By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Point guard Mike Conley, despite a right hamstring strain that could limit his mobility and effectiveness, was hoping to play for the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 7 against the Thunder Saturday in Oklahoma City.
Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph doesn’t have that option, sending coach Dave Joerger scrambling through his.
Randolph was suspended by the NBA late Friday afternoon for punching OKC big man Steven Adams in the jaw late in Game 6. The penalty deprives Memphis of its leading scorer (18.2 ppg) and rebounder (8.7 rpg) in the series, unclogs the defensive paint for the Grizzlies in a way the Thunder hadn’t managed to and appears to deal a severe blow to the No. 7 seed’s chances of extending its season.
Oh, the advanced stats might suggest otherwise. Randolph has a minus-5.3 plus/minus average through the first six games, and Memphis’ offensive and defensive ratings have been better when the big man has been sitting: 93.4 and 101.4 with him on the floor (-6.6) vs. 111.2 and 103.9 (+3.3) without him.
But the teams’ rotations and matchups factor into those numbers significantly in such a small sample size, and voices from both sides have lauded the Grizzlies’ size as a reason for Kevin Durant‘s and Russell Westbrook‘s difficulties attacking the rim and drifting to perimeter shots.
With the 6-foot-9, 253-pound power forward out of Memphis’ equation, his replacements – Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer – might not have the same effect.
Meanwhile, Conley – Charles Barkley‘s “most underrated point guard in the league” – could be slowed despite two days of treatment on his hamstring. Especially if Joerger feels a need to pick up the pace in Randolph’s absence; Conley has been a master of running and controlling the tempo of his club’s halfcourt attack.
The late-afternoon announcement of Randolph’s suspension, on top of the way it was dealt with in real time Thursday night – Randolph was assessed a common foul, no flagrant, no review, no ejection – produced some nasty Internet comments. Some accused the NBA of favoring Oklahoma City and Durant, the league’s presumptive 2014 Most Valuable Player, for star power and alleged heightened interest for TV ratings.
The only problem with that: Randolph did pop Adams in the jaw with his right fist as the two ran upcourt together. In fact, he first elbowed the Thunder reserve with his left elbow before reaching across to punch him.
Adams didn’t seem to be hurt, judging by video replay, and the incident at 6:42 of the fourth quarter at FedEx Forum brought a whistle but not drama on the floor. The OKC rookie does seem to use his raw-boned strength intentionally to antagonize opponents.
But Randolph could have reacted differently, recoiling from whatever contact Adams caused in that moment or previously or even just rising above it. Memphis trailed at that point 88-71 and was showing no signs of denting the Thunder’s lead. The reasonable tact for the Grizzlies forward would have been to file away whatever Adams was doing to irritate him and battle another day, as in Game 7.
Now he doesn’t have that chance. And the Grizzlies might be out of theirs.