarter — 3.3-4.7-6.3-6.3-5.0
Durant has averaged nearly 46 minutes a game over the past three and, as you can see, the deeper into the games, the more the Thunder have relied on Durant for scoring and the more the Grizzlies have focused on him. The Thunder have been resting their hopes on an elite individual scorer against an elite team defense, and that's been a losing proposition so far.
One apparent sign of physical and mental fatigue: Free-throw shooting. Durant was a 91% shooter on the season. That's down to 75% over these past three games, including a surprising 2-5 in fourth quarters.
If the Thunder are going to get back in this series, the bet here is that it isn't by Durant putting the team on his increasingly buckling back. It's going to be by getting bigger contributions from secondary scorers such as Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Fisher. Which brings us to ...
5. OKC's Rotation Regression: All series long, the Thunder have outscored the Grizzlies using small lineups and been outscored using big lineups, and that continued in Game 4. The difference is that the Thunder regressed back toward more big lineups in the last game.
It seemed like Thunder coach Scott Brooks was figuring out that leaning on small lineups would give his team their best chance to beat the Grizzlies, with Game 3 the first in the series in which the Thunder played more small (27 minutes) than big (21). But in Game 4, it swung back around, heavily. Kendrick Perkins, still mostly deplorable, topped 24 minutes. Hasheem Thabeet even returned from bench purgatory for an uneventful five minutes.
On the game, the Thunder played big for 36 minutes, getting outscored by 10. In 17 minutes of small ball, they bested the Grizzlies by 4.
One wrinkle - fluke, I'm guessing — was that the Thunder actually outscored the Grizzlies by a point in 18 minutes with their starting lineup, which has typically been an albatross. Perhaps these viable starts gave Brooks confidence to play more conventionally, to the Grizzlies' ultimate benefit.
But this focus on matching up defensively keeps an offensive blank like Perkins on the floor more while limiting the role of Martin, the team's second-most dangerous scorer, who put up 18 points on 6-12 shooting in only 26 minutes and had, for whatever it's worth, the team's best +/- on the game.
My sense from early on was that the Thunder should bet heavily on offensive-oriented lineups against the Grizzlies, to give Durant help against the Grizzlies' elite team defense. Going small is their best bet at this, but it has presented another problem: The Thunder have typically tasked Durant with guarding Marc Gasol in these configurations, which further wears him down. Maybe the Thunder should think about tweaking their defensive strategy with small lineups rather than playing them less.
6. The Conley & Gasol Series, Realized: I suggested at the outset that this would be a Conley and Gasol series, and so it's been. i'm going to save further comment on this for another form in the near future, but Conley and Gasol's combined offense/defense versatility and elevated feel for the game has driven a lot of the team's success.
Conley's shooting numbers still aren't great, but he's impacting the game on both ends while logging 42 minutes a game and notching a 19-6-6-2 stat line.
Gasol has made mincemeat of whatever doubters remain. He's a star now, and has performed like one: 22-9-3 on 51/79 shooting.
Additionally, the team's steller defense has grown shakey very quickly in the rare moments when either Gasol or Conley head to the bench.
7. Ball's Not Binary: Even though I'm a regular on the medium, I tried to wean myself of such a heavy sports-talk radio diet late in the regular season, but I've backslid during the playoffs and this week I keep hearing complaints about the very notion of criticizing or questioning Lionel Hollins for, well, anything. But an honest approach to this, or anything else, will rarely be all or nothing.
I think Hollins, as I've written, is a Top 10 NBA coach and should have gotten heavy consideration for Coach of the Year. I think the Grizzlies would be taking a major risk if they can't reach an agreement with him this summer. I've written that too. I also think he mismanaged lineups down the stretch of Game 1 in both series. And, at some level, I suspect he does too, given the adjustments that followed in each series. I can hold this belief while simultaneously thinking he's handled offense/defensive substitutions and match-ups down the stretch of games, particularly against the Thunder's small lineups, beautifully since Game 1. I can also think the team should have found more minutes for rookie Tony Wroten in the regular season in order to better prepare him for a potential role this post-season.
You can hold two ideas in your head at once. You can believe Hollins is a terrific coach and think he sometimes makes mistakes. You can thrill to the exploits of Tony Allen and think his minutes could stand to be bumped up a bit at times and still hide your eyes when he violates the 5/5 Rule with a early-in-the-clock jumper. You can think Marc Gasol is one of the NBA's very best players and still want him to look for his offense a little more sometimes. You can love the gradual but significant evolution of Mike Conley and be happy about his breakout post-season while still thinking talk of his being "a top five point guard" is a little nutty. Not only can you hold these contrasting opinions, but you can express them too. It's okay, really.
The biggest story of this series might be the Grizzlies defense on Kevin Durant late in games. But a crucial part of that story is what happened in Game 1, when Allen sat for most of the fourth quarter while Durant's late-game heroics led a successful Thunder comeback. You can't tell that story, in its full arc, without including the game in which the defense didn't work, which set up the successful adjustment that followed. That has to be part of the story, even if that part of the story might mean questioning the coach a little bit. He can handle it.
8. Saluting Game Four: Game 4 and its post-game aftermatch went so deep into the night that I lacked the time or energy to properly salute the in-arena atmosphere which was tremendous. It was much better than Saturday afternoon's oddly subdued Game 3 and perhaps even rivaled Game 6 against the Clippers.
The highlight, of course, was the extended Tony Allen action late in the game: His conducting of the crowd, inciting them to get louder and then signaling for quiet when Marc Gasol was at the line. His monitoring of the monitor when he refs were watching replays to determine a possession. His towel-waving along the sideline when he was on the dormant end of late offensive/defense substitutions. And finally, his game-sealing steal and the spontaneous, thundering "TO-NY, TO-NY" chant it provoked. It owned the room. That unassisted "Whoop That Trick" at the end? Also topped the orchestrated one from Game 3.
9. The Cultural Divide: The cultural difference between Memphis and Oklahoma City is intertesting to me. I almost wrote about it at the start to the series, but worried about it being mistaken for T.J. Simers-style hack columnist baitiing, then when there was a flare-up between fan bases after Game 1, I didn't really want any part of that.
But Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz, at True Hoop, did a little video riff on this that's a little closer to where I was going to go.
Going back for what could, potentially, be the last game in Oklahoma City, I'll give a brief version of the spiel that was bouncing around in my head: Watching playoff games from these two cities and these two arenas feels somewhat like the difference between watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Let me be clear: I don't mean this comparison in a directly political sense. There are obviously lots of Republicans in the Grizzlies crowd and I'm sure there are a few Dems in OKC. I'm talking strictly about demographics and temperament and optics here.
The display in OKC looks more racially homogenous, older, and more orderly. Everyone dutifully wears their assigned T-shirts. The display in Memphis is more racially diverse, seems to be younger, and is certainly a bit more disorderly. Everyone chants "Whoop That Trick."
This is not a value judgement, but it is a pretty interesting contrast.
10. Recommended Reading: There's so much being written about the Grizzlies right now that I can't really keep up with it, but there are a couple of recent pieces I strongly recommend.
I think Grantland's Zach Lowe is the best basketball writer going theses days, so I try to read everything he puts out, but Grizzlies fans should definitely check out Lowe's detailed and nicely measured appreciation of Mike Conley.
You should also dig into my friend and Basketball Jones correspondent Andrew Unterberger's report on the atmosphere at Game 4 against the Thunder and the enormous transition that's happened since his last, desolate trip to FedExForum. (Full disclosure: I'm quoted here.)