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.
The Grizzlies came out focused and started running their sets with their usual violent deliberation, started figuring out how to defend the Thunder's multitude of scoring options, and played with a sense of purpose and without the unadulterated panic that had marred the second quarter. They got within four points before everything started to slip away—when Zach Randolph got called for his fifth foul on one of many touch fouls called at both ends, something that interrupted the flow of almost every playoff game I watched yesterday (though the Griz and Thunder didn't have it as bad as the Warriors and Clippers).
From there, Joerger had to make a substitution instead of riding the five guys that got the Grizzlies back into the game. And the Thunder just started running away with the leading, expanding it from 2 points at the 8:46 mark to 14 by the end of the game, with the Grizzlies running on fumes.
It was rough, but not as rough as it could've been. If the Grizzlies' veterans hadn't come out in the third quarter and asserted their collective will, this could've been a 40-point blowout, easily. The Thunder are playing with something to prove after the Griz knocked them off last year.
• Main lesson: the Thunder are mortal. After they pummeled the Griz in the first half, the Grizzlies came out and held them to 13 points in the third quarter. Similar to the Clippers series last year, if the Grizzlies can come back out on Monday and just... not get run out of the gym, hold their own, learn a little more about their opponent, when the series comes back home to Memphis the Grizzlies should be able to notch a win or two and make it a real contest. They just have to figure out how to score against a Thunder D that is at times every bit as good as their own.
• Tayshaun Prince's defensive contributions vary from night to night when he's healthy, but when he's under the weather, he should never again try to guard Kevin Durant. When Prince didn't return for the second half and Jorger went with Tony Allen in his place, reuniting the Conley/Lee/Allen/Randolph/Gasol lineup many people (including this writer) think should've been the starting lineup since March or so, it proved what was basically already proven: lineups with Tayshaun Prince in them are not this team's best lineups.
• The Grizzlies' bench misses Nick Calathes. Beno Udrih is a very good basketball player, but he just doesn't have the familiarity with the rest of the roster that Calathes has—familiarity that Calathes had to earn by playing piles of minutes, especially when Conley went down to injury. I'm not going to say that Calathes' absence will be an excuse if the Grizzlies don't advance past the Thunder, but it's certainly not good to lose a player that important less than 24 hours before the start of the playoffs.
• Can we all agree that "Zach Randolph iso'd on Nick Collison" is an offensive strategy that has been proven not to work by several regular seasons and now 13 playoff games? And can we all agree that maybe a coach who was on the sidelines for all of those games should recognize this before those of us whose job it is just to watch the team? Randolph simply shouldn't be the primary offensive option against the Thunder—they're too good at limiting him. He should be the release valve, the garbage man down low who bails the Grizzlies out when the play breaks down. When he's the primary option, he's never given the space or range of motion to do what he needs to do, and so as much as I love #feed50, it shouldn't be the primary tactic against OKC.