Thursday, May 14, 2015

Game 5: Warriors 98, Grizzlies 78: Déjà vu

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2015 at 7:56 AM

click to enlarge Jeff Green started in place of the injured Tony Allen. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeff Green started in place of the injured Tony Allen.

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.

click to enlarge Courtney Lee attempted 3 shots in 30 minutes. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Courtney Lee attempted 3 shots in 30 minutes.

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.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

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.


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