Saturday, May 3, 2014

Late Night Notes, Game 7: Thunder 120, Grizzlies 109

Posted By on Sat, May 3, 2014 at 11:57 PM

Mike Conley played through injury in Game 7, but it wasnt enough.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley played through injury in Game 7, but it wasn't enough.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

(T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men")

Game 7 was not the way this was supposed to end: with Zach Randolph suspended for punching (or maybe "punching") Steven Adams in the face during Game 6. With Mike Conley unable to do anything more than jog due to a hamstring injury. With Tony Allen running around with one and a half good eyeballs thanks to Caron Butler. Still missing Nick Calathes thanks to his 20-game Tamoxifen suspension. Still missing Quincy Pondexter, who missed so many games this year I forgot he was on the roster from time to time.

But that's what the Grizzlies had coming into Game 7 in Oklahoma City on Saturday night: themselves, and not much more. A slim hope of being able to beat the Slim Reaper without a healthy Conley. Z-Bo's suspension was a loss, too—don't get me wrong—but Conley is the engine that makes the Grizzlies run. He's the power source at the center, the initiator of everything. Without Conley, (and especially without Conley and the pass-first run-the-offense play of Calathes) nothing happens.

And yet, Dave Joerger did the only thing he could do: try to create chaos and give the Grizzlies an advantage. He did that by making the first change to the starting lineup he's made since Gasol returned from injury: Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Mike Miller, and Marc Gasol. Starting off with smallball in hopes of stretching out the Thunder D and swarming the strong side even more than usual on the other end, generating turnovers and transition attempts.

Through the first quarter, it worked—and seemingly caught the Thunder completely off guard. The Mini-Griz shot and stole their way to a 36 point performance, the most points they've scored in a quarter all season long, leading the Thunder by 9. It even kept working through the second quarter, as Joerger went to the crazy-deep bench to roll out lineups we'd never seen before, using guys like Beno Udrih, Jon Leuer, and Kosta Koufos to keep the Griz afloat against a Thunder team that looked like it was starting to get its feet under it. After trailing 3 at the half, the biggest problem for the Griz felt like it would be the three fouls on Tony Allen and Marc Gasol...

...but the biggest problem for the Griz was that KD is the best player in the league and Russell Westbrook is also on his team. The two of them came out in the second half possessed, hitting everything they threw up against a defensively-challenged set of Griz rotations, while Tony Allen tried to do too much and instead racked up fouls and bricked open jumpers early in the shot clock. They (the Thunder) started swarming on defense the way they had in the second half of Game 1, when the Grizzlies looked dead in the water and headed for a sweep.

Honestly, there wasn't much anyone could do at that point. The Thunder were shooting too well. They were hitting something like 60% of their field goal attempts including 60% from beyond the arc, and when that happens, it doesn't matter how many points you score, it probably won't be enough.

And so the Griz ended up down 20 by the end of the fourth quarter, with nothing left to give, with no hope of coming all the way back in the little time that remained, the last dregs of a confusing, nerve-wracking, heart-rending and -warming and -stopping season slipping away with nothing to be done about it. It was a downer of an ending, in that it wasn't close, but it wasn't because the Grizzlies weren't fighting: there just wasn't anything else they could do. It was over.

Lessons from Game 7

  • Even when Marc Gasol knows he's the first offensive option and has been told to take as many shots as he feels like he needs to take, he's still going to pass the ball to Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince in the corners. When the Griz had shooter-heavy lineups in early on the floor spacing allowed Gasol to work wonders, but later on, with Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince together, Gasol made those same passes just like always. Dude is a passer, plain and simple.

  • Mike Conley is a beast. Friday he said his pain level in his hamstring was a "6 out of 10" and yet he played 36 minutes and scored 20 points. As if we all needed another reminder of how far Conley has come, how much of a bargain he is on his contract, and what kind of a player (and person) he is.

  • Shooting and athleticism are still issues for the Grizzlies, however many years later.

  • This series was an instant classic, with 4 OT games in a row—something that's never happened before. In the end, the Thunder had the two best players, and thus their ceiling was higher. Once those two players figure it out—and let's be clear, they were this close to packing it in—the Grizzlies' lackadaisical play in Game 6 put them in too big a hole to crawl out of. After all those months of wondering whether the Griz should pack it in and tank, I think it's safe to say that the thrill of this series was worth it, even if the Griz didn't advance. It could've gone the other way, but it didn't.
  • What's Next

    Obviously, the fact that the season has ended doesn't mean we're done talking about it. I'll have more "wrap up" type coverage over the course of the next few days. A season this crazy deserves to be analyzed. From there, it's a discussion of who'll be back next year (and, of course, The Z-Bo Player Option I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more about), the draft, roster moves... it's going to be an interesting summer to be a fan of the Memphis Grizzlies.

    But for now, bask in what this group of players gave you. For four years now, they've been relentless, they've embodied the best aspects of our city (and sometimes the worst), they've carried themselves with incredible determination and a mostly-silent will to destroy everything and everyone in their path. They've given us so much, this group of guys. The culture of Griz fandom that has sprung up since the original 2011 playoff run (remember the white Growl Towels in that first Spurs series?) wouldn't be here without them.

    We, Memphis, owe them a debt of gratitude, regardless of how Game 7 ended. We're all on this crazy ride together, and you never know when the ride is over. So for now, be thankful for these guys, and that they wear our name across their chests.

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