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…)
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Memphis Grizzlies’ six-year rise from bottom-of-the-barrel in the West to playing for the conference crown is a story of intuition, perseverance, patience and, some might rightfully say, vindication for general manager Chris Wallace.
“I never looked for vindication. That’s not something that motivates me,” Wallace said. “Winning takes care of all issues in this league. We felt we had to take chances.”
Hired by former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to remake a 22-win team that was of no competition, popularity-wise, for John Calipari‘s Memphis Tigers, Wallace put his vision in motion. When the team takes the court Sunday afternoon to begin the Western Conference finals against the old standby San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis roster will include not one player from the day Wallace took control.
Rudy Gay, the last survivor, was dealt to Toronto in late January.
The first move for Wallace back in 2007 was drafting Mike Conley, now considered one of the most underrated point guards in the league. Conley was the No. 4 overall draft pick after Portland selected Greg Oden and Kevin Durant fell into Seattle’s lap and Atlanta tapped Al Horford.
The next move came on Feb. 1, 2008 and will go down as the franchise’s moment of truth. At that moment, however, it was perceived more like the moment of ultimate doom.
Wallace agreed to a trade that unleashed shockwaves of ridicule from, yes, the media, but also shockingly from within the league. The backlash, Wallace said, was so fierce that it damaged the team’s ability to conduct business in its own city as it set out to sell critical sponsorships and arena suites for the following season.
“People [potential clients] would list off all the big-name people [in the NBA] that had ridiculed us,” Wallace said. “It was like running the 100-meter dash with a 20-pound leg weight.”
Everyone knows the deal: Pau Gasol to the Lakers for his chubby, unheralded younger brother Marc Gasol, bust Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and a couple first-round draft picks. Stunning criticism crushed Wallace for getting fleeced while being backhandedly credited for handing the post-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers the keys to certain championships.
“I expect the media to shoot from the hip and not study the deal. That’s to be expected,” Wallace said. “I just shook my head. I had never seen that kind of response from inside the league. I don’t deny that was the assist for two Lakers championships, but we had to shake things up. We had never won a playoff game. We had been in the 20s [wins] and there was complete apathy in our market. Calipari and the Tigers were roaring at the time.
“When we went around the league, we weren’t going to get a tit-for-tat deal. We wanted to bring our salary structure down, get assets and draft picks. And no one else had a Marc Gasol.”
Marc Gasol attended high school in Memphis as Pau was becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. At 18, he returned to Spain to begin his professional career in the Spanish ACB league, largely considered the world’s second-most competitive league. In 2007-08 he was tearing it up.
“He was trending up so much at the time. He was on pace to be the ACB MVP,” Wallace said. “I said it at the time, I felt like the little boy crying wolf. There was no question Pau was going to flourish next to Kobe and could win several titles, but this deal couldn’t be judged for several years.”
Wallace said what puzzled him most about the barrage of criticism was the lack of knowledge among media and league insiders regarding the 7-foot-1 Marc Gasol, who went on to become the MVP.
“It’s not like he was playing in Mongolia,” Wallace said. “He was playing in the ACB.”
Gasol, about 20 pounds lighter these days at 260, blossomed into a 2012 All-Star and is the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s become an offensive force, honing a dangerous post game with an old-school mid-range set shot. He’s averaging 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg while averaging 40.3 mpg during the franchise’s most successful postseason run.
Gasol’s low-post partner Zach Randolph came next in a deal in 2009. Wallace was in the right place at the right time, nabbing Randolph for Quentin Richardson. Randolph, who had had his issues at previous stops,had become expendable after just 39 games with the Clippers because L.A. was set to draft Blake Griffin with the No. 1 pick and wanted to clear out the power forward position.
Tony Allen was picked up in the summer of 2010. Darrell Arthur has been a constant presence off the bench since being acquired on draft day in 2008. Greivous Vasquez, the 28th pick in 2010, was flipped for key reserve Quincy Pondexter. Sixth man Jerryd Bayless was signed as a free agent last summer.
“We were winning 20 games a year just four or five seasons ago,” Conley said. “Management did a great job getting guys in, guys that care. We’ve worked every day, kind of fell down the radar and now we’re here.”
So much has gone right leading to this historic moment for the Grizzlies franchise that it would seem clear-cut that Wallace has a long-term home with Memphis. But with new ownership having taken over at the start of the season, both Wallace and coach Lionel Hollins – a raging success story in his own right as he’s developed an initially young group of players into a hard-working defensive juggernaut emblematic of the city itself — are uncertain of their futures.
Hollins has coached all season on the final year of his deal. Wallace said he has years left, but has no guarantees.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Zach Randolph has come a long way, baby.
From a 20-year-old, tantalizingly skilled and pudgy rookie reared by the infamous Portland “Jail” Blazers, to the now 31-year-old supremely skilled and pudgy leader of the first Memphis Grizzlies team to play for the Western Conference crown.
Randolph arrived in Memphis in 2009 still the bearer of a bad rap and possibly even a worse rep. Thirty-nine games into his stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, Randolph was moved out to move in, ironically, No. 1 pick and soon-to-become Randolph’s playoff nemesis, Blake Griffin.
Randolph’s third trade in two calendar years — from Portland to the New York Knicks in June 2007; from the Knicks to the Clips in November 2008; and finally from the Clips to the Grizz in July 2009 for Quentin Richardson — has been the tonic for peace and happiness and maturity and some darn good basketball.
Randolph can now boast being a two-time All-Star with Memphis. He’s also an emblematic figure of this blue-collar city and a fan favorite of its hard-nosed citizens, and a loyal teammate that his peers pull for and gush over.
“His career has had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s just evident when you think of being in this moment that not a lot of people get here, and Z is a perfect example of that,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. “He’s been in the league so long and done so many great things, he hasn’t had the experience to go to the Western Conference finals or the Finals yet, and so it’s kind of the message that’s being sent around to everybody, and we’re feeding off what Z’s been through and the fact that this could be special.”
Before the low-post — and lower-center-of-gravity — scoring machine arrived in Memphis, his Portland teams had two one-and-done postseasons. The first, as a rookie, he logged one minute. The next season, in 2003, he averaged 13.9 ppg and 8.7 rebounds as those misfit Blazers almost became the first team to come back from a 3-0 hole against the Dallas Mavericks, but they were blown out in Game 7.
He then went six seasons sitting on the postseason sidelines. Now he’s seizing the moment heading to the biggest stage of his career. Randolph is averaging a team-high 19.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg while shooting 51.2 percent as he and low-post partner Marc Gasol get set to face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the West finals Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Along the way, Randolph dominated Griffin in the final four games to dispatch the Clippers in a rugged, emotion-filled, six-game series. He saved his best game so far to eliminate the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in Wednesday’s Game 5, a punishing performance from the jump that ended with 28 points, 14 rebounds and one wide grin.
“This moment means a lot to me,” Randolph said. “I’m happy, but we still have work to do. I want to win a ring.”
Randolph can be the king of colloquialisms when talking about others, such as when he described the defense teammate Tony Allen was applying to Kevin Durant: “Tony’s a dog, man. He’s in the mud.” The Grizzlies marketing department has crafted slogans and campaigns around Randolph’s colorful descriptors and phrases.
But he’s mostly bland when talking about himself. It’s a subject best left unto others, like Allen.
“I’ve [known] Zach ever since I got in the league, what his skill level was,” said Allen, who joined the Grizzlies a season later in the summer of 2010. “But he was … at first all about going out and getting his. And ever since I got alongside him, he’s done a good job of mixing it up, passing the ball when you don’t have a shot, being more of a vocal leader and just a teddy bear off the court. When I say teddy bear, just a nice guy. He’s the nicest guy in the world. I saw him grow a lot despite what I heard about him previously before I got here.”
“Just rough around the edges, that’s all,” Allen said, chuckling. “But me and him pretty much got the same characteristics. Growing up we overcame a lot. Right now, it’s a big time to do something big and I think that’s what his mindset is right now — trying to do something real big.”
Everything with the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph is big, especially his game. Nicknamed Z-Bo back in middle school growing up in gritty, small-town Marion, Indiana, the southpaw’s game is described as “old-school” or “old man.” That’s because his vertical won’t win him any dunk contests and because he relies more on guile and honed skill than athleticism. Randolph’s excellent footwork makes him quick, agile and unpredictable with his back to the basket. He has tremendous upper and lower body strength to gain position and a sublime touch to finish with short hooks and up-and-under bank shots. And he can always float in fall-away jumpers. His arsenal is a lethal combination of power and finesse that few power forwards today posses.
Just listen to Thunder coach Scott Brooks go on and on when asked to detail the difficulty in defending Randolph in the low post.
“He has relentless determination, he’s an aggressive offensive rebounder and he has so many different shots he can throw at you,” said Brooks, who watched Randolph work over Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Serge Ibaka for 18.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg. “He can face-up and hit a shot; he can drive right with one dribble and the little pull-up off the glass; he goes to the left, to the middle very well, and he has so many different release points. He can score down low at the block. He doesn’t look like he can do it, he just doesn’t have that body that you think that can score, and he doesn’t jump very high, but he has that determination and he obviously has the ability to score.
“He’s a handful.”
Allen calls the whole package “backyard ball.”
“He’s the backyard bully. Welcome to the Z block,” Allen said. “He’s just a monster down there; he’s a load.”
He’s now the responsibility of Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, a tough job compounded by the fact that one of them will be preoccupied with Gasol, also having a brilliant postseason averaging 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg.
The big stage has been a long time coming for Randolph, a player many assumed would have run himself out of the league by now. That’s not the case or even any longer an option. The 12-year veteran has found a home and fulfillment in Memphis.
“He just understands the big picture a little bit better. He understands winning better,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “I think there are lot of good players in this league that have statistics, that have talent, but never win, never understand that it takes more than their 20 points to win; that it takes moving the basketball, it takes playing defense, it takes being a decoy sometimes.
“We just try to challenge him and he accepts being challenged, and he’s risen to the occasion.”
OKLAHOMA CITY – Long before Tony Allen became a fixture on NBA All-Defensive Teams and back when the Oklahoma City Thunder still belonged to Seattle, some Oklahoma basketball fans cheered a hard-scrabble Chicago kid who serendipitously landed in rural Stillwater and has never stopped surviving.
Those Oklahoma faithful might now wish the most influential father figure in Allen’s life, a career college basketball assistant coach named Glynn Cyprien, had never left Oklahoma State to later wind up at the University of Memphis. Because the man who delivered the little-known junior-college guard with a knack for finding trouble to Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2003 also greased Allen’s free-agent signing seven years later, leaving the championship-caliber Boston Celtics for the then-middling Memphis Grizzlies.
“We never would have gotten him without Glynn,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who also has longtime ties to Cyprien. “Tony helped put us over the top.”
Named to a third consecutive All-Defensive Team on Monday and a second consecutive First Team selection, Allen is tormenting overtaxed Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant and breaking the hearts of Thunder fans in this semifinal series the Grizzlies lead, 3-1.
Allen and the Grizzlies return tonight to Oklahoma City (9:30 ET, TNT), about an hour drive southwest of Stillwater, to try and close out the reigning-but-wounded Western Conference champs in Game 5.
Memphis had never won a playoff series before Allen signed in 2010. It hadn’t made the postseason since 2006. But this blue-collar bunch, epitomized by Allen’s tireless and genuine grit, is one win away from the team’s first conference final in its 18-year existence.
Allen’s story is all about timing, trust, belief and resiliency. Start with beating back life’s hard knocks — a father in prison, an adolescence set up to be knocked down like bowling pins — with an unbreakable spirit. He’s scraped away at a nine-year NBA career that’s finally in full bloom, having persevered through season after season of seemingly two steps forward, one step back. His is an evolutionary journey of constant self-improvement and forever proving his worth — through six seasons in Boston and, even initially in Memphis under coach Lionel Hollins — just to play.
In his second season at Oklahoma State, Allen carried the Cowboys to the 2004 Final Four as the Big 12 Player of the Year just two years after getting kicked out of his first of two junior-college stops. But that misfortune landed him at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill. That’s where Cyprien was dispatched by Sutton, not to recruit Allen, but to bring back a stud named Antwain Barbour, who would eventually sign with Kentucky and never play a minute in the NBA. It was Allen who kept catching Cyprien’s eye.
“Tony’s statistics weren’t great, but he had an overall good game, he played defense, he ran well and bottom line he was just real tough,” said Cyprien, now an assistant coach at Texas A&M. “When the game got late, he made tough plays.”
It’s his NBA calling card. And Durant and the Thunder are witnesses. Allen tilted the razor-thin margin in this series when Hollins finally called upon the 6-foot-4, self-proclaimed “junkyard dog” to sic the three-time scoring champ in the final three minutes of a nip-and-tuck Game 2. The call could have come in Game 1, when Durant scored 12 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter including the game-winner with 11 seconds to play. But Hollins was sticking to his original declaration that Allen would be no match for the impossibly long Durant.
Allen shrugged and suggested Hollins got desperate as the Grizz were in jeopardy of falling into a 2-0 hole against a team playing without its All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook.
Yet maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be for Allen, nothing ever coming without outside doubt, nothing ever certain, always having to prove himself over again. Even to his coach of three seasons, unless, as Allen was asked after the Game 2 win when he held Durant scoreless in those decisive final minutes, maybe Hollins was trying to inspire him.
“I don’t play mind games. I just go out there and do my job,” Allen said. “My confidence is always sky-high. If you try to limit me, then you limit me. But I will continue to show you that I work and I continue to get better each and every day. Whatever your limitations are on me, I am always ready to prove you wrong.” (more…)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some of the new owners of this franchise now treading on historic playoff ground leaned up against the wall outside the Memphis Grizzlies’ locker room. Hair was frazzled, faces were flush and breaths were still coming heavy as if they had just outrun the Boogie Man.
In some respects they had.
Monday’s 103-97 overtime victory over the shorthanded and succumbing Oklahoma City Thunder turned scary from the jump. Kevin Durant set the early tone, animated, vocal and doing his thing. Serge Ibaka suddenly rediscovered his shooting touch, Kevin Martin was hitting and young Reggie Jackson was doing his best Russell Westbrook impression.
The visitors had the bounce and the confidence early. The Grindhouse crowd grew restless, boos came down when Durant buried a 3-pointer, his third without a miss, to put OKC ahead 46-29 with 4:26 until halftime. They’d since seen this horror flick before. Game 4 against these Thunder two years ago was a hot topic at practice the day before. OKC was then the team that trailed by 17 and came back all the way back to win it in triple-overtime to tie the series and eventually win it in Game 7.
Games 1 and 7 at home last season against the Clippers. Series over. Season wiped out.
To not take this Game 4 by the throat, to walk off the floor with tails tucked between their legs in front of a sellout crowd, to drag a 2-2 tie instead of riding a 3-1 lead back to Bricktown would have been a travesty.
“Our whole mindset was get it to 10 by halftime and we got it to eight,” Tony Allen said. “Coach [Lionel Hollins] came in the locker room. He’s good with those speeches. We wanted to respond.”
These Grizzlies, more mature, more clutch than any incarnation before, refused to let it happen. TayshaunPrince and Allen clamped down on Durant, who missed 17 of his 27 shots, missed all four in overtime and missed his third clutch free throw in the last two games. Mike Conley scored 24 points and for a time matched Durant 3-pointer for 3-pointer. He played 48 minutes, 40 seconds — 21 ticks more than Durant and turned the ball over exactly once.
Then it was big Marc Gasol, with 23 points and 11 boards, swishing the game-winning jumper from the foul line. Then it was Allen, the original grit-and-grinder who was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team earlier Monday, making the game-sealing steal. It was his 10th of the series, this one on Derek Fisher‘s crossed-up inbounds pass. (more…)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – May 9, 2011. It’s a date the Memphis Grizzlies still can’t let go. Game 4. Triple-overtime. Oklahoma City 133, Memphis 123. Series tied. Back to OKC.
“We all remember that game,” said Memphis point guard Mike Conley, whose team finds itself in the same position tonight entering Game 4 at home with a 2-1 semifinal series lead. “We know how big it is, how it can turn a series. We remember the way they came back to win.”
Conley watched the final two overtimes of that critical, heart-thumping loss dejectedly from the bench after fouling out. He acknowledged that he had already been looking ahead. The day before, the Dallas Mavericks advanced to the West finals with a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We had played Dallas well and we were thinking if we can get by Oklahoma City,” said Conley, then just a 23-year-old reveling in his first postseason. “So we were getting ahead of ourselves.”
Rudy Gay was injured and not playing for Memphis in that series. Oklahoma City is grinding out this low-scoring series with two key components gone: James Harden obviously is now an All-Star with the Houston Rockets, and Russell Westbrook, who scored 40 points in the triple-OT win two years ago, is out with a knee injury.
His absence hasn’t diminished the competitiveness of the series. All three games have been up for grabs in the final three minutes. In Game 3, Memphis nearly coughed up the homecourt edge it seized with its Game 2 win at OKC by losing an early nine-point cushion in the fourth quarter and then seeing a 79-73 lead with 4:19 to go evaporate to an 81-81 tie with 1:58 left.
“We were in this situation two years ago and they came in here and tied it up,” Zach Randolph said. “So we’ve got to come out and play better as a team and make adjustments.”
Maybe the killer instinct is evolving. Memphis won Games 3 and 4 last round against the Clippers to tie it up and then closed it out at home in Game 6. A win tonight would put the Grizzlies in position to eliminate the Thunder in Game 5 on Wednesday and catch a rest while the San Antonio-Golden State series is set to go at least six games.
“We’re taking it one day at a time, that’s been the motto since Day 1,” Tony Allen said. “We’re not looking back towards [two years ago]. We’re thinking about what’s now, what’s ahead. The better we’re focused, the more we can be engaged of what they’re trying to do, looking at their adjustments, the better we are.”
Marc Gasol, taking nothing for granted, said: ”The series is just starting.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Still alive and rocking is Loud City, the Roaracle, a classic in the Garden and while it’s not old Chicago Stadium, the United Center crowd takes no prisoners.
Moving up the list of loudest NBA playoff arenas, if not yet documented as one of the toughest to snare a road win: The Grindhouse.
Otherwise known by its corporate moniker, the FedExForum, The Grindhouse is unlike the romper rooms of Chesapeake Arena, aka Loud City, in Oklahoma City, and Golden State’s Oracle Arena, redubbed Roaracle for its altered game-day state of delirium.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ home gym didn’t derive its horror-flick nickname from the deafening screams of a zealous fandom. The Grindhouse was born from the team’s sweat-and-blood, grit-n-grind style and bequeathed by Memphis guard Tony Allen, the ultimate grit-n-grind Grizzly.
Yet, with each passing playoff game and series — just ask the hated Los Angeles Clippers — The Grindhouse name has also become representative of the team’s fans and the atmosphere they create inside the joint. There was a time when crowds only packed the Forum for their beloved University of Memphis basketball.
Ever-so-slowly, that is changing. Memphis’ roster, with players like Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who attended high school in the city when his brother Pau Gasol led the first playoff Grizz teams, as well as coach Lionel Hollins are also emblematic of this Southern city and its citizens, making it an easy team for the people to identify with and appreciate as their own.
As a former Memphis Tigers assistant coach said this week of this town on the banks of the Mississippi: “Memphis is a grinding, gritty city of blue-collar people.”
When the Thunder enter The Grindhouse Saturday afternoon for Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) of this semifinal series tied 1-1, they’ll face the Grizzlies and a sellout-crowd of 18,119, the 14th consecutive home playoff sellout going back to the 2010 season when Memphis upset top-seeded San Antonio and then lost to the Thunder in seven heart-stopping games.
Game 4 on Monday night is almost certain to make it 15 in a row. Only a few hundred tickets remain, a Grizzlies official said Friday night.
Grizzlies fans will be there in force and wildly waving yellow rally towels as they did for three games against the Clippers, the team that demoralized the city a year ago with a miraculous Game 1 comeback and then a Game 7 victory in The Grindhouse. It spawned an atmosphere of vengeance this time around with the feel of a WWE asylum on steroids.
Saturday’s Grindhouse crowd won’t have forgotten 2011′s seven-game semifinal loss to OKC and especially the Thunder’s triple-overtime Game 4 win on the Grizzlies’ floor.
“They came into our building and got a win,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the Grizzlies’ Game 2 equalizer Tuesday that stunned and silenced Loud City. ”Now we have to go into their building and get a win. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.
“It is going to be tough.”
Around the Bay Area, the refrain reminds of the “We Believe” Warriors of 2007, the eighth-seeded squad that knocked off the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Oracle Arena was just as nuts then and is known for its lunacy even when the Warriors stink.
In Memphis, this certainly is no longer 2006. Pau might not recognize the place that little brother Marc has helped to cultivate. That was the year the Grizzlies suffered a third-consecutive first-round sweep. The Grizzlies’ Game 3 overtime loss against Dallas didn’t sell out and Game 4, a 102-76 thumping, officially drew 15,104, but that number most certainly was inflated as section after section of the upper bowl sat empty.
This season marked the best in franchise history with 56 wins despite Hollins working on the final year of his contract, plus the initially controversial trade of Rudy Gay and an earlier trade that shook up the Grizzlies’ bench. There are season-ticket holders that complain that these days Grizzlies fans don’t show up until the playoffs.
They have a point. Memphis ranked 19th of 30 teams this season in attendance, averaging 16,624 per home game. Of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs, only the Indiana Pacers drew fewer fans (15,269). The Grizzlies played to 91.8 percent capacity, 17th in the league. By comparison, the Thunder ranked 12th in the league in attendance (18,203), but were at 100 percent capacity.
Still, Memphis’ situation has improved drastically since the franchise moved to Memphis from Vancouver for the 2001-02 season. For most of the decade it ranked in the bottom five in attendance.
This is known: The Grindhouse will rock-n-roll on Saturday. But as Memphis fans know, they can only deliver the insanity. Remember at the start of the playoffs when all the talk was about the home teams winning? It didn’t last long. Three of the eight teams that advanced to the second round did not have homecourt advantage — Golden State, Chicago and, yes, Memphis.
After two games in each second-round series, all four were knotted up. If more proof is needed that the loudest, most fiendish home crowds can’t guarantee victory, then check out what happened Friday night at Roaracle. Or Tuesday inside the Thunder’s own bubble called Loud City.
OKLAHOMA CITY –Reggie Jackson is on the accelerated learning program. It did not come by design.
In the course of his sophomore season, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was twice sent to the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League in December after averaging 6.9 mpg in 14 games with OKC, and came back and beat out Eric Maynor (eventually traded to Portland) for the right to back up Russell Westbrook.
“When you’re playing behind an All-Star point guard, the minutes are tough,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.“But we somehow managed to give him 15, 16 minutes a game.”
Those minutes, mostly all spent directing the second unit, are invaluable now as Jackson has stepped into the unenviable role as the injured Westbrook’s replacement, logging more than 30 pressurized playoff minutes a game.
Jackson’s task is to lead the Thunder offense, seek a balance between being an aggressive playmaker and driving to the paint, feeding — and also getting out of the way of — MVP runner-up Kevin Durant, defending Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley and not melting in the glare of the postseason klieg lights.
Jackson’s studying more film and being coached harder. The three-day break between Games 2 and 3 in this semifinal series, knotted up at 1-1, might have been most beneficial for Jackson as he processes information from multiple angles and sources.
“Oh yeah, Coach Westbrook is doing a good job, watching the game, observing,” Jackson said, breaking into a smile. “He’s definitely on me a lot about pedal-to-the-metal and just trying to make plays for others and myself, try to take the load off Kevin.”
Yep, pedal-to-the-metal sounds like Westbrook. Of the many injured stars out of the playoffs, perhaps none is as uniquely dynamic for their squad as Westbrook is for the Thunder. He’s the bullet-train engine that powers OKC’s high-paced offense and keeps defenses backpedaling with powerful bursts up the floor and a pogo-stick, pull-up jumper. His active perimeter defense can be equally as fierce.
“I’m definitely talking to Reggie a lot more, but I also want him to learn and get better,” Westbrook said Thursday during his first public appearance since undergoing knee surgery on April 27. “You don’t want to tell a guy to go out there and do all these different things, you kind of want him to learn, and it’s a learning process for him as well as for me.”
And so, arguably, none of the players filling in for injured stars are being asked to fill quite the vacuum as the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Jackson.
That grand-canyon sized leap he’s making from hold-the-fort reserve to starting point guard on a team with championship aspirations is intense and potentially mind-spinning. That it came with little time for Jackson and the team to absorb the full magnitude of Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury, to indoctrinate Jackson into the starting lineup and for Brooks to tweak his rotation, is a tremendous challenge. Fortunately for the Thunder, 38-year-old Derek Fisher, signed in late February, has been hot off the bench, easing some of Jackson’s burden.
“I had 24 hours, that’s good enough,” said Jackson, the 24th pick in the 2011 draft out of Boston College. “But it’s basketball. Remember, I started at some point in my career. I understand that coach trusts me, obviously, enough to play me in this moment and to take a new role. He sees something in me; my teammates do, they’re always on me, encouraging me, so I just got to go out there and have fun and just play basketball.”
Jackson, who said his name bears no lineage or linkage to baseball’s Mr. October — which could have come in handy in this situation — is averaging 30.9 mpg in the playoffs, more than doubling his 14.2 regular-season minutes. He averaged 21.0 mpg in the first two playoff games with Westbrook playing, and 31.2 mpg as a starter. He took 11 shots in the first two games. He’s averaging 11.6 since.
He averaged 14.0 ppg in the six games against the Rockets and shot a healthy 46.2 percent from the field. He has produced six consecutive double-digit scoring games. However, against the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense, Jackson has found the space on the floor shrinking and multiple, wide-body blockades in the paint, two vast differences from playing the wide-open, up-tempo Rockets. He’s averaged 11.0 ppg on 43.8 percent shooting against Memphis.
“He just has to play within what his capabilities are,” Brooks said. “If there’s openings, he has to attack. If he has that in transition, great. If he has that in the halfcourt, great. I think he is better when he does attack, he’s a great finisher around the rim.”
And then there’s the other end of the floor. Under normal circumstances, Westbrook and Conley would be facing off in a fascinating duel, and Jackson would mostly be sticking to the streaky shooting Jerryd Bayless. But now the sixth-year and ever-improving Conley, who has juiced his stats to 17.9 ppg and 7.8 apg in the playoffs, is Jackson’s responsibility.
The youngster took Conley’s explosive fourth quarter in Game 2 that nearly netted him a triple-double and pushed the Grizzlies to a 99-93 victory, as a personal affront.
“I can’t let that happen again,” Jackson said. “I feel that great players always take things personal, their matchups, and since Day 1, I always said that I want to be great. I have to do a better job of slowing him down and not let the head of the snake bite us next game.”
OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike Conley might still have that smile of a schoolboy, but the Memphis Grizzlies point guard now has the courage of a warrior.
In years past, Conley might mot have taken the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:58 to go. He might have passed on the jumper over 6-foot-7 defender Thabo Sefolosha with 1:04 left that hit nothing but net. But this is Conley now: calm and cool when his team must have it.
“That’s how he’s grown as a player,” teammate Zach Randolph said following Memphis’ 99-93 Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that tied the Western Conference semifinal at 1-1 with three days off before Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis.
Only moments earlier during a fantastic fourth quarter that boasted five ties and five lead changes in a game that had 27 in all, Kevin Durant looked to be composing yet another masterpiece. He was closing in on his first career playoff triple-double and OKC was nearing a 2-0 series lead, a mere two nights after he sank the game-winner with 11.1 seconds to go.
Neither would come to pass.
Durant missed his final three shots and lost the ball with less than a minute to play, with Memphis leading 94-90. Bulldog defender Tony Allen, who said he finally got paired up on Durant in Game 2 out of desperation, stepped back instead of putting his body on Durant as he turned his back to the basket to gain leverage on the smaller Allen. Durant lost his balance, fell to the floor and lost the ball.
“That was just a last-minute thought in my head,” Allen said. “I just thought it would work and I was fortunate enough for it to work.”
Durant finished with 36 points, nine assists, 11 rebounds and five turnovers in 43 minutes. Without Russell Westbrook, Durant’s fingerprints are everywhere as he brings the ball up the floor and sets the attack or calls for the ball almost as quickly as point guard Reggie Jackson crosses mid-court.
ESPN Stats & Info tweeted out a telling stat after the game: Durant has averaged 264 dribbles per game since Westbrook’s injury. His season average was 134. Thunder forward-center Nick Collison was asked if Durant has to do too much in crunch time: “I mean, what are we going to do?” Collison said.
Durant certainly was in control until it slipped away late. He started the fourth quarter 4-for-4, but ended it 0-for-3. Meanwhile, the quiet Conley drained five of six shots for 13 points in the quarter. He finished with 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting, nine assists and 10 rebounds.
Allen, perhaps Conley’s biggest fan, took responsibility for the missed triple-double with his errant attempt from under the bucket after Conley had secured an offensive rebound with 1:23 to go.
“I’ve been saying it for a long time, he’s up-and-coming,” Allen said. “Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league whether anybody likes it or not. I know a lot of people got their favorites and who they think should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now. He’s able to do these things on the court night-in and night-out.”
On this night his performance was huge. A 2-0 deficit is not the end of the series — the Grizzlies proved that last round when Conley and Co. took down Chris Paul and the Clippers in four straight after falling into the 0-2 hole — but it’s not the way anybody wants to go about a series with the West finals at stake.
Conley’s 26 points tied his regular-season high. So did his 11 field goals. His season-best rebounding game was seven. Conley got that number in the fourth quarter alone.
He’s scored at least 20 points in these playoffs four times, has dished out at least nine assists four times and has put up three double-doubles. And it’s the second time now he’s rebounded from an otherwise dull night with a big effort.
On Tuesday, Conley, just 25 and in his sixth season with Memphis, was aggressive, streaking into the lane and finding teammates. And with the Thunder sagging down heavily to defend Marc Gasol and Randolph, Conley took the jumpers afforded him.
Having already dispatched Paul in the first round, and with the injured Westbrook watching from high above in a suite, Conley is taking control.
“I didn’t come in looking at it like that. I came in looking at if that what I need to do for our team to win, I’ll do it,” Conley said. “If I have to score, I’ll score. I have to be a facilitator, I’ll do that. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win.”