HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – This is where the coaching carousel business starts to get a little silly.
The Grizzlies are coming off the greatest overall season in franchise history which included their first trip to the Western Conference finals. They have a solid roster and an excellent coach in Lionel Hollins, who has publicly expressed his desire to stick around and try to take the Grizzlies to that next level.
“Hopefully, I will be here,” Hollins said. “I love the guys. I love this city and the fans and everybody associated with the team. But we’ve got to be very, very realistic in what the future holds.”
When a man speaks like that, you have to wonder what’s not being said. What’s the hold up for the Grizzlies?
The Grizzlies are not going to publicly negotiate with their soon-to-be free-agent coach. And Hollins would be wise to use whatever leverage he has to get the deal he wants (and deserves). There are, after all, only four coaches in the league who can say they took their team to the postseason’s final four.
While a handful of teams around the league, including the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers (L.A. owner Donald Sterling was reportedly at Game 1 of the Western Conference finals observing Hollins) are searching for the right coaching fit or the next Hollins or Frank Vogel, the Grizzlies have the guy that fits perfectly with their roster under contract until June 30.
If it’s just numbers they are dealing with in the negotiations, fine. Both sides want the best deal possible, and there’s still time to haggle over details. But if there is more going on here, if there are some philosophical differences between Hollins, Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien and his front-office staff, there is no telling where things are headed.
If the Grizzlies think that a different coach can get the same things out of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and the rest of a team that, up until being swept by the San Antonio Spurs, looked like a team built to compete for a championship, they better be sure.
Proven commodities in the coaching ranks don’t always pan out in every situation (just ask the Los Angeles Lakers how that Mike D’Antoni thing is working out). Hollins has already shown what he’s made of. He didn’t take over an elite team, but the Grizzlies have become exactly that under his stewardship.
Why anyone would want to tinker with that chemistry, with that tangible success, is beyond me!
Hollins wants to stay in Memphis. He loves his team, the city and the direction the franchise is heading in with the new ownership and management.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Paul McCartney played the FedExForum Sunday night and during one of his several
soliloquies to the sold-out crowd he marveled at the cross-generational audiences that come to hear him play, a phenomenon that transcends time and age to create a seemingly eternal, ethereal world.
Inside the same arena Monday night, another traveling road show continued to manipulate their own timelines of age and accomplishment. The San Antonio Spurs aren’t quite working on a half-century of brilliance like Sir Paul, but in sports years, the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan partnership is as apt a comparison as one will find in the modern sports world.
Think about it. When they won their first title in 1999, today’s college freshmen were in kindergarten. Teenagers then now have their own kids wearing Duncan’s No. 21 jersey just as they did. This is as unique as it gets: A transcendent player and a gruff, no-nonsense coach — add a crafty and clever general manager in R.C. Buford who helps to draft Tony Parker late in the first round and Manu Ginobili late in the second — and all these years later it’s the same as it ever was, the Spurs back in the NBA Finals like it was, well, yesterday.
Duncan and Pop will vie for a fifth championship in 15 seasons and a fourth comprised as the Big Three. They finished the job with a 93-86 win for a sweep of the overmatched Memphis Grizzlies in their maiden voyage to the Western Conference finals.
“To get over that hump and get back into the Finals is just an amazing feeling, honestly,” said the 37-year-old Duncan after going for 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. “Nothing’s promised. Teams continue to change. Teams continue to get better every year and we seem to make minimal changes and we continue to play and compete a high level.”
Too high for a Memphis team that is now, having completed a 12th season here, truly attracting a generation of its own basketball fans that cut their teeth with a college team that plays in the same building.
These four straight losses came entirely unsuspectingly after the Grizz took out the Los Angeles Clippers in six and then top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in five. But it can’t diminish the wild success of this group during a drama-filled season, and the 17th consecutive playoff sellout crowd that encouraged their blue-collar club to the final buzzer proved it by standing and loudly cheering them off into the abrupt offseason. (more…)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Two weeks ago Zach Randolph carried the Memphis Grizzlies out of the second round for the first time in franchise history, averaging 18.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg. Two weeks prior he bludgeoned Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers with nearly 57-percent shooting to rally his team from an 0-2 hole.
T-shirts being sold on downtown’s Main St. read “Fear the Beast,” surrounding a face that is part Grizzly mascot and part Z-Bo. Just as the bandwagon had swelled to capacity in honor of Randolph’s four-year reclamation in Memphis, this headbanded beast can’t even buy a free throw in this quickly-slipping-away Western Conference finals.
The Spurs, with Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner, have done what Griffin andSerge Ibakacould not. They have sedated the beast by suffocation.
“I mean, I’m a decoy, it’s respect. I got the whole team focused on me, two or three guys,” Randolph said after Memphis’ Monday morning shootaround in preparation for tonight’s do-or-die Game 4 at FedExForum (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). “I’ve got to make plays and be a decoy.
“I’m all about winning. If it opens up for me, fine. But if we can win and knock shots down I’ll be happy with that. I’ve just got to do the best I can in picking my spots because the attention is on me. I’ve got a guy in front of me, a guy behind me; [they're] leaving the guys in the corner and we’ve got to knock down shots. So it’s just about winning with me.”
Sounds like Z-Bo has a lot on his mind. Either that or the Spurs’ defensive strategy is inside it and kicking things around.
Surrounded by defenders virtually each time the ball comes to him on the block, Randolph is missing shots from distances he typically drops with ease. Instead he’s made just 11 of his last 32 field-goal attempts after his ominous 1-for-8, two-point start to the series. Equally if not more disturbing for the career-76.5-percent foul shooter is that he can’t bail himself out at the line, going 7-for-16, including in the last two overtime losses including critical late-game misses.
“What we’ve done is the best job we can,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’re just trying to make the bigs work for what they get. They’re very talented, very active. It’s impossible to stop them but we’re going to do the best job we can to limit them.”
The other half of “them” Popovich refers is 7-foot-1 center Marc Gasol, who hasn’t been able to make the Spurs pay for saddling Randolph. Gasol is 18-for-46 from the floor.
After a slow scoring start to the Clippers series, although he shot a high percentage, Randolph averaged 20.8 ppg. Oklahoma City block machine Ibaka made life tough for Randolph, whose shooting percentage dipped to 44.6, but he was highly effective, going for 51 points and 26 rebounds in the final two games of that series.
The Spurs are simply being far more effective than OKC harassing Randolph. They’re packing the paint and welcoming the few Grizz shooters on the roster to fire up jumpers. Quincy Pondexter, 9-for-19 from beyond the arc in the series is on his own. Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless are a combined 6-for-25.
If all that makes for a bleak Memphis outlook, consider that no team has ever won a series after falling behind 3-0. Demoralization can hit swiftly in a Game 4 as the emotional and mental stresses become overwhelming against such steep odds.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, whose team has improved each season under his guidance, had a message for each of his players as they take the floor tonight.
“The motivation is just to go out and have pride and do whatever you can do,” Hollins said. “If they’re better than you, they’re better than you. But don’t quit and don’t go out there with a quitter’s attitude and just go through the motions; and the game is fairly close and you can walk away and say ‘this happened and that happened, that’s why we didn’t win.’ But if you just tie up your boot straps and reach down inside of you and be who you are and give all you have, and give a little more that you didn’t think you had, then possibilities are out there.
“That’s what it’s about. It’s about the big picture. Because if you give up now in an adverse situation, you’ll give up on life in an adverse situation. You’re trying to prove your character, your integrity and your self-worth. This is how you prove it. You go out and earn it.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins has told his players to ignore the nonsense that says no team has ever come back from the 3-0 hole they have dug against the so-far unflappable San Antonio Spurs.
“My hope is for us to not listen to you guys [the media] and say that it’s never been done before and it’s just a matter of time before the series is over, and to reach down in their souls and dig for something they didn’t know they had,” Hollins said. “Because that’s what you have to do to win a championship.”
The Grizzlies took the practice floor on Sunday for possibly the final time in this historic season that has seen a franchise-record 56 wins and a first-ever trip to the West finals. It is possible that Hollins could be coaching in his final game with the Grizzlies. His contract expires next month.
But that is a subject for a different day. The Grizzlies were doing their best to keep spirits up and talking about pride on and how to extend their season one game at a time.
“We have a lot of pride in this team and this city,” point guard Mike Conley said. “It’s more than just basketball here. And we owe it to ourselves, owe it to the fans to not get swept and embarrassed on our home court.”
The Grizz have lost three in a row for the first time since back in January. In each round of the postseason they’ve had to come from behind. They trailed the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0 and Oklahoma City 1-0. Both times they came back to win four in a row. It’s now the only option left after dropping consecutive overtime decisions.
“We have to understand that we still could have won those games and it easily could have been 2-1 in our favor,” Conley said. “We should be confident enough in ourselves and believe in ourselves that we can win and extend the series.”
But bouncing back from Saturday’s loss, the Grizzlies’ first of the postseason at The Grindhouse, won’t be easy. They played a near-flawless first quarter and opened an 18-point lead. It was whittled down to four by halftime and in OT the Spurs cruised to the victory.
A desperation win Monday night would shift the series back to San Antonio for Game 5 on Wednesday and then a potential Game 6 in Memphis on Friday.
“Now you have no margin of error,” Marc Gasol said. “We have a lot of pride and we don’t quit. You get swept, you get swept, but you’ve got to play as hard as you can. We play hard. You look at at both games, they both went to overtime. They played better than us in both overtimes, but we fought back and we came out the way we’re supposed to and we had a lot of pride.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Six years ago those boring old San Antonio Spurs were winning another title and then Tony Parker was jetting to Paris to wed Eva Longoria and Tim Duncan, we think, was happily married and that barren pasture on top of Manu Ginobili‘s dome, well, the recessive gene hadn’t quite kicked in.
“Mmm, you could see it a little,” Ginobili said.
The point is a lot has changed over six years. And then something like Saturday night happens, a 103-94 Spurs overtime win that might as well have dialed back the calendar to 2007 or heck even ’05. Even as San Antonio has retooled, added snipers to transform the old plodders into a high-powered offensive juggernaut and significantly reduced the median age all around the Big Three, it was the Big Three on this night that carried them to the brink of a fourth Finals appearance together and the fifth in the Duncan-Gregg Popovich era that now bridges three consecutive decades.
This vintage performance ripped the heart and likely the soul right out of the Memphis Grizzlies, who hoped to ride a first-ever Western Conference finals home game in front of a 16th consecutive playoff sellout crowd back into this series.
They were this close, a missed Mike Conley floater that would have won it at the buzzer in regulation. The irony had it gone down would have been that Ginobili, stuffing the stat sheet in every way, opened the door with a missed 3-pointer with 20.9 seconds to play. Memphis called timeout and Ginobili, on the bench, was so upset with himself that if he had hair longer than an eighth-of-an-inch he’d have yanked it straight out.
“Yes, of course I was upset because I made a very similar one a few minutes before and I thought I had a good opportunity to almost close the game and I missed it,” Ginobili said. “They had 20 seconds to win it and it could have been painful to lose like that.”
The start of Game 3 was painful for the Spurs, who couldn’t quite believe what was happening after all the talk of “Remember Last Year,” two wins away from their first Finals berth since ’07 and then wiped out four in a row by Oklahoma City.
Eight turnovers in the first quarter with four by Parker in the first two minutes as he called it maybe “the worst start of my career.” Down 18 points before the first 12 minutes were up. The Grindhouse in full throaty howl. With 4:53 left in the opening quarter and Memphis up 16-5, Popovich called a 20-second timeout and sat all five starters, pinning the first eight minutes as “one of the worst starts I have ever seen.”
“The first half I was grandfatherly and in the second half, what word can I say?” Popovich said. “I was ugly because I wasn’t going to watch it again.”
By the end of the night, with Duncan scoring the first five points of a breeze of an overtime considering the grinding hell of the first 48 minutes, the victory was being hailed as momentous by those who have seen it all on a team that has seemingly done it all. But as Parker said with a believing smile: “This is one of the best wins since I’ve been here with Timmy and Pop.”
Ginobili: “One of the best wins I’ve witnessed being a Spur.”
These are proud players wearing the uniform of a proud franchise and they all know that this kind of thing can’t last forever. It probably shouldn’t have lasted this long with Duncan now 37 and breaking down at 35, and Ginobili 35 and warding off injury with every maniacal drive and Parker a high-mileage 31 with enough nagging injuries from head to toe to suffice for a lifetime.
Just two years ago, right here, the up-and-coming Grizzlies again read the Spurs their last rites, an eighth-seed toppling a tired, creaking No. 1 in the first round. But then this happens and the fairy tale keeps going. The Big Three in Game 3: 69 points, 21 rebounds, 15 assists. Nothing coming easy. Everything earned. Tiago Splitter‘s 11 points amounted to the only other double-figure scoring the Spurs got outside The Big Three.
The Spurs can pull off a most unexpected sweep on Monday night in Game 4 back at Memphis’ FedExForum. They’ve now taken out the Grizz with a blowout in Game 1, avoided a late collapse to win in overtime in Game 2 and then clawed back from the horrific start when the Grizzlies were making steals and fastbreaking and fueling their fans with belief.
Parker, who simply terrorizes these defensive-minded Grizzlies, finished with a game-high 26 points and five assists. After his turnover frenzy in the first two minutes, he had three more the rest of the game, logging 44 minutes. Duncan was phenomenal setting screens, battling inside for 10 boards to go with 24 points and five assists in 44 minutes, leaving Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph out of answers.
The last time Duncan logged as many as 44 minutes in a single game? Dec. 27, 2008.
And Ginobili, the warrior who ripped away rebounds to give him seven for the game, fed teammates for five assists and twice in the final 90 seconds of regulation came out of a timeout to backdoor on Quincy Pondexter, the second time fouling out Memphis’ best perimeter option who had hit three of the team’s seven 3-pointers.
“Those were huge,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of those four of Ginobili’s 19 points. “They hurt us.”
The Spurs will look to apply the final hurt on Monday night and if they do put away the Grizz, they’ll await the surviving combatant from an Eastern Conference series that could go on for a while.
That’ll suit those old boring Spurs just fine.
“We’ve been old for probably eight years now,” Ginobili said. “I remember in 2007, our last championship, they were saying that we were old, and it’s all right. I guess we are. But we play well, we play together and every year we are out there contending. That’s a great thing.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The least-talked about story throughout this postseason run by the Memphis Grizzlies has been the late January trade of leading scorer Rudy Gay. In fact, it really hasn’t been a topic of discussion at all.
That’s probably because the Grizz have done quite well — thank you very much — without him. They posted a team regular-season-best 56 wins and are in the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. And, look, you can’t find an analytics guy worth his scientific calculator to suggest the Grizz even remotely miss Gay, a small forward the number-crunchers view disdainfully as a black hole. Gay, with a rap as an inefficient scorer who took shots away from big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and also apparently stunted the growth of point guard Mike Conley.
But, desperately needing a first win in Game 3 this series against the San Antonio Spurs Saturday night at the FedExForum (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), what would the Grizz give to just have a scoring threat on the perimeter? The Spurs are jamming up the paint because there’s no repercussion for leaving Memphis’ wings open.
Gay’s replacement, Tayshaun Prince, has not been good offensively. OK, so maybe some of that had to do with him chasing Kevin Durant for three quarters every game in the second round. There’s no doubt that Prince — with his 6-foot-9 frame and long, gangly arms — is a better defender than Gay, more team-oriented on the offensive end and will move the ball before he puts up a contested shot.
But, at some point, the Grizz have got to get some scoring from their starting small forward — who hasn’t scored in double figures since May 3, Game 6 of the Clippers series in the first round.
In the first two games of the West finals he’s 3-for-10 from the field for eight points. He’s taken two free throws. That has a lot to do with why Prince played just 16 minutes in Game 2, scoring a playoff-low two points, while reserve Quincy Pondexter logged 37 minutes — and scored just seven points with nine rebounds.
Since then, a hot topic has been the possibility for coach Lionel Hollins to alter his starting five. However, on Friday, Hollins said he has no plans to make such a move.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Prince said. “I’ve always been that way and nothing changes for me. Whatever happens, happens. I’ve never been in a position where I’m worried or concerned about how I’m shooting. I just have to continue to stay confident and when the shots are available take them.”
No one will ever confuse Prince for being a volume scorer or shooter such as Gay. Prince’s best scoring season was 14.7 ppg back in 2004-05. His career scoring average 12.6 ppg on 45.8 percent shooting. The Grizz would be thrilled with such an uptick.
“He’s going to come along. I believe in him,” said shooting guard Tony Allen, whose scoring and shooting percentage have tapered off this series to playoff low 8.0 ppg and 35.7 percent from the floor. “I ain’t really worried about that too much. I know he can ball, so I believe in him.”
Prince’s scoring average and shooting percentage has dropped with each series from 8.5 and 40.4 percent against the Clippers; to 6.2 and 29.5 percent against the Thunder; and now 4.0 and 30.0 in the first two games against the Spurs. OK, so maybe some of that has to do with Prince being guarded by Durant last round and now Spurs up-and-comer Kawhi Leonard.
So how can Prince get jump-started? Everyone associated with Memphis is talking about pace. Not running up and down the floor like they’re the Nuggets, which they’re not, but simply by pushing the ball into the halfcourt quicker and getting into their sets earlier in the shot clock. They believe they’re dragging, whether it’s taking the ball out of bounds or off defensive rebounds, and allowing the disciplined Spurs’ defense to clamp down and force too many bad shots with the clock ticking down.
“No question,” Hollins said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to preach this whole series is we need to get up and down the court and not let San Antonio set their defense and call plays with 15 seconds left on the shot clock.”
Prince said it should be evident in the first quarter Saturday if the Grizz are indeed successfully quickening the pace.
“It will kind of dictate how we shoot the ball,” Prince said. “We have to get into our pace a lot quicker and those shots will come a little bit more natural, come a little bit more easier. You’ll have more rhythm shots, more rhythm opportunities.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Locations change. Games change. Series change. Nobody knows that better than the Spurs and the Grizzlies.
This time a year ago, the Spurs were in precisely the same spot with a 2-0 lead and halfway home in the Western Conference finals. Then the Thunder reeled off four straight wins and suddenly it was summer in San Antonio.
Barely a month ago, the Grizzlies fell behind 0-2 in the first round of the playoffs to the Clippers. Then Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and the NBA’s best defense ripped off four in a row and began their deepest playoff run in franchise history.
That could be what it will take now for the Grizzlies to get up off the floor and keep moving forward.
There’s little doubt that for the Grizzlies to win four out of five games against San Antonio, they’re going to need an effective Z-Bo in the middle of their offense, throwing around his bulk and wreaking havoc in the low post.
But, while Randolph did miss more than a few easy shots at the AT&T Center (“tightest rims in the league,” he said), there has also been the matter of a Spurs defense that blatantly collapses and doubles on Z-Bo because the Memphis perimeter shooting has been so horrid.
For all of his high energy and ability to make something out of nothing at times, Randolph does need room to operate with the way the Grizzles are misfiring so bad from the outside, he’s apt to continue getting smothered by the Spurs.
The Grizzlies‘ starting pair of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince has made just 8 of their 24 shots from the field in the first two games. Prince has been especially woeful at 3-for-10, and it could be time for coach Lionel Hollins to put Quincy Pondexter into the starting lineup at small forward for Prince — and even consider getting Jerryd Bayless onto the floor much earlier in games.
It was the combination of Conley, Pondexter and Bayless playing with the Randolph and Gasol that enabled the Grizzlies to find an offensive rhythm for the first time in the series during the second half of Game 2.
Prince has had production go steadily downhill since the first round of the playoffs, and it’s gotten to the point where he is also a liability on defense. It be too early to say where this is just a bad match and bad series or whether the 33-year-old former defensive stopper is showing his age. But there’s no mistaking that his opposite number, the 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard, is winning the matchup easily. Leonard has size, strength, quickness and energy to run the floor, get rebounds, chase down loose ball and make shots against Prince.
It was always going to be difficult for Memphis to keep up with a Spurs offense that likes to play at a faster tempo and has more weapons and more ways to score. But the Grizzlies can’t afford to dig themselves a deeper hole by employing a lineup that is only 3/5 of a threat to score, even if they should get a bounce from being at home in the Grindhouse for Games 3-4.
History says that in the history of the NBA playoffs have lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series and come back to win. Of course, both of these teams have experience with that history, although from opposite sides.
“We’re in a great spot, but if you look at it, it’s the same spot we were last year,” said the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili. “It doesn’t mean at all that we’re going to make it just because we won the first two. We have to go there and try to win one.
“If it’s the third [game], it’s better. We’ve been here. We know that it’s not over until you win the fourth. So we just have to stay humble, keep working hard, definitely try to get one [in] Memphis.”
Locations change. Games change. Series sometimes change.
But sometimes it takes a lineup change to make it happen.
TEAMS THAT HAVE RALLIED FROM 0-2 IN A BEST-OF-SEVEN PLAYOFF SERIES
–Celtics vs Lakers 1969 NBA Finals
–Lakers vs. Warriors 1969 Western Division semifinals
–Bullets vs. Knicks 1971 Eastern Conference finals
–Trail Blazers vs. 76ers 1977 NBA Finals
–Bulls vs Knicks 1993 Eastern Conference finals
–Rockets vs. Suns 1994 Western Conference semifinals
–Rockets vs. Suns 1995 Western Conference semifinals
–Lakers vs. Spurs 2004 Western Conference semifinals
–Mavericks vs. Rockets 2005 Western Conference first round
–Wizards vs. Bulls 2005 Eastern Conference first round
–Heat vs. Mavericks 2006 NBA Finals
–Jazz vs. Rockets 2007 Western Conference first round
–Cavaliers vs. Pistons 2007 Eastern Conference finals
–Spurs vs. Hornets 2008 Western Conference semifinals
–Thunder vs. Spurs 2012 Western Conference finals
–Grizzlies vs. Cippers 2013 Western Conference first round
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The 15 players selected to the All-NBA team every season earn a place in NBA lore that is rarely celebrated the way fans do All-Star bids.
Weighing the two, however, is a battle that shouldn’t be a fair fight. An All-star nod is often based on reputation and how well someone is playing early in a given season. The All-NBA team measures the best of the very best the league has to offer in a season. The team consists of the 15 best players (by position) in the league.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Thursday, the NBA released this year’s squad. But what about the future? What might that team look like in say, three seasons, when Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, stalwarts on All-NBA teams the past two decades, are no longer active?
What is the makeup of the All-NBA team in the future? What does the league look like three seasons from now?
We take a look, courtesy of the HT (Hang Time) Time Machine, at the future All-NBA Teams …
2015-16 All-NBA First Team
F LeBron James, Miami Heat: No one was sure if LeBron would stick around South Beach after the Heat won those back-to titles in 2014 and 2015. But he watched his good friend Dwyane Wade retire after the last one and vowed to finish his career in a Heat uniform as well. There are no signs of his skills diminishing either. He bounced back masterfully after the Heat were beaten soundly by the Memphis Grizzlies in The Finals in 2013. James has reinvented himself as the epitome of a point forward during the second act of his Hall-of-Fame career, leading the league in assists this season with 12.7 per game. He’s still chasing Michael Jordan‘s six championships standard, though the comparisons to Magic Johnson are much more appropriate, and at 32 he still has plenty of time left.
F Paul George, Indiana Pacers: Three straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals without a breakthrough performance would be a mental and emotional setback for most stars, but not George. He’s done nothing but build on that All-Star berth in his third NBA season. George has blossomed into the closest thing to a legitimate challenger to LeBron’s throne. He interrupted LeBron’s MVP flow in 2015, when he stunned the hoops world by averaging a triple-double (24.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 10.0 assists) while leading the Pacers to a franchise-record 63 wins and finished as the MVP runner-up this season. The only threshold left for George to cross is to lead the Pacers past LeBron and the Heat into The 2016 Finals.
C Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol served as the backbone for the Grizzlies’ 2013 championship team, though Zach Randolph walked away with Finals MVP honors, and solidified his status as the most complete big man in the game with his performance each season since. While he’s never piled up the kind of impressive numbers that would allow him to stick out historically among players at his position, Gasol does have three Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards on his mantle and a championship on his resume. If Ed Davis can replace Randolph as Gasol’s tag-team partner in the low post, the Grizzlies could have another run or two in them before it’s time to break this veteran crew up and start over.
G James Harden, Houston Rockets: The two-time (and counting) scoring champ, Harden has supplanted his former teammate and friend Kevin Durant as the league’s most prolific scorer. He’s averaged 30 or more points in three straight seasons, including this one (31.7) and has led the Rockets to the playoffs in each of his four seasons in Houston. Harden has evolved into more than just a scorer, too, leading the Rockets in assists (7.6) and steals (2.3) while adjusting to playing alongside Patrick Beverly in the starting lineup instead of sixth man Jeremy Lin. Harden’s career went to another level since he radically changed his look in training camp before the 2013-14 season by shaving off his trademark beard and mohawk in favor of a bald head and clean-shaven face. Who knew?
G Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors: With his ankle injuries behind him, the sweet-shooting Curry finally claims the first-team spot from Chris Paul and a crowded, star-studded point guard field. Curry’s work as a shooter — he’s shot 45 percent or better from beyond the 3-point line every season since 2011-12 — overshadows the fact that he’s become the consummate playmaker and leader for the league’s most exciting team. Curry put together a 20-10 season at the point (23.6 points and 10.4 assists), the only point guard to do so in the past three seasons, while leading the Warriors to a top four finish in the Western Conference playoff chase for the third straight season. With Curry and Klay Thompson (still the league’s best-shooting backcourt) as the catalysts, the Warriors are trying to crash the conference finals party. (more…)
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When a couple small-market Western Conference teams battled for seven grueling games in the semifinals of the playoffs two years ago, who could have foreseen that they would meet again this postseason — after each was forced to deal with the inescapable repercussions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement?
Rudy Gay was injured and out of that postseason two years ago. But at only 24 and locked into a lucrative contract, the No. 8 pick of the 2006 NBA Draft was a central figure for the fast-rising Memphis Grizzlies. Yet on Jan. 30, 2013, Gay, the team’s leading scorer, was traded to Toronto.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder were coming off a loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals when, days before this season began, Thunder general manager Sam Presti dealt former No. 3 pick James Harden, just 23 and an integral part of the team’s success, to Houston.
In a postseason marked by a surprising domination of small-market teams — all four teams remaining in the playoffs are in the bottom half of the league in market size — the second-round showdown between the Grizzlies and Thunder (won by the Grizzlies in five games) demonstrated just what many teams have to do to thrive in the era of the still-new CBA.
“With the rules set up the way they are, there’s minimal room for error,” said Jason Levien, the first-year CEO of the Grizzlies under a new ownership group led by one of the world’s youngest tech billionaires, Robert Pera. “You’ve got to be very thoughtful in your approach to how you build your team, how you build a roster, and you’ve got to keep the cap and the tax in mind.”
Avoiding the taxes
Cap and tax are at the forefront of the strategy the Oklahoma City management team is using under the ownership of billionaire energy mogul Clay Bennett. Presti, who has managed to re-sign superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, plus emerging power forward Serge Ibaka, to long-term deals that fit within the team’s cap structure, chose to hold firm to a policy of not commenting on matters related to the CBA.
In Memphis, where the Grizzlies will look to start digging out of a 2-0 hole against the San Antonio Spurs in Saturday’s Game 3 of the West finals (9 p.m., ESPN), Levien has defended the trade of Gay (for veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince and youngsters Ed Davis and Austin Daye) as being made to improve the team.
While that might be true — Memphis won a franchise-best 56 games after a strong start with Gay — the Grizzlies also got out of the $37.2 million owed to Gay over the next two seasons. Memphis will pay Prince, Davis and Daye a combined $26 million over that span ($22 million if Daye is not retained beyond next season). With Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley owed a combined $40.9 million next season, keeping Gay and a payroll under the tax line (this season it was $70.3 million) would have been a near-impossibility. (more…)
SAN ANTONIO — It was early in the third quarter when Zach Randolph simply did the kind of thing that he does.
Mike Conley had driven into the teeth of the Spurs defense and had his layup attempt pop out. So there was Randolph, all 260 pounds and city-block wide of him of him, rising up out of the crowd in the paint to tap the ball back into the basket. It was notable only because Randolph had taken seven previous shots and not made a single one.
Z-Bo had been Z-B000000.
When itwas finally over, Randolph had just those two points to his name, which meant that he was outscored by all but two players on the Spurs’ 12-man active roster — and that’s using the term quite loosely, since Tracy McGrady hasn’t truly been relevant in half a decade. It took Aussie Patty Mills, cuddly as a koala, just 66 seconds off the bench to pop in a 3-pointer and move ahead of Randolph on the day’s scoring list.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the ugly 105-83 thumping the Grizzlies took from the Spurs and why Randolph chose to enter the post-game locker room and express regrets to his teammates.
“He tried to apologize first off, and we wouldn’t accept that,” said the point guard Conley. “We said, it’s not you, it’s all of us.”
There were so many things wrong with how the Grizzlies came out and played the opener of the first Western Conference finals game in franchise history that Z-Bo might as well have been holding a bucket to catch the water when the dam broke.
Tony Parker merely took the ball almost from the opening tip and drove it anyplace he wanted toward the Memphis basket, finishing at the rim and stabbing in mid-range jumpers. The Spurs’ wing men set up residence in either corner and all they had to do was wait for the ball to find them for open shots. The Spurs finished the day making 14 of their 29 attempts from deep, setting a franchise playoff record for 3-pointers. It was hardly the kind of performance you might have expected from the No. 1-rated defense in the NBA during regular season and more like playing a game of keep-away with a class of kindergartners.
“We didn’t play well,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “I mean, it’s not anything specific.”
However, it can specifically be said that Grizzlies will be done if Randolph doesn’t even bother to show up. Z-Bo and his partner Marc Gasol punished the Spurs with their inside game two years ago when the Grizzlies became just the second No. 8 seed in history to knock off a No. 1 seed.
But that was a different Spurs team, one that was not as healthy, not nearly as deep and not as remotely capable of coming at Randolph with the overwhelming force of a tsunami.
“They were disrupting my rhythm,” Randolph said. “It was just one of those nights. I played like I did against the Clippers in L.A.” (more…)