Out, damned Griz

Admiral Ackbar’s attention would have been drawn early this afternoon: Zach Randolph drew a one-game suspension for trying to punch out Steven Adams in Game 6, Mike Conley was still hurting a bit after a hamstring issue dating to late in Game 5, and Tony Allen had eye issues. This is, of course, precisely the sort of disadvantage that tends to lure the Thunder into a false sense of security. At tip-off, Z-Bo was indeed gone, and Dave Joerger decided to shuffle his rotation even further, starting Allen instead of Tayshaun Prince and Mike Miller in place of Randolph. The Thunder made no adjustments beyond starting Caron Butler again; there were the usual distressing defensive lapses, enabling the Griz to take a double-digit lead early on, but the answer this time was to crank up offense far beyond Memphis’ ability to foil. Oklahoma City 120, Memphis 109, and the Thunder go on to the semifinals against some West Coast team.

How cranked, you ask, was this offense? OKC hit 42-69, 61 percent. Even less likely: 11-19 from the Twilight Zone, 58 percent. Old unreliable Kevin Durant was 12-18 from the floor, 5-5 from outside, for 33 points. Erratic Russell Westbrook had a triple-double: 27 points on 10-16 from the floor, 10 rebounds, 16 assists. (The TNT audience was informed that no, they don’t have quadruple-doubles.) Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and, yes, Caron Butler all ended up in double figures, Jackson leading the bench with 16.

And you have to wonder what Memphis could have done to win this one. They collected 13 steals; they forced 20 Thunder turnovers; they made 30 out of 34 foul shots. Marc Gasol, despite playing with four, then five, fouls, had a solid-gold 24-point outing; Conley, hamstring or no, made 20; Courtney Lee, the Griz’ most effective long-distance shooter, had 16. Then again, 2-5 was as “effective” as Memphis would get tonight: the long ball failed the Griz time and time again, with five makes in 17 tries. Still, on the whole, they did the right things; they just couldn’t do enough of them in 48 minutes.

Meanwhile at the Staples Center, the Warriors and the Clippers are going at it in their Game 7. Whichever one of them survives will show up here Monday night.

Comments (2)




Tighter than Jack Benny’s banker

Page 1 from Thunder Extra in the Oklahoman 5-1-14“That’s what they’re supposed to write,” said Kevin Durant blandly. “I didn’t come through for the team. So they got to write that type of stuff.” Now whether or not this egregious nonsense was intended to motivate KD — the newspaper issued an official apology after, shall we say, largely negative response from the readership — clearly something got into him: Kid Delicious knocked down 36 points and retrieved ten rebounds before the onset of blessed garbage time at 2:46. Nor was this the only Thunder adjustment, either: Scott Brooks, caution apparently thrown to the winds, started Caron Butler in place of Thabo Sefolosha. Forget overtime: OKC 104, Memphis 84, and Game 7, always referred to as “if necessary,” will be necessary.

The Griz had a few problems tonight. For one thing, they couldn’t knock down shots: they shot only 37 percent and missed a third of their free throws. Mike Conley, who’s had moments in this series when he seemingly scored at will, was held to five points (2-10). Marc Gasol had a team-high 17, and often-overlooked reserve forward James Johnson led the reserves with 15. But here’s the Telltale Statistic: the Grizzlies, as physical as any team in the Association, recorded exactly one block, courtesy of Courtney Lee. Serge Ibaka had four all by himself. Steven Adams had five.

And maybe that was the difference tonight: the willingness to mix it up with those brutes from Beale Street. The Thunder owned the boards, to the tune of 47-36. There was that 11-1 block differential. And if OKC was horrible from the three-point circle — it was Durant’s fault for missing six while the rest of the team was 7-15 — the Griz were worse at 3-14. As for Russell Westbrook, he took fewer but marginally better shots, 9-21 for 25 points. Butler, in his unaccustomed role as a starter, played 29 minutes and scored 7; more to the point, he provided defense that was roughly comparable to, but different from, what could be expected from Sefolosha, and that may have befuddled the Griz just a hair.

So we’re back to square one: 48 minutes for all the marbles. Or maybe 53 minutes. Or however long it takes.

Comments




Paint it, black

Some time before the second half, the Fox Sports Oklahoma feed on Cox Cable turned to utter darkness, which was assumed to be a technical problem. After dialing around for a moment, I decided otherwise, and said so:

Me, I rely on radio guy Matt Pinto, so I had no problems keeping up — unlike the Thunder, who trailed from the start and fell behind by 20 late in the third quarter, just about at the moment when FS Oklahoma returned. (This was also just about the moment that the Clippers/Warriors game got underway on the Left Coast, reinforcing my belief.) Those who were watching got to see a 13-0 Thunder run. And with 6:35 left, OKC got its first lead of the night, 79-78 on a Kevin Durant trey. It would be their last in regulation: the Thunder, down 87-82 with 3:39 left, burned their last timeout. Somehow they managed another four-point play, Zach Randolph fouling Caron Butler on a trey; at :04, Russell Westbrook took the ball away from Mike Conley and dunked, tying it up at 90; Z-Bo’s last-second dunk came too late, and, yes, boys and girls, it’s overtime again.

The overtime began ominously: a Mike Miller trey, a Durant two-pointer, another Miller trey, another Durant two-pointer. The Griz were up 100-98 with 39 seconds left; Durant hit one of two free throws to bring the Thunder within one, yet another Miller trey went awry; OKC got the ball back with 2.9 left, Durant missed a fadeaway, and a Serge Ibaka stickback was just a hair too late. Memphis 100, Oklahoma City 99, and the series moves back to Grizville for Game 6.

Somehow I thought Westbrook would pull out another miracle. Despite 10-31 (!) shooting, Russ collected a triple-double for the night: 30 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds. Durant finished with 26 points; Ibaka wound up with 15 points and 12 boards. Reggie Jackson wasn’t a non-factor, exactly, but he wasn’t making any headlines with six points, five rebounds and five turnovers. Caron Butler led the bench with 15, including 4 of 8 from beyond the arc; minus Butler, the Thunder were 8-23 on treys.

The aforementioned Mike Miller led all Memphis scorers with 21; Randolph had 20 with ten boards, Conley 17, Marc Gasol 11 with 15 boards. Here’s the number I noticed: the Griz had 11 steals — Miller and Tony Allen had three each — while the Thunder pulled off only two.

Thursday night in Memphis. About the only thing I’m certain of is that it will go to overtime.

Comments




Yet another 53-minute special

Today Michael Heisley died. Heisley bought the Grizzlies in 2001, and owned them until 2012, when he retired from corporate life. Did this year’s Griz want to win one for their longtime owner? Sure they did. Maybe it was enough to push them, down 12 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, to a 22-9 run over eight minutes and change that erased the Thunder lead and put Memphis up for the first time since early in the second quarter. It was 80-75 Memphis when, once again, the Thunder, and this time I mean Reggie Jackson, put together enough of a run to tie it up with half a minute left: for fans of déjà vu, it was, yet again, overtime. With the Thunder up 88-87, Russell Westbrook missed a shot, retrieved it himself, and then had the ball taken away by Mike Conley; Conley burned up half the 30 seconds remaining, could not get the shot to fall, and Jackson snagged the rebound. Courtney Lee duly fouled Jackson, Jackson sank both free throws to make it 90-87, Conley went for the easy two and got it, Mike Miller duly fouled Jackson, Jackson sank both free throws to make it 92-89, and a Conley trey attempt at the horn fell short. It’s now two games each, with two, maybe three, to go.

Oh: “Jackson.” Say that several times. The sixth man clearly was primus inter pares tonight, scoring a career-high 32 points on 11-16 shooting and 8-8 from the line. Which was a good thing, since neither Westbrook nor Kevin Durant was having a good night, each with 15 points after ghastly marksmanship (KD 5-21, Westbrook 6-24). Durant did collect 13 rebounds, one fewer than Serge Ibaka, whose 14 boards and five blocks might seem to overshadow his 12 points. And while Derek Fisher’s shooting was off, he did hit a personal milestone: 244 career playoff games, tied with Robert Horry on the all-time list.

Three double-doubles among the Griz: Marc Gasol had a team-high 23 points and 11 rebounds, Conley finished with 14 points and 10 assists, and perennial pest Tony Allen came off the bench for 14 points and 13 boards. If Memphis did a good job of keeping Durant out of the lane, and they did, the Thunder shut down Zach Randolph pretty well, holding him to 11 points on 5-14. And if the Griz need something to lament, it’s this: 13-23 from the foul line. (Z-Bo accounted for four of those ten bricks.) For fans of plus/minus, no one was plus-er than Beno Udrih, +9 for the 19 minutes he played.

Game 5 will be in Oklahoma City Tuesday; there will now be a Game 6 in Memphis. And oh, just incidentally: when Michael Heisley bought the Grizzlies, they were in Vancouver; at his initial press conference, he vowed to keep them there, which he did — for the rest of that season, anyway. I’ve seen that routine before, too.

Comments




The handle turns further

With 7:43 left in the game, the Thunder were down 17 and apparently dispirited: the bench had been thoroughly outplayed, and nobody really expected much from the starters at this point. Then those starters produced a 10-0 run over three minutes, and suddenly it was a game again, kinda sorta. Within the two-minute mark, the Grizzlies hadn’t scored again, and the Thunder were down only three; within the one-minute mark, it was tied at 81. Tony Allen then knocked down two shots to give Memphis a four-point lead; Russell Westbrook then nailed a trey and drew a foul from Allen, hit the freebie, and it was tied at 85 with :26 left. Mike Conley spent 24 of those seconds looking for a shot, took one, and missed it; Kevin Durant tossed up a brick at the horn, and once again, we had overtime. With Memphis up four with one second left, Westbrook heaved a Hail Mary from beyond center court; somehow Allen fouled him again, and two of three missed free throws later, the last of them presumably deliberate, the Griz pocketed the Game 3 win, 98-95, and went up 2-1 in the series. (Oklahoma City is now 0-3 against Memphis in Game 3s.)

And here’s your Telltale Statistic: the Thunder shot 49 percent from inside the arc — 29-59 — but hit only five of 28 three-point attempts. Both Durant and Westbrook knocked down 30 points, but KD was 10-27 and missed all eight of his treys, and Russell was a comparably bad 9-26, though he did retrieve a game-high 13 rebounds. Did I mention the bench was outplayed? The reserves contributed a total of nine points, or ¾ Beno Udrih. (Allen had 16 to lead all reserves.) The Thunder also managed to miss eight free throws, though they did outrebound the Griz by one.

Five in a row in overtime for Conley, who led the Grizzlies with 20; Zach Randolph had a fairly lousy night shooting (5-20, 16 points) but did collect ten boards. Marc Gasol added fourteen from the middle. The Griz blocked only one shot all night — Kosta Koufos gets credit for that — but arguably, they didn’t need any more than that.

The series continues in Memphis on Saturday night.

Comments (1)




Finely ground

The Grizzlies obviously worked on two concepts between Game 1 and tonight: hit the damn free throws already — they knocked down all of their first twelve — and keep the ball as long as possible. And by “as long as possible,” I’m talking 21-23 seconds into the shot clock. This lugubrious pace is Memphis’ signature style, and the Thunder typically has a great deal of trouble dealing with it. They certainly did tonight, trailing most of the way, finally squeezing out a one-point lead with 1:14 left when Zach Randolph, pestered by Kendrick Perkins, gave up the ball to Thabo Sefolosha, and Kevin Durant was waiting at the door to Dunk City. Mike Miller, brought in for long-ball marksmanship, replanted a Mike Conley miss from 24 feet, burning, yes, 21 seconds. The next two Thunder possessions came up empty, Conley hit three of four free throws, and the crowd nodded off. Then Durant knocked down a trey, accompanied by a body bump by Marc Gasol, and the subsequent foul shot made it 98-97 Griz with 13.8 left. Next Memphis possession, Conley hit one of two free throws; Russell Westbrook missed a trey, Perkins slapped it back in at the horn, and suddenly there was overtime.

Apparently that was all the Department of Miracles had available: the Griz struck first, and also second, in overtime. Perkins, attempting to block a Randolph shot, drew his sixth foul; Z-Bo obligingly missed the free throw. With 1:15 left, a Durant trey pulled OKC to within one; a Sefolosha steal gave the ball back to the Thunder, Gasol, guarding Durant, fouled out, and Durant tied it up on the second free throw. The Griz took over from that point, with a Randolph layup, two freebies by Courtney Lee, two more by Randolph, and that was it: Memphis 111, Oklahoma City 105, and the series — like the last three MEM-OKC playoff series — is tied at 1-1.

Griz ball movement was excellent: 30 assists and only nine turnovers. Z-Bo had lots of points (25), not so many rebounds (six), but Memphis wasn’t hurting for boards, what with Tony Allen collecting 8, Gasol and Conley seven each. (Conley also had 12 assists to go with his 19 points. Why does this man get so little respect as a point guard?) Tayshaun Prince, not ill tonight, was still not a factor; Beno Udrih did most of the bench scoring, with 14.

On the Thunder side, you figure Durant with 36, Westbrook with 29, Ibaka with 15 — and then it rapidly tails off. Shooting 39 percent will do that to you. Both Durant and Ibaka snared 11 rebounds; Serge blocked five shots and bothered a few others. None of the reserves played much, and only Derek Fisher made as many as two shots.

Game 3 is in Memphis Thursday night. Expect things to be boisterous.

Comments off




Not the usual grind

The first half, the Thunder promised to make it a laugher: they led the Grizzlies by as many as 25 before James Johnson nailed a trey with two seconds left before halftime. Nobody was laughing in the third quarter, though: Memphis outscored OKC 31-13 in the third quarter to pull within four, and they narrowed it to two early in the fourth. This is approximately the point where I think Scott Brooks pointed to his wrist and mouthed the words “SPEED IT UP.” Which is what the Thunder did, going on a 13-1 run, and the Griz never regained their momentum. First game goes into the books: OKC 100, Memphis 86, on a night where three other teams with home-court advantage fell.

Seriously. The Raptors, the Clippers and the Pacers all were beaten at home. This, of course, means nothing at the moment. What this game means is something we knew all along: the Grizzlies are befuddled at any pace other than Slow Grind. They did a good job of protecting the rock, giving up only six turnovers, but otherwise they were largely at sea, missing nine of 11 treys, 13 of 31 free throws, and shooting only 36 percent. The statistic I’m staring at, though, is Zach Randolph’s line: he had a team-high 21 points on 7-21 shooting, 11 rebounds, and three assists, despite spending time on the bench with five fouls, and still ending up with 39 minutes. Mike Conley (16 points, 11 assists) also played 39; Marc Gasol (16 points) played 45. Apparently the only reason the bench got any burn tonight was because Tayshaun Prince took ill early and did not return. Tony Allen led those reserves with 13; Mike Miller, the three-point specialist, made exactly one of them.

It was a decent night for Kevin Durant, who knocked down 13 of 25 for 33 points. Russell Westbrook, officially off his minutes restriction, played 33 minutes, collecting 23 points and 10 rebounds; Serge Ibaka, who played one minute more, scored 17 and retrieved nine boards. (The Thunder was never seriously threatened on the boards, finishing 51-41.) Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson each kicked in nine from the bench.

If there’s anything I wonder about, it’s this: would this have gone any differently had Nick Calathes been available? The rookie Memphis guard is a pretty good shooter, but we won’t see him in the playoffs at all: he’s serving a 20-game suspension for violation of the NBA’s drug policy. The drug in question, tamoxifen, is usually prescribed for treatment of, um, breast cancer; Calathes isn’t suffering from that, but there’s an off-label use to reduce the effects of steroids.

Game 2 is Monday night at the ‘Peake; Games 3 and 4 will be played in Memphis, and as Beale Street Bears reminds us: “There is still a ton of basketball left to be played and the Grizzlies are still very much alive in this series.” These are, after all, the same Grizzlies who won their last 14 home games. If they can upset the Thunder at home even once — but let’s not bring back that memory.

Comments off




From the More Like This files

For a moment there, it looked like the Thunder would win this one in a walk — a rather fast walk, since the Grizzlies are fond of a slowish pace. They reckoned without Mike Miller, who knocked down all of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, nearly erasing the OKC lead; Serge Ibaka tossed in two free throws literally in the last second to seal the deal, 113-107, winning the season series three games to one.

Still, the Griz were scary in that final frame, hitting their first nine shots and ultimately scoring 36 points, all from the Memphis bench. (See Mike Miller, supra.) Memphis hit 51 percent for the night and knocked down 10 of 16 treys. (Miller had four of them.) Memphis had six players in double figures, led by, um, Mike Miller, evidently a valuable guy to have around when neither Zach Randolph (5-14, 13 points, 10 rebounds) or Mike Conley (1-10, six points, nine assists) is having a banner evening.

Defensive shuffles are the order of the day for OKC, with Kendrick Perkins out and Thabo Sefolosha lost early to a strain. This explains why Hasheem Thabeet played 17 minutes: he got four rebounds, three fouls and two points, but mostly he kept the Griz out of the paint. Kevin Durant played 43 minutes and garnered 37 points and 10 rebounds; Reggie Jackson played 34 minutes, mostly out of having to sub for Thabo, and picked up 14. The rehabilitation of Russell Westbrook seems to be complete: in just under half an hour he scored 21 points, delivered six assists, and turned the ball over only once. And despite the presence of Large Memphians, the Thunder outrebounded the Griz 39-33.

The Bobcats, who came this close to knocking off the Spurs tonight, will be in OKC on Sunday. Keep in mind that 27-31 is about a seventh seed in the East.

Comments off




The usual Grizzly business

Halfway through the second quarter, you could see the grindhouse door: it was Oklahoma City 33, Memphis 32. Then suddenly the Thunder took off, landing in the locker room at halftime with a 51-36 lead. The Griz were not having any of that, and gradually eroded that lead to as little as three. With the Thunder up 78-75, it was Kevin Durant for two, Thabo Sefolosha for three and then Durant for two more for a ten-point lead, but a subsequent Zach Randolph layup was the last Memphis score, and the Thunder goes up 2-1 in the season series with an 86-77 win.

Durant’s game-high 31 was nice, of course, and Serge Ibaka put together a double-double in the first half, finishing with 21 points and 12 rebounds, but perhaps the pivotal factor was defense by Steven Adams, who blocked four shots in 23 minutes and basically dared anyone to get around him. (Adams also drew five fouls, but by no means is that news.) And if the bench didn’t score a lot — only 14 points in all — well, this wasn’t a big offensive display; the Thunder went 4-18 from beyond the arc, which is terrible, but the Grizzlies were 2-16.

How much Memphis missed Mike Conley is hard to tell. Rookie Nick Calathes started at the point, and if he’s not the offensive machine Conley is, he performed respectably well, with eight points and four steals. Randolph and Marc Gasol each scored 13 to lead the Griz, with Mike Miller and Courtney Lee kicking in 11 apiece, but what Memphis did best was force turnovers: OKC handed it over 16 times, the Griz only 11.

And once again, we get to defend Kendrick Perkins, who scored one point — a free throw (out of two) in the waning moments — but who contributed eight boards, two blocks and even a steal. With the Griz not hitting the long ball, all Perk had to do was keep them out of the paint, and you know he enjoyed it.

Fifty games done, 39 won. Not that anyone’s going to mention that this is on pace for a 64-win season. And by March, maybe Russell Westbrook — remember him? — will be back.

Comments off




Speed of execution

As everyone remembers, the Memphis Grizzlies excel at demolishing the Westbrook-less Thunder. And these Grizzlies are better than the last batch of Grizzlies — Courtney Lee is more or less assimilated, and Marc Gasol is back in action — so I didn’t expect a repeat of the 116-100 win from December. The issue, as always with Memphis, is which team enforces its preferred pace; the Grizzlies prevailed in the first and third quarters, the Thunder in the second, and the teams fought on more or less equal terms in the fourth — although Memphis went into the final twelve minutes with a five-point lead, and the Griz were still up four with ten seconds left. Serge Ibaka delivered a trey, but Lee knocked down two free throws in the last second to give Memphis a 90-87 win.

This is one game where the plus/minus numbers are scary. All the Thunder reserves were plus; all the starters were minus. The bench, as usual, did yeoman work, contributing 20 points to the cause; the Memphis bench managed only 10. But Ibaka got into double figures only after that last-minute trey, which gave him 11; Reggie Jackson had 17, and might have had more had he not been bedeviled with personal fouls. Yeah, Kevin Durant had 37, but you have to figure Kevin Durant would have 37 against the Justice League of America.

If they were watching Gasol’s minutes, they apparently weren’t paranoid about it; the big guy put in 24 minutes and scored 12. Lee led the Griz with 24; Zach Randolph was right behind with 23, and the perennially-scary Mike Conley dropped in 19. Memphis is now within one game of .500, and if they’re healthy — which means, basically, if Tony Allen gets better — they may be in this playoff hunt after all.

As will the Thunder, though now they’re 28-10, and the next two will be tricky: at Houston on Thursday, and against Golden State back at the ‘Peake on Friday. Either, or both, are capable of inflicting further damage on the wounded Thunder.

Comments off




Care Bears just a tad indifferent

The Grizzlies were more or less forced into a nine-man rotation, by dint of having four injured players; the Thunder were missing Thabo Sefolosha still, but lost two during the game, Steven Adams taking a hard fall in the fourth quarter and spraining an ankle, and Kendrick Perkins disappearing into the locker room after fourteen minutes for reasons no one would disclose. (It’s a Hasheem Thabeet sighting!) Still, Memphis had Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, and as always they were worth their weight in [name of semi-precious metal]; it just wasn’t enough to overcome superior Thunder power, with Oklahoma City leading by double digits most of the second half and pocketing an unexpectedly easy 116-100 win.

Conley led the Griz with a respectably efficient 20 points on 13 shots, including two treys on five tries. Randolph was right behind with 17, though he inexplicably missed five of 12 free throws. Also with 17: backup big Jon Leuer, a formidable defensive force with two blocks, two steals and six rebounds. More double figures for Kosta Koufos, understudying Marc Gasol, and Jerryd Bayless, in the Tony Allen role.

But with almost all the numbers in their favor, the Thunder got only brief contributions from two starters in that fourth quarter: Andre Roberson, filling Thabo’s slot, who played 19 minutes and collected a career-high seven points, and Serge Ibaka, who came on briefly after Adams was felled. (Ibaka had the highest plus-minus of anyone: +29.) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, in their abbreviated stints, collected 18 and 27 points. KD got those 18 while shooting 6-12; Jeremy Lamb got 18 for the first time ever by shooting 7-9. (No, not that Seven of Nine.) And the other Doublemint Twin, Reggie Jackson, tacked on 17 more points. (Fifty-two bench points for OKC. Remember when they struggled to get 20?)

The Lakers come to OKC on Friday. Kobe Bryant will play. Whether that will make any difference or not, we shall see.

Comments off




A tragedy of errors

You had to figure that something was a trifle askew when the Thunder managed only fifteen points in the second quarter and went into the locker room trailing 50-38. But the tone was truly established in the third, when Derek Fisher popped up one of his what-was-he-thinking? treys and Tony Allen, watching in horror from the Memphis bench, hurled his towel onto the court, drawing a technical. This prompted a mini-rally, in which OKC climbed back to within two; but halfway through the fourth, they’d made exactly two buckets, were down twelve, and it was painfully obvious that any further Thunder chances would be dependent on Grizzlies mistakes. Then the Grizzlies obliged them: up two with 11 seconds left, Zach Randolph bricked two free throws. Kevin Durant shed Allen, put up a jumper that backrimmed, and Allen tossed in two from the stripe to finish off the Thunder, 88-84.

Those two late clankers were about the only things Randolph did wrong all night: he finished with a game-high 28 points, 8-17 from the floor, 12-16 from the line, and 14 rebounds. The ever-underrated Mike Conley contributed 13 points and 11 assists; Allen finished with 10, Marc Gasol with 11. And while most of the statistics were pretty close, this one wasn’t: the Griz gave up only nine turnovers, just two more than Kevin Durant.

KD, by any reasonable standards, had an off night, though few players can have an off night and still score 21. Playing all 48 minutes, he was a dismal 5-21 from the floor, 0-4 on the long ball. (Both sides were pretty terrible from three: Memphis 3-14, OKC 6-25.) Both Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka were hitting fairly well, though Ibaka fouled out late.

So like I said: Memphis in five. The next question: Can the Grizzlies beat Miami? (I have to figure that they can dispose of San Antonio or Golden State.) They split the season series 1-1, each winning at home. A Grizzlies-Heat Finals would have a level of physicality that might scare MMA types. And at this point, we have to have something to hope for.

Comments (1)




Still up against the wall

[Previously posted here.]

Just when you thought the return of Serge Ibaka’s shooting mojo might save the day, the Thunder fell back into their “Do we have to have a third quarter?” funk, and an erstwhile 17-point lead was vaporized. It was tied at 76 at the beginning of the final frame, and when Kevin Durant missed a layup (!) at 2:55, things began to unravel. The Grizzlies were up 94-92 with ten seconds left, and everyone knew Durant would be getting the ball on the next possession. KD, undaunted, pushed to the rim for the layup to tie it. The Griz had six seconds left; Zach Randolph went up for the win, and Kendrick Perkins swatted it away. Welcome to overtime. The Thunder didn’t even score in the bonus period until 1:55, when Derek Fisher made his first trey of the night, at which time it was 98-97 Memphis. “Dripping with drama,” said radio guy Matt Pinto. Durant’s subsequent pullup jumper was rather drippy itself, and Mike Conley delivered a nifty pass to Marc Gasol to put the Griz up by three. Gasol subsequently added a free throw to make it 101-97, and Pinto and Grant Long got to complain about a call while Lionel Hollis plotted the Thunder’s demise. It was Tayshaun Prince, arguably the poorest of the Memphis free-throw shooters, who finished the job with two more, to put the Griz up six (again!), 103-97.

Which means that Wednesday could be the end of it all, especially if the Bears keep coming up with double-figure performances like Gasol’s (23 points, 11 rebounds), Z-Bo’s (23 points, 12 rebounds), and Conley’s (team-high 24). OKC registered some reasonable figures, but when Durant’s game-high 27 ends up -7, it’s a lost cause.

Besides, the Heat barbecued the Bulls, 88-65, to go 3-1 in that race. Suddenly I am very, very tired.

Comments off




This ain’t the Cubs

Sometimes basketball is like programming: you work diligently to get rid of all the bugs, and suddenly there are fresh new bugs. After dropping a close one in Oklahoma City to the Grizzlies, the Thunder went to work on getting fast-break points when possible, and offensive rebounds when not. And that’s what they did, or tried to do, today in Memphis. What they forgot to do was actually score. They trailed most of the game; just inside the two-minute mark, they managed to tie it at 81 on yet another unexpected Derek Fisher trey, but that was the end of it, while the Don’t Care Bears calmly dropped in half a dozen free throws to take Game 3, 87-81.

And speaking of free throws, OKC went 12-19. They missed seven. Two of those bricks came from Kevin Durant during that closing 6-0 Memphis burst. It’s almost like learning to get points in the paint made them forget how to get points from the stripe. Nobody wins a playoff game with 36-percent shooting. To their credit, the Thunder did try to coax Serge Ibaka out of his offensive slump; the big guy missed his first three, but did eventually come up with 13 points to go with his 10 rebounds. KD had a reasonably KDish day, despite those two last-minute clanks: 25 points, 11 retrievals. And what’s this? Reggie Jackson with a double-double: 16 points, 10 boards, and only a single turnover. Kevin Martin voted Present with 13 of the bench’s total 23.

What kind of game was this? Tayshaun Prince was relatively subdued (two points, four boards, no blocks), Zach Randolph had a lousy day by Z-Bo standards (eight points, though he did snag ten rebounds), Marc Gasol (20 points) actually got fouls called on him, and Griz shooting was less than stellar at just over 40 percent. But this is the telltale statistic: Memphis went 30-74 from the floor, OKC 32-88. When 14 additional shots get you only five additional points, as Scott Brooks is sure to mention some time this evening, you’re doing it wrong.

Game 4 is Monday night in the Fed Up Forum. The Oklahoman sports dudes (I include Jenni Carlson among the dudes, because why not?) generally think it’s Memphis in six. I’m starting to think it might be Memphis in five.

Comments off




They like Mike

You had to wonder what might happen if Mike Conley really managed to get loose. Now we know. Conley’s clutch trey inside the two-minute mark put the Grizzlies up for good, and he wasn’t through yet; he finished just short of a triple-double, with 26 points, ten rebounds and nine assists. The Griz don’t often dominate the raw numbers, but they did tonight: 16 additional shots from the field, a 43-35 rebounding advantage (16-8 off the offensive glass), 22 assists versus 17. This would have been a nine-point win had not Derek Fisher tossed up a trey — his fourth! — at the horn, but 99-93 is quite sufficient, thank you very much.

But it wasn’t just Mike. We didn’t see much of Tony Allen in Game 1, and we thought maybe we wouldn’t in Game 2. How wrong we were. Allen was practically epoxied to Kevin Durant. (Durant still got 36 points, 11 boards and nine dimes, but imagine what he might have done without Allen in the way.) Other than miss a lot of treys, there’s not much Memphis did wrong tonight.

What the Thunder haven’t figured out, apparently, is how to make a rip-roaring start to a game. Once again, they fell behind early, though they stayed close most of the night and held a five-point lead after three. As hoped for, Serge Ibaka stepped up his offensive production; unfortunately, it happened on the same night that Kevin Martin (six points) rediscovered meekness. And here’s your Telltale Statistic: OKC had three steals tonight. Tony Allen, all by his lonesome, had five, mostly at Durant’s expense; the Griz had 13 thefts in all.

Game 3 is Saturday afternoon in Memphis. Bring Band-Aids.

Comments off




Grindhouse 3.0

After the first quarter, it was Memphis 16, Oklahoma City 14. Just what you might have expected: a slow grind with not a whole lot of offense, especially from the Thunder, who missed ten consecutive shots. And then things were inverted in the second, OKC outscoring the Grizzlies 33-30 to take a one-point lead at the half. Then the Thunder went cold in the third, and the Griz went up nine after three; OKC forged several ties, but never actually regained the lead until 11.1, when a Derek Fisher steal followed by a Kevin Durant pullup put the Thunder up 91-90. At the 3.5 mark, Marc Gasol, passed the ball to Mike Conley at halfcourt, but the momentum carried him out of bounds, and the Thunder got the ball back. Reggie Jackson wound up with the inbound and the inevitable immediate foul; Jackson calmly dropped both freebies, then fouled Quincy Pondexter. Unfortunately, he fouled him on a trey attempt. Pondexter missed the first, got the second, and deliberately missed the third; Durant got a hand on it, Fisher dribbled it away, and that was the game: OKC 93, Memphis 91.

The Tall Trees of Memphis stood as tall as ever, Gasol with 20 points, Zach Randolph with 18, and each with ten rebounds. Tayshaun Prince contributed extra defense. Still, the Griz could not muster any more than four second-chance points, and Tony Allen, normally a major pest, turned out to be a non-factor, playing barely 20 minutes and scoring 3. Pondexter, who hit three treys in the third, and Jerryd Bayless took up as much of the slack as they could.

In the post-Westbrook era, the big lines belong to Durant and Whoever Will. Today Whoever was Kevin Martin, who had another 25-pointer, including three from long distance. (Durant, of course, had the best line in the house: 35 points, 15 boards, six assists and two steals.) Those who argued against Fisher’s alleged “intangibles” getting him undeserved minutes are keeping discreetly silent: his eight points may seem modest, but Fish’s gift for being in the right place at the right time got him +14, tied with Martin for game-high. Serge Ibaka was pretty good on defense (five rebounds, three blocks), not so hot on offense (1-10, five points).

At some point — say, right after Game 6 against Houston — you could hear cries of “Even if we survive this, how will we ever beat the Grizzlies?” It’s the same way you always beat the Grizzlies, when you can. Second try is Tuesday night.

Comments off




Grindhouse 3: Eclectic Boogaloo

The Memphis Grizzlies have one tempo: a slow grind, heavy on the abrasives. How slow? They had only 44 points at halftime — and it was enough for a six-point lead. This kind of thing has won them 45 games this season so far, including one of two against the Thunder. OKC made up five points of those six in a 19-14 (!) third quarter; with 15 seconds left, it was Oklahoma City 78, Memphis 76. Exchanges of free throws followed; five seconds later, it was 83-80 OKC, and with 3.7 left, Jerryd Bayless drained a trey to tie it, and then it was Extra Fine Grind. The Griz won it, 90-89, as Marc Gasol tipped in a Zach Randolph jumper with just under a second left. (As someone at the Oklahoman once said, “Gasol, folks.”)

You might expect fairly lousy shooting numbers in a game like this, and you would be correct; Memphis shot only 36 percent, OKC 35.7. (The Griz were a little better on the long ball, making six of 15; the Thunder made only two of 18.) Memphis’ tall timbers, Z-Bo and Gasol, both knocked down double-doubles (Randolph 14 points/15 rebounds, Gasol 15/18.) Mike Conley led Memphis with 24; all but two of the 22 bench points came from Bayless.

Batman and Robin garnered 52 points between them, though it took them literally 53 shots: Kevin Durant was 11-28 for 32, Russell Westbrook 7-25 for 20. Kevin Martin was in rare good form for a road game, pulling down 17, but that’s pretty much the extent of the Thunder offense. And the Griz had a 54-46 edge in rebounding, 19-14 offensive; that 19th one won the game.

Off to drown the collective sorrows in Wally World; the Magic, you’d think, wouldn’t present much of a threat, but you never can be sure.

Comments off




The sum of all fierce

Anyone who thought the newly depleted Memphis Grizzlies — they have new players, but they’re not through the full trade routine yet, and Rudy Gay is gone — would roll over and die tonight (you know who you are) probably pointed to the second quarter, in which the Griz scored all of twelve points, and said “Told ya so.” You were wrong, offensive-rebound breath: Memphis made up half of their 24-point deficit in the third, and the Thunder defense had to stiffen markedly in the fourth to dispatch the Griz, 106-89.

Still, here’s the real eye-roller: Oklahoma City shot a sterling 55.6 percent (40 of 72), Memphis 34.7 percent (34-98). Twenty-six more shots! Then again, the Griz collected offensive rebounds like they were Pogs, snagging 21 of them. OKC had four, or not quite half as many as Zach Randolph. In fact, Z-Bo didn’t bag a bucket until the second half, but by then he’d already had a dozen rebounds, and he finished with 19. What’s more, Jerryd Bayless had a season-high 23 points, and both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol broke into double figures. Still, with only nine players available, Lionel Hollins had to husband minutes carefully, especially since the Griz have a game tomorrow night against the Wizards, whom we do not take lightly.

And here’s another one to revolve the pupils: Memphis had twelve steals and blocked two shots; OKC pulled off only five steals, but blocked ten shots. (Serge Ibaka, who wasn’t an offensive factor tonight, got six of those blocks, a season high.) Batman and Robin were active — Kevin Durant had 27 points, Russell Westbrook 21 — but fercryingoutloud, guys, watch the temper. This may be why quiet glue guy Nick Collison (12 points, seven boards) collected the game-high +24.

This homestand lasted one whole game: there’s a trip to Cleveland Saturday, and then back home to taunt the Mavs.

Comments off




It couldn’t be Grizzlier

Thirty-six to fifteen. Think about that for a moment. Oklahoma City led 30-20 after the first quarter, and then Memphis took command. Totally. The second quarter went to the Griz, 36-15. This was partially due to the Thunder’s second unit being seriously outplayed by the Memphis reserves; but when the starters returned, the Grizzlies remained in the driver’s seat, and stayed there the rest of the night, culminating with Kendrick Perkins and Zack Randolph trash-talking each other into the locker room with two minutes left. The Thunder would never close the gap, and Memphis got away with a 10-point win, 107-97.

And 36-15 isn’t even your telltale statistic. This is: despite a marginally smaller shooting percentage, the Griz got off 21 more shots. With that going for them, OKC’s otherwise-competitive numbers and double-doubles from both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant (a season-high 34) didn’t mean a thing.

Speaking of double-doubles, Z-Bo had one before being thumbed. And Rudy Gay tossed in a season-high 28, second only to Durant’s 34. Five Grizzlies wound up in double figures, including two off the bench. (The OKC second unit barely got into double figures in aggregate.)

A word about Westbrook: Huh? He didn’t shoot that well — 6-19 — but he served up 13 dimes to go with those 17 points, grabbed six rebounds and turned it over just twice. (The turnover-prone Thunder gave it up 15 times, the stingier Griz only eight.) Whatever went wrong tonight, and what it appeared to be was a defense just slightly more porous than SpongeBob, it didn’t seem to be Russell’s fault.

This much for the Griz: if they can play three quarters like that every night from here on out, it’s good night, LeBron. Memphis, rot them, just might go all the way. Meanwhile, the Thunder will vent their frustrations on a fairly average Hornets squad in the Big Easy on Friday night.

Comments off




Ground to a fine powder

One of these days, I expect to see Grizzlies vs. Thunder: A Quentin Tarantino Film. Seriously. The violence level fits, and tonight Scott Brooks — Scott Brooks! — drew a technical for saying God knows what. All you need to know about this one, though, is this Thunder statistic: Two fast-break points. Two. That’s how stifling the Memphis defense was, and when O. J. Mayo lofted a 25-footer at the shot-clock buzzer with 17 seconds left to put the Grizzlies up four, Loud City assumed an eerie quiet. OKC pulled within two on a pair of Russell Westbrook free throws, but Zach Randolph got two of his own, and Tony Allen tacked on two more just to rub it in. It’s the first time Memphis has beaten Oklahoma City this season in four tries, but it’s the one that’s going to hurt the most. Grizzlies 94, Thunder 88, and it pulls Memphis a couple of percentage points ahead of Dallas for the fifth seed in the West. (At this writing, the Mavs are being pounded by the L. A. Clippers.)

Mayo, in fact, outscored everyone: he had 22 points. Jeremy Pargo, starting in place of the ailing Mike Conley, came up with an unexpected ten; Zach Randolph, beside O. J. on the Memphis bench, had ten more. The Griz did not shoot well — 39 percent, 4 of 16 from beyond the arc — but they nailed 22 of 24 from the stripe. (The Thunder likewise put up 24, but only hit 17.) What Memphis does best, though, is force turnovers, and OKC obligingly coughed up the ball 18 times.

You have to assume that Westbrook is not happy with 5-16 from the floor (19 points), and Kevin Durant is less than pleased with 8-20 (21). Rebounds were even, OKC was up two in assists, but where’s the ball going through the net? “It wasn’t a lack of effort,” said Brooks; “we were out of sync.” Outscored 52-44 in the second half, they were evidently syncing out of sight.

Now to take it to South Beach. The Heat will not be in a forgiving mood, I suspect.

Comments off