The thing about covering sports is that eventually you're going to end up in a big scrum standing around a player who is saying things but not really saying things, answering questions but not really answering questions. In my experience, the truly revelatory conversations with players happen one-on-one or maybe two-on-one, when the cameras are out of their faces and they're just talking about basketball, or maybe off the record about who they don't like on the other team, or really anything but a video or audio quote that's going to spread like an Internet wildfire if they screw it up. So, big media availability events aren't always the most productive for the kind of writing that I do. I'm not writing a column that needs a ton of quotes about "both teams played hard" and "we just have to do better" or "this is all about my teammates."
But... there are times where it's useful to hear what guys have to say, to gauge their mood and their temperature. With a very important offseason—especially regarding whether Marc Gasol is going to remain a Memphis Grizzly or seek employment elsewhere—now underway, yesterday was such an event. Every player on the Grizzlies roster was available to the media yesterday afternoon, and every one of them was asked whether he thought Marc Gasol was staying. They all said some variation of "I hope so" or "I think so." Gasol, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, didn't answer.
To be sure, he said a lot of stuff, but he is very careful when speaking to the media, very aware, and he's not the kind of guy to make guarantees and then back out of them. Which, wouldn't it be better for him to say "I love this city but anything is possible" and stay than "I'll never go anywhere" and leave?
Here's the thing that we've been avoiding all season long, some harder than others: there is no guarantee that Marc Gasol is in a Grizzlies uniform next season. Is it likely? I think so, but I don't think it's a sure thing. I think Gasol wants to win games and wants to win a title, but I don't think he's just going to bail to whatever playoff team needs a center and has cap space. I think he cares about Mike Conley and Zach Randolph. We know he cares about Memphis—-he even mentioned the fact that his whole family has been here since 2001. But he's got some decisions to make, and from everything he said yesterday, it sounds like he's going to sit down with his wife and they're going to come up with a plan for the next few years of their lives, and whatever he decides will be what he decides.
He left an awful lot of doors open. He said he has faith in the Grizzlies organization to do things the right way, but he also said the franchise would "be fine with or without him. It was fine when Tony Massenburg was here." (Those who remember The Massenburg Era might disagree.) He said he can't imagine playing in another team's uniform, but that "anything can happen; it's the NBA."
Things get weird around these free agency decisions. Teams start courting guys, making pitches. I expect the Griz front office staff to be in Spain at some point. I figure if the Spurs decide to seriously pursue him, Popovich and co. will be there too. The thing is this: he's crazy not to test the waters. He's got to see what's out there. We don't know what's going to happen between now and then that will sway his decision; maybe Pau will take him to an opera and he'll be moved by what he sees to sign a max contract with the Sixers.
Zach Randolph and Vince Carter—both guys who have been in this situation before—said that ultimately when players make these kinds of decisions it's not just about the money; it's about comfort with a situation and whether you as a player want to start over again; whether you like where you are or want to find out what it's like somewhere else. When asked how big of a factor money would be, Gasol himself said he thought basketball players were overpaid for what they do anyway—-that they deserve what they get because the pie from which they're getting a piece is so big, but that ultimately they're playing a game for a living. If he leaves the Grizzlies, it won't be because he needs a new gold-lined swimming pool.
We've got a long summer ahead of us, up until Gasol's signature is on a contract with the team he'll play for next year. Until then, the Grizzlies can't really do anything else with the roster because they don't know what they'll have. Yesterday was the kickoff to six weeks or so of rampant speculation during which no actual decision can be finalized, and at some point, we'll get tired of it, and we'll have to look back at what Gasol has actually said about it—and all of those quotes will have come from yesterday's media availability. And, in true Marc Gasol fashion, he said lots of stuff without saying anything one way or another about what he's going to do—which is as it should be.
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In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river...1
The obvious quote from "The Hollow Men" would be "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper," and in all honesty that would've been the quote I'd used if Game 6 had been like Game 5. Instead, the Grizzlies lost 108-95 to a Golden State team that was just flat-out better, but they went down swinging.
Early on, it threatened to be the blowout Griz fans all secretly feared it would be; the Warriors got out on a run early and the Grizzlies had a lot of catching up to do—but for the whole first half it felt like no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't get the deficit any smaller than 9 points.
The last stand of the 2014-15 Memphis Grizzlies happened during the third quarter, which the Griz started on an 11-3 run on the backs of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol (who else?). They were visibly exhausted and clearly playing through it. When Zach Randolph went to the floor for a loose ball with 4:10 left in the quarter, he laid there face-down on the court for a while until three guys came to help him up. It felt like if they didn't take the lead soon, they'd be done for good, having spent every ounce of energy they had trying to get there and falling short.
Down one point—65-64—with 2:49 to go, Jeff Green shot a rushed three-pointer that missed and the long rebound fell to Harrison Barnes. The Warriors ran it the other way and Andre Igoudala buried a three of his own, and instead of a two-point lead the Grizzlies were back down 4. It unraveled from there, and for the rest of the game the Grizzlies' starters (who all played huge minutes, as you'd expect) were running on fumes. The substitutions started happening, and when Green got blocked taking a 3 contested by two guys at the end of the third quarter and Stephen Curry launched a 62-foot shot from the Grizzlies three point line that sailed through the net without even touching the rim at the other end of the court, there was nothing left to say about it. The fourth quarter felt like a formality, the turbulent recession of a wave that had already broken onto the sand.
There's lots more to say about whether the Grizzlies' season was a successful one or not, or whether they did as well as they could have against the Warriors given the circumstances. There's no doubt that their ever-present lack of offensive firepower and outside shooting played a big role in their elimination, but so did the laundry list of injuries to Mike Conley—a wrist issue, a bum foot that never got all the way healed, a broken face with titanium plates in it and a nasty recovery from a tough surgery, and then an ankle injury on top of all of that that made his running labored, his movements more about will power than physical ability by the end of last night's game—and the fact that Tony Allen tried to play Game 6 and contribute on defense but could neither run nor jump because of his hamstring injury. The Grizzlies got bitten by the injury bug at the worst possible time; that's not an excuse for why the Warriors were about to handle them in six games, but anyone who says that didn't play a factor is being dishonest.
So now the season is over.
Coming into this year it felt like The Year—it felt like it had to be. It still feels that way a little bit, but the truth is that it wasn't The Year. Until the Grizzlies figure out how to score enough to keep up with the modern NBA it will never be The Year, and this season made that even more painfully clear than the 2013 Western Conference Finals did. Defense and a maniacal determination not to lose from your best players will only get you so far.
Given the way the Griz played until the All-Star Break, it felt like maybe the formula had been found. But after the Jeff Green trade (and maybe because of it but I'm not sure we'll ever know the full story) things started to fall apart for a while in a way that never really pulled back together until the playoffs, and even then only for some of the games. We may never see that group of Grizzlies again, the ones who were the best team in the league, with a top five offense and defense. When we do, I suspect the roster will look very different.
This offseason is going to be one long gut check. Marc Gasol is a free agent, and while it seems likely that he'll stay—and the Grizzlies haven't made much noise about being worried that he'll leave—that's certainly not a guaranteed thing. Gasol has to now see, just like the rest of us do, that this team as currently configured will have to get extremely lucky to advance past a truly elite team in the playoffs. They're very good, and no one wants to play them, and they're always a threat, but that might be the extent of it without catching some lucky breaks along the way.
Even if Gasol stays, there's work to do. The wing positions still don't produce enough. Jeff Green has a player option he'll probably pick up—and no one should fault him for that, really—and Vince Carter will still be here. There are exciting young players at the end of the bench in Jordan Adams, Jarnell Stokes, and Russ Smith (and JaMychal Green is also on a multi-year deal), so there are players to develop. Backup point guard is better than it's ever been, but Nick Calathes is a restricted free agent. There's a high probability that next year's Grizzlies will look very different in some ways.
For now, though, the 2014-15 Grizzlies are done, and other than the exit interviews and final media availability, there's nothing left for us to do with them. This was a legendary regular season that turned into a frustrating one, that then turned back into a legendary playoff run featuring a point guard who put a mask on and carried the team to some improbable wins even though he had no business doing so. We didn't get to see them play for as long as we'd hoped, because in the end they weren't who we wished they would be, but that's how things go sometimes, and even in those moments it's better to embrace what's there than be dissatisfied by what isn't. The season is over. There's no basketball until the fall. We're entering a very important summer for the franchise and its future and its fanbase. But even in these moments of loss, there's a sense that this was a special year, a year of things that will not soon be forgotten. There will be more about this season and what it was in these pages, but now is the time for gathering ourselves, catching our breath, remembering the thundering roar of the Forum when the masked Mike Conley was introduced before Game 3, the way every other sound in the world was drowned out by the howl of the crowd, even the sound of your own thoughts. In that roar, somewhere, is everything.
T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"↩
The Grizzlies had a 13-point lead in the first quarter last night and still lost Game 5 to the Golden State Warriors 98–78 in Oakland, falling behind in the series 3–2 with Game 6 in Memphis on Friday night. The lack of Tony Allen, who reaggravated the hamstring issue he’s been playing through for the entire postseason so far in Game 4, forced Jeff Green into the starting lineup, and while the Grizzlies came out swinging and looked like they were taking charge, things quickly fell apart. The Grizzlies trailed by 1 after the first quarter, by 8 at halftime, and then things really went off the rails, and similar to the last two regular season games played between these two teams, the Warriors really didn’t have anything much to do in the fourth quarter.
It was demoralizing, not because it was unexpected, but because of what it looked like: Zach Randolph had 13 in the first quarter and 2 the rest of the game. Beno Udrih wasn’t hitting shots and the Grizzlies blew a double digit lead in his 4:30 at the end of the first quarter. Courtney Lee had another one of his “play 30 minutes and take 3 shots” nights. Jeff Green, thrust into the starting lineup by Allen’s injury, never really got it going enough to strain the Warriors’ defense. Marc Gasol was pretty awful for most of the game offensively, not hitting shots he usually makes, not taking shots he usually takes, and playing with visible frustration instead of his usual composure.
So, sure. I don’t think many people expected the Grizzlies to win a Game 5 at their place without Tony Allen, especially given the scoring outbursts to which the Warriors are prone, but last night felt like an extension of Game 4, in which the Warriors finally stopped defending Allen and used Andrew Bogut to pack the paint and shut down everything the Griz were trying to do at the rim. That game did not feel like a playoff game for the Grizzlies, who just fell further and further behind no matter what they did, and likewise, neither did Wednesday night’s Game 5.
The series isn’t over. Game 6 is Friday in Memphis, and if the Grizzlies win that one, there’s a Game 7 in Oakland on Sunday afternoon. If Tony Allen can come back and play like himself, and the Griz have some sort of adjustment at the ready for dealing with the shift in Golden State’s defense, it’s still possible—though clearly not likely at this point—that the Grizzlies close out Golden State in seven games and shock the basketball world by eliminating the clear title favorites. But here are all of the things that have to happen for them to win Game 6, much less Game 7:
➭ Gasol has got to be better. Offensively, Marc Gasol hasn’t been himself for the entire postseason, missing midrange shots that are usually his go-to and just generally lacking the kind of aggression we saw from him in the first half of the year. In this series, due no doubt to Golden State’s very good defense, he’s been even less effective, having one huge game (Game 3) that was really more like one huge half before the Warriors finally started to adjust to what the Grizzlies were doing to them. Quite frankly, I’m sick of trying to guess what his deal is, what sort of focus or motivation issues he’s dealing with, and tired to death of wondering why he’s not playing at his peak level. So I won’t do it. If he figures out how to work through whatever’s been eating him since February, he will. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. He’s the best player on the team, and if he doesn’t play like it in Game 6 and in the Game 7 they could force by winning Friday, the Grizzlies will be eliminated and the season will be over. Period.
➭ There’s got to be a backup point guard who doesn’t hemorrhage points. Beno Udrih hasn’t been scoring from midrange, and that’s kind of the thing that he’s the best at, so when he’s on the court against the Warriors he’s mostly just getting picked on, since his porous defense has always been the biggest flaw in his game. It was fine against Portland, when he was scoring 20 points and doing a decent-enough job on the other end, but that’s not how it works against Golden State.
Likewise, Nick Calathes has been a good defender but has struggled on the other side of the ball. Golden State’s strategy for defending Calathes is to force him into quick decisions with the ball, and so far he has obliged them by making weird passes and junking up what little rhythm the Grizzlies’ offense had to begin with.
Last night, with Udrih in the game, the Grizzlies were –12. With Calathes in, they were –17. That’s a problem. Even though the Griz have the best backup point guards they’ve ever had, they each have single exploitable weaknesses that a well-coached team like the Warriors can feast on. Normally not that much of a problem, but when Conley isn’t 100% (though that didn’t stop him from playing 32 minutes on short rest Wednesday night) and Allen is out of the wing rotation, there’s no way to avoid playing one or both of them for more minutes than is ideal.
➭ Courtney Lee has to shoot. Lee has been great in these playoffs. Last night, he only attempted three shots in the whole game, and one of them was in the fourth quarter when the game was already a 20-point blowout. Lee and Jeff Green, starting together, has not worked out at all this season, and on the face of it there was no reason for it to magically start working last night, but for Lee only to attempt three shots—a starting shooting guard, someone who on most teams shoulders a pretty large scoring responsibility—meant an already-rough Griz offensive outing was that much worse.
Lee regressed to the form he showed while playing through a hand injury in February and March, not the hot-shooting floor spacer he’s been in April and in the playoffs. That’s just not good enough. He’s got to take and make more than three shots; his defense is very good but the last thing in the world the Grizzlies need is another guy on the floor who can defend but not score.
➭ The Grizzlies have to play like they’re never going to play again. These weird performances and the lack of aggression and urgency in this team has been frustrating all year long, but to see the way it cropped up again in Game 4 was especially frustrating. This team has been off since the All Star break, and even in the playoffs has never gotten back to the level they played at before then. I don’t really care why at this point—we probably won’t know until much later, if ever.
But to see them get forced into playing like they did during their worst stretch of the season is more than frustrating—it’s embittering. After all of this, they still don’t have shooters to space the floor. After all these years, they’re still getting taken advantage of when the backup PG is is. After all these seasons—and despite a first half of the season that looked like he’d finally changed his game—Marc Gasol is still not the offensive factor he could and should be when the game elevates to its highest levels. They still can’t hang with a team with a lot of offensive firepower and a coach smart enough to make them play 4-on–5. They’re just still so weak in all the same places. We’ve been talking about it for five years now. Five years.
There is no guarantee of next season. Tony Allen was hurt a lot this year. Vince Carter looks washed up. Jeff Green hasn’t panned out as hoped because Jeff Green is Jeff Green and not What People Wish Jeff Green Were. Zach Randolph will be another year older. We have no idea whether Marc Gasol is coming back next year—it seems more likely than not, but no one really knows. This may not be it for this Grizzlies core, but it could be. They have to play like that. Like every possession is a referendum on whether they get to keep doing what they’re doing. Like the whole city is going to be burned to the ground if they don’t win. That’s the urgency they need to exude on Friday night; if they come out and look like they’re playing on a Tuesday night in February, they’ll be punished for it.
I believe the Grizzlies can win Game 6 and could maybe even win Game 7 should they force one. I believe it’s equally likely that they come out flat in an elimination game and have their season ended while looking like they can’t figure out how to play together. I have no idea what to expect for Friday, but the way the last two games have gone, I expect it to be nerve-wracking either way. The Warriors have bounced back in this series and exposed the Grizzlies in a frustrating fashion, but it’s not over. The Griz are still alive. They only need to realize it and act accordingly.
On Monday night, the Grizzlies lost to the Golden State Warriors 101–84 and the Warriors tied at 2–2 a series that had looked like it might tilt the Grizzlies’ way as recently as Saturday night. It’s fair to say that nothing went the Grizzlies’ way for the full 48 minutes in Game 4; Steve Kerr and the Warriors had their backs against the wall, not wanting to return home down 3–1, and they played like it, finally tweaking their defense and altering their offensive attack and taking the Grizzlies down in what appeared to be a pretty straightforward blowout.
It was another echo of last year’s first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Grizzlies were playing too flat, too relaxed, and the crowd—mostly because of the 8:30PM Monday start—was a weird mixture of anxious and dazed, starting the game even louder than they’d been in Game 3 and then slowly fading away as the game rolled on and the Warriors’ lead increased in number and psychological impact. Much like last year, the Grizzlies now have three games to win two, and two of them are going to be in the other guys’ building.
What wasn’t an echo of last year’s series was the way the Grizzlies lost, and that’s what worries me the most for the Griz: the game(s) that tonight most reminded me of was the 2013 Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. In that series the Spurs did three things that gave the Griz so many problems that they couldn’t manage to win a single game:
1. Make Tony Allen shoot three-pointers. In 2013 the situation was even worse, because the Grizzlies’ starting lineup featured Allen and fellow non-shooter Tayshaun Prince, essentially forcing the Griz to play 3-on–5 on offense (much like the Allen/Nick Calathes lineups in Game 1).
But it’s still a problem. Early in Game 4, the Warriors guarded (“guarded”) Allen with Andrew Bogut—who was really camping out with one foot in the restricted area for 2.9 seconds at a time—and the results were ugly: Allen jacked up three three pointers simply because he was open, without pausing to think “maybe there’s a reason I’m open,” burning possessions and giving the Warriors runouts on the defensive rebound. Allen didn’t once think to drive and kick, or wait for someone else to come to the ball: he just shot it, and bricked all three of them.
Which, obviously, is exactly what the Warriors wanted him to do. Which is exactly what the Spurs did in 2013: make the Grizzlies use jumpers to make the defense respect them.
2. Attack Zach Randolph in the pick-and-roll. Z-Bo’s defense was pretty good in games 2 and 3—much better than usual and it’s usually decent—but it’s still not good enough to guard Steph Curry in these situations. This is exactly (exactly) what the Spurs did in 2013: Zach Randolph is the weak link in the Grizzlies’ defense, so attack him relentlessly all night long. It was Tony Parker then, it was Steph Curry in Game 4, but the result was the same: a worn out Z-Bo who was getting torched at one end and clobbered at the other.
3. Double the Grizzlies’ bigs every time they touch the ball. This is a function of #1 as much as it is a strategy in and of itself, but nonetheless, it works: when there’s an offensive player on the floor that the Warriors’ defense could ignore, they sent that extra man into the paint and boxed Zach Randolph out with two and three guys at a time. It worked. They doubled Gasol, too, which led to a pretty hilarious Gasol/Curry jump ball at one point in the first half.
Okay. So what the Warriors did was effective and it kept the Grizzlies from being able to do very many of the things that made them successful in Games 2 and 3. So what? Don’t the Grizzlies just have to figure out how to adjust?
Yes, but that’s the problem: what adjustment do you make for having to play a guy who can’t shoot because he’s so important to your defense? And a guy who isn’t useful on offense unless he can cut to the basket can’t do much when there are four Warriors players in or near the restricted area. So you have two options: figure out how to score with that player in anyway—something the Grizzlies didn’t do at all in Game 4, and something I’m not sure they’re ever going to do as long as this current core team is together—or you pull that player out and replace him with a better offensive player.
Which causes two new problems: (1) your best defender isn’t in the game anymore and now the league’s best offense is starting to get into rhythm and (2) the “better offensive player” you’re bringing in is Jeff Green, who up until Game 4 hadn’t had a good night on offense in the entire playoffs. He still wasn’t spectacular in Game 4, but he was solid enough, all things considered. “Solid enough, all things considered” isn’t what you want to say about the major role player brought in via trade to put your team over the top in a championship hunt, though.
So, Game 4 was reminiscent of two things that aren’t very fun to think about: last year’s heartbreaking first round loss to OKC, in which it seemed like the Grizzlies were really going to shock the NBA world and pick off the better team before the No Fun Patrol rolled in and blew them out in a home Game 6; and also the 2013 Western Conference Finals against the Spurs in which the Spurs’ Basketball Bandsaw of Death cut the Grizzlies into tiny strips in a demoralizing sweep that exposed every basic weakness of the way the Grizzlies’ roster is constructed, the only one of which that has actually been straightened out being the backup point guard spot, then a smoldering crater formerly known as Keyon Dooling.
On top of this, another wrinkle: Tony Allen appeared to reinjure his hamstring towards the end of the third quarter Allen ended up playing only 15 minutes, and was visibly limping by the end of that run. To say that Allen has been the key to the Grizzlies’ masterful defensive performance in the games they’ve won is to understate his importance; most of it has started and ended with him. If he’s going to be hobbled the rest of the series, which I assume would press Nick Calathes into service as a backup Tony of some kind, the Grizzlies’ chances of winning are hampered, just like Tony’s mobility. You could argue that Tony’s mobility is the Grizzlies chance of winning.
My intent here isn’t to be defeatist about the Grizzlies’ chances. They’ve already won a game at Oracle, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again if they make the right adjustments. What I wonder—and what all rational Grizzlies fans have to be wondering right now, even if they don’t really want to admit that to themselves—is whether this Grizzlies team, this great and glorious Griz team, the ones who have brought us the Grit and Grind Era and all of its ensuing joys and heartaches—if they really even have the personnel or the ability to fully counteract some of this.
Getting around Bogut-on-Tony is going to require either posting someone up on the opposite block from Tony’s corner and hoping that opens up some space for a postup, or maybe running some kind of 1–3 pick and roll that uses Tony as a screener. (Bogut would be in the game while this is happening so one assumes the refs won’t be calling any moving screens anyway.) That or it’s going to require some sort of miraculous outburst of 3-point accuracy from Allen, and I’m not holding my breath.
Getting around the doubles in the post is harder. Getting around Z-Bo’s pick and roll defense is harder still. There are ways to do it, but I don’t know what they are and I’m not sure Golden State wouldn’t just counter that counter anyway.
My point is this: Game 4 was a bad one to lose, sure, but the way it happened indicated to me that the Grizzlies have an uphill climb ahead of them to win two out of their three (potentially) remaining games. The Warriors, always the better offensive team and maybe the team with the better players overall, have locked on to a strategy—a strategy first employed by Gregg Popovich, of course—that exploits the weaknesses at the very heart of who the Grizzlies are: they can’t shoot, and they run everything through their bigs.
That’s not going to change between now and Wednesday, nor should it, but the Grizzlies—now tied 2–2 and no longer holding home court advantage—are going to have to figure out how to break out of the box they’ve been put in for years now if they’re going to get over the hump against the Warriors. If they do—if they can finally overcome the Popovich Method for shutting them down—there might be no stopping them. But it’s a big ask of a team that was already the underdog in the series and now appears to have woken the MVP, worn down the already-injured Mike Conley, and maybe re-injured Tony Allen.
The Grizzlies lost more than a Game 4 on Monday night: they lost the momentum in this series. That’s going to be hard to win back, but we’ll find out Wednesday night whether they can or not.
Since the Grizzlies take on the Warriors again tonight for a pivotal Game 4 with a chance to take the series back to California with a 3–1 lead over Golden State, I thought it would be a good idea to jot down some quick thoughts in preparation for tonight’s 8:30 (Memphis time) start.
1. Expect Steph Curry to play like the MVP tonight.
Whether he does or not is beside the point: Curry has been shooting well below his averages so far in this series, and the Grizzlies have to prepare for tonight’s game like he’s not going to do that anymore. This is one way in which this series is similar to last year’s first-round battle with the Thunder: the Warriors have two players who are capable of combining for 80 points at the drop of a hat. They haven’t done that yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less capable of it.
Curry had 23 points 21 shots in Game 3, shooting 38% from the floor and 20% from three. Even though the Grizzlies’ defense had more than a little to do with those poor percentages, the Grizzlies have to pretend that they didn’t—that Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson were just “off” and not bothered by some guy running around yelling “first team all defense”. (Certainly a segment of the national media seems to be doing just that.) Defend them just as vigilantly as they did in games 1–3 and don’t be surprised if they get hot. They’re due for it. Have a plan B.
2. The Griz don’t want to have to win one at Oracle.
The Grizzlies proved in Game 2 that they can win in Golden State’s building, but that doesn’t mean they want to put themselves in a situation where that’s the only way they can advance. The percentages are not in their favor for doing such a thing. (Of course, the percentages are not in their favor for much of anything they’ve done so far in this series, but still—it’s a hard place to win.) If they can hold home court tonight and win Game 4, the pressure is off in Game 5—not the pressure to win, but the pressure to have to.
Of course, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not for this Griz team, who seem to play better when they don’t have an option, but still: the Grizzlies stole home court advantage in the series by winning Game 2 out West. They’d do well not to give it back to the Warriors tonight.
3. Marc Gasol still hasn’t had a complete dominant game on offense.
Game 3 was the best one out of Gasol yet, who had 21 points and 15 rebounds and carried the team through large stretches, but almost all of that production happened in the first half. In the second half, Gasol shot 1–8 from the floor and had 5 rebounds—and also somehow managed to get called for five fouls in the fourth quarter as the refs made a pretty blatant attempt to even out the number of free throw attempts between the two teams.
If Gasol can take his first half performance and duplicate it over the course of a whole game tonight, the Grizzlies will be unstoppable. When Gasol gets going, it forces the Warriors to guard him with Andrew Bogut (who also hasn’t been as much of a factor in this series as I’d expected), and puts the smaller Draymond Green on Zach Randolph, freeing him up to play bully ball on the blocks. If Randolph heats up, Bogut gets assigned to Randolph, putting Green on Gasol, who can then punish Green in different ways, unleashing his arsenal of post moves and set shots (and the Dirk-like one-legged fadeaway he’s been taking all year, which I still kind of hate, but am starting to accept).
The Grizzlies know by now where their best matchups are and who will need to carry them. They just need to execute on those strategies.
4. Courtney Lee has been spectacular.
Lee hasn’t always put up the best stat lines in this series, box-score-wise, but his shots all feel like they’ve come at exactly the right time. Lee’s shooting has been key to keeping some sort of spacing available for the Grizzlies’ offense, and his postseason play this year is so much better than last year’s disappearing act it’s hard to believe they’re the same player.
Other Griz players who were supposed to provide that sort of offensive lift—Jeff Green and Vince Carter, mainly—haven’t really done so yet, but Lee has been good, hitting shots, defending well, making plays. The Grizzlies’ chances against the Warriors depend on Lee (and if not Lee, then somebody else) being able to hit outside jumpers as an escape valve for the interiors stuff. Giving them someone other than Mike Conley to bail out to, adding another wrinkle to the Grizzlies’ very scripted, violence-heavy offensive system.
Lee needs to have a big night for the Grizzlies to have a big night, and so far, he hasn’t let them down.
Last night, the Grizzlies beat the Golden State Warriors 99-89 and took a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference Semifinal series. Going into the game, I knew it was going to be crazy; there were too many narratives in play for it not to be. The Grizzlies were challenging the consensus title favorites and actually giving them a run for their money. Mike Conley, who suffered multiple facial fractures in the first round against Portland, played Game 2 in a mask and played out of his mind, with a red eyeball and a swollen face, even hanging on after Warriors big man Draymond Green hit him in the face going for a loose ball (pretty close to after a whistle). Tony Allen was mic'd up for Game 2, and while he was repeatedly stealing Klay Thompson's lunch money the whole world heard him declaring (repeatedly) that he's "First team all-defense." The series now had a clear Bad Guy, and a clear Good Guy, which put it in the terms that Memphis understands best: a wrestling match.
That's pretty much what Game 3 was, too. I can't possibly convey the crowd noise, the feeling in the arena, the haze of yellow lint coming off the growl towels emblazoned with "Memphis vs. Errrbody". But these are my notes on what happened, and why, and what it was like.
First things first: Beale Street is packed from one end to the other, with more people than the FedExForum can hold, most of whom have been drinking since some time after lunch. There are reports that people are yelling "FIRST TEAM ALL DEFENSE" back and forth at each other, randomly, without provocation. Memphis is a strange and beautiful place.
Inside the building, there are the customary growl towels on every seat. This time they say "Memphis vs. Errrbody" and there's also a mask in every seat, for Mike Conley, who—and I don't know how you could've forgotten this already—is playing with a broken face. Like, his face has fractures in it, which were surgically repaired with titanium bits. The Golden State Warriors Twitter account tweets out a picture of the empty arena and says:
@warriors) May 9, 2015
I don't know that it feels much like home when there are 18,119 inebriated Memphians screaming at them. Grizzlies fans showed up to this one early, showed up having had a couple of adult beverages, and it was clear that they had all made plans for Sunday that did not involve speaking above a whisper. The Forum sounded like the inside of a jet engine during the Grizzlies starting lineup.
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Listen: Tuesday night's 97-90 Game 2 win over the Golden State Warriors on the road to tie the series at 1-1 coming back home to Memphis—a playoff win at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors had lost only two other games all season long—is the kind of thing we'll be talking about for a long time. The kind of game where legends are made, where players rise from legends to folk heroes, like John Henry, or (to make a more "Memphis" comparison) like Sputnik Monroe.
Memphis' history is littered with men and women who were deranged enough to make themselves a part of it, to force the issue. On Tuesday night, playing with a broken face only 10 days removed from surgery in which titanium plates and screws were inserted, with a foot already wracked by a plantar fascia injury, with who knows what other lingering pains we haven't even heard about yet, after losing sleep and losing weight from sickness brought on by anesthesia, wearing a mask he'd never played in before and unsure what would happen if he got hit—and knowing that his role as an NBA point guard meant he was going to get hit—Mike Conley forced the issue. He scored 22 points on 8-12 shooting, he hit 3 of 6 three-point shots, he played excellent defense on Steph Curry and a little on Klay Thompson, and he did it all with a swollen face, with impaired vision, with a permanent feeling of having a rock in his shoe, and with the Grizzlies' entire season on his back.
Going into last night, I thought the best shot for the Grizzlies was for Conley to target Game 3 for a return so the Griz could come home and try to win two in a row on their home floor. Tuesday, when word started spreading that Conley was planning on playing, I thought it was a bad idea. I thought he wouldn't be himself, would be risking too much, and in the limited minutes I assumed he'd have to play I figured it wasn't worth the risk to not save him for Game 3, which is still not until Saturday.
I was dead wrong. Conley played like himself, despite clearly struggling with conditioning and energy level, needing to catch his breath more often than Griz fans are seeing. With him in the game, the Grizzlies controlled the pace of the game, becoming the only team all season long to defeat Golden State while scoring fewer than 100 points. Not to mention the fact that last night was only the Warriors' third loss all year long at home.
The Grizzlies lost a tough Game 1 to the Golden State Warriors, 101-86, and I honestly don't know how I feel about it.
On one hand, without Mike Conley, the Grizzlies were never supposed to win this game and no clear-eyed observer honestly expected them to. A Game 1 win on the road against a team that's only lost two home games all year, without Conley, would've been an upset of epic proportions, and instead, the Grizzlies looked about like I expected they would: the defense was okay but not great—Tony Allen and Nick Calathes did a good job on Golden State's killer backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but Zach Randolph had issues—and the offense struggled to get anything done at all.
On the other hand, some of the ways the Warriors killed the Grizzlies on Sunday afternoon had nothing at all to do with Mike Conley. Zach Randolph surrendered open 3-point shots to Draymond Green, who hit 50% of his 8 attempts from long range, and then Randolph also got punished for his poor pick and roll defense by Curry the same way he did in the 2013 Western Conference Finals by Tony Parker. Jeff Green and Vince Carter—the Grizzlies' two best bets to come in off the bench and generate some scoring—did nothing of the sort. Nick Calathes started at point guard and struggled on offense; Golden State dared him to make tricky/risky passes and he fell for it every time. At the same time, Beno Udrih didn't have a great shooting day and got torched on defense, struggling to stay in front of any and every Warriors player he ended up guarding.
What ended up being a 15-point loss felt like it could've been a lot worse, and yet the Grizzlies were never really completely out of the game until the last three or four minutes, making little runs as best they could.
Ultimately all Sunday's Game 1 did was put the Grizzlies in an 0-1 hole in the series and prove that unless Conley can return to action sooner rather than later—I would assume he's targeting a return in Game 3 on Saturday to help the Griz try to win at home—this series is going to be shorter than any Griz fan would like to admit.
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Zach Randolph sends up a jab-step jumper over LaMarcus Aldridge. The ball hangs in the air for uninterrupted minutes, like it's not coming back down. Eventually it finds its way into the rim and through, but Randolph isn't watching anymore. After taking the shot he hops backwards on his back foot, his other leg still out in front, Dirk-style. He is turned to face the Portland bench. He is addressing them directly. I cannot hear what he's saying, but he's already said it by the time the ball goes through the hoop.
@edsbs) April 30, 2015
There were times in Game 5 when it looked like the Grizzlies were in real trouble—trouble of throwing away Game 5, throwing away the 3-0 lead they built up in this series, maybe becoming the first team ever to lose a playoff series when leading it 3-0 (though, given Mike Conley's absence, it would be easy to explain away, easy to asterisk). Portland had finally figured out large portions of the matchup problems that plagued them so badly in games 1 and 2: the new Wonder Twins of Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum were causing serious problems on both ends of the floor, Beno Udrih was getting cremated alive by McCollum and whoever else he had the misfortune of trying to guard, Jeff Green couldn't hit a shot, and nothing was working.
The Grizzlies barely strung it along into the 4th quarter with a 2-point lead, 68-66. It was anybody's guess whether they'd be able to pull out the Game 5 win, with Portland scoring at will (well, mostly CJ McCollum scoring at will; McCollum had 33 points on 12-20 shooting, including a mind-melting 7-11 from beyond the arc) and the Grizzlies' offense (mostly helmed by Beno Udrih at that point) was barely operational, and the defense even less so.
1. If the Grizzlies don't win tonight, this series is probably going seven games. Portland smells blood in the water after their Game 4 win. Without Mike Conley, the Grizzlies struggle to run offensive sets and struggle to score, and they've been over-reliant on guard play in the three series wins so far. With the crowd behind them at home, it wouldn't be surprising for the Blazers to win again at home (especially since if they're playing another home game, that means they beat the Grizzlies in Memphis in Game 5).
The Grizzlies should treat tonight like a Game 7—if they win, they don't play again until Sunday. That means the whole team needs to play like the world will end if they don't win, like the fabric of spacetime will be torn asunder if they don't bend and bully every black-uniformed Portland player into submission before their Grizzly will. It's not a "win or go home" game, but it is a "win and get to rest before you have to deal with Golden State" game, and they'll need as much time as they can manage to prepare for the Warriors, especially if Conley is looking at an extended absence.
2. The Grizzlies have to figure out how to curb their reliance on guards for scoring. That's not the way the Grizzlies have played their basketball this season. Optimally, scoring from guards and wings just opens the floor up for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to visit wanton violence on opposing frontcourts. The Grizzlies haven't gotten much production from Randolph this series, and Gasol has focused on defense (mostly brilliantly) instead of scoring.
Tonight, Gasol and Randolph's mission should be to terminate the Blazers' season with extreme prejudice.
Randolph and LaMarcus Aldridge have played each other to a standstill, and neither has been efficient, but Randolph has basically sacrificed every aspect of his game to the fisticuffs with Aldridge. If Gasol can handle that matchup for more time tonight (which means "if Meyers Leonard or Chris Kaman don't become a problem while being guarded by Z-Bo") maybe it'd free Randolph up to be more of a factor. On the other end, Randolph struggles to score over Aldridge's length, so hitting him on the run in the high-low game might be a better option than the iso-Z-Bo postups that clogged the Grizzlies' offense in Game 4 worse than Jack Pirtle's clogs arteries all over our fair city.
Either way, without Mike Conley there to distribute the ball, and neither of his replacements being All-Star caliber point guards, the two remaining legs of the Big Three tripod have to step it up tonight. Courtney Lee is great, but the Griz can't rely on him to win Game 5 with one-dribble pullups. Jeff Green was barely at Game 4, much less playing well. It's got to come from Gasol and Randolph.
3. The Grizzlies need to figure out how to win playoff games without Mike Conley. At the time of my writing this, no one knows how long Conley will be out. It could be two games, it could be until next season. If it's the latter, the Grizzlies have a much-diminished chance of doing anything beyond the second round, but if it's going to be a chance at all, they need to figure out how to run their offense ("their" being the starting unit) with Beno Udrih or Nick Calathes calling the shots. That starts tonight.
In Game 4, the Grizzlies' offensive rating dropped below 110 points per 100 possessions for the first time in the postseason. (Game 2 was a low-scoring affair but it was played at an 83.9 pace, skewing the points-per-game numbers a bit). Slowing the game back down to something like that—a pace somewhere in the 85 range—and still figuring out how to get buckets through the bigs is the surest path to victory.
There's no question that the Grizzlies miss everything Conley brings to the table. He's regarded as one of the best point guards in the league for a reason. But there are ways to mitigate his absence to the extent possible, and that needs to be on the minds of the Grizzlies coaches and players tonight. Play like he's not coming back, and if/when he does, they'll be in that much better shape for it.
4. Can CJ McCollum play in Memphis the way he played in Portland? McCollum stepped in for the Blazers and had two huge games in Games 3 and 4 (not to mention the fact that he took Mike Conley out of the equation by accidentally breaking his face). He had 26 in Game 3, 18 in Game 4, and was generally unstoppable, flying around the court trying to do whatever he could to get the Blazers a win.
In Games 1 and 2, McCollum had 3 points and 6 points, respectively, while playing 36 and 29 minutes in each game. McCollum is a young guy, and so nerves were probably a factor at first, but can he really keep up the high level of Games 3 and 4 for one more night against what promises to be a loud FedExForum at least halfway grouchy that we all have to go back down there for another game in the first place?
If he can, and can put up stat lines similar to his Portland outings, that's a problem for the Grizzlies. If he plays more like he did in the previous two games in Memphis, that's a (bigger) problem for the Blazers, because he's been a big part of their scoring output since the series shifted westward.
5. This could/should be the last time we see this year's Grizzlies playing when they aren't the underdogs.
Historically, this group of players has performed far above expectations when their backs are against the wall and no one expects them to be able to do anything. Taking the Thunder to seven games both times they've done so. Getting to the Western Conference Finals in 2013. Obviously, knocking off the Spurs in the 2011 first round. This is a group of guys who relish proving people wrong, who enjoy defying expectations.
They're the favorites in this series, even without Mike Conley. They have home court advantage, they've owned Portland all year, and they have a 3-1 series lead that was this close to being the first sweep in Grizzlies history.
If the Grizzlies win tonight, all that changes. The narrative shifts back to "nobody believes we can beat Golden State." They—and we, Memphis, as an extension, because that's the way these Grizzlies playoff runs work—go back to our most comfortable posture, our civic position of strength: nobody thinks we can do this.
I think a return to the underdog status will give this Griz team an edge it's been missing for a little while now, a desire to prove they belong. That's invaluable for this group. It's when they do their best work. It's when the most indelible images are made, when the moment elevates to a level worthy of our long civic memory, the storytelling of sports fans about old warriors, long dead. If the Grizzlies make it out of the first round, they're right back where they belong: back in the epic.
The Grizzlies did not have their floor general on Monday night, and in the end, they couldn't get it together to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and close out their first round playoff series in a sweep. The Blazers beat the Grizzlies 99-92, so instead of sitting around waiting for a series against Golden State, the Griz are coming home to play Portland on Wednesday night (at 8:30 Memphis time) at FedExForum.
It's not the extra rest the Griz surely hoped they'd be able to grab, after Conley headed back to Memphis for surgery on facial fractures suffered during Sunday night's Game 3 win. A win in Game 4 would have given the Grizzlies their first-ever sweep of a playoff series, but it wasn't to be, as Portland rallied on their home floor to win a Game 4 that was short on Grizzlies offense and long on Portland hustle.
Without Conley, the Grizzlies' offense has been a dicey proposition all year long. Their offense is so intricate, so predicated on exact passing and minute spaces that when someone else takes the reins, it's hard to slip into the right rhythm to keep everything together. The Griz played slow, and settled for jump shots early instead of making extra passes and probing the (flimsy) Portland D.
In the end, there wasn't enough defense to keep Damian Lillard quiet, and wasn't enough scoring to balance out his outbursts at the other end, and the Grizzlies lost, allowing Portland to make it a series instead of just a sweep.
Obviously, given Portland's injury situation, the Grizzlies' lack of Mike Conley makes this much more of a series than it was at the outset. Conley has long been the engine that drives the Grizzlies' offense, and the Conley Corrolary (as Conley goes, so go the Grizzlies) has been used around these parts often enough to be memorized now, like the Golden Rule. But the Griz have beaten the Blazers in Portland without Conley before this year (albeit not in a playoff game). Without the clogged toilet offense from the Grizzlies, it's possible that even Conley's injury wouldn't have kept the Griz from pulling off the sweep. The poor offensive execution from the Grizzlies was, of course, a symptom of Conley being out, if not entirely thus.
Alas, it wasn't to be. In the end, the Blazers hit more shots, rebounded better, and played smarter basketball than the Grizzlies, while Joerger appeared to get hung up on weird lineups and questionable decisions—playing Jon Leuer for two random minutes while the Blazers went on a six point run, making an offense-for-defense sub of Jeff Green in for Tony Allen when Green was having a terrible offensive game and there was no guarantee of a stoppage during which to bring Allen back, and a few other weird (dare I say "Hollins-y"?) decisions.
The Grizzlies couldn't get it done in Portland, and so we've got a Game 5 coming tomorrow night in Memphis. Another chance for the Grizzlies to close out the series at home and rest up for the next round. The Grizzlies had a similar chance last year—a Game 6 against Oklahoma City with a 3-2 series lead—and blew it, so I'm not going to assume it's a sure thing the way some folks were calling for the sweep Monday morning. Without Conley in the mix, nothing is a sure as it was when Game 3 tipped on Saturday.
➭ Without Mike Conley, the Grizzlies needed scoring from Zach Randolph and didn't get any. Randolph has not had an efficient offensive outing yet in this series, but last night, with Conley out and the Grizzlies needing to lean on the production of one of their go-to guys to get them over the hump, Randolph was a non-factor on both ends of the floor, going 6-20 for 12 points (by the same token, LaMarcus Aldridge went 6-22 for 18, but he also spent much of the night being guarded by Gasol instead of Randolph) and playing the worst defense we've seen from him yet in this series, jumping at things he hasn't jumped at, being in the wrong place at the wrong time... just generally playing a very poor game.
Neither Randolph nor Gasol has had a particularly stellar series so far (though Gasol's Game 4 was his best of the series so far, especially on the defensive end, and shows that he's on the right track). That hasn't been a problem yet because the Griz have been able to slice and dice Portland with guard play—Lee and Conley both having big nights, Beno's midrange outbursts in the first two games, et al—but without Conley, the spacing on offense is even worse than it usually is, the passing is all out of whack, and the bigs have even less room to work than normal. That's not good for a team that is now starving for offensive production after breaking triple digits more than once in the series.
If Randolph can have even a decent game, not necessarily a great one, the Grizzlies have a much better shot at Game 5 than they did at Game 4. That production has to come from somewhere, and if Randolph can do better than 6-20, that would be a start.
➭ Jeff Green had a terrible night. Green was 3-10 for 7 points. That's a similar shooting line to what he's had throughout the series, but last night he didn't get to the free throw line a single time, something he's very good at. The Blazers did a very good job of baiting Green into pulling up for one of his horrible, no-good, very bad mid-range pullup jumpers, and he was happy to just clank away at them instead of trying to find a lane to the rim.
It wasn't just offense, though: after playing fair-to-middling defense most of the series, Green was bad last night on that end of the floor, too, especially when he somehow got caught guarding Aldridge after a switch (which isn't really his fault). He's got to be better for the Grizzlies to win. The poor shooting doesn't hurt so bad when he's still getting to the line and making good decisions. Last night he was just bad. At everything.
For what the Grizzlies traded for him for (offensive playmaking, athleticism, whatever other buzzwords everybody kept saying), Green hasn't been anywhere near as much of a factor in the playoffs as he was during the regular season. That's going to have to change if the Grizzlies want to advance and have even a sliver of a chance in the next round. He's just got to be better. After everything that has happened since the All-Star Break, the Grizzlies' hopes of winning a title are barely alive, hardly hanging on. If Green can't contribute, Randolph is a non-factor, and Conley is sidelined with a broken face, the Griz have no shot to make it out of the second round, regardless of anything beyond that.
➭ The backup point guards were good but not great at carrying the team and running the offense in Mike Conley's absence. Offensive execution was noticeably bad, but the Grizzlies still managed to have a chance to win the game down the stretch despite everything breaking Portland's way. Calathes was really good on defense and hit some 3's that few people expected him to hit, but struggled to make the right passes at the right time to keep the Grizzlies' precision-crafted interior game going. Beno Udrih, on the other hand, was a solid contributor scoring-wise, but (as we've seen all year) struggled to run the offense for any extended period of time, having to stifle his urge to score bucket after bucket in Steve Blake's face for the greater good of running the team.
It's not the ideal replacement for Mike Conley, but (1) there is no ideal replacement for Mike Conley other than Mike Conley, and (2) it sure beats Keyon Dooling and Tony Wroten, and it sure beats Gilbert Arenas and OJ Mayo as the point guard depth chart, too.
Tweet(s) of the Night
My approximate level of understanding re:Jeff Green http://t.co/iw9tsXaXT3— Beer Cat PhD (@syllable_sound) April 28, 2015
(here's the GIF, since it didn't embed:)
Game 5 is in Memphis Wednesday night, and tips off at 8:30 Memphis time. Which means the weeknight crowd will either be sleepy, a little more drunk than usual, or both. The Grizzlies really don't want this one to go back to Portland again without Conley, so if they don't wrap it up in 5, I wouldn't be surprised to see it go 7 games. Portland now knows they can beat the Grizzlies when Conley isn't playing, and they have confidence they didn't have before Monday night.
Last night the first round series shifted westward to Portland, where the Grizzlies defeated the Trail Blazers 115-109 in Game 3. This was a much closer game than the first two between these two teams, with Portland getting a clear boost from being at home in front of their fans, from Damian Lillard finally showing up
and having a solid (offensive) game, and from a scoring outburst from Nic Batum, who had 27, including 6-12 from three.
After a Game 2 in which Portland actually led after the first quarter (albeit only 21-19), it was surprising to see the Grizzlies come out and lock the Blazers down to the extent they did, given that this was bound to be an emotional game for the home team, when they'd give the Grizzlies the best shot they could possibly give them after two frustrating, short-handed losses in Memphis. The first quarter ended 24-19, but the Griz lead was larger than that for a long stretch, growing to 22-11 before a Portland 8-2 run in the last 2:34 of the quarter.
In what promised to be hard-fought game for the Blazers, they never led, and even with Arron Afflalo back—which did improve Portland's offense, even though he's clearly not 100%; Afflalo resorted to lots of post-ups, which usually drew fouls from Griz defenders too small to stop him that way—it just wasn't enough of a difference to keep the Grizzlies from winning Game 3 just like the two before it, and now the Grizzlies have a 3-0 series lead headed into Game 4 on Monday, with a clear mission to prevent the series from requiring another game at the Grindhouse to be decided.
➭ The biggest story here has to be that Mike Conley is now even more hurt than he was before the game. He was playing a great game, taking on an increased minutes load in the absence of noted Blazer-killer Beno Udrih (who was out with an ankle sprain). In the third quarter, he took an elbow to the head from CJ McCollum (an elbow which didn't look intentional—that is, he stuck his elbow out to keep Conley off him and protect the ball, not to jack Conley in the face, which is actually what happened). Conley was on the floor for quite a while and then went to the locker room with a towel over his face, and he was then "taken to a local medical facility for further review."