When problems are this vast, so are potential answers. Here are a few quick thoughts on some of the many issues the team has to try to sort out before tonight’s tip.
Scheme: We knew going in both of these teams were going to have to make big strategic and stylistic adjustments from the way they’d played the previous series, and the Spurs were miles ahead of the Grizzlies in terms of preparation and execution in Game 1.
I’m no coach, but clearly the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll defense was a disaster, from the initial defense to the chain reactions that routinely left deadly Spurs three-point shooters open. This problem wasn’t just about the new buzzword “overhelping,” though I do think that applies in some instances.
Simply — and I know it’s not simple — the Grizzlies need to clean up how they’re defending the basic pick-and-roll plays, which will be especially tough when Tony Parker has the ball and Zach Randolph is the big being picked on. After that, the team needs to make decisions about what it’s willing to give up: A contested Manu Ginobili shot in the lane or a wide open Matt Bonner three? A contested Parker runner or Kawhi Leonard open in the corner? A tough pass for Tiago Splitter to a cutting Parker or an easier pass to an open Danny Green on the opposite wing? Against this Spurs team, I’d be willing to give up anything short of an uncontested lay-up before an open three from one of their good shooters.
Cleaning up pick-and-roll defense and staying home more on shooters is easier written than done, but one problem from Game 1 seems a little bit more correctable. The Grizzlies simply can’t let Bonner have another game like the one he had Sunday, when he was 4-6 from three-point range. Ed Davis lost track of Bonner on one play by helping deep in the paint, but most of Bonner’s damage was done with Darrell Arthur as his primary defender.
In a dreadful start to the series for the Grizzlies, let me start by underscoring four points that I made in my series preview:
1. The key to defending the Spurs has less to do with containing stars than containing team three-point shooting, especially from role players. Tony Parker was splendid on Sunday afternoon, scoring 20 points on 9-14 shooting, with 9 assists. But Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili combined for only 14 points on 5-15 shooting. Instead, the Spurs killed the Grizzlies from outside, hitting a franchise playoff record 14 three-pointers on 29 attempts, the most made threes the Grizzlies have yielded all season. And the bulk of the damage came from secondary scorers Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Matt Bonner, who combined to shoot 11-17 from three.
2. The Grizzlies low turnovers and high rate of free-throw attempts in rounds one and two were not going to be sustainable in this series. The Grizzlies did a good job of taking care of the ball after a rough start, their 12 turnovers only slightly more than the 10.4 average in the first two rounds, but the team’s inflated 31.6 free-throw attempts came down to a more reasonable 20.
3. The Grizzlies’ propensity for funky lineups in Game 1 repeated itself. The Grizzlies were still theoretically in the hunt when the team put out a small-ball lineup of Jerryd Bayless-Tony Wroten-Quincy Pondexter-Tony Allen-Zach Randolphto start the fourth and brought in Austin Daye for Wroten soon after.
4. The biggest key of all for this game was going to be which team could better adjust to the stylistic whiplash from their previous series, and clearly that was the Spurs, in a big, big way. After chasing three-point shooters all over the floor against the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs seemed almost relieved to be in a halfcourt defense against the Grizzlies, crowding the paint and routinely ignoring Grizzlies’ wing players. The Grizzlies, on the other end, couldn’t adjust as quickly to the Spurs’ spread offense and quick, deft ball movement, which provides an extreme contrast to the over-reliance on stars Chris Paul and Kevin Durant that the Grizzlies were able to snuff out in the first and second rounds. As it turned out, playing against Vinny Del Negro and Scott Brooks was poor preparation for playing against Gregg Popovich.
It started a few weeks ago as a revenge tour, with a first-round knockout of a Clippers team that had eliminated the Grizzlies in the first round a year prior. Next, the Grizzlies put down a Thunder team in the second round that had ended their own playoff dreams in the second round two years back.
Now, it comes back to where it started: On a weekend afternoon in San Antonio, where, two springs ago, Shane Battier hit a go-ahead three to kick off the Grizzlies' first ever true playoff run.
Ten riffs in rarefied air:
1. Past as Prelude: As with the Thunder series, this one pits two teams that have played a lot of games over the past three years with the same coaches and roughly the same cores and much of the same supporting casts. Over 18 games in this stretch, the Spurs own a 10-8 edge.
The Spurs team the Grizzlies beat in six games two springs ago was, contrary to caricature, an offensive juggernaut (2nd in offensive efficiency and first in three-point percentage), while merely good defensively (11th), with particular trouble defending the paint.
This season, the Spurs style has swung back to the defensive side a little, where they're up to third, while the offense has slipped slightly, to seventh.
It's not hard to see how this shift in performance has followed a shift in personnel. While Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are as good or (in Duncan's surprising case, especially) better than two years ago, sixth-man Manu Ginobili is in a decline phase. That and the loss of guard George Hill has made the Spurs less dynamic with the ball. But replacing Richard Jefferson at small forward with emerging star Kawhi Leonard (acquired for Hill) has given the Spurs a physical stopper on the wings again, while replacing Antonio McDyess, whom Zach Randolph escorted to retirement in 2011, with an evolved Tiago Splitter has made the Spurs bigger and stronger up front.
The Grizzlies have changed a little less than the Spurs. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Darrell Arthur return from the rotation of 2011, and most other changes have roughly duplicated the quality and style of what existed then:
Tayshaun Prince for Shane Battier
Jerryd Bayless for O.J. Mayo
Quincy Pondexter for Sam Young
Keyon Dooling/Tony Wroten for Greivis Vasquez/Ish Smith
The one area where the Grizzlies have probably upgraded most is somewhere it's unlikely to matter, with now-little-used fourth big Ed Davis a significant upgrade over then-little-used Hamed Haddadi.
Overall, the Grizzlies entered this postseason with a similarly middle-of-the-pack offense and a defense that's morphed from good (8th in 2011) to great (2nd this year).
As for the season series, it went 2-2, with home teams prevailing in all. Two went to overtime and another ended with a Mike Conley game-winner. The Spurs blew out the Griz in the third game this season, but that was during a stretch of particular turmoil and poor play. All but the Conley game came before the Rudy Gay trade and even that one was played without Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan. So, beyond asserting that these teams are fairly evenly matched, I wouldn't put too much stock in the details of the season series.
With last night's Game 6 road win by the San Antonio Spurs over the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference Finals are now set, with the Grizzlies traveling to San Antonio for Game 1 on Sunday. The schedule for the first four games:
Game 1 — Sunday, May 19th, 2:30 p.m. — San Antonio
Game 2 — Tuesday, May, 21st 8 p.m. — San Antonio
Game 3 — Saturday, May 25th 8 p.m. — Memphis
Game 4 — Monday, May 27th 8 p.m. — Memphis
Game 5 — Wednesday, May 29th — San Antonio
Game 6 — Friday, May 31st — Memphis
Game 7 — Sunday, June 2nd — San Antonio
Single-game tickets for Games 3 and 4 go on sale at noon tomorrow.
I've got a series preview in the works. I'm hopeful I can get it posted later this afternoon, but it will be up Saturday morning at the latest.
Even without their all-NBA point guard and with star Kevin Durant smothered to the tune of 5-21 shooting and seven turnovers, it took three daggers to finally eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder on their home floor.
When the Thunder had whittled a double-digit deficit down to five points with a minute-and-a-half to play, Tony Allen got behind the defense in transition, finished with contact and again from the line to give the Grizzlies a seemingly solid 8-point lead with 1:26 to play.
But the Thunder kept coming and the Grizzlies defense suffered some unusual breakdowns and the lead was cut in half before a high-arcing 19-footer from Marc Gasol gave the Grizzlies a six-point lead with only 27 seconds to play.
But still the Thunder kept coming. Abetted by three missed free throws from Zach Randolph, the Thunder managed to get back to within two points with the ball and 10 seconds to play.
That's when Tony Allen finally ended it, recovering to harass Durant's jumper from behind then somehow darting ahead of him and over everyone else for a defensive rebound, followed by two made free throws and a win secured.
Can they do it tonight? Ten takes ahead of the game:
1. Uncharted Territory: The Grizzlies have already matched the franchise record for playoff wins with 7. One more would break new ground for the franchise. Over the past 10 seasons, only 16 of the NBA's 30 teams have reached a conference finals, so it would not be an achievement to take for granted.
Out of curiosity, I jotted down how many conference finals each team has made since 1980. Here's how it breaks down:
Suns, Jazz: 7
Pacers, Sixers, Thunder/Sonics: 6
Heat, Rockets: 5
Knicks, Bucks, Magic, Mavs, Blazers: 4
Kings, Nets, Nuggets: 2
Two teams haven't been there since the 1970s: Wizards/Bullets and Warriors
That leaves six teams that have never made the conference finals: Grizzlies, Raptors, Bobcats, Pelicans/Hornets, Clippers, Hawks (who appeared in some "divisional finals" in the pre-conference era).
A Grizzlies-Warriors West finals would be pretty sweet.
2. Are the Thunder Ready to Break? I can only answer this crucial question with the existential response my three-year-old son now gives to every question we ask: "I can't know."
A 3-1 series lead seems pretty commanding, but every one of these games has been up for grabs in the final minutes. It won't take much for the Thunder to rally on their home floor and force the series back to Memphis, where the pressure would even out with the Grizzlies trying to avoid a road Game 7.
Do the Thunder have it in them or is the trifecta of a 3-1 deficit, no Russell Westbrook, and squandering a big lead in Game 4 all just a bridge to far for this near-broken team?
3. "Clutch Defense:" The Grizzlies' 3-1 lead can be largely attributed to late-game execution. Overall in these three wins, the Grizzlies have scored at a rate of 101.7 points per 100 possessions while yielding 94.5 points per 100 possessions. That's good. But in "clutch" situations — defined as in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, when the scoring margin is within five points, and 19 of a possible 20 minutes in these three games fit that description — the Grizzlies offense has ticked up slightly (106.7) while the defense (64.2!) has been dominant.
On a day in which the Grizzlies put three players on the NBA's All-Defensive Team, each of those players demonstrated their worthiness in a wild final 29 minutes that turned FedExForum back into "the Grindhouse."
The Grizzlies held the Thunder to 33% shooting after halftime and erased a 17-point second-quarter deficit to first force overtime and then take a 3-1 series lead that leaves the team one win away from the franchise's first conference finals.
There was Mike Conley, who made his first All-Defensive team, running down Kevin Durant in transition for a steal that prevented the Thunder from building a multi-possession lead midway through the fourth quarter.
There was Tony Allen, who tied Lebron James with the most first-place votes on the All-Defensive Team, fiercely denying Durant the ball a couple of minutes later and forcing the Thunder into a hurried Serge Ibaka jumper that Marc Gasol blocked.
There was Gasol, who became the second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year to fall to the All-Defensive Second Team, stepping up with 81 seconds left in overtime to take a charge against Thunder guard Reggie Jackson and preserve a precarious one-point lead.
And there was Allen, finally, recovering from what he admitted was a blown assignment to make an instinctual game-sealing steal of a Derek Fisher in-bounds pass with the shot clock off in overtime and the Grizzlies up three.
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.