Last night's 100-99 overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Grizzlies a 3-2 lead in the series, which returns to Memphis on Thursday for a fateful Game 6 at the Grindhouse. But while last night's game ended the way Griz fans wanted it to, the fact of the matter is that the Grizzlies spent the whole fourth quarter trying to give the game away, and they ended up lucky that the Thunder—and especially Thunder coach Scott Brooks—weren't coordinated (and/or smart) enough to take it from them.
The Grizzlies got off to their best start of the series, with Zach Randolph and Mike Conley putting up 10 quick points. The offensive momentum carried over from there through the whole first half (and really the first three quarters) and the Thunder just couldn't keep up. Tayshaun Prince had his best game of the series, scoring 7 in the first half and defending Kevin Durant well enough that Tony Allen only had to play 11 first-half minutes. Everything was clicking for the Griz, while those of us who have watched the other four games in this series sat around and waited for the Thunder to put together a run and make things competitive again.
They didn't do it until the start of the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies offense hit one of its customary dry spells—only this time the dry spell was more like Death Valley. The Grizzlies did not make a single field goal for the first half of the fourth quarter, while Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and company started hitting shots, getting out in transition, and taking major chunks out of their deficit. Scoring droughts happen all the time with this roster, and have clear back into the beginnings of the Lionel Hollins era. This just isn't a team that can keep up a scoring barrage for 48 minutes, and when they crash, they crash. I used to call it the "Lionel Hollins Clogged Toilet Offense," but now I can't tell how much Hollins had to do with it.
At any rate, the 20-point lead the Grizzlies built into the 3rd quarter evaporates completely, and the game was tied at 79-79. I wasn't panicking at that point—I knew the Thunder aren't a team one can beat by 20 in a playoff game—but the Grizzlies' repeated failure to close out quarters meant the end of this one was going to come down to whether the Griz of the first half showed up or not.
They didn't, but somehow they won anyway. Z-Bo fouled Caron Butler for the now-customary Griz/Thunder Four Point Play (GTFPP), some folks made some crazy buckets on both ends, and then as the clock ran down, Mike Conley had his pocket picked by Westbrook, who had a fast break dunk to tie the game. It was frustrating to see the Grizzlies run the clock instead of running a play late—something they've done all season that has hurt them more than once. I'm not sure what makes Joerger so fearfully conservative in late-game situations with the lead, but he is, and it led directly to the Conley turnover because Conley was just dribbling at the top of the key with no other teammates moving at all, with nowhere to go but straight at a Gasol pick, which Westbrook fought around easily.
This one started well for Memphis, with Zach Randolph dropping shot after shot, crisp perimeter and interior passing, and a stifling defense that had the Thunder on their heels. By halftime, Memphis held a 55-43 lead and appeared in control.
That illusion was compounded during the early third quarter when the Grizzlies thoroughly dominated, eventually stretching the lead to 20 points. Then, as has happened in each of the past three games, things tightened up. The Thunder went on an 18-4 run, finding their shots while the Grizzlies went cold. What appeared to be an easy Memphis victory turned into another grit 'n grind™ special.
Both teams had chances to win in regulation. Marc Gasol had the ball in his hand 10 feet from the basket with a second left, but inexplicably chose to pass to Zach Randolph rather than shoot. Randolph caught the ball as the game clock expired.
In overtime, Mike Miller showed up big-time, hitting two quick three-pointers that put the Grizzlies ahead — and amping the pressure to score on the Thunder. The Thunder had one last chance with 2.3 seconds on the clock, down by one. Durant took a long jumpshot that clanged off into the hands of Serge Ibaka, who shoved the ball at the rim. It went in and the Thunder team rolled on the floor in celebration. But replay showed the ball still in Ibaka's hands as time expired. Grizzlies 100, Thunder 99. Whew.
So, break out the defibrillators. Cue the ERs. Memphis and Oklahoma City are playing another game in Memphis Thursday, this one potentially for all the first round marbles. Can these teams make it 5 overtimes in a row? Who would bet against it?
Editor's Note: Read Flyer GrizBeat writer The Grizzlies won another impossibly tight game Tuesday. This one in Oklahoma City, setting up a possible series clincher Thursday in Memphis. Read Kevin Lipe's "Next Day Notes" report and analysis.">Kevin Lipe's take on the game here. — bv
There are two ways to look at what happened in Game 4, in which the Grizzlies were beaten in overtime by the Thunder, 92-89.
The optimist's view: the Grizzlies forced the Thunder into an overtime game despite an abysmal shooting night from every guard wearing a Griz uniform and Zach Randolph shooting under 40% from the floor (again) (again), and barely lost due to a career-high performance from a reserve guard and a catatonically crappy night at the free throw line.
The pessimist's view: the Thunder finally figured out how to move the ball, and now that Reggie Jackson isn't playing like a dead person, the Grizzlies have to guard him with Mike Conley, which changes the complexion of the matchup, and even though Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook still struggled to do anything, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole they couldn't climb out of.
The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between.
The Grizzlies ran the Thunder into the ground—the game was played at a pace of 86.5, and neither team had an offensive efficiency of 100 points per 100 possession—and yet Reggie Jackson's big night stretched them defensively, the offense wasn't working (due to struggles shooting, Zach Randolph's continued inefficiency in the post, Mike Conley's rough night, and any number of other factors), and eventually they forced the third overtime game in a row and just couldn't finish it.
Apparently the last playoff series with three straight OT games was the epic 2009 series between the Bulls and Celtics. I believe that—this series has that same feel, of two teams who are almost perfectly even, neither yielding, neither able to completely play to their respective strengths because of something the other is doing. Whatever it is about the Thunder and the Grizzlies that brings out the best in each other, it's on full display here.
But at the same time, it's frustrating: the Grizzlies were this close to winning last night. They missed enough free throws to make a difference in the outcome of the game. They weren't ready for Jackson's performance. After the game, Dave Joerger said Game 4 came down to "the little plays," and that's exactly how it felt from my seat. So it's hard to come away from Game 4 feeling totally confident—that "they got this" feeling is conspicuously absent. 3-1 headed back to OKC is a much better place to be than 2-2 headed back to OKC, no two ways about it.
The Grizzlies now hold a 2-1 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. The Thunder are the 2 seed in the Western Conference, and feature either the best or second-best basketball player on the planet, depending on who you ask and what week of the season it is. And yet: these two teams have now played 15 playoff games against one another over the past four seasons, and the Grizzlies have won 9 of them. Fully 33% of Griz/Thunder playoff games have gone into overtime. What I'm driving at is this: these are NBA classic playoff series happening right before our eyes, involving the hometown team.
Last night's game is only another chapter in that story, another overtime win by the Grizzlies at the Grindhouse. (One wonders whether Russell Westbrook will bother objecting to that nomenclature going forward.) Something about these two teams brings out the best in the Grizzlies, and last night was no exception—especially for one Grizzly in particular.
I'd like to propose that last night was maybe the Tony Allen-est Tony Allen Game that's ever done been had.
Coming into Game 3, the talk was about Tony Allen's defense of Kevin Durant. In the first two games—especially Game 2—it was masterful, with Allen crowding Durant and denying him the ball at every opportunity, hounding the best pure scorer in the league into just jacking stuff up to see what hit. (Fortunately for the Grizzlies, not much.) Durant seemed sort of pissed off about the whole thing, seeming to have less poise than normal, like even he didn't understand how Tony Allen was so good at guarding him.
Let me tell you how Tony Allen is so good at guarding him: Tony Allen is not one of us. Tony Allen, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, operates on a plane of existence that is separate but visible from ours. He is a force for the creation of chaos, wandering around a basketball court operating according to laws which are just similar enough to the actual rules of basketball to keep him from getting ejected.
For the second game in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled a four-point play to force overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies. And for the second game in a row, the resilient Grizzlies found a way to win in the extra period.
The Grizzlies slowly and methodically built a lead throughout the first 40 minutes of the game, and were seemingly in control with seven and half minutes left, leading 81-64. That's when the Thunder dialed up their defense and the Grizzlies got tentative on offense. It was a combination that enabled OKC to erase the lead, and was helped in no small measure by a foul on Russell Westbrook by Tony Allen on a three-point shot with less than 30 seconds left. Westbrook made the free throw and the Grizzlies couldn't score before the buzzer.
In overtime, the Thunder scored first, but the Grizzlies gritted out another win with a relentless, harassing defense and clutch shooting in crunch time. Allen was his usual trick-or-treat self, making vital plays on both ends, but also making a couple of bone-headed moves, including fouling Westbrook on a three-pointer again, with less than a second left in OT and the Grizzlies leading by five.
The Grizzlies had six players in double figures, including another vital 12 points from backup point guard Beno Udrih and strong minutes from second-string center Kosta Koufos, who came in when Marc Gasol got into foul trouble. The two Thunder stars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, each scored 30 points, but shot a combined 35 percent.
Game Four in the series takes place Saturday in Memphis.
Note: Kevin Lipe's analysis of Thursday's game is here. — bv
Well, that was a much different outcome than the last one. In what was certain to be yet another Instant Classic playoff game between these two teams, the Grizzlies stole one in Oklahoma City last night, swinging home court advantage in the series back to Memphis and heading home for Thursday's Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. Thanks to a (relatively rare) Kendrick Perkins putback at the buzzer of regulation, they even needed extra time to do it.
First things first, though: Dave Joerger started Tayshaun Prince again in Game 2, but I can't beat him up for it too much, because his clever use of lineups was a big reason the Grizzlies came up winners last night. Led by Beno Udrih, who stepped up from "Nick Calathes' backup" to "Oh hey this guy has two championship rings" last night with 14 points on 8 shots in 14 minutes of play, the Griz bench—a key to the team's success for much of the season, but a non-factor in Game 1—came up big, with Joerger essentially using a 9-man rotation of the Usual Suspects as starters, Tony Allen, Mike Miller, Udrih, and Ed Davis. (Kosta Koufos came in at the very end of OT when Marc Gasol fouled out, but didn't play enough to be a factor in the game's outcome).
What got the Grizzlies out ahead, and what gave them a big enough lead that Kevin Durant's 4th-quarter ridiculousness only tied the game instead of winning it for the Thunder, was the use of a super-small-ball lineup featuring Mike Miller as the power forward. The small lineup of guards running all over the place stretched the OKC defense in such a way that the floor finally opened up for the Grizzlies' offense in a way it hadn't yet in the series.
I'm not sure what it is about these two teams that makes almost every game a close one, but it makes for great playoff basketball. The Clippers may be the Grizzlies' rivals in a WWE sense—they're the heel at the Grindhouse, filling the whole room with bad vibes and getting chippy enough for Z-Bo to start choke-slamming folks—but the Griz/Thunder matchups (this is their third playoff series against each other in four years, remember) make for better basketball. The matchup of styles, coupled with Tony Allen's unmatched ability to actually defend Kevin Durant (to the extent possible) brings out the best in both teams, but last night it brought out more "best" in the Grizzlies than it did in the Thunder, and thankfully we've now got a real series on our hands, coming back to Memphis for what promise to be two raucous home playoff games, neither of which can possibly be an elimination game!
I haven't watched a basketball game and then written about it in something close to two weeks, since our daughter was born. I figured last night—the first game of the Grizzlies' playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder—would be a good time to get back in the saddle and use what little slivers of free time I have to write about the Grizzlies again, since the season is winding down and these are the playoff games we spent all season wondering whether we'd be able to watch.
By the third or fourth minute of the game, I was thinking about bailing on it, emailing Bruce (VanWyngarden, Flyer editor) and asking him to cover for me. As the Grizzlies dug themselves deeper and deeper into their first half hole against a Thunder team that was on a mission to prove that the Grizzlies shouldn't have beaten them last year, I wondered what it was I was watching.
It was bad. The Thunder D choked the Griz offense out, suffocating Zach Randolph inside, getting right in the middle of every Conley/Gasol pick and roll, forcing shooters into contested and/or too-quick jumpers that clanked off the rim and into the hands of waiting Thunder players. They were doing to the Grizzlies what the Grizzlies have made a living doing to the rest of the league for the last four seasons: turning the water off.
Tayshaun Prince started at small forward and lasted 4:27 "guarding" Kevin Durant before he was swapped for Tony Allen. The news after halftime was that Prince had a stomach virus and wouldn't return, but—just hypothetically—if he was that sick, why play him? To prove to him that he shouldn't be playing?
The Grizzlies went into the locker room at halftime trailing 56-34, and it felt like they were outclassed in every possible way by the Thunder: they couldn't score on the Thunder D, they couldn't stop Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook, or anybody else in a white jersey, they couldn't do anything. Something had to change at the break.
What changed was that Tony Allen started the second half in place of Tayshaun Prince, and then those five guys—Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol—played the next 20 minutes together and closed the gap. Allen had played in the first half, but the Thunder D left him wide open from long range and, true to form, he couldn't help himself from trying to shoot. That wasn't the case in the second half.
Note: I've been out taking care of a new baby and in the meantime, I've asked some of my Griz blogging friends to fill in with stuff that's different from what you might normally find on Beyond the Arc. Today's guest post is by Joe Mullinax of Grizzly Bear Blues. A big thanks to Joe, Kevin Yeung, and Matt Hrdlicka (and also a big thanks to Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden) for their help this week and last.
After a season of despair and determination the Memphis Grizzlies recovered from a 10-15 start to go 40-17 the rest of the way en route to their 2nd straight 50 win season, a first in the history of the franchise. After all of that, it is hard to fathom that their reward for such a feat is the 7 seed in the playoffs and a date with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It speaks to the depth and talent that the Western Conference harbors from the top to the bottom of the playoff standings.
All is not lost for the Beale Street faithful, of course. History shows us the Grizzlies are certainly capable of competing with the Thunder (cue memories of triple overtime games and Tony Allen free throws) and great players are more likely to fall than great systems a la the Spurs. However, this OKC team is different than those of the past. The obvious difference from last year’s series, where the Grizzlies beat the Thunder in five games, to this year is a healthy Russell Westbrook. When at full strength, a legitimate argument can be made for him being one of the top fifteen players in the entire NBA.
Other differences in the Thunder roster are vital to this playoff run for them. Gone is Kevin Martin, noted Grizz killer, but Steven Adams and Caron Butler are key pieces of a roster that is deeper on the bench than OKC was last season. Kevin Durant is playing at an even higher MVP level, winning his fourth scoring title while breaking Michael Jordan’s 40 game streak of scoring 25 or more points in a game. Anytime you are breaking a record held by His Ariness, you’re playing in another stratosphere. This Thunder team is deeper, more sound defensively and a deserving 2 seed in the loaded West.
Every season has ebbs and flows, and the sample size of 82 games can help identify what areas of the game Memphis can take advantage of, and which they can be taken advantage of in. What must Memphis continue to do well, and what must they improve, in order to defeat the improved Oklahoma City Thunder?
The win secured the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which kick off Saturday in Oklahoma City for the Griz. By losing, Dallas gets to face top seed, San Antonio.
But for all practical purposes, Wednesday was playoff basketball — a game full of lead changes and momentum swings and even what appeared to be a Tony Allen meltdown in the fourth quarter. More about that later.
The Griz started strong and maintained a five-point lead after the first quarter, but Dallas scored 29 in the second and took a 53-51 lead into the locker room at halftime. The second half saw at least a dozen ties and lead changes, with neither team able to pull away. Late in the fourth, Tony Allen presumably thought he was fouled and just walked off the court while the game was in progress. He was quickly pulled from the lineup. Presumably, there will be some sort of explanation forthcoming today.
Despite that brief weirdness, Memphis had the ball and a three-point lead with 20 seconds left in regulation. But Mike Conley was called for an improbable charge and the turnover led to a quick three-pointer by Monta Ellis. The Griz got the ball back with 13 seconds left but were unable to get a shot off.
The Griz fell behind in overtime, trailing 102-98, after Ellis cruised by four Grizzlies on his way to an easy layup. Coach Joerger called timeout, and according to a tweet by Gary Parrish, Zach Randolph yelled to the coaching staff, "We gotta get TA back in." Coach ZBo's words were heeded and Allen re-entered the game with little more than 2 minutes left in OT.
Allen quickly made a difference, dumping off a pass to Randolph for a layup, then following that with a layup of his own to tie the score at 102. After an exchange of buckets, the Griz found themselves trailing 105-104. Conley got a rebound after a Dallas miss and streaked upcourt with 6 seconds left. He was fouled going to the hoop with 1.1 seconds left. In highly un-Memphis fashion, Conley made both shots to seal the win, though Ellis managed to get off a good last-second shot from near the top of the key that clanked off the back rim.
The Grizzlies' Big 3 came up big in this one: Randolph had 27 points, 14 rebounds; Gasol socred 19, plus 9 rebounds and 9 assists; Conley had 22 points and five assists. The Grizzlies finished the season on a five-game win streak and earned another 50-victory season.
Bring on the Thunder. It's playoff time in Memphis.
The Grizzlies made waves nationally (and locally) when they hired basketball analytics guru John Hollinger, inventor of the PER whose player stats are still prominently featured on ESPN's NBA section, away from ESPN early in the 2012-13 season. The move wasn't met without controversy—especially among callers to local talk radio shows—and it marked the first major move made by the Pera and Levien leadership team to shape the Grizzlies franchise into one of the league's most forward-looking. Now that the season is entering its final phase, John was kind enough to take some of his time to answer five questions for Beyond the Arc.
1. Now that you’ve been with the Grizzlies for 14 months, what has surprised you the most about now NBA teams really operate? What’s been the hardest part of transitioning into working for a team?
John Hollinger: Probably the most interesting part was seeing how the sausage gets made with trades, because that’s what we had to dive into almost immediately when we got here given the cap situation. It was a bit different than I’d been led to believe from the journalist side in terms of how A led to B in getting a deal completed, and coming from where I did, it was also really interesting to see the rumor mill work relative to what was actually happening.
The other part that you don’t really think about is how involved the league office is an all this—there are just a lot of rules that have to be followed in getting anything done, and I’m not just talking about the salary cap. They all exist for good reasons, it’s just stuff you don’t need to consider when you’re writing about a team from the outside.
As for the hardest part, I’d say it was refocusing to a completely different universe of players. When you cover the NBA, you focus on the 450 or so players that are in the league.
When you work in the NBA, your focus shifts in both directions. On one hand, you have to track roughly 1,000 or so players that aren’t in the league but are prospects to play in it in the near future ... but on another, you have to focus very, very intently on just 15 of them, the ones on your own team whose production you’re trying to maximize. It’s almost like switching to bifocals I guess—you have to zoom out and see a much bigger world of players, but also zoom in and know your own guys in far greater detail than you ever would writing about the league.
Note: I'm still mostly out of commission with a newborn, so I've rounded up some guest posts from some of my Griz writer friends to make sure you still have good stuff to read. Today's post is from Kevin Yeung (@KevinHFY on Twitter) of SB Nation's Grizzly Bear Blues.
This may or may not be a surprise to you, but the Memphis Grizzlies are a good defensive team. They have the 7th-best defensive rating in the NBA (104.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), and their roster is loaded with outstanding defenders including the likes of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. I’ve touched on the quality of their defensive scheme in the past, and it’s one that now-head coach Dave Joerger has implemented to great success since he was made the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator in 2011.
For all of the things they do well defensively, however, the Grizzlies have an obvious weak link. I’m not too fond of the saying “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, but it partially applies to starting power forward Zach Randolph. Surrounded by plus-defenders (or average at worst) in the starting lineup, Z-Bo is the player that defenses will draw out and try to exploit. Randolph has a wingspan around 7’4” or 7’5” (it isn’t in the DraftExpress database, but most sources put him around that range), which can act as a bit of a saving grace. The rest of his measurements illustrate why he struggles so much on defense, however. 6’9” is average at best for a player at his position, and the hefty 260-pound frame he has to lug around makes it incredibly difficult for him to keep up with opposing players—forget trying to get up and block shots at the rim.
In recent games, the Grizzlies have played the Miami Heat (April 9th) and the Philadelphia 76ers (April 11th). These two teams started players opposite Randolph that left him in a mismatch where his defensive deficiencies could be spotlighted for all to see. First, Randolph was tasked with defending Shane Battier, traditionally more of a 3-and-D perimeter player playing for a small-ball Heat team, and then he had to guard walking mismatch Thaddeus Young who had an uncommon combination of speed and bulk.
But no matter how they did it, the Grizzlies beat the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix, 97-91 to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Memphis began the game as though it was going to run, er, pound the Suns out of the gym. Zach Randolph was dominant in the paint and Phoenix seemingly had no answer. The Grizzlies built and maintained a small but double-digit lead for much of the first half. It was 44-31, Memphis, with three minutes left in the half and the Grizzlies on cruise control. Then Phoenix got hot and closed the gap to 46-42 at half.
Phoenix continued to push the ball in the third quarter and took a 53-50 lead. From then on it was a dog-fight, with 15 lead changes in the fourth quarter.
The Suns held a 91-90 lead with 1:27 to play, but the Grizzlies closed the deal with two clutch shots: a Mike Conley three-pointer and a very unlikely steal and one-man "fast" break by Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies closed it out with defensive stops, overcoming some shaky free throw shooting to clinch the victory.
There were lots of heroes for Memphis. Randolph led all scorers with 32 points and was close to unstoppable in the paint most of the night. Mike Miller was on fire, hitting 8 of 11 FG attempts, including some critical threes down the stretch, and finishing with 21. Conley was clutch in the final frame, and Tony Allen had a couple of key steals and a sweet coast-to-coast fast-break to tie the game at the end of the third. Marc Gasol played a solid, if unspectacular game, garnering 18 points and 8 rebounds.
The Grizzlies play their final game of the season Wednesday against the Dallas Mavericks. Win, and they move into seventh place and likely face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. Lose, and they finish eighth and get their recent nemesis, San Antonio.
Note: I'm out this week and probably some of next with a newborn, so I've rounded up some guest posts from some of my Griz writer friends to make sure you still have good stuff to read. Today's post is from Matt Hrdlicka (@TheRealHrdlicka on Twitter) of SB Nation's Grizzly Bear Blues.
Professional sports leagues are inherently plagiaristic. The Have-Not’s are constantly inspecting the Have’s to answer the question: “How did they beat us?” Sometimes, the answer is simple (have Lebron James or Michael Jordan). Sometimes it’s a bit more complex (synergy between scheme and personnel, reliance on analytics, dumb luck, exploitation of matchups, voodoo dolls buried beneath center court, etc).
The Grizzlies Front Office seems to be borrowing the blueprint of success from one of the NBA’s most successful franchises, the team that dispatched them in last year’s playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs. Let’s take a look at how the Grizzlies have borrowed from the Spurs blueprint to attempt to build success for the long-haul.
The main problem with trying to structure your roster based on another team’s roster is that the most successful teams have the rarest players. As such, I’m not suggesting that Marc Gasol “is” Tim Duncan. But taking a look at how great teams blend players, and how they blend the roles on a basketball court, is instructive when searching for a competitive advantage.
And in terms of roles, the Grizzlies and Spurs have a ton of similarities.
Last night was pretty much a worst-case scenario for the Grizzlies and the playoff hopes they're clinging to for dear life. The Spurs reduced the Grizzlies to a smoldering pile of rubble, sure—you're lying if you say you didn't at least predict that as a possible outcome. What hurt the Grizzlies that much worse is that the Phoenix Suns beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to move into the 8th spot, a whole game ahead of the Grizzlies, who would be on the outside looking in (and picking 14th in the draft) if the season ended today.
The Grizzlies—even with the new starting five of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol—still have no answer for the Spurs, and for large stretches of last night's game didn't even look like they were equipped to fight back. They lost by 20 points, and even that felt like a mercy killing, especially after a retina-searing 26-10 first quarter.
It's maddening that the Spurs are able to do this to the Grizzlies at will. I saw a lot of conversation on Twitter about how Popovich & company were still punishing the Grizzlies for the 2011 playoff upset, and that may be partly true, but it misses the overall picture: the Spurs are a basketball killing machine this season, fanatically obsessed with returning to the NBA Finals and winning the title they missed by one Ray Allen 3-pointer last year. There is no quarter given to the NBA's weaker teams, and unfortunately for the Grizzlies, lately they've been playing like one of the NBA's weaker teams.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around what happened during last night's game—one of the ugliest, weirdest, most entertaining (probably for the wrong reasons) games I've seen in a while. The summary reads like a lot of Grizzlies recaps this season: the first half was terrible, the starters were mostly ineffective, and then in the second half the right bench guys came into the game and the Grizzlies started getting stops and winning.
It has to be said right off the bat that Tayshaun Prince was the reason the Grizzlies weren't down by 15 points at halftime. Prince scored 10 in the first quarter, and by the time he left the game with an ankle sprain with a couple minutes left in the second, he had 12 points on 6-8 shooting, almost all of them on postups and driving layups. Tayshaun was really good, and it was a genuine bummer to see him leave the game after a particularly nasty ankle sprain on the first night in a long time that he was putting up those kinds of numbers.
(The flipside of that is that Tayshaun's outburst, rare as it is, was a not-so-subtle reminder of what the Grizzlies would look like if someone who could actually score consistently were playing at the small forward spot.)
In the second half, the Grizzlies—led mostly by Tony Allen and Marc Gasol—started getting stops and turned the tide, while Zach Randolph recovered from his horrendous first three quarters to put up 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks in the final frame. It was enough to get the job done against a Nuggets team that refused to go away, taking advantage of a Kenneth Faried/Darrell Arthur frontcourt to maximize their athletic advantage against the Grizzlies' lumbering bigs while also trying to match the physical intensity of the Griz. Plus Timofey Mozgov made a three—I saw it with my own eyes.
But while the team was able to gut out the home win and put Denver away, the overall picture wasn't that encouraging. Transition defense was still nonexistent, with Denver getting as many open layups as they wanted simply by being willing to run. The lineups were an issue, as ever, because heaven forbid James Johnson see the floor other than when Tayshaun goes down. In the second half, Nick Calathes saw a lot of minutes at the 2 with Conley/Calathes matched up against Ty Lawson and Aaron Brooks, meaning Tony Allen got a good deal of run at the small forward spot (but really, it was pretty positionless—it was three guards against three guards).
But last night, I resigned myself that my main complaint during the Lionel Hollins era—"coaching by feel" and not (1) knowing what your best lineups are and (2) being too stubborn to play them if it makes you look like you changed your mind—is going to be my main complaint during the Joerger era, too. He's just not going to play Johnson. He doesn't think he can play Allen at the 3 in the starting lineup. He's playing the starters too many minutes, and down the stretch of a brutal season, they're running out of gas. For me, the whole upside to bringing in a new coach was that the Grizzlies would have an opportunity to operate at full strength because they'd be playing their best players in the best situations. Yes, I think Joerger's done a good job with the crappy injury hand he was dealt this season... but after years of complaining about Lionel's lineups, I'd hoped this year would be different. It's possible that the Prince injury will prompt a change to the starting lineup that Griz watchers have been begging for all season, but I know better than to count on it at this point.
The Grizzlies have six games left: three home, and three away. Sunday they take on the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, and if this Grizzlies team shows up—the one that can't/won't run, and has to be cajoled into defending in the second half, and basically only has Tony Allen and James Johnson as small forwards, neither of whom the coach actually wants to play at small forward—it's entirely possible that it'll be a bloodbath.
Then on Wednesday it's Miami at the FedExForum, which is a very winnable game—especially given how close the two teams played in Miami two weeks ago. Split the pair against the Spurs and Heat, and then there are two games against the Sixers and Lakers, and then the last two are the ones that matter the most: at Phoenix, and vs. Dallas. It's entirely possible that the last two games of the season will determine whether the Grizzlies make the playoffs, and that they'll have to win them both to get in.
Given the unsteadiness they're showing on a nightly basis right now, all bets are off.