SAN ANTONIO — When most people think of the hard-nosed defense in a playoff series between the Grizzlies and Spurs, the images that come to mind are the steely gaze and the locked-in intensity of Tony Allen, the quick hands of Mike Conley or those long arms and smothering style of Kawhi Leonard.
Then there’s Matt Bonner.
Don’t snicker. None other than Kobe Bryant nicknamed him the Red Mamba for Bonner’s ability to fearlessly knock down big shots in big situations. But in the playoffs, Bonner has also been part boa constrictor for helping to put the squeeze on opposing big men.
It was a team effort with Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw all sharing the rugged duties. Bonner’s main responsibility in Game 1 was to front Randolph and try got prevent him from getting the ball in the first place. The eight shots by Z-Bo were his fewest in a game since April 15 and the single bucket scored was his career playoff low for any game in he’s played at least 10 minutes.
“We found something that works for him,” Duncan said. “He’s comfortable doing that. I think when the whole team is locked in knowing he’s going to do that, we feel pretty confident.”
The added bonus of Bonner’s defensive contribution is that it allows Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to give him more playing time and take advantage of his outside shooting ability that stretches Memphis’ defense. Bonner drilled four 3-pointers in Game 1 as the Spurs set a franchise record with 14 3-pointers.
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 – One moment, Tony Allen‘s on the bench, ambitiously waving his towel above his head like he’s back at Oklahoma State in the Final Four or something. The next moment, he’s slinking into his chair as Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins glared at him and barked something at him as though Allen had just asked out the coach’s daughter.
“[I said the] same thing I said to him when he didn’t block out [Kevin] Durant on a shot,” Hollins said. “What the hell are you doing?!”
What in the world happened as the third quarter of Wednesday’s Game 5 wound down to five minutes to play, with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher shooting a corner 3-pointer in front of the Grizz bench and, out of nowhere, Allen’s blue warmup jersey fluttering five feet into the air and landing five feet out on the court?
“That never happened in my career. It was just a fluke incident,” Allen said, shaking his head. “It (the jersey) was tied up in the towel, and I knew it, but it just slipped. I saw it on the floor. I think I’m the only one that saw it because everybody else had their eyes …”
Allen, who had just subbed out of the game seconds earlier, stopped to sort through the surreal sequence.
“I don’t know, it was just a fluke play man,” Allen said. “I just thank God we were able to get out of here with a win.”
Had they not, and they almost did not, there’s no telling what Hollins might have done to his defensive bulldog who had defended Durant so well in helping lead the Grizzlies to a five-game, semifinal playoff victory over the top-seeded Thunder.
Memphis led 60-49 and was in seizing control of the game when Allen’s towel went haywire and spit out his warmup. Fisher’s 3-pointer missed, but the whistle blew the play dead with the foreign object resting on the floor. The ruling: OKC was awarded three points and a technical foul was assessed to Allen for interference. Durant made the free throw for a four-point play without an actual field goal being made.
Now it’s 60-53 and what was a subdued sellout crowd at Chesapeake Arena roared as the Thunder found sudden life.
End of the third quarter.
“Man, I thought when they made that run,” Allen said, “I was saying this is all my fault.”
He probably doesn’t want to know what Hollins was really thinking. When Hollins told reporters what he screamed at Allen, the room chuckled, seeing as all had ended well for the Grizz. But Hollins still didn’t smile and he offered a curt retort.
“That was huge. They counted the three points and then they got a free throw,” Hollins said. “That was a four-point play and from that point on we scored four more points in the quarter.”
Said Allen: “He was pretty upset and I can understand why. I shouldn’t do that as a veteran. It was just a bad play considering what was at stake. That could have come back and haunted us, but for the most part we’re a group that’s together and thank God that he didn’t scold me. But he did tell me to get my head out of my butt and get out there and keep playing.”
Memphis again gained control, going ahead 80-68 with 4:13 to go and the franchise’s first trip to the West finals nearing reality. Then the Thunder charged again.
“I just felt like if I get a chance to go back into this game I want to do something to help the team,” Allen said. “I don’t care what it is.”
And so with 3.3 seconds left in Game 5 and the Grizzlies up two, Allen, a career 74.1-percent career free throw shooter, went to the line for two. Either he ices it or he does the Thunder a second big favor and leaves them one last chance.
Bang and bang.
“Luckily, well not luckily,” Allen said, “thank God we were able to get out of here with a win.”
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 Ibaka, Kevin 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.”
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. – Late in the first quarter Kevin Durant wanted a foul on emerging nemesis Tony Allen and put up an awkward shot that bounced off the backboard and triggered an Allen breakaway. To prevent a layup, the retreating Durant leaped and fouled Allen on the way to the rim, came down, punched the air in frustration and told referee Ken Mauer of his possession at the other end: “That was a foul, man.”
All the while Allen shot his free throws, Durant pleaded his case. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Allen blanketed Durant and he fell to the floor. During the quarter break, Durant, with a towel draped around his shoulders at mid-court, continued to address Mauer.
Durant pounded the chest of struggling forward Serge Ibaka after he missed a free throw. After a near-steal by Memphis’ aggressive team defense, Durant animatedly jabbed at the sky with his index finger and urged second-year guard Reggie Jackson to throw the ball higher when he’s backing down his man.
Durant, asked to bang with burly Grizzlies center Marc Gasol on the defensive end, took an inadvertent elbow from the big man square in the jaw, doubled-over and covered his face with his hands.
As Game 3 was ticking down Saturday evening to a Memphis Grizzlies 87-81 victory for a 2-1 series lead, Durant crouched down and planted both hands on the floor, tired and realizing that it is up to him to pick up this fight, to keep the season going, in 48 hours. With Allen now hounding him for chunks at a time, Durant finished with 25 points on 9-for-19 shooting after starting 6-for-8. He had 11 rebounds and five assists. He logged 45 minutes, 44 seconds, which might or might not have contributed to him going 2-for-5 from the free throw line in the second half.
He had two points in the fourth quarter. In the last two fourth quarters, starting with the final 3:18 of the Thunder’s Game 2 loss at home when the hard-edged guard Allen truly started to stick to Durant, the three-time scoring champ is 1-for-7 from the floor and 0-for-2 from the free throw line.
“Tony’s great man,” Grizzlies teammate Zach Randolph said. “Tony’s a dog, man. He’s in the mud.”
Welcome to KD’s world. The reality of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook – Allen’s more natural counterpart –being shelved is in full effect and it’s not pretty. The Grizzlies are doing all they can to grit-and-grind their way to making life as uncomfortable as possible for Durant, forcing his teammates to step up, and especially late in these games, each of which have been up for grabs in the final three minutes.
“I’ve said it before, when a guy has the ball and has to score like that it takes energy, and the more you make him work, that’s the best you can do,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “You can’t stop Kevin Durant, he’s a great player, but he played 45, 46 minutes and he’s asked to carry a huge load for them. As the game goes on other people for them, they start taking the load away from him a little bit, but I don’t think that we can stop him. I’m not attributing it to us.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Durant’s heavy minutes were not a factor in going 3-for-11 after his great start and 1-for-4 in a second consecutive poorly executed final few minutes.
The 24-year-old Durant continues to say he can shoulder any load. But, he has to have help. Ibaka is a mess offensively, clanging 11 more shots in Game 3 — unfathomably including two dunks and a 1-foot hook, and running his series shooting percentage to 33.3 percent. This from a man who shot a career-best 57.3 percent in the regular season.
Since Ibaka missed that difficult put-back under the rim at the end of the Game 4 loss to Houston, his shooting has plummeted from 22-for-38 to 23-for-66. Durant acknowledged that Ibaka’s mind is a mine field.
“We have to get him confidence,” Durant said. “We have to get him some shots and get him going. We can’t let him put too much pressure on himself. It’s all in his mind. If he thinks he is going to make those shots, then he is going to make them. I have to pick him up and that is what I have been doing.”
Kevin Martin shouldn’t need picking up in his ninth season, although this is the first pressurized postseason of his career. No matter, he is nearing bust status when his team needs him most. He, too, missed 11 more shots as his 50-point, two-game breakout to close out Houston and to get OKC off to a 1-0 start against the Grizz appears more like a mirage. His shooting stats in the last two games: 8-for-28 from the floor and 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
In this series, Durant is averaging 32.0 points on 33-for-66 shooting from the floor. The rest of the Thunder are 62-for-172 (36.0 percent). They’ve struggled to score against Memphis’ gritty defense, averaging 85.6 points — 20 below their season average. Yet they’ve been right there, in position to snag the last two games.
Game 3 was theirs to take. They outrebounded Memphis, limited their turnovers, held Randolph to eight points and one offensive board. OKC was unusually spotty from the foul line (12-for-19) and awful from beyond the arc (5-for-18), but Derek Fisher’s 3-ball tied it at 81-81 with 1:58 to go. Much like Game 2, they wouldn’t score again.
Durant and Brooks both reiterated that they won’t change their approach offensively. Durant won’t play hero ball. He’ll continue to look for teammates in the structure of the halfcourt offense, which Durant said is working fine. They just need to make shots, he said.
“We missed two dunks, we missed three or four layups in the paint, we missed some wide open 3s,” Durant said. “We’re getting the right shots. We’re getting shots that our offense gives to us. We just have to knock them down.”