Posts Tagged ‘Tayshaun Prince’

Grizzlies GM Envisioned A Future With Marc Gasol As A League Laughed

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.

“I hope to be able to stay here,” Wallace said.

Durant Keeps The Faith As Game 5 Nears

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Asked about the mood of the Thunder these last 36 hours or so after the Game 4 overtime loss that put them in a 3-1 hole, Kevin Durant said everyone should know one thing.

“It wasn’t like we were going to a funeral,” Oklahoma City’s superstar said.

Durant is averaging 31.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 6.3 apg this postseason, yet he has struggled to score late in the last three games, all Memphis Grizzlies victories, all by six points. He was 2-for-13 in the fourth quarter and OT in Game 4.

“Everybody came through except for me and that’s the toughest thing about it, that’s a tough feeling,” Durant said. “Tonight we’ll try to get that taste out of mouths and try to get a W.”

Durant looked like a heavyweight fighter who had just gone the distance only to lose on a split decision. He was fatigued and seemingly out of answers. The Thunder returned to OKC in the early-morning hours Tuesday. Coach Scott Brooks didn’t put his team through a practice after they finally got some sleep, content to allow his players to get treatment and focus on tonight’s do-or-die Game 5 (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

“We’re a team that’s always been resilient, always perseveres through things and always just fights it to the end,” Durant said. “We’re going to continue to keep fighting. We’ve got a great opportunity on our home floor and, you know, you either win or you go home.”

Durant said the team is drawing on other adverse times such as losing the first two games to the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s West finals, only to storm back to win four in a row. But, obviously, that team had All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook at the helm. That Westbrook’s new Brand Jordan/Champs Sports commercial was revealed Wednesday — one full of pre-knee-injury dunks — surely makes Thunder fans wistful.

Westbrook’s absence has allowed the Grizzlies to focus on Durant. They’ve given him doses of Tayshaun Prince and then Quincy Pondexter with sporadic looks at Tony Allen for the first three quarters. The fourth quarter has largely been all Allen with teammates swarming Durant from every angle.

Since his Game 1 heroics that had Durant being praised as the game’s most clutch player, his shots have mostly clanged in the final two minutes of these games, each one a two-point margin with two minutes to go.

“I just got to get it done either way,” Durant said. “I got to try to force my way into the lane and maybe that draws even more guys and I kick it out to my teammates, or sometimes I got to shoot over two or three guys. So there’s no excuses no matter how many people are guarding me. I’ve just got to get it done.”

Durant, better than a 90-percent free throw shooter during the season, will try to get there more in Game 5. Brooks was a bit miffed that Durant got to the free throw line just three times in 48 minutes of Game 4, and one of those came via a defensive 3-seconds call.

Don’t expect Durant to alter the way he plays. He’ll continue to try to create for himself and his teammates even though they’ve been cold. Among Serge IbakaKevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, Collison has the highest shooting percentage of that group in the series — 41.7 percent.

“I don’t have to say anything really, just pass them the ball and they know I got confidence in them,” Durant said. “I tell them all the time to shoot with confidence, don’t worry about it if they miss a shot, so what? Just keep getting back on defense and playing the great defense that we are. Don’t worry about the shots, just continue to keep shooting them if you have them.

“I’m going to trust in my teammates no matter what, no matter what people say or how many shots they miss or how many shots I miss, I’m going to continue to trust my teammates, myself and all the hard work we’ve put in.”

Defensive-Minded: Success For Grizzlies’ Allen’s A Mix Of Trust, Belief, Resiliency

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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…)

Grizz Grind Step Closer To West Finals

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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. Tayshaun Prince 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…)

Defensive Specialists Allen, Sefolosha In Unfamiliar Spots

OKLAHOMA CITY – The most intriguing chess match for the two coaches in this second-round series isn’t about big vs. small, but how to best utilize their defensive stopper. In Game 1, Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha and Memphis’ Tony Allen were like two fish out of water.

Normally charged with checking the opposition’s most dangerous scorer, Allen and Sefolosha are stuck guarding each other in this series, which resumes with tonight’s Game 2 at Chesapeake Arena (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Allen would typically be hounding Russell Westbrook, but he’s out of the playoffs following knee surgery to repair a meniscus tear. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins has already said he will no longer play his 6-foot-4 grinder on Kevin Durant, whose long frame is stronger than a few years ago, allowing Durant to punish Allen on the post.

Durant is Tayshaun Prince‘s responsibility, and went mostly without the aid of a double-team in Game 1. So Allen, one of the top on-ball defenders in the league, is left to guard Sefolosha, a good corner and wing 3-point shooter, but easily the Thunder’s fourth or fifth option even with Westbrook out. Sefolosha played just 18 minutes in Game 1, scored four points and missed his lone 3-point attempt after averaging 4.6 attempts from beyond the arc in the first-round series against Houston.

“It is kind of odd because you know there’s not really a prolific scorer in my size range,” Allen said. “But it’s about the Grizzlies playing a better game than the Thunder. We’ve got to keep that mindset. But whatever he [Hollins] wants me to do on the defensive end, I’m willing to fill that void.”

The logical maneuver then is to put Allen on sixth man Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting and got to the free-throw line seven times in OKC’s 93-91 Game 1 victory. But because Allen starts and Martin comes off the bench, pairing the two can be tricky. Hollins played Allen just 20 minutes in Game 1 and he was on the floor with Martin, who logged 32 minutes, for all of seven minutes.

“They are different without Russell Westbrook,” Allen said. “The last game I was trying to float because I didn’t really know who to key in and lock into. Kevin Martin comes off the bench and I’m starting; when I come out he’s coming in so that’s kind of tough. But we got our feet wet in Game 1. Now it’s Game 2, we know what to expect without Westbrook, we know who are their main characters now and we have to do a better job on Martin, obviously, and you know, not let [Derek] Fisher get so many big-time timely shots, and just try to do a better job on those other guys.”

It wasn’t too unlike Game 1 in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers for Allen. He played 17 minutes while Jerryd Bayless got bumped up for offensive purposes and had to guard Clippers sixth man Jamal Crawford. In Game 2, Allen logged 39 minutes and he averaged 30.5 mpg in the final four games.

So Allen figures to be on the court much more tonight and he must take advantage of the loose defense Sefolosha played on him in Game 1 to knock down open looks (Allen was 1-for-5 from the floor for three points) and use the open space to chase rebounds.

“He’s barely even sticking me,” Allen said.

That’s because Sefolosha is more concerned with dropping down and helping big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins defend Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Allen can alter that strategy by making baskets, which in turn helps to free up Memphis’ talented big men.

“My focus is to help the bigs,” Sefolosha said. “Help them rebound, help them get in a situation where Zach and Marc Gasol can’t get too deep in the paint, so basically helping off a little bit. But at the same time, Tony does a lot of good things without the ball and I have to be aware of where he is on the court.”

Two Coaches With Everything To Lose

LOS ANGELES – Opposing playoff coaches Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins have a lot in common. Both men have improved their clubs’ winning percentage each season as coach. The last two soared over .600 for consecutive top-five finishes in the rugged Western Conference.

Both won 56 games this season to set each franchise’s record for most wins.

And, finally, job security: Neither man has it.

In a rare, but not unprecedented occurrence, the first-round playoff series between Del Negro’s Los Angeles Clippers and Hollins’ Memphis Grizzlies, a rematch of last season’s seven-game, first-round thriller won by L.A., features two lame-duck coaches.

While both have produced excellent seasons by any measure, one will be going home earlier than hoped. And despite public stamps of approval this week from their superiors, neither coach’s future is certain, and prior to Monday’s Game 2, neither was pretending otherwise.

“Would I liked to have had a contract before this? Of course,” said Hollins, now in his fifth consecutive season and third stint as the Grizzlies coach, a relationship that dates back to the franchise’s roots in Vancouver. “But that’s a decision that’s made and you go and do the best job you can, and it’s not like it had to be done before the season is over. It’s just like players, you can extend players early or you can wait till later. Guys become free agents and they go out in free agency and sometimes it gives you leverage and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Del Negro, who guided the Clippers to the franchise’s first Pacific Division title and first 50-win campaign in his third season and second with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, has been one of the most scrutinized coaches since Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired him without any coaching experience five years ago. Del Negro lasted two .500 seasons there before being fired and then hired by the Clippers.

L.A. advanced to the West semifinals last season, but with Paul and Blake Griffin banged up, was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Del Negro said this season’s goal is to go deeper, which implies a goal of achieving another franchise milestone, a first conference final. It would take finishing off Memphis and then likely ousting the reigning West-champion Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I believe in what we’ve done here,” Del Negro said. “I think my assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job and I’ve had great support from ownership and the front office … and everybody to try and put the best team out there possible.

“Right now the focus should be on the playoffs, should be on the players and the commitment that they’re putting in to help us be successful. And all those things (contract situation) will get answered at the end.” (more…)

The Numbers On The West Playoffs

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The playoffs are here. And to get you ready, we’ve got statistical nuggets for each series, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.

Western Conference basketball was faster and more efficient than Eastern Conference hoops. We’re sure to see three high-paced series in the first round, because six of the eight West playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in pace, with the only exceptions being the Clippers and Grizzlies, who will face each other.

Pace won’t be the only reason scoring will be higher in the West. Seven of the eight West playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency.

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averaged 94.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 103.1 points scored per 100 possessions.

Oklahoma City (1) vs. Houston (8)

Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22)
Pace: 95.9 (10)
OffRtg: 110.2 (2)
DefRtg: 99.2 (4)
NetRtg: +11.0 (1)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Houston: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Houston Rockets (45-37)
Pace: 98.6 (1)
OffRtg: 106.7 (6)
DefRtg: 103.5 (16)
NetRtg: +3.3 (9)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Oklahoma City: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Five notes:

Air Check: Get Smart

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – For NBA fans like us, there’s nothing better than League Pass. Having the ability to watch every game every night (and then again the next day) is heaven.

aircheck-250Of course, with local broadcasts, you get local broadcasters, which can be good and bad. It can be good, because these guys know their teams better than most national broadcasters. It can be bad, because these guys love their teams more than most national broadcasters. And they’re usually not afraid to show that love.

The national guys aren’t perfect either. And if they’re not careful, they may be featured here, where we highlight the best and worst of NBA broadcasts.

Here are a few more moments that made us laugh, made us smarter, or made us shake our heads.

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1. A ticky-tack mugging

Game: Philadelphia @ Orlando, March 10
Broadcast: Orlando


The Magic have one of the best (and smartest) broadcasting crews in the league, and it’s tough to pick on Richie Adubato here, because he’s just filling in for the excellent Matt Guokas. But calling this foul, where Thaddeus Young gets shoved out of bounds by Al Harrington, a “ticky-tack” call is kind of hilarious. In fact, Adubato actually suggests that the call “should have been our way.”

2. Timing is everything

Game: Memphis @ L.A. Clippers, March 13
Broadcast: Clippers


Sometimes, it all falls into place.

First referencing the Grizzlies’ lack of shooting, Michael Smith explains how Quincy Pondexter gives them one guy who can knock down threes, and how Pondexter likes to spot up in the corner. Pondexter immediately proceeds to spot up in the corner and knock down a three.

As Ralph Lawler said, “Good call, Michael.”

3. But he didn’t MEAN to do it!

Game: Minnesota @ Memphis, March 18
Broadcast: Memphis


Brevin Knight is a Jersey guy and I’ve been a fan since I saw him put the clamps on a scorer named Mark Bass (who went on to star at St. Joseph’s) as a sophomore in the 1991 state tournament. So it’s hard for me to call him out. But there’s no analyst around the league that uses the word “we” when talking about his team more than Knight, unless it’s back-up, Sean Tuohy.

Here, Knight somehow feels that Tayshaun Prince shouldn’t be called for a foul because he didn’t intend to make contact with Andrei Kirilenko. Play-by-play guy Pete Pranica says he didn’t see the contact at all.

A foul is a foul, intentional or not. It’s clear that both Prince and Kirilenko felt the contact, and Prince didn’t have any beef with the call.

4. Professor Petersen strikes again

Game: New Orleans @ Minnesota, March 17
Broadcast: Minnesota


Three weeks ago, we praised Wolves broadcasters Dave Benz and Jim Petersen for their acknowledgement of advanced statistics. But the best part of a Minnesota broadcast is when Petersen has the time to delve into the Xs and Os behind a particular play.

Here, he explains how the Wolves’ initial actions on the preceding play were designed to get the defense moving and set up a Ricky Rubio - Nikola Pekovic pick-and-roll.

That’s great use of a timeout. Petersen may be the best teacher among NBA analysts, unafraid to bring coaching jargon to the broadcast in an effort to make his audience a little smarter.

Grizz Making Push As Serious Contender

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The quietest team in the NBA just keeps on taking care of business.

Quick, without looking at the standings, which team holds down the the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference? Hint: It’s not the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Memphis Grizzlies (44-19), playing with stunning synergy and grit since swapping Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince, are 15-3 since Prince’s Feb. 1 debut, are coming off a stifling victory on the Clippers’ home court and bring  a six-game win streak — on the heels of an eight-game streak — into tonight’s game of contrasting styles against the Denver Nuggets (9 p.m. ET, League Pass), the West’s fastest and hottest team with a 10-game win streak.

While many of us on this side of the aisle were against a mid-season breakup of the Grizz roster and said so, coach Lionel Hollins also wasn’t a big fan of trading Gay and messing with a pretty good formula for what was seen at the time as a cost-cutting maneuver by a new ownership group.

Hollins said so, too, with this now-famous quote: “When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget. It’s a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market.”

Only now Hollins has put the pieces together and the quiet, small-market Grizzlies appear as if on the cusp of big things.

While Gay was hailed as the Grizzlies best scorer and a go-to-guy in the clutch despite his low shooting percentages, Memphis is now — as revealed by a vast sea of analytical data available for your perusal at NBA.com/Stats – a more efficient offensive team that’s assisting on more baskets. The Grizz are utilizing their two talented big men, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, even more and benefiting from Prince’s team-oriented, pass-first mentality.

Here’s some non-analytic stats that drive the point home just the same. In the last 15 games, Memphis’ lone defeat was a tightly contested, 98-91 loss at Miami. In going 14-1 during that stretch of games, the Grizzlies have averaged 96.4 points a game, hardly a juggernaut, but more than three points a game better than before the trade.

They’ve scored 100 points or more in six of the 15 games. Before the trade it took 30 games to record their last six of scoring 100 or more. Add the scoring boost to a defense that continues to lead the league in yielding the fewest points (89.3) and ranks seventh in the field-goal percentage (43.9) and the Grizz have boosted their stock, post-trade, as a serious Western Conference contender.

As Memphis heads to Mile High tonight where the Nuggets are a devastating 28-3, it brings what could be deemed as a stronger, stingier team mentality in the form a 19-11 road record. The Grizz are 7-2 since the Prince trade, a record that includes triumphs at Brooklyn and, most recently, consecutive wins against Portland and an impressive strangling of Lob City.

The Grizzlies are three games behind No. 2 Oklahoma City (two games back in the loss column) with one game remaining against the Thunder in Memphis next Wednesday. As for the Grizzlies’ chances of holding down the No. 3 spot or even moving up, their toughest stretch to end the season just might be their road back-to-back tonight at Denver followed by a desperate Utah team on Saturday.

After that, they face the challenge of 10 road games among their final 17, but they play just eight current playoff teams.

So how good are the Grizzlies? That will be determined in the playoffs. But the fact is that they are a more efficient offensive team, one that’s in sync as a unit and one that is rolling since making the trade that few wanted to see happen.

Q & A With Grizzlies VP John Hollinger

BOSTON – The seventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is being held Friday and Saturday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

The conference brings together folks from several different sports and continues to grow every year. This year’s panelists and speakers include R.C. Buford, Mark Cuban, Michael Lewis, Adam Silver, Nate Silver and Stan Van Gundy.

Co-chaired by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the Sloan Conference has a huge NBA presence. This year, 29 of the 30 teams (the Los Angeles Lakers being the only exception) were in attendance.

Like the conference, the role of analytics in the NBA continues to grow. And when owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien took over the Grizzlies in the fall, they knew they needed an analytical mind to help them make their basketball decisions.

They turned to ESPN writer John Hollinger, naming him vice president of basketball operations in early December.

Hollinger was thrown right into the fire, as the team looked to restructure it’s payroll and regain some flexibility under the parameters of the new collective bargaining agreement. In late January, the Grizzlies made two trades involving three other teams and nine total players. At the trade deadline, they made one more minor deal.

Most notably, the Grizzlies traded leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto, breaking up a starting lineup that had enjoyed a decent amount of success over the last few seasons. They replaced Gay with Tayshaun Prince and also added Ed Davis to a bench that had taken a hit when they traded three players (and a first round pick) to Cleveland for Jon Leuer.

The Grizzlies are 9-4 since the Gay trade and had won eight straight games before falling in Miami on Friday. They continue to be an excellent defensive team, but are still looking for some answers offensively.

NBA.com exchanged e-mails with Hollinger this week to discuss his new job and how the Grizzlies are moving forward…

NBA.com: How does your approach to analytics as a team executive differ from your approach as a writer?

John Hollinger: The biggest change is that I’m looking at everything through this more narrow lens of “how does this impact the Memphis Grizzlies?” That means I’m probably looking at certain players much more closely and all but ignoring some national stories that I’d be discussing nearly every day in my former gig (like one that rhymes with “Spakers,” for instance), and it means I’m paying a lot more attention to non-NBA stuff (college, Europe, etc.) because that’s the pipeline for incoming players. As a writer I had the luxury of waiting until those guys got to the league if I so chose.

NBA.com: How has your team changed with the trades you made?

Hollinger: Well, hopefully we’re better. More seriously, I think we’ve diversified our offense a little, not just in terms of Tayshaun’s versatility, but also with adding guys like Austin and Ed that come off the bench and give you a major boost.

Rudy was a very good player but Tayshaun’s ability to pass and hit catch-and-shoot jumpers hopefully replaces some of the athleticism and shot-creating ability we gave up in this deal. Defensively we probably get even better, because we still have that 6-9 small forward who can guard, but now we also have an athletic big who plays above the rim in Ed, which is something we really didn’t have before.

And finally, we’re pretty deep in the front line now, because we also have bigs like Jon Leuer and Dexter Pittman waiting in the wings from our other deals.

NBA.com: I think we all understand the basic reasoning for the Rudy Gay trade and that you have more flexibility going forward. But can you explain the reasoning behind the Cleveland trade in the context of the trade that followed?

Hollinger: One thing I think a lot of people don’t understand is that we still were facing a potential luxury tax hit even with the Rudy trade we made, because of certain incentive deals in our player contracts. So even though all those little charts on the Web had us $4 million and change into the tax, in reality our potential liability was about $6 million. Because of that, it was inevitable that another deal also had to be made in addition to a Rudy deal.

Also, there was a fairly important chess element to this — we were able to improve our leverage in the second deal by being under the tax, because beforehand people were demanding a premium for all the money they’d be saving us. The basketball offers for Rudy got better once we’d done this.

As for the particular deal we chose, it was clear given the frontcourt depth we had that moving off that [Marreese] Speights deal for both this year and next was the way to achieve the greatest savings at the least basketball cost. I suppose it’s possible he opts out of his deal now that he’s in Cleveland and getting minutes and playing well, but if he had stayed here and been our fifth big I’d say those odds were pretty minimal.

And going forward, if we’d had him on our books it would have been almost impossible to keep Tony Allen and stay under the tax. Obviously this isn’t the kind of move you’d prefer to make, but we came into a situation where our hands were really tied financially, and now we have options again.

While I have the floor, I’ll also point out two other things: First, that the Speights trade exception was parlayed into an even larger exception in the Rudy deal, because we took Daye into it, so we now have a $7.5 million chip that could prove valuable in the offseason. And second, that our breathing room allowed us to take in Dexter Pittman and a second-round pick at the trade deadline.

NBA.com: How much interaction have you had with players and coaches about numbers that can make you a better team? Does Tayshaun Prince understand the value of a mid-range shot vs. a three?

Hollinger: This is where coming in partway through a season probably limited what we could accomplish somewhat. We’ve had some discussions about it, but we’ll probably be able to have a lot more impact once we’ve had a full offseason together. And obviously time is a factor here two, just in terms of getting to know each other and develop a trust and rapport.

As for Tayshaun, you’re right that it’s probably not ideal to have just 11 percent of his shots come from beyond the arc, given that he shoots it fairly well from out there. We’ve talked about it some internally and with the coaches, but this is another example of an area where we’d be more likely to have an impact in the offseason.

NBA.com: Where are NBA analytics most valuable? (Coaching strategies, lineup combinations, evaluating your own personnel, opponent personnel, draft, etc.)

Hollinger: I think the greatest value is still in personnel, and especially in the personnel that you don’t see everyday. The whole thing about numbers and analytics is that they summarize all the games you can’t see, which is great because you can’t possibly watch every team play every game.

With the Grizzlies obviously analytics helps too, but because we’re seeing all the games there’s a lot of times where we already know the answers and the data just confirms it — not all the time, but a lot. As you might expect, the analytics are probably most valuable at the NBA level, because there is a lot less to translate than there is when players are jumping from college, Europe or the D-League.

That said, the answer to this question may be in flux, especially as the use of video explodes. I wouldn’t be shocked if in five years the answer to this question is “coaching.” And I’ll also contradict myself by saying that the translation of going from lower levels to the pros, while harder, also potentially offers more advantages for those who can break the code.