Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dispatch from Grizzlies/Thunder Game 4

Posted By on Sun, Apr 27, 2014 at 10:50 AM

Marc Gasol scored 23 points, 10 of them in the first quarter, and it was glorious.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol scored 23 points, 10 of them in the first quarter, and it was glorious.

1.

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.

2.

Right before the game—while all of us were sitting in the media room down in the bowels of FedExForum waiting on NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to arrive from the airport (a "15 minutes" that turned into 30)—news broke that former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley had passed away Saturday afternoon. Immediately some of the folks who had been around a while started swapping Heisley stories.

Say what you will about how effective he was at building a winning basketball team, Michael Heisley brought the Grizzlies to Memphis, got the FedExForum built, and when it came time for him to hand over control of the franchise to someone else, he made sure there was significant local ownership involved so that the team had a future in Memphis. He did all of that while being brash, uncompromising, and doing exactly what it was he decided he was going to do, whatever the consequences. He may not have made the best roster decisions—and let's be clear, he definitely made some roster decisions, especially when the Grizzlies drafted whoever played well against the Memphis Tigers in the NCAA tournament—but his legacy is that the Grizzlies are the Memphis Grizzlies, and as awkward as it may be to celebrate a team leaving one town for another, our city has been enriched immeasurably by the presence of this team. And so Memphis owes Michael Heisley a debt of gratitude.

Plus, the man sold his NBA team and then bought himself courtside seats so he could still come to the games.

3.

Reflecting on Heisley, and the history of the Grizzlies in this town, just makes this playoff run that much more special, if only because there are so many question marks surrounding this team after this season ends. The Grizzlies have been here long enough for there to have been several eras of Griz history in Memphis: the Pyramid Era, in which a terrible team made some moves to get some good young players. The First Playoff Era, a.k.a. the HubieBall era, in which the Griz rode a 10-man rotation to the playoffs three straight years but never won a single game, the era of Pau and Shane and Mike and J-Will and Bonzi and Posey and the whole crew. Then there were The Rebuilding Years, in which Pau broke his foot and complained a lot, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay were drafted, Pau was traded, and the Griz won 23 games. And now, of course, we're in the Grit/Grind Era, which started not really with the Tony Allen signing but when Zach Randolph stepped off the plane in 2009. The first era in which the Grizzlies have actually done anything meaningful in the postseason.

There's Zach Randolph's player option. There's the logjam in the wing rotation with Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter, Jamaal Franklin, Mike Miller, and (sigh) Tayshaun Prince all on the roster. Ed Davis is a restricted free agent when the season ends. Looking out to the end of next season, Prince's contract is up—and so is Marc Gasol's. Things are going to be different in the next two years, even if only in small ways.

This group of Griz players have been to hell and back together. It's probably safe to say that at least some combination of Conley, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol will have their jerseys retired someday in the distant future, and they will have earned it. Whatever happens at the end of this season—and really, whatever the outcome of this first round series is—this OKC series is another chapter in the Legend Of the Grit/Grind Grizzlies, in which they came in as a 7 seed (whether through injury or not) and put a hurting on the 2nd-seeded Thunder.

I'm saying this: these Grindhouse games, these Tony Allen putbacks while Mike Miller stands at the three point line wide open yelling for the ball, these Z-Bo mean mugs, these Marc Gasol self-butt-slaps are priceless, and these are nights we spend together in this big building that we're going to be talking about twenty years from now.

"I was there when Zach Randolph..."

4.

From a basketball standpoint, the adjustments are pretty straightforward: if the Grizzlies shoot below 40% and can't hit more than 60% of their free throws, they're not going to win. If the Thunder continue to figure out how to move the ball and utilize all of the athletic weapons they have, the Grizzlies are going to struggle to beat them. There's not much more than that to read into it.

Of course, now it's a three game series, with two of the games in Oklahoma City. The Grizzlies have to win another game in OKC to get to the second round. Given how close these games have been, that's totally within reach. But not if they're going to struggle this much on offense.

5.

At this point, whether the Grizzlies get past the Thunder or not, I think this is a season to be proud of. After Game 1, it looked like the Grizzlies were going to get swept and maybe fall apart in the process. As it stands, they're fighting tooth and nail for every one of these games against a team that finished with the second-best record in the league. Yes, a team they're well-equipped to beat, and by some accounts (especially those of you who're going to consider this season a failure no matter what happens and accuse me of "refusing to criticize Joerger" or "not demanding more from the front office" or whatever) a team that they should beat.

But clearly, this is a good basketball team playing another good basketball team. Both teams are playing well enough to win these games—that's why they're going to overtime 75% of the time. The last three games have come down to which team is executing better and catching the 50/50 plays, and there's nothing to be ashamed of if the Grizzlies fight this hard.

That's not to say there aren't things going wrong that can and should be corrected. But this team refuses to quit, and refuses to die, and refuses to fragment, and refuses to roll over for a heavily favored opponent, and refuses to stop doing it all in the most violent, slow, pulverizing, chaotic way possible, as if they know how to do anything different. Either team could come out of this series and go to the Finals. When we were sitting around hoping the Grizzlies would make the playoffs despite all the horrible luck they've had this season, this is exactly what we were hoping for, wasn't it?

6.

Bring on Game 5. And game 6. And game 7. And make an exception so there can be games 8 and 9 and 10 and 11. Make the quarters 15 minutes. I want to soak in this Grindhouse, this team, this chaos while it's here.

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