Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Iron Mike: Notes on The Mask Game. Grizzlies 97, Warriors 90

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2015 at 7:56 AM

click to enlarge The Grizzlies dragged the Warriors down into the mud Tuesday night. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies dragged the Warriors down into the mud Tuesday night.

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.

We all knew that Mike Conley was tough, determined, and that his determination to win is what sets him apart, and drives him to be as good as he is. We all knew that. This season saw several in-depth profiles of Conley, talking about his development as a player, how he plays his game, what makes him tick. And while I don't think anyone is surprised that he's playing through all of these injuries, that doesn't make it any less impressive a display of will, or any less insane of a display of competitiveness and drive. Mike Conley put the entire Grizzlies' season on his back last night and carried it as best he could, despite his litany of injuries. Last night he became a legend.

Game Notes

  • Larry Kuzniewski

➭ Mike Conley may have been the key to the game last night from a motivational and tempo standpoint, but he didn't do it alone—Tony Allen played some of the best defense of his life, mostly guarding Klay Thompson and staying with him off the ball instead of helping away as he is so prone to doing. Thompson ended up with 13 points on 6-15 shooting, missing dunks, jacking up shots that looked way off, and just generally looking like he was completely out of rhythm. Allen does that to people; it was reminiscent of his performance in last year's first round that put Kevin Durant on a newspaper with a "MR. UNRELIABLE" headline over his picture.

It wasn't just defense from Allen last night, though. His preternatural gift for cutting off the basket and being in the right place at the right time meant he scored nine points and pulled down four rebounds, too.

Last night was also the night that Tony was mic'd up so the world could finally hear that he really does just wander around the court saying "First Team All-Defense" to no one in particular, which hopefully explains to those who still didn't get it why he walked through that dance routine during Game 1: Tony Allen enters a trance state during games. Those of us who get to watch him up close every home game derive a lot of enjoyment from watching him during stoppages of play. Sometimes he wanders around rapping along with the songs playing in the arena. Sometimes he talks to the scorers about how many fouls he has. Sometimes he just stands off to the side catatonic while the rest of the team is watching Dave Joerger draw up a play. He doesn't do normal things during a game; he does Tony Allen things.

Conley's performance may have been the catalyst for the Grizzlies' win last night, but Allen's game (on both ends of the floor) is what made it a reality. If the two of them can do that three or four more times, the Grizzlies are going to give the Warriors a run for their money.

Courtney Lee made big plays when it mattered, even though he didn't have an explosive scoring night. Lee grabbed key rebounds and hit big shots to prevent or end Warriors runs late in the game, and played good defense on whoever he was guarding. The rule this year is that when Lee plays well, the Grizzlies win, and even though he only ("only") had 15 points last night, Lee played well. The Griz need production from him, but they also just need basketball IQ and solid two-way play, and that's what they got last night. He doesn't have to hit five 3-pointers to make a difference (though the threes would be nice; Lee was 2-for-4 last night from distance).

click to enlarge Vince Carter and Jeff Green have both struggled in the series so far. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Vince Carter and Jeff Green have both struggled in the series so far.

➭ There were only two Grizzlies players with a negative +/- last night. I generally don't put much stock in single-game +/- stats, but last night's are illustrative of a problem that has plagued the Grizzlies for most of the postseason: the only two guys with a negative were Jeff Green and Vince Carter. The Grizzlies so badly need production from the wing positions—still, even in the game that they won—and Green and Carter, the two guys who were supposed to solve that problem, are nowhere to be found. The Grizzlies, after all these years, are back down to playing 4-on-5 on offense (at best) because no one who plays at the small forward spot can score. Green also struggled as the 4 in small lineups, but that didn't stop Joerger from playing him as such for quite a bit longer than seemed necessary (although he had to be careful to avoid foul trouble with last night's tight officiating).

Carter was bad in the first two games of the Portland series, too, and then turned on whatever jets he has left in the home games. One hopes he can do that again, though Golden State has a real defense, so it might not be that simple. Green was better last night but still not good, and needs to attack the rim relentlessly to be of any use. For him not to attempt a single free throw in 26 minutes of play means he is not playing the way he needs to play. One wonders whether he's still playing through back spasms and just can't move the way he wants, or whether he's shrinking from the moment and taking his (already limited) game with him. Either way, the Grizzlies are going to need one or both of these guys to win them a game at some point in this series, and that's starting to look like an iffy proposition.

Tweet(s) of the Night

Lots of Twitter action last night, as all of Basketball Twitter was captivated by what the Grizzlies were doing, while Griz fans tried not to overreact to what they were watching.

This echoes the sentiments of most Grizzlies fans watching, I would imagine:

Even Chuck D is on the Grizzlies bandwagon. "Swampball" seems more like something that should be played in New Orleans, but I know better than to question Chuck D.


The Grizzlies clearly gained a little bit of a psychological edge last night—trying to make the game more physical and drag things down to a pace where they like to play, which was mostly successful. But:

Up Next

Game 3 is at the Grindhouse on Saturday. Given the fact that Conley is back, the fact that Draymond Green may or may not have taken a cheap shot at Conley's face after a whistle, the fact that Tony Allen is practically Lord Emperor of Memphis at this point, and that the Grizzlies—who weren't supposed to be a factor in this series at all—have now swiped home court advantage from the 67-win Warriors, it's going to be intense.

Last night's win might have been the biggest in franchise history, at least since the 2011 San Antonio series (though 2013 Clippers Game 6 will always have a special place in my heart). That's only going to be followed up by a rowdy home crowd ready for some championship wrestling Grizzlies basketball, with a whole Saturday to pre-game on Beale Street. Golden State will be ready to throw a counterpunch. The Grizzlies—along with their Memphis crowd, who have heard a lot in the last week about how loud Oracle is—will do everything they can to be ready to take it and feed it back to them.


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