Friday, May 2, 2014

Next Day Notes, Game 6: Thunder 104, Grizzlies 84

Posted By on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 9:50 AM

Marc Gasols passivity on offense continues to be an issue for the Griz in this series.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol's passivity on offense continues to be an issue for the Griz in this series.

You know the thing where the this season's Memphis Grizzlies team will come out in a big game—one that they ostensibly have to win, even—and play 48 minutes of garbage-ball, getting outworked and outplayed on both ends of the floor, throwing up bricks while head coach Dave Joerger mixes and matches weird combinations of players who haven't seen much time together in an attempt to find a magic spark that will light off a comeback?

That thing happened again, only this time it happened in Game 6 of the first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a series the Grizzlies led 3-2 with a chance to put away the Thunder and advance to the second round of the playoffs before the start of Thursday night's game.

It happened again at the worst possible moment, and the Grizzlies missed their easiest shot at eliminating the Western Conference's second seed.

Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince even admitted as much in the Griz locker room after the game last night:

But then, the Grizzlies have never done the easy thing this season. Whether the circumstances were beyond their control—injuries to Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen; twenty-game suspensions for Nick Calathes—or completely within them—road losses at the end of the season against Minnesota, Portland, and Golden State; inexplicable home losses to the Lakers and Pelicans; you name it—the Grizzlies' path in the 2013-2014 season has been the hard one, the one least likely to offer the way to success, the one involving the most pain and struggle for the players and the most fear and doubt for the fanbase.

That's the way it's been all year this year, and that's the way it's going to continue to be, because instead of closing out the Thunder at home, the Grizzlies now have to win a Game 7 on the road in Oklahoma City against a Thunder team who are no longer afraid of them.

That's what really happened here in Game 6, make no mistake: after pummeling the Grizzlies with their athleticism and swarming defensive intensity, the Thunder spent the next four games terrified of what the Griz were doing to their offense. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have never looked to rattled, so useless, so small, as they ran around jacking up shots trying to catch the defense off guard.

They're not scared anymore. Whether it was the dumb Oklahoman headline that called Durant "Mr. Unreliable," or Russell Westbrook coming back from the ledge of crazy he'd been running out on for the last several games, or Scott Brooks realizing Thabo Sefolosha was completely nonexistent on offense, or Caron Butler being dumb ugly reckless crazy enough to think fighting James "I have fought in legit MMA fights" Johnson is a good idea, the Thunder aren't scared anymore. They're playing like a team who know they're supposed to be better, and like they know if they play relaxed, they'll be better.

That's a problem. That's especially a problem for the Grizzlies' offense, which has stagnated and suffocated for a lack of outside shooting from anybody not named Mike Miller over the last two games. Courtney Lee has been a non-factor, and Mike Conley's shot, which was so clutch during the regular season as Conley shifted the team's scoring burden to himself in Marc Gasol's absence, got left for dead somewhere during the big 5-game road trip at the end of the regular season. If neither of those guys are hitting anything and neither is Beno Udrih, the Grizzlies' offense can't stretch the Thunder D enough—and when that Thunder D is on, they're on.

Dave Joerger didn't have a great night last night, either. He left Tayshaun Prince in the game for far too long when it was obvious that Kevin Durant had returned to his normal Durant-ness and that Prince had a snowball's chance in hell of being able to even slow him down, much less stop him. Tayshaun Prince has had a great career. Last night broke something in me and now I don't care if that career is over, or at the very least put on hiatus for the rest of this series. When Kevin Durant is on the floor, Tony Allen should be on the floor, any time after the first six minutes of a half. Before that point, might as well play James Johnson, because at least he can get to the rim.

Beyond waiting to put Tony Allen in, he just didn't seem sure of what he was doing. A lot of strange combinations of guys played together. And, really, for all the times I've had to write that Joerger played Mike Miller too many minutes, he didn't play Miller enough in spots last night when the entire defense was collapsing on the paint and trapping ballhandlers. It was a surprisingly shaky performance from a coach who has really done a pretty good job so far this series. Last night, not so much.

Lessons from Game 6

  • The injury to Mike Conley that happened late is going to be what determines the outcome of Game 7. The Grizzlies need Conley to be great to have a chance of winning a road Game 7 against this Thunder team (especially if Durant and Westbrook are regressing to the mean, because they were so bad that regression means "going supernova"). If Conley can't go, or is too hobbled to do his thing, it's going to be that much harder.

  • When the Thunder are playing at their peak, they really expose some of the structural weaknesses of the Griz roster: poor shooting leading to a lack of floor spacing; unathletic big men who can't score against hyper-athletic bigs (think about guys like Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan basically putting a lid over the top of Zach Randolph); an inability to get anything going when the inside-out isn't working; lack of an efficient small forward who can get to the rim as necessary, play D, and shoot 3's (and not foul out in 10 minutes). These are all issues. They've always been issues, but the Thunder are able to exploit these weaknesses when they're locked in on defense.

  • Thabo Sefolosha didn't play at all. Caron Butler started in his place and managed not to be killed while trying to start a fight with 2nd-degree karate black belt MMA fighter James Johnson, and his shooting in place of Sefolosha's standing there made a huge difference in how much space KD and Westbrook had to operate. Scott Brooks has been a dummy for the last five games, but that was a smart lineup change.

  • Zach Randolph shot 50% from the floor last night, which is good for him, but he also shot 50% from the free throw line, continuing the Grizzlies' ridiculous trend of not being able to cash in on free points in the playoffs. He wasn't the only one. No Griz player made every single one of his free throws. The Grizzlies don't get to the line much, so they can't leave free points on the table when they do.

  • Game 7 is winnable. Before Game 6, I thought the series was still a tossup, with a 50/50 chance of going the Grizzlies' way. Now, with a Game 7 in Oklahoma City and Mike Conley potentially limping, the Grizzlies are back to being underdogs—which, let's be clear, they should've been all series. The Thunder had the second best record in the league, and they have the MVP on their team. The Grizzlies relish being overlooked and underrespected, so maybe that will bring out the best in them in Game 7. If it doesn't, the season will be over.

The Dumbest Thing I Tweeted Last Night

What's Next

Game 7 is in Oklahoma City on Saturday. The Grizzlies have been in Game 7's before, and have even been in a Game 7 in OKC before. They haven't won one yet. But there's a first time for everything, no? The Griz are certainly capable of winning the game. When they're firing on all cylinders, they're a bad matchup for OKC. But if Durant and Westbrook are on a roll and OKC's role players are (1) actually being used properly by Brooks and (2) playing to their own strengths, it's going to be a tough one. We will find out.

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