Will the Griz Regret Game 1?: Before this series started, I picked the Grizzlies to win in 6, and that's still where I'm at. But I'm actually slightly less optimistic about their prospects than I was before Game 3 despite the team pulling that one out. The Thunder finally made the adjustments they needed in Game 3 and it almost got them a victory. If series trends have reversed with those adjustments, then dropping Game 1 will be tough to stomach. The Grizzlies squandered 38 minutes of Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet (the duo was a combined -14), a gift unlikely to be repeated in the series, via missed free throws and having Tony Allen on the bench while Kevin Durant led a fourth-quarter comeback. In retrospect — if even that — the Grizzlies spotted the Thunder a game, and with OKC seeming to have figured things out a little, that's dangerous.
Will OKC Go Small Ball or Bust?: The Thunder have outscored the Grizzlies in the series with lineups featuring only one "big" (which almost always includes Kevin Durant at power forward) and Game 3 was the first time their lineup distribution tipped in that direction, playing 27 minutes small (+2) to 21 minutes big (-8). Given the results, does Brooks push most of his chips in on small ball tonight? If so, the Grizzlies can't let themselves be out-rebounded again, and need to make their big lineups work to resist the temptation of keeping one of their three best players on the bench in order to match up with the Thunder. This all makes Zach Randolph a key player tonight. It was Randolph's inability to control offensive rebounds in his grasp that stood out most amid the Game 3 rebounding problems. And it's Randolph that will likely be "hiding" on a Thunder perimeter player defensively.
The Grizzlies won this tight game for much the same reason they had lost Game 1 in Oklahoma City; free throws. The Grizzlies converted 23 of 28 attempts at the line (82%), including a perfect 6-6 from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in the game's final two minutes, while Thunder star Kevin Durant — a career 88% foul shooter — suffered a devastating empty trip with under a minute to play. Those Grizzlies free throws were the only points scored in the game's final two minutes, which began with the teams tied 81-81.
In addition to Durant's missed free throws, the Thunder also watched Derek Fisher, so strong in Oklahoma City, miss an open three off a turnover on the subsequent possession.
With Lionel Hollins astutely managing offense/defense substitutions down the stretch to mitigate potential mismatches against the Thunder's small-ball lineup and with Conley and Gasol coming up clutch from the charity stripe, the Grizzlies' late game execution pulled them through what had been a shaky performance for much of the game.
"I feel like every game we have gotten better and today we were not better than the last game," Gasol said afterward.
The news peg for the latest flare-up is that the Nets have been reported as a team with interest in Hollins. This kind of story was inevitable. I know of one other franchise that has at least discussed Hollins and have had a third suggested to me by someone with connections to that organization. There's nothing surprising in any of this. Hollins will be a coaching free agent of sorts with lots of jobs out there to be filled and would make a pretty splashy hire for a lot of teams. I would imagine that any team with an opening would be having internal discussions about him as a potential candidate.
Locally, Hollins' future with the Grizzlies has tended to be written about and discussed in simple terms: He's done a great job and he deserves to be back next year. But while I ultimately believe both of those assertions to be true, it's a lot more complicated than that. I wrote about the coaching question at considerable length about a month ago, but now seems like, if not a "good" then perhaps an inevitable time to dig a little deeper into some of the points I made then.
As promised, part two of a preview for tomorrow's Game 3:
7. Potential Thunder Adjustments: Coming back to Memphis 1-1, the Thunder seem to have more adjustments to make. But how willing head coach Scott Brooks will be to alter the team's gameplan is now, perhaps, the central question of the series.
Coming out of Games 1 and 2, the Thunder have three rotation players who not only didn't give them much, but also don't promise to give them much going forward.
This problem starts up front, where each of the Thunder's centers — Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet — have been huge negatives. Across two games, Perkins has played 58 miinutes and given the Thunder 2-10 shooting and has generally crippled their offense. Thabeet has been a disaster on both ends. He doesn't need to play unless someone fouls out, but hopefully that Thunder won't make that adjustment for Game 3 because Grizzlies fans deserve to see Thabeet on the floor in a playoff game.
Playing this dreadful center combo for 37 minutes a game was obviously a response to Marc Gasol and the well-founded belief that forwards Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison can't handle him. The problem for the Thunder is that Perkins and Thabeet can't guard Gasol either and having them on the floor kills their offense.
While Collison fouling out in Game 2 was obviously a problem, it's still odd that Ibaka and Collison — by far the Thunder's two best bigs — were only on the floor together for nine minutes in Games 1 and 2. Those happened to be very positive minutes for the Thunder.
On the wing, the odd man out looks to be Thabo Sefolosha — a defensive specialist at the two/three facing team without scorers at those positions that warrant the attention. Already, Sefolosha is playing fewer minutes in this series as a starter (20.5) than reserves Kevin Martin (30.5) and Derek Fisher (24.5).
And while the team's performance while Sefolosha has been on the floor has probably been heavily impacted by coinciding so much with Grizzlies' starters, there's a case to be made that these minutes should be tilted even more in favor of Martin and Fisher. In Games 1 and 2, Martin only averaged about three more minutes a game than he did in a regular season in which Russell Westbrook played a full 82 games. With Westbrook out and Durant needing more help carrying the offensive load, the team's second-best scorer probably needs more minutes, especially since the Grizzlies lack the wing scorers to fully exploit Martin's defensive vulnerability.
The problem did heighten an issue I grapple with quite a bit: How much should I "show my work," in math-class terms. I've always consulted statistics as a necessary companion to personal observation and other forms of information. Concepts such as pace, usage, efficiency, and other building blocks of "advanced" statistics are not new trends in this space. Often I cite specific numbers to support claims. But sometimes the math is left in the background, an unstated element that helped form an opinion or hone an observation.
I'm not sure which is preferable — some readers like to follow the data; others, I'm sure, grow weary of too much statistical recitation. So I try to find a balance. And this time, with research lost and limits of time and technology weighing against a recreation, I may not show much work. Just know that when I say that Kendrick Perkins is killing the Thunder or that Scott Brooks should really consider using more small-ball or that Jerryd Bayless may be hurting the Griz defense more than helping the offense that there's something backing all of that up.
So, here's a somewhat truncated and considerably less precise first installment of my planned twelve takes. Part two will post later in the day Friday if things go well or Saturday morning if they don't.
1. New Nickname Alert: This has no bearing on the outcome of the series, obviously, but I took great pleasure in the TNT postgame show after Game 2, when Charles Barkley christened Zach Randolph with a new nickname, "Ol' Man River," in reference to Randolph's "old-man game" and the way he keeps rolling along against younger, more athletic competitors. (They get weary, and sick of trying.) This is even more perfect than Barkley knows, given Memphis' perch on the river the song refers to as well as the song's own treasured history in Memphis. It's too bad we can't have James Hyter bless this with a FedExForum performance.
This isn't the first time, incidentally, that a national broadcast has made a brilliant musical reference with regard to the Grizzlies — or to Randolph, to be specific. In the 2011 playoff run, there was a package on the Randolph and Gasol combo — before first-round, Game 2, I think; I can't remember the network — to the tune of John Fogerty's "Big Train (From Memphis)." This was also perfect. The rumbling, locomotive imagery and insistent, old-fashioned rhythm matching Gasol and Randolph's rumbling, old-fashioned style.
It occurred to me, thinking of the late Hyter, that perhaps if the Grizzlies advance we could get Fogerty in town for a Griz-specific update of his song: "Big Spain (From Memphis)," anyone?
Was Allen taunting his opponent or the fans in Oklahoma City? I doubt it. More likely, his target was some mix of the basketball gods, himself, and his coach. He was letting out some frustration and reasserting something that seemed to have been forgotten. And he did it with his game before he did it with words.
In Game 1 of this series, Allen — by acclamation one of the two or three best perimeter defenders in the league — played only 21 minutes in a game in which his team gave up 60 of 93 points to two wing players in Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin. He sat for most of a fourth quarter in which his team gave up 29 points and watched a nine-point lead evaporate as Durant made a series of big plays down the stretch.
Afterward, his coach, Lionel Hollins, explained that Allen was too short to guard Durant now. Using other defenders on the Thunder's brilliant star, the Grizzlies had surrendered 35-15-6 on 13-26 shooting.
I did a radio interview with a station in Tulsa on Monday afternoon. Early on, we talked about how defending Kevin Martin would be a key to the series. At the end, they brought it back to Martin, saying — and I agree — that he's become the biggest “x-factor” for the Thunder since Russell Westbrook's injury. Then they asked if I thought there was a Grizzlies player whose performance was a barometer of team success. I laughed. Funny you should ask …
I've been half-jokingly touting the Conley Correlation all season — predicting it before the season, really — and it's mostly held up in the playoffs. In Game 1 against the Clippers, Conley looked overmatched, particularly in the first half, and the Grizzlies were blown out. After that, Conley settled down and played Chris Paul, if not quite even, at least closer than most would have expected, putting up a massive 28-9 in a Game 2 that was only lost on a last-second shot by Paul. In the four wins, Conley notched 36 assists to only five turnovers, scoring 15 or more points in three of the four wins. He did shoot a dreadful 1-9 in a Game 3 win, but offset that with a superb 10/0 assist/turnover performance.
Against the Thunder, Conley had his worst all-around game of the playoffs so far, shooting 5-15 with only three assists and a couple of killer turnovers in the final minute. If the Grizzlies are going to have a chance to win this series, that can't stand. Facing the athletic but inexperienced Reggie Jackson or the 38-year-old Derek Fisher in most instances, Conley needs to assert himself. He's the best all-around guard in this series now, and the Grizzlies probably won't win unless he plays like it.
Ultimately, this game — played, ridiculously, less than a day and a half after the Grizzlies and Thunder had polished off their first-round opponents — felt like a combination of the Grizzlies' Game 1 and 2 losses against the Clippers. Like in Game 1 of that series, the Grizzlies played non-optimal lineups (Austin Daye and Keyon Dooling combined for 13 shaky minutes) and gave up a huge fourth quarter with an All-NBA defender (Tony Allen) mostly on the bench. Like in Game 2 of that series, the Grizzlies lost a close game on the road with a legit superstar (Durant) taking over down the stretch.
It was a frustrating loss, but not one that should shake the team's confidence in terms of being able to win this series. Durant (35-15-6 on 13-26 shooting from the floor and 9-10 from the line) went large. Now-crucial second scorer Kevin Martin (25 and 7 off the bench on 8-14 shooting) was allowed to join him. The Grizzlies got poor play from both of their starting guards, fell apart down the stretch, and missed tons of free throws. All of this and the Thunder barely survived — potentially a missed Quincy Pondexter free-throw from overtime — in their own building. The Grizzlies could play the same game the rest of the series and have a chance to win. And odds are they'll play better.
But I did manage to scribble out 10 quick takes on what lies ahead. This time I'm blaming any typos, tortured sentence constructions, or other deficiencies on David Stern:
1. Schedule: Only the first three games have been announced by the league so far:
Game 1: Noon, Sunday, Oklahoma City (ABC)
Game 2: 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oklahoma City (TNT)
Game 3: 4 p.m., Saturday, Memphis (ESPN)
2. There's Some History Here: Past results aren't going to be much guarantee of future performance in this series, not with first James Harden, and then Rudy Gay, and now Russell Westbrook all out of the mix. But the Thunder probably figure more prominently in recent Griz lore than any other team. Over the past three seasons, these teams have battled to a 9-9 draw across three season series and a seven-game playoff battle. Four of those 18 games went to overtime and homecourt hasn't been an overwhelming factor, with each team winning several times on the opponent's floor.
The Thunder were witness to Tony Allen's breakout game for the Grizzlies. They were the backdrop to The Birth of Grit and Grind. The postseason series in 2011 included that triple-overtime home heartbreaker. This season's three-game series was highly eventful, from the Gasol/Perkins/Randolph Incident, to the Grizzlies demoralizing-in-the-moment first game after the Rudy Gay trade, to Marc Gasol's overtime tip-in.
We can only hope the next four-to-seven games between these small-market rivals will be as intense and memorable.
3. Grizzlies First Round Notes: The Grizzlies exit their first-round series having settled on a eight-man rotation — starters backed by Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, and Darrell Arthur. Keyon Dooling got spot minutes as a back-up point guard when he was healthy and Ed Davis started out in a similar frontcourt role before falling out of the rotation entirely.
Zach Randolph played his best basketball in two years. Marc Gasol was solid on both ends. Mike Conley continued his ascent. Tony Allen rebounded like a beast and scored efficiently. Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter's shots came and went, but their defense and all-around team play was mostly a plus through.
When it comes to Zach Randolph, in Memphis, in the playoffs, sometimes “hero ball” takes on a different meaning. Sometimes it means wrestling on the floor with a Kia pitchman and dunk-crazy ingenue power forward. Sometimes it means responding a minute later with a hoop-and-harm against the same opponent, which sends you careening into baseline photographers and results in your crazy teammate standing over you, flexing his arms, and then getting up to pound your chest in front of the opposing bench. Sometimes it means exhorting the home crowd while the same crazy teammate pops your jersey for you, all after a second technical foul sends you to the locker room, but with 23 points on a nifty 8-12 shooting and a series-ending, revenge-securing victory in your back pocket.
Welcome to a “grit-and-grind” Grizzlies playoff run. It can get a little rough.
Friday night at FedExForum — bleeding into Saturday morning — was part exorcism, part resurrection. Evil spirits lingering from last spring's crushing bookend losses to the same Los Angeles Clippers team were put away. A team down 0-2 to start the series won four games in a row to close it out. For the first time in league history, a team came back from 0-2 to win four straight games all by double digits.
But it was also a resurrection for Randolph. After the All-Star break, Randolph looked pretty ordinary, with his 43 percent shooting and inability to string together double-doubles in his accustomed fashion. After two games in Los Angeles, Randolph was averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds and there were a string of presumptive eulogies for his Memphis career. Over the final four games of the series: 25 points and 9 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting. In these four wins, the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers by an average of 18 points a game when Randolph was on the floor.
Memphis' love for Randolph had never really faded. He was always just a blue collar player in the blue collar town. But these four games stoked the flames. A loud “Z-BO” chant as the incorrigible favorite son exited, with 1:57 to play and the Grizzlies up by 15 points, was the hottest those flames have burned since the spring of 2011, when Randolph forced a Game 7 against Thunder, against whom a rematch now awaits.
Things are suddenly trending very well for the Grizzlies in this series, who have the Clippers reeling — on the verge of elimination, on the road, with their second-best player limited if available at all.
But history is too fresh for too many of these Grizzlies players — and certainly their coach — for overconfidence to be a concern. They remember the fourth-quarter collapse in Game 1 last spring. They remember the Game 7 quagmire. They remember losing to this team at FedExForum a few weeks ago, with homecourt likely on the line.
So much work toward this has been done. After losing six of seven games to the Clippers dating back to that Game 7 last spring, the Grizzlies have now won three in a row, all by double figures. After losing closing quarters badly last spring, they've won four fourths in a row. After living in fear of Eric Bledsoe, they've quieted the beast since his destructive fourth quarter in Game 1.
But the completion of the deed yet awaits.
Sure, it could happen another way. The Clippers could do what the Grizzlies did last season — win a road Game 6 to force a home Game 7. And then the Grizzlies could rip out their hearts on their home floor to complete the mirror image. That would be sweet — but not worth the risk. They want to do this at home, in front of 18,119 “We Don't Bluff” towels.
What could stand in the way?
Griffin, struggling with a high ankle sprain suffered in practice the day before, scored four points on 2-7 shooting in fewer than 20 minutes of play before finally bowing out for good in the third quarter. Randolph, meanwhile, notched a team-high 25 points and 11 rebounds, including scoring 10 points on 5-6 shooting, with an assist, in the fourth quarter.
Randolph has generally played well — and increasingly so — the whole series, despite subpar rebounding in Game 1 and foul trouble in both early Los Angeles games. But his fourth quarter in Game 5 was something a little different. With Marc Gasol on the bench and the Grizzlies searching for offense to keep a Clippers' comeback attempt at bay, Randolph routinely set up on the right block — but catching and facing pretty far on the right wing — and playing in isolation. He scored three of his five baskets with one-on-one moves from this space — a running hook and then a baseline floater, both over DeAndre Jordan, followed by a stepback jumper over Lamar Odom — and got his assist there too, hitting Tayshaun Prince on a cut down the lane.
It was a flashback to the spring of 2011, when Randolph took over in the fourth quarter of consecutive Game 6s in similar right wing/isolation fashion. Randolph has played well this post-season, but for better or worse, he hadn't really played like that.
We tend to misremember Randolph's spring of 2011. The great games — like those dominant sixth games — were so searing that the rough games (especially when Oklahoma City clamped down, leading to Randolph shooting 22-69, or 32%, in Games 2-5) fade away.
Though five games is a terribly small set of information, Randolph's production, in a lot of ways, has actually been better than in 2011, and certainly more consistent. While Randolph's rebounding (a little bit up offensively, a little bit down defensively) has mostly held steady, as it pretty much has through the ups and downs of the past two seasons, his scoring has been significantly more efficient, with his 53% true-shooting percentage from the 2011 post-season up to 58% through five games so far this spring.
I wanted to put this up in the meager time between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, but was too bogged down. With a two-day break before Friday's Game 6 and coming off a rousing win last night in Los Angeles, let's take a moment to remember some of the high points of what was an eventful and thoroughly enjoyable regular season. I'll return with a Game 6 preview on Friday morning. Let me know what I missed:
Not a “moment,” but I couldn't find a clip of Tony Allen's extraordinary defense late in that home loss to the Pacers, which I wanted to use. So I'll lead off with this, Gasol adding to a Grizzlies' trophy case that already included a Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Sixth Man of the Year award.
9. Rudy Tracks it Down, and Throws it Down (vs. Spurs, Friday, January 11th)
Rudy Gay's massive contract and middling production necessitated a trade, and the Grizzlies have been better as a result. But that doesn't mean he didn't have more than his share of great moments. The best this season came in what I still think was the (regular) season's best game, a home overtime win over the Spurs.
A 35-point explosion from Chris Paul was mitigated by an injury-impacted performance from Blake Griffin as the Grizzlies held on for a 103-93 win in Los Angeles Tuesday night. The Grizzlies now take a 3-2 lead over the Clippers and will have a chance to close out the series in Memphis Friday night.
The Grizzlies led by eight points entering the fourth quarter, but with Marc Gasol sitting most of the quarter with five fouls and Griffin gone for good with an ankle sprain that limited him to 20 minutes on the night, the match-ups took on an unfamiliar look.
The Clippers went small, with Paul flanked by fellow guards Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford and small forward Matt Barnes shifting over the power forward. The Grizzlies responded, finally returning to the perimeter defense match-ups that had been so successful in Memphis but which the team had oddly avoided for most of this game: Quincy Pondexter on Paul, Mike Conley on Bledsoe, and Tony Allen on Crawford.
On the other end, it was forwards Zach Randolph and Tayshaun Prince who took the team home. Randolph has been good for most of the series, and surprisingly so at home. But this was different. This was a flashback to the spring of 2011, when Randolph polished off playoff games by setting up on the right block/wing and scoring repeatedly. Randolph scored 10 points on 5-6 shooting in the quarter.
But it was Prince, perhaps poetically, given the still existent catcalls about the Grizzlies missing Rudy Gay's late-game scoring, and whose offense had been MIA until Game 4, who ultimately kept a Clippers' comeback at bay. Three times, in the last five minutes, when the Clippers threatened, it was Prince who answered: A 21-footer when the Clippers drew to within seven. Then a cut and lay-up off a Randolph feed when the Clippers had pulled to within six. Finally, the clincher — a 27-foot elbow-extended three-pointer at the 1:29 mark, when the Clippers had cut the Grizzlies lead to five and the outcome seemed legitimately in doubt.
While Paul was searching for help — the other four Clipper starters combined for 17 points, and only sixth-man Jamal Crawford joined Paul in double-digits with 15 — the Grizzlies had four starters score between 15 and 25 and again got a strong joint effort from Randolph and Gasol, who have been contained only by fouls in this series.
Chris Paul will undoubtedly be ready for Friday night, back at FedExForum. But the rest of his team has questions to answer with their season on the line.