Tag:O.J. Mayo
Posted on: May 10, 2011 3:00 am
 

NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies, Thunder go the distance

Memphis, OKC have a classic on the Mississippi. 
Posted by Matt Moore

These playoffs could be better. We just don't know how. 

Memphis and Oklahoma City went to triple-overtime Monday night/Tuesday morning in the Thunder's desperation victory to tie the series. Here's where it lands in history:


Neither team had any quit in them, and the only reason it didn't go to a fourth overtime was foul trouble, when Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo fouled out in the second overtime, leaving Memphis physically exhausted. Russell Westbrook managed to play through two overtimes with five fouls. Otherwise, we'd still be waiting for the two teamt to finish. It was one of the wildest games in a wild playoffs that have been anything but predictable. As Shane Battier said postgame:
"If Elvis had risen from halfcourt and hit the game-winner, I wouldn't have been surprised."

OKC won because of superior play, athletes, and a few more drawn fouls thanks to terrible perimeter defense from the Grizzlies. But the eighth seed in the playoffs forced what many consider a title favorite to triple overtime without their highest paid player, down their best two guards, after blowing a huge first half lead and coming back from a sizeable second-half deficit. 

Not bad for an 8th seed.
Posted on: May 10, 2011 1:43 am
Edited on: May 10, 2011 2:05 am
 

NBA Playoffs: Heat finally close one out

The Heat haven't closed all year. They closed out Boston in Game 4 to take a 3-1 advantage. 
Posted by Matt Moore




After a season of clutch failures, of questions about Chris Bosh, of being plagued by the talk that they are simply not mentally focused enough to win the title, Miami simply shut everyone up. 
LeBron James closed. His last shot was a miss, rebounded and tipped in by Chris Bosh. Other than that? James nailed a huge three in Paul Pierce's grill, got inside for a runner, and then made a key pass to get Bosh a dunk. He was a monster down the stretch, despite a key turnover that opened the door for a Pierce game winner which he missed. 

The Heat closed. And they may have closed out another NBA superpower. The Celtics had seemed like the superior mental team right up until the last regular season meeting between the two. And, after the Game 3 meltdown, there was a sense that maybe the Heat of the regular season had returned. But the Heat washed all that away and the Celtics once again looked like a team that was simply too old to run with the Triad. 

Mental focus and intensity were the biggest weaknesses for the Heat in the regular season. But they finally stepped up when they needed to, much like the Celtics were known to. With a 3-1 series advantage, the Heat clearly look like the better team.

Public sentiment means LeBron can't count on anyone providing credit. But it should be noted that he and Paul Pierce had yet another epic game in a career-long battle. They went back and forth at each other all night, and in the end, Pierce missed an elbow jumper from the left instead of his favorite spot, the right. There was miscommunication on the play, and the screen for Pierce never came. James stuck with Pierce and the game winner missed. Meanwhile, for James it was all speed, all aggression.

The Heat have always had the talent. That's obvious. But they never looked like a mentally tough team. But on Monday night, they may have gone through the baptism of fire they needed. They closed. 

And they are finally in a position to put the Celtics ghosts that have haunted them to bed. 
Posted on: May 9, 2011 11:36 am
 

Playoff Fix: Bears smell fear

Questions abound for the Thunder going into Game 4, but one thing's for certain: It's a must-win. 
Posted by Matt Moore




One Big Thing: What did Game 3 really tell us? The Oklahoma City Thunder played really well for about 42 minutes. The Memphis Grizzlies played terribly for about 42 minutes. Grizzlies won, Thunder lost. So the questions we have to ask are: 
  1. If OKC simply held its composure for another five minutes, they win. So are they doing the right things, and just had a bad spell, or is this a warning that playing well but not great (as they played great in a Game 2 victory) will not be enough against a Memphis team that has zero quit?
  2. Memphis nearly let the game get out of hand, then stormed back to win. Can the Grizzlies afford to play subpar for long stretches and hope to create another epic collapse as they have several times in these playoffs?
  3. The Thunder have lost when role players like Eric Maynor, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison haven't stepped up. Does Kevin Durant need more of the offense to compensate, or can OKC trust its supporting cast?
  4. Memphis has won once with a terrific game from Zach Randolph, and once with a high-usage, low-efficiency performance that was deceptively poor. Do they have to get a masterful game from Randolph, or just make sure he gets his 20+ points by hook or by crook? 

Game 3 feels like it may have revealed the identity of this series. We're just not sure yet what that identity is. We'll know more after Game 4. A win for OKC makes Game 3 seem like a fluke, while a loss? That calls into doubt just how much the Thunder really are in this series. 

The X-Factor: Turnovers. Memphis creates so many, but the Thunder have done well in containing theirs in this series... until that last five minutes of Game 4. Then things completely fell apart. If the Thunder don't contain their turnovers, Memphis gets out in transition. Easy buckets negates the advantage the Thunder have defensively. It's in some ways a Catch-22 for the Thunder. They're supposed to have more ball movement from Russell Westbrook, but more ball movement increases the chances of the Grizzlies' hyper-aggressive play of the passing lanes leading to turnovers. Crisp, smart offense is a must for the Thunder. They did so well for most of Game 3. But if that was an outlier and the end is the pattern for this series, the Grizzlies will be playing their game on their floor. 

The Adjustment: O.J. Mayo has had a bounce-back series. He's playing well enough to start Game 4, but Lionel Hollins will stick with his rotation. The issue is that Sam Young had advantages in size versus the Spurs, but the Spurs never exploited him in terms of perimeter speed. The Thunder are very intent on doing so. Mayo did a shockingly good job vs. Russell Westbrook in Game 3, and his speed on the perimeter allows Conley to play the off-guard which is also helpful. Even though Mayo won't start, expect more lineups and time for Mayo. If he gets his shot to where it needs to be and makes plays like he can, the Grizzlies are going to neutralize a big advantage the Thunder thought they'd have coming into the series. 

The Sticking Point: Oklahoma City has looked like a better team in this series for seven of twelve quarters, but are down 2-1. If the Grizzlies have a good game vs. a good fourth quarter like they had in Game 3, the Thunder could be down 3-1, going back to OKC and in a huge hole. They have matchup advantages, no one can stop Kevin Durant, their defense has been superb, their role players have stepped up, Serge Ibaka is hitting jumpers, Zach Randolph is no longer dominating, the Thunder are controlling the paint, and James Harden looks like a sixth man of the year candidate. And the Thunder are down 2-1. Game 4 is the one where either the seemingly superior team asserts itself and gets back on track, or we start wondering just how much lightning this Thunder has. 
Posted on: May 7, 2011 9:59 pm
Edited on: May 7, 2011 10:34 pm
 

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Posted by Royce Young



Russell Westbrook was playing a fantastic game. One that was bringing his critics back around. One that was reminding people was an incredible talent he is at just 22 years old and in his third year as a pro. He was creating, dishing, scoring and finishing.

He had the Thunder cooking the Grizzlies, taking them up to a 16-point lead as he racked up assists and played a solid, controlled game. Oklahoma City looked downright dominant and appeared to be cruising to a 2-1 series lead and regaining the homecourt advantage.

But things felt apart in a big way the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. Spanning to overtime, where OKC lost 101-93, the Thunder went eight minutes without a basket, missed 11 straight shots and scored just 17 points the final 17 minutes, including overtime.

Most everyone with a Twitter account, a blog or even a voice pinned it all directly on the shoulders of Westbrook. Most saw it being his fault for stopping the ball, for not getting it to Kevin Durant, for killing the Thunder's chances to win this game. And you haven't heard the last of it. It's just going to get worse the more people stew on this game.

From my eyes, though, I just didn't see it that way. I'm evidently very much in the minority, but I just refuse to place the blame on Westbrook for Game 3's incredible meltdown.

Does he deserve a big slice of blame? Definitely. Probably one right out of the middle of the pie. With lots of icing. He didn’t do the things those last six minutes that he had done up to that point. The first 42 minutes, he was fantastic. Setting up teammates, scoring in rhythm, making good decisions — it was beautiful. But with the Thunder trying to hang on a lead, a lot of that flew right out the door.

Not entirely because of Westbrook, though. Again, he’s absolutely got blood on his hands. He might even be holding the knife. He entered the fourth quarter with 12 assists and finished the game with that number. That’s all on him.

But I have to stop short of joining the bash party and piling on Westbrook's game.

What the Thunder looked like those last few minutes was a team up by a touchdown and content to just run the ball three times into an eight-man front and punt. They wound the clock down with a lot of dribbling, then brought Kevin Durant to the top of the key and tried to isolate him there. But, because of great ball-denial and the fact Durant didn’t position well enough to actually receive the ball, Westbrook was basically left with a ticking time bomb in his hands. The play was a dud and he was left standing there having to make a play with five on the shot clock.

Where Westbrook failed was that he then put his nose down and tried to just make a play on his own. It was all up to him after the initial, one-option play crumbled, but he still could have drawn the defense and dished. He could've gone all the way to the rim. He settled instead for jumpers — mostly good looks too, I’d say — that he didn’t make. The offense went entirely stale, the ball stopped and nobody moved. Is that Westbrook’s fault? Or is it a product of the play call coming from the sideline? That’s the question I’m asking right now.

Everyone is griping that Durant didn’t see the ball much in those moments, but again, he was in no position to score. The Thunder basically ran the same stuff that killed Denver in Game 5 where Durant took over and started etching his name into playoff lore. Difference here was Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler weren’t on Durant. Tony Allen is terrific in ball denial and can stop Durant’s dribble. Durant just doesn’t have the ability to put the ball on the floor more than twice and get a good shot over Allen. It’s not happening.

But at any point did you really see a time where Durant was open and Westbrook truly looked him off? What I saw was Durant hovering around the 3-point line with his hand up, not moving. I mean with four on the shot clock, what do you want Westbrook to do? Kick it out there and let his buddy fire from 30 feet? Why does KD deserve the ball if he’s 30 feet from the basket, not moving and covered? How is that Westbrook being a bad point guard?

I know I’ve seen Westbrook succeed in exactly what he tried to do Saturday at least 20 times during the regular season. I’ve seen him take over when the other options (or this case, option) was locked down. It’s the great luxury the Thunder have had all season long, and the reason this team won 55 games.

Because, let’s face it, it’s not like Durant was absolutely pouring it on the Grizzlies and Westbrook was waving him off. Durant finished the game just 2-11 from the floor and I’m not sure he got a clean look in the bunch. What people tell me about that though, is that’s somehow Westbrook’s fault. You’ve got to get him in a better position to score! You’ve got to set up teammates! You’ve got to create better looks! True, yes. But what do you want Westbrook to do — shoot and make Durant's shots for him too?

At some point, it’s about Durant getting himself open. If you’re open, Russ will find you. Those last five minutes, nobody was. I won't blame Westbrook for that. I blame horrific team offense and questionable play-calling from Brooks. Not just Westbrook playing hero and trying to start some alpha dog battle, as most would make you think.

Prepare for a comparison you’re going to hate, but I want to say it: If Dwyane Wade did exactly what Westbrook did in this game, would everyone freak out? I realize Westbrook isn’t Wade, but he is an All-Star and averaging better than 20 points a game this season. But if Wade tried to take over and LeBron was left standing with a hand up on the 3-point line, would we all yell, curse his name and place an incredible amount of blame on him? Or would we just say, "Hey, Wade's a great scorer and he's capable of taking over too." That's my point here. It's not like this was Royal Ivey trying to make something happen.

Why the Thunder quit running the offense late in the fourth is beyond me. Maybe it was indeed Westbrook, but it really appeared to be more a product of the Thunder trying to kill clock, get the ball to Durant and let him finish. It’s a good plan in principle, but it didn’t work. The cutting, moving, screening and slashing disappeared. And Westbrook is left to pick up the pieces and rescue each bad possession by making a play.

It's pretty unfair to single out Westbrook here simply because No. 35 is on the floor with him. Should the ball go there first? Yes. And if you re-watch, that was the design every time.

But once that option is shut down, you go to Plan B, which, in the Thunder's case, is a pretty good one. A lot of the criticism I see for Westbrook stems almost entirely from "Don't you see Kevin Durant over there!" and other sentences like that. I understand the idea there, but it's not really fair to me. Why does Derrick Rose get a free pass from dominating the ball and taking bad shots? Only because Durant isn’t on his team? That’s what people always tell me but it’s not like Rose is playing with two janitors, a ball boy and some hobo picked up from Navy Pier. Rose gets excused because he's a great offensive player. And so is Russell Westbrook.

It's the curse of being a scoring point guard. If someone were curling off a screen and doinking shots while Durant stood idly by, I don't think we'd say nearly as much about it.

Could he have done better? Obviously. The Thunder dropped a crucial Game 3 because the offense left early. Westbrook is the commander of that offense and he's got to do better. But blaming him only? Comparing him to Stephon Marbury? That's just, well, stupid.
Posted on: May 7, 2011 9:41 pm
Edited on: May 7, 2011 10:02 pm
 

NBA Playoffs Grizzlies-Thunder: The collapsers



Posted by Matt Moore

If a team falls apart multiple times, they have a reputation as choke artists, collapsers, mentally weak. If a team creates those implosions on a regular basis, the onus is always put on the other team for failing to close. Welcome to the life of the Memphis Grizzlies after a drive past the Oklahoma City Thunder's 16-point lead into overtime, and on to a victory, gave them a 2-1 advantage in the series. Memphis won't get the credit for it. Sure, OKC will get the blame, but the reality is that there may be no better demolition team in the NBA right now than the Memphis Grizzlies. 

The Thunder were the better team for the vast majority of Game 3. That's not home cookin'. It was a product of smart, crisp basketball on offense from the Thunder. And it came through brilliant shooting and ball movement, and physical, bordering on brutal, defense, especially inside. Zach Randolph was scoring, but needing a shot for every point, racking up turnovers, and was extremely frustrated. Marc Gasol couldn't get any of his touch shots to fall. Russell Westbrook's mid-range was falling. It was doom for the Grizzlies, who looked outclassed. 

Then, after building a solid structure of basketball for 3.5 quarters, the Grizzlies swept the legs of the structure out from within, and the Thunder collapsed under their own weight. Those legs were based on the play of Russell Westbrook, and what took them out was most surprising of all, O.J. Mayo

Mayo didn't have a great game. He couldn't get the runner to fall, wasn't hot from the perimeter. He shot just 30 percent from the field. Mayo's known as a pure scorer. Yet when called on to stop Westbrook and provide a spark, he brought the effort. That effort is what carried Memphis into the playoffs and it sparked the Grizzlies on Saturday. But Mayo couldn't do it alone. No, in coming back from 16 down, Mayo and the Grizzlies got a great contribution from... Russell Westbrook. 

Westbrook has the speed to blow by Mayo. He has the strength to back him down. Mayo too often gambles on the perimeter pass and hedges too hard on the screen-and-roll. Westbrook elected to dribble right into Mayo, and force mid-range contested jumper after mid-range contested jumper. Kevin Durant, who had been totally en fuego, was ignored just long enough for the fire to die out. The result was Durant's miss on a last-possession pull-up jumper, and Durant being unable to rediscover his shot.

Durant's last made field goal came with 7:43 to go in the fourth. He had three shots in the remainder of regulation, including the last possession... another Scott Brooks' special. Durant was 10-18 at 7:43. He would finish on an 0-6 run, thanks to the best defense Tony Allen has played all series. He played the passing lane hard, snatched steals, and on the other end, got out in transition. Allen drew fouls, but didn't hit layups. He missed free throws, but got one of two each time. The same kind of grind that got Memphis here. 

The Thunder will look at their defense, at their offense, at their composure. Scott Brooks needs to examine why James Harden, who may honestly be the best distributor OKC has with Westbrook playing as he is, isn't getting time in key situations. He may also question why Westbrook isn't getting the off-ball movement from other Thunder players to get him away from his poor decisions on pull-ups. The Grizzlies played terribly for most of the game. Zach Randolph was inefficient and frustrated. They shot 38 percent from the field, and allowed Serge Ibaka to score 14 points. And they won. 

So OKC goes back to the drawing board, having given up a 16-point lead to go down 2-1 with a scary Game 4 up next. The Thunder were minutes away from cementing themselves as the team in control of the series, possibly on their way to the Western Conference Finals. Instead, the house that Presti built imploded in on itself, another victim of the same thing that left the Spurs Palace in ruins: the other team just wanted it more. 
Posted on: April 30, 2011 4:00 pm
Edited on: April 30, 2011 5:40 pm
 

Series Preview Grizzlies-Thunder: Lightning flash

Posted by Matt Moore




I. Intro

Well, that was exciting, wasn't it? The 8th seed without a single playoff win coming in knocking off the 1 seed with championship history? Great drama. But that's over with. And now the Grizzlies have to turn around and face a Thunder team that took care of its first-round opponent in impressive fashion and has had plenty of time to rest. And by "turn around," I mean literally turn around and head for the airport. After what was likely a pretty raucous celebration on Beale Street Friday night, the Grizzlies will head to Oklahoma City Saturday in advance of a noon tip Sunday. The Thunder will be the heavy favorites. They have the recognized names. They have more experience (slightly). And they're supposed to contend for a title. Basically, everything is stacked against the Grizzlies. 

What else is new?

II. What happened? A Look at the Season Series

Believe it or not, the Grizzlies went 3-1 against the Thunder this year. That's right, the Grizzlies beat the Thunder three to one this season, with a win coming even after the Kendrick Perkins' trade. Most notable was a February tilt where the Grizzlies had played in Memphis against the Lakers and lost the night before. On the second night of a back to back, Memphis went into OKC, in their first game without Rudy Gay (after suffering the shoulder injury vs. L.A. the night before, and beat the Thunder. Tony Allen scored 27 points in that game. Weird things happen.

The consistent themes in the season series were what you'd expect. Zach Randolph and Kevin Durant went off. For two teams that stress defense so much, this wasn't a slugfest. It was a moderate-pace series with high offensive production.  The Grizzlies had a 111.6 offensive efficiency against the Thunder in the four games. That's high. The Thunder haven't been a great defensive team this season and the Grizzlies took advantage of it. The one Grizzlies loss? Kevin Durant dropped 40. 

III. The Easy Stuff: Kevin Durant Will Get His

Kevin Durant is the NBA's scoring leader. So yeah, he's pretty good. And he's going to get his in this series. The Grizzlies will have a similar approach against him as they had against Manu Ginobili. Tony Allen and Shane Battier will both spend time on him. And it won't really matter.  Durant averaged 28.9 points against Allen, shooting 49 percent.  But against Battier, he scored "only" 23.4 points per game, still on 49 percent shooting. Durant is going to draw fouls on Tony Allen, he's going to blow past Shane Battier. He's the best pure scorer in the NBA right now, and he is relentless. The Grizzlies don't have the help defense to shut him down.  He'll get looks from the perimeter. He'll get to the line. He'll get buckets. The question will be if he can go off for 30+ consistently against tough individual defense, which will force the Grizzlies to bring help, opening up opportunities for his teammates. It's not a matter of whether Durant will dominate, it's how and how much. 

IV. Secret of the Series: Just How Good is Kendrick Perkins?

Very good, is the answer to that question. But Perkins is still coming back from serious knee surgery. And he's going to be facing an extremely tough matchup along with Serge Ibaka. Perkins will likely spend the most time against Marc Gasol. Perkins is known as the guy who stopped Dwight Howard, but Gasol is a different type player. Not as athletic or explosive, obviously, but a legit seven-footer with good touch inside and most importantly, a big, burly body that can hammer in the post. 

Serge Ibaka versus Zach Randolph is all sorts of interesting. Randolph struggles against extremely long defenders, which Ibaka definitely fits the bill. But Ibaka can get worked by good post moves, which Z-Bo has, oh, about a billion of. Randolph hooked-and-shook Antonio McDyess, Tim Duncan, and DeJuan Blair, but Ibaka's going to be a younger, tougher matchup. On the other end of it, though, Ibaka's amped-up, emotion-fueled play is going to get frustrated because Randolph? He just scores. By hook or by crook, the guy gets it done, and leaves you wondering how he did it. 

V. The Dinosaur Narrative: Memphis Can't Handle the Pressure

Are you kidding me? The Grizzlies just faced down the 1 seed Spurs. They walked into San Antonio, took Game 1, and haven't lost a home game yet. The only thing that made it a six-game series was a shot even Manu Ginobili deemed "lucky." This team isn't going to be intimidated by any environment, any stakes. After winning their first playoff game ever, then their first playoff game in Memphis? Shane Battier said they're playing with house money. There's zero pressure on the Grizzlies. But how they respond to that is by attacking. 

We're going to be seeing something in this series that should give the NBA and its Board of Governors pause. The crowds will be insane in both houses in this series, in small-market cities that many say don't deserve teams. That insanity is going to fuel cash registers through merchandise, concessions, and season ticket packages. Maybe take a look at how good teams with great fanbases can be instead of teams in high-cost-of-living areas. 

VI. The Line-Item Veto:

PG: Mike Conley held his own against a discombobulated Tony Parker. Russell Westbrook has a chip on his shoulder after a frustrating and disappointing series against the Nuggets. Westbrook will likely see Tony Allen quite a bit, while Conley will have Westbrook attack his dribble to create turnovers. This is a huge advantage for the Thunder... if  Westbrook gets his decision making right. 

SG: Tony Allen thinks he can do too much on offense. But he can produce, and did against the Thunder this year with his season high. Thabo Sefolosha isn't asked to do too much, and he doesn't. But he's a capable defender who will neutralize a lot of the Grizzlies' perimeter opportunities. James Harden and O.J. Mayo is a matchup of two USC guys who can score and who can disappear. That matchup is going to be way bigger than people think. A big swing-vote player in this series? Sam Young, who is really a G/F who can attack at times and then get lost in ISO offense (a more polished Tony Allen, really). 

SF: Durant. Durant Durant. Durant Durant Durant Durant. Kevin Durant. 

PF: Hey, Ibaka is a really fun player. Z-Bo is an All-Star worthy player who just took out the Spurs nearly on his own. Gotta give Z-Bo the nod here. 

C: Call it a wash. Perkins' technique and toughness versus Gasol's size and muscle. 

Bench: The Grizzlies, all of a sudden, have a pretty good bench. Nick Collison versus Darrell Arthur is going to be a fun one to watch, with Nazr Mohammed in there for good measure. Mayo is dangerous but has yet to really go off, though he's been more of a playmaker in the playoffs. The Thunder have a solid bench, but not enough to make this a clear advantage. It's close. 

Coaching: No one expected either of these interim coaches to make it this far, nor to be this good. They both get their teams, and connect with their players. They've both made impressive adjustments in the playoffs. They're both former players with the respect of their organizations, players, and fans. This will be a great matchup. 

VII. Conclusion

Everything points towards a long, tough series. The matchups are actually pretty even. The Thunder have some holes no one is focusing on, and the Grizzlies are really good at exploiting those. The Grizz are over their heads, but playing without pressure. They have some legit stars, but not like OKC does. It looks like it'll be a great series. 

But Memphis... can't possibly... do it again... can they? 

We're going Thunder in five, because of the first game being Sunday at noon, a little over 36 hours from the Grizzlies' biggest game in franchise history. That sets a tone for the series. But as to whether we feel good about it? Well, ask the Spurs. 
Posted on: April 30, 2011 3:12 am
 

San Antonio Spurs: The end of an empire

The Spurs were ousted in the first round and everyone's begun the funeral song. But why does this feel so different than previous Spurs failures? 
Posted by Matt Moore




Maybe they'll come back. After all, they did win the most games in the West this season. They still feature three Hall of Famer players and a Hall of Fame coach. Maybe it was just lightning striking four times out of six in the same place. Maybe it was just Manu's elbow, or Duncan's knee, or fate or the Basketball Gods, or whatever. 

But it doesn't feel like it. 

There will be many, many eulogies for the Duncan-era Spurs in light of the Grizzlies' stunning first-round series win over San Antonio. Spurs fans will balk and guffaw at these claims, because heroes never die to their fans, or because they've already accepted that the championship-era Spurs are over. They'll point to the fact that the Spurs haven't won a title since 2007 as reasons why all this talk of the end of an empire is silly and overdramatic. But that's because they're in it. They're living it, every day, reliving series against the Lakers and Mavericks and Suns while approaching each season with faith. It's different for those of us outside of the palace walls, because this series respresented something different. It wasn't that the Spurs lost. Most expected that in these playoffs. It was the realization they couldn't win. 

The Spurs have lost in previous years but because the other teams had matchup advantages or a few things fell their way or the Spurs couldn't make the necessary adjustments. The losses didn't serve as judgment on the identity of the Spurs. To put it simply, the Spurs failed to win a championship because of other teams' ability to beat them, not fundamental flaws in the city walls that held the kingdom.  This loss?  To an upstart eighth seed without its highest paid player who tanked to play them, then took them out in the first game on their home floor and closed at every opportunity? Yes, the Grizzlies were better, and yes, they had matchup advantages. But there were moments where you expected the Spurs to do what the Spurs do and for that to be the difference. It wasn't. 

Tony Parker struggled with Mike Conley attaching his dribble. Manu Ginobili suffered when the Grizzlies responded to Ginobili's quickness by backing him down in the post. And Tim Duncan just plain struggled. The greatest power forward of all time found himself overwhelmed by a 26-year-old quick-footed center who is most commonly known as "Pau's little brother." Marc Gasol is a really great player, a future star in this league, maybe one now, after this series. But the Duncan that defined those teams would have tore him to pieces from mid-range with the bank-shot-straight-up. The Manu Ginobili who defined the mid-oo's run for the Spurs would have called timeout to reset the offense with the final possession of Game 3. The Tony Parker who won Finals MVP would not have had his play so thoroughly undercut by an attack on his handle. 

But beyond the Big 3? The Spurs of old would never have relied on the 3-pointer this way, would never have had to cover for a gigantic flaming neon defensive red target like Matt Bonner just to space the floor, would never have had to rely on Gary Neal and George Hill's mid-range jumpers to fall. They would have fallen back on clutch plays and defense, always defense. The Spurs' empire isn't over because their players got old, that's been happening for a long time and in reality, the team is pretty young. The Spurs' empire is crumbling because what made them the team you couldn't count out, now has become the very thing that makes you not that shocked at this shocker. A mediocre defensive club falls to a better one, a team that relies on an aging Tim Duncan is toppled by younger, more spritely bigs, the squad that allows Matt Bonner on the floor defensively is beset by easy scores and foul trouble when Matt Bonner can't contain his man in the post. There's nothing shocking here, not if you've been paying attention.

Afterwards, Gregg Popovich was his usual self. Congratulatory to Memphis, classy in defeat, dismissive of dramatics like the question of the end of the Spurs' run. If they go out, they go out on their own terms. The franchise that defined class, humilty, and above all, excellence, would not go out in a pitiful blow-up of egos or blame. They simply hugged their worthy opponent, packed their things, and headed home. 

Spurs fans may have already come to terms with the end of an era, or rationalized that there will be no end, only a transition. But for the rest of us, the Grizzlies' shock of the world serves as a reminder of the mortality of dynasties. It's not just that the Spurs lost a first-round series to an 8th seed. They lost to a team more willing to grind, more willing to defend, more able to close. What is it about these Spurs that make them seem so far removed from what defined those great, inevitable Spurs teams? Just think back to what we saw from the upstarts, the team that simply wanted it more. That's what means the empire has reached its end. 
Posted on: April 30, 2011 2:22 am
 

Grizzlies defeat Spurs: Grading the series

Memphis Grizzlies do the unbelievable, knock off the 1 Seed Spurs in Game 6. Here are grades for the series. 
Posted by Matt Moore




Memphis Grizzlies:
Zach Randolph: Sometimes your guy is just better than the other guys' guy. Zach Randolph has been the model of consistency his entire career in terms of statistical production. But never has the change he underwent when he became part of Memphis been on showcase like it was in Game 6. 17 fourth-quarter points, and clutch basket after clutch basket. His decision making has been phenomenally better in terms of understanding when to take his man off the dribble or in the post and when to reset or repost. He was simply unstoppable when the Grizzlies needed him most. The toughest shots in the biggest moments. That's what you rely on your guy for. And when Memphis needed a hero, it was Zach Randolph who stepped up. 

Grade: A+

Lionel Hollins: Hollins is the ultimate players' coach. He's a guy who's been there, who's tried to get that contract you need so badly, who's tried to fight through adversity in the face of perception, who's dealt with the media's criticism. When he says he knows what they're going through, they can believe him. But Hollins showed in the first-round a stunning understanding of adjustments, counter-adjustments, and rotations. He managed to play Tony Allen in spots and lineups where he could be effective without trying to do too much. He consistently relied on post-play from his two strongest players. He helped turn Mike Conley into a wash vs. Parker. He did things like say "Okay, Manu Ginobili, you're going to do your crazy Euro-step stuff and blow past Shane Battier? That's fine. We're going to post you and see how you like life in the block." He also constantly attacked Matt Bonner as the defensive weakpoint, exposing the soft underbelly of the team's inside play. Hollins out-coached Gregg Popovich. Who saw that coming? Oh, yeah, and a game after they fell in the most gut-wrenching way possible, his team responded in the biggest game in franchise history with confidence and swagger. 

Grade: A+

Mike Conley: Conley was limited by foul trouble in Game 6 and never got in a rhythm. That does not take away from the unbelievable work he did on Parker throughout this series. Conley, who couldn't hang with Parker's penetration, instead attacked his dribble, forcing turnovers. Conley rarely forced his offense too much and trusted his teammates. He was the perfect cog and showed why Chris Wallace looks like a genius all of a sudden for giving him that extension.

Grade: B

Tony Allen: The "Tony Allen ISO Project" is a house band that starts to play when Allen gets the ball on the perimeter, as Allen believes he can create off the dribble. And it often results in terrible shots and wasted possessions. But without that desperate hero-play, you wouldn't get what makes it all worth it, his stellar defense. Allen is the most active defender in the league, and the pressure he applied on the Spurs' passing lanes was a huge part in creating the turnovers the Grizzlies capitalized on in this series. He fell for Manu's pump-fake time and time again, and still made his presence felt.

Grade: B

Bench: Darrell Arthur, Greivis Vasquez, Shane Battier, O.J. Mayo. Where did these guys come from? The bench stepped up in a big way for Memphis and what was their weakest element has become strong. Arthur in particular made a huge difference in this series. 

Grade: A-

Memphis, TN: Once again showing that if you give small-market fans a chance, they'll respond like nothing in sports. 

Grade: A

San Antonio Spurs

Gregg Popovich: Relying on Matt Bonner. Trusting Richard Jefferson early. Not bringing enough help on Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph. Failing to attack players in foul trouble. Seriously, letting Matt Bonner on the floor actually happened a lot. Gregg Poppovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. But he was out-coached in this series. He was partially unable to adjust because of the roster he and R.C. Buford helped put together, but he also couldn't get back to the kind of defense that won them four championships. He was just another coach with a great offense undone by better defense. 

Grade: D

Manu Ginobili: Ginobili hit some good luck shots. He made some big plays. But he didn't have the extra gear he needed, and when it came down to it, twice in four games he made crucial poor decisions which ended his team's comeback chances. His lack of poise in calling a timeout in Game 3 and a panicked cross-court jump-pass turnover in Game 6 sealed Memphis' fate. Whether his elbow injury was legitimate or not, Ginobili was not the Manu of old. Had he been, the Spurs may not be headed home.

Grade: C+

Matt Bonner:  If you have a player on the floor who the offense specifically attacks on nearly every possession and nearly every possession results in either points or a desperation foul to avoid points? Maybe, just maybe, that guy's offense isn't worth keeping him on the floor. Matt Bonner is used to wide-open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Instead the Grizzlies constantly ran him off and disrupted the passing lanes to interupt the pass and catch. Then on defense, the Grizzlies posted Bonner every time. Bonner is too much of a defensive liability to remain on the floor. Darrel Arthur's athletic plays? Bonner'd. Arthur's mid-range jumpers? Bonner'd. Randolph with easy slip-ins? Bonner'd. Marc Gasol drawing foul after foul to put Memphis in the bonus early? Bonner'd. The Spurs Bonner'd themselves. The Spurs used to rely on veteran tough guys like Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, and Robert Horry. Now they rely on Matt Bonner. 

Grade: D

Gary Neal: Showed a lot of promise and huge onions as a rookie, including a game-saving 3 to force it to a sixth game. Neal showed an impressive poise and clutch shooting the Spurs lacked. 

Grade: B

Antonio McDyess: Injured. Overmatched. Desperate. Antonio McDyess kept fighting. The saddest part of the fall of the Spurs is this classy, reliable veteran won't get the ring he's worked so hard for. He did everything he could against Randolph. There wasn't anything anyone could do. 

Grade: A-

Tim Duncan: Let's just ignore what happened so we don't have to deal with our own mortality, shall we?

Grade: Incomplete
 
 
 
 
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