Posts Tagged ‘Zach Randolph’

#BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver!

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Damian Lillard finishes off the Houston Rockets with the buzzer-beating dagger in Game 6

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This was already the best first round of NBA playoff basketball these eyes have seen.

From the opening tip of the very first game to last night’s Dame of Thrones dagger from Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard that eliminated the would-be-champion Houston Rockets in six games, this first-round whirlwind has been above and beyond anyone’s wildest imagination of what the first step of these 2014 NBA playoffs could be.

We’ve had 21 games decided by five points or less, eight overtime (or multiple overtime) games and a final weekend of the first round like nothing we’ve ever seen. The previous record for Game 7s in the same first round is just two, done several times and most recently in 2012 (the first round didn’t go to Game 7s until 2003).

By the opening tip Sunday this will be the most games we’ve ever seen in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

So this historic two-day finish, a staggering five Game 7s, kicking off today with three winner-take-all contests — making this the #BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver! — is the happy ending to every hoops lover’s dream scenario.

This is also the first time in NBA history we’ve had the pleasure of watching three Game 7s on the same day. All you have to do is tune in to TNT at 5 p.m. ET and you’ll get roughly eight straight hours of the game’s very best fighting it out for their playoff lives.

If we get five more games anything like what we’ve already seen, you’ll need extra supplies to get through what should be an absolutely wild weekend.

Your Saturday menu …

Game 1 — Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers, 5:30 p.m. ET


VIDEO: TNT’s Game 7 preview of Hawks-Pacers

Will we get a Roy Hibbert sighting in what should easily be the most important game of his career, to date? He’ll be in uniform. And he’ll probably be in the starting lineup, as he has in all six games of this series so far. But will he actually show up? That’s the question that lingers for the Pacers’ flummoxed All-Star center.

The Hawks are not going to change their stripes now. They’re going to stretch the floor and try to make the Pacers defend that 3-point line as best they can, a strategy Mike Budenholzer‘s crew has worked to perfection when they are knocking down their shots. They’ll need another 15-for-27-type effort that helped them win Game 5 in Indy and not the 9-for-35 misery that cost them Game 6 at home. By the way, No. 8 seeds are 0-2 all-time against No. 1 seeds in Game 7s.

Let’s be real. The Pacers should have the edge. Paul George avoided suspension after he and several other players from both teams stepped onto the court during an altercation between Pacers point guard George Hill and Hawks forward Mike Scott in Game 6.

Except, of course, for that little fact that the Hawks have basically owned the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse the past month. “My thing is that three of the last four times we’ve played these guys (in Indy), they built 20-point leads and beat us pretty good,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “So I don’t think anyone from this team can think we’re going to be OK just because we’re back home.”

***

Game 2 — Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET


VIDEO: TNT’s Game 7 preview of Grizzlies-Thunder

Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph could not avoid the NBA’s disciplinary council, losing his chance to play in Game 7 after jaw-jacking Thunder rookie center Steven Adamswho adds the rugged Randolph to his long list of opposing players that have lost their cool trying to deal with the big fella. Raise your hand if you thought Adams would be the most important player in this series … didn’t think so!

As usual, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is in the crosshairs with his team’s season on the line. His lineup decisions — Caron Butler for Thabo Sefolosha? — with Randolph out will be scrutinized to no end if things go awry. It’ll be his fault regardless of what happens. Brooks has become a convenient scapegoat whenever folks discuss the Thunder.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is ailing, too, giving coach Dave Joerger even more to worry about than just playing without Z-Bo. He’ll have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in full attack mode, not to mention that home crowd that won’t sit down until the game is in hand one way or another. If the Grizzlies really are planning on doing something special tonight, they’ll have to do it with some big-game contributions from someone with experience in these pressure-packed situations (Mike Miller anyone?).

If the Thunder can’t find its way out of this series, they’ll need to take a long and hard look at their personnel … and that’s from Brooks and his staff all the way down to the end of the bench. They don’t have an endless title-chasing window with this group, even with Durant and Westbrook headed into the primes of their careers. Game 7 is huge for all involved but it’s even more critical for the future of this particular Thunder group.

***

Game 3 — Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET


VIDEO: TNT’s Game 7 preview of Warriors-Clippers

You have to give Warriors coach Mark Jackson credit, he’s played the mind game in this series every bit as well as his team has played the actual games on the court. “The pressure’s on them,” Jackson told to the Mercury News Friday. “They earned the right to have home court, and they’ve got some stars — some in uniform, and one in a suit and tie. The pressure’s on them.” There’s plenty of pressure on Jackson, too. His players know it and so does everyone else. They’re fighting for him as much as anyone, per J.A. Adande of ESPN.

Speaking of pressure, that buzz about this being a defining moment for Clippers superstar point Chris Paul is not going anywhere. He’s working on a bad hamstring, but all eyes will be on CP3 tonight. As good as Blake Griffin , Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan and others have been this season, this is still his team to lead to championship glory. His matchup with Steph Curry has been every bit as entertaining as expected, but he needs to finish with a flurry or face the wrath of a growing number of critics who insist he hasn’t come up big in the biggest situations for his team in the postseason.

The Warriors enjoy one of the best home crowds in all of sports. But they’ll have to dial-up a signature performance without the aid of that bunch that keep Oracle Arena rocking every night. That means cold-blooded marksmanship from Curry and Klay Thompson and something extra from Draymond Green, who has become the wild card in this series. If he can work his way under Griffin’s skin and get the Clippers’ All-Star into early foul trouble, the entire complexion of this game changes.

That “star in a suit and tie” that Jackson referenced, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, is doing double and perhaps even triple time on the job these days. The vice president of basketball operations is serving as the resident healer in chief not only for his players but also other employees within the organization in the wake of the Donald Sterling drama. For 48 minutes, and hopefully five or even 10 more tonight, he’ll be locked in strictly on what’s going on between those lines on the Staples Center floor.

***

As they say, you better get your popcorn ready for the #BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver!

Oh, and save some for Sunday …

 

Randolph’s punch might KO Grizz vs. OKC

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime discusses Zach Randolph’s suspension

Point guard Mike Conley, despite a right hamstring strain that could limit his mobility and effectiveness, was hoping to play for the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 7 against the Thunder Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph doesn’t have that option, sending coach Dave Joerger scrambling through his.

Randolph was suspended by the NBA late Friday afternoon for punching OKC big man Steven Adams in the jaw late in Game 6. The penalty deprives Memphis of its leading scorer (18.2 ppg) and rebounder (8.7 rpg) in the series, unclogs the defensive paint for the Grizzlies in a way the Thunder hadn’t managed to and appears to deal a severe blow to the No. 7 seed’s chances of extending its season.

Oh, the advanced stats might suggest otherwise. Randolph has a minus-5.3 plus/minus average through the first six games, and Memphis’ offensive and defensive ratings have been better when the big man has been sitting: 93.4 and 101.4 with him on the floor (-6.6) vs. 111.2 and 103.9 (+3.3) without him.

But the teams’ rotations and matchups factor into those numbers significantly in such a small sample size, and voices from both sides have lauded the Grizzlies’ size as a reason for Kevin Durant‘s and Russell Westbrook‘s difficulties attacking the rim and drifting to perimeter shots.

With the 6-foot-9, 253-pound power forward out of Memphis’ equation, his replacements – Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer – might not have the same effect.

Meanwhile, Conley – Charles Barkley‘s “most underrated point guard in the league” – could be slowed despite two days of treatment on his hamstring. Especially if Joerger feels a need to pick up the pace in Randolph’s absence; Conley has been a master of running and controlling the tempo of his club’s halfcourt attack.

The late-afternoon announcement of Randolph’s suspension, on top of the way it was dealt with in real time Thursday night – Randolph was assessed a common foul, no flagrant, no review, no ejection – produced some nasty Internet comments. Some accused the NBA of favoring Oklahoma City and Durant, the league’s presumptive 2014 Most Valuable Player, for star power and alleged heightened interest for TV ratings.

The only problem with that: Randolph did pop Adams in the jaw with his right fist as the two ran upcourt together. In fact, he first elbowed the Thunder reserve with his left elbow before reaching across to punch him.

Adams didn’t seem to be hurt, judging by video replay, and the incident at 6:42 of the fourth quarter at FedEx Forum brought a whistle but not drama on the floor. The OKC rookie does seem to use his raw-boned strength intentionally to antagonize opponents.

But Randolph could have reacted differently, recoiling from whatever contact Adams caused in that moment or previously or even just rising above it. Memphis trailed at that point 88-71 and was showing no signs of denting the Thunder’s lead. The reasonable tact for the Grizzlies forward would have been to file away whatever Adams was doing to irritate him and battle another day, as in Game 7.

Now he doesn’t have that chance. And the Grizzlies might be out of theirs.

The downer that is OKC and KD

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double, the Grizzlies took Game 5 in OT

Full disclosure: I picked the Oklahoma City Thunder to win it all this season. I have defended Russell Westbrook as a worthy co-pilot for Kevin Durant, going so far as to declare them the most dynamic duo in the league. I’ve written that Scott Brooks deserves less criticism as a tactician and more credit as a talent developer and team builder.

These defenses are crumbling right along with the Thunder’s title hopes. So perplexing are their performances that the Oklahoma City fans, a tremendously friendly and faithful base, booed their boys during a particularly lethargic patch when they got down by 20 in Tuesday’s 100-99 overtime loss that moved my hand-picked champs to the brink of elimination.

And now everything I thought I knew about the Thunder is flapping in the wind.

The argument that the 50-win Memphis Grizzlies are not a typical No. 7 seed and a bear of a matchup for any opponent is valid. They have played solidly and a scheme to make the league’s scoring champ and soon-to-be named regular-season MVP miserable has worked.

A playoff-record four consecutive games have gone to overtime, three won by the Grizzlies. Rationally, it can be touted that a favorable bounce here, a shot lipping in instead of out, one extra tenth-of-a-second, and the Thunder own this series. But even the Thunder wouldn’t go there.

Suddenly Thunder general manager Sam Presti, the bright, young and bespectacled executive credited with creating this juggernaut is 48 minutes from facing a mountain of questions he didn’t see coming.

All the past criticisms are more real than ever, and things don’t turn quickly they swirl around the compatibility of Durant and Westbrook, and Brooks’ ability to make it work. Westbrook, the force-of-nature point guard who plays with no restrictor plate at all times, has said sitting out last postseason provided him new perspective of his position and role within the team. But as the Thunder offense devolves into an alarmingly high rate of isolation and heavy dribbling, his shots, some too early in the shot clock, some bewilderingly off-balance and from awkward angles, keep mounting.

His shot attempts have increased from 17.2 in the regular season to 25.6 in the playoffs. That he’s shooting only 34.4 percent overall and 18.4 percent from 3-point range, is as troubling as Brooks’ inability or unwillingness to reign in him at key times.

After Game 5, Westbrook said his shot selection can get better, but if Memphis is giving him the 15-foot jumper he’ll make it nine times out of 10.

Unfortunately, he finished Game 5 10-for-30 overall and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc. And never was his complexity more apparent. He totaled a triple-double with 13 assists and 10 rebounds, plus a critical steal, pick-pocketing Memphis point guard Mike Conley that ensured overtime. He also allowed Conley to blow by him twice in overtime.

As for Durant, a cold-blooded killer during his historic regular season,  he is just cold. His smile has vanished, his body language has slumped. With grinding defender Tony Allen or long-limbed Tayshaun Prince hounding him on the perimeter and Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol waiting in the paint, getting to the rim against the Grizzlies isn’t for the faint of heart.

But Durant’s perceived passivity — Brooks, and even Conley, said he remains aggressive — is removing a major part of his scoring arsenal, the free throw. According to SportVU stats, Durant has made fewer drives to the basket than Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson, and Dallas’ 37-year-old shooting guard Vince Carter, while playing in one more game than all of them.

It’s resulting in two fewer free throws a game than he averaged in the regular season, and more stunningly, he’s making just 71.8 percent (28-for-39). He is an 88.2 percent free throw shooter over his career and eclipsed 90 percent last season. Durant was 3-for-6 in Game 5 and missed the potential game-tying free throw with 27.6 seconds to go. Is that a sign of fatigue for the league’s far-and-away minutes leader during the regular season?

After Game 5, Durant said he was “fine” with being used as a decoy in the final six minutes after knocking down a 3-pointer that capped a 27-6 run and gave OKC it’s first lead of the game. He then went 12 consecutive possessions without getting off a shot. He only touched it three times as Brooks made the curious decision to use Durant in the corner to space the floor for Reggie Jackson to drive.

The Thunder haven’t looked like the team expected to make a run at the title since it came out smoking in the first half of Game 1. Maybe they figure things out and turn it on in Game 6, and maybe Durant regains his MVP groove that saw him accomplish multiple feats that hadn’t been done since Michael Jordan.

But then, that was the plot line for Game 5, and it didn’t happen.

Blogtable: On the Grizz’s grit

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indiana awakening? | Game 1 illusion or harbinger | Grading the Grizz’s chances



VIDEO: The Memphis Grizzlies beat the Thunder in OKC in Game 2 of their first-round series

> After that win in OKC, are you ready to pick the gritty Grizzlies over the Thunder?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Not ready. Which is not to say I didn’t find Memphis’ survival in its overtime Game 2 victory to be thoroughly impressive. There were repeated opportunities for the Grizzlies to crack (and potentially have Mike Conley go into some guilt-ridden funk for some late-game mishaps), but they navigated around them. Hey, Z-Bo happened. Still, OKC has so much talent in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook it can win almost in spite of itself most nights. I’m headed to Memphis for Games 3 and 4, while hoping we get 5, 6 and 7 too.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Who exactly was it at Overreaction Central that thought the Thunder were going to sweep every game into The Finals? The Grizzles are rough and rugged and are never easy to beat.  But OKC had the second-best (25-16) road record in the West and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are still too much. Things will be bruising at the Grind House, but the Thunder survive.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Pick the Grizzlies? No. It was one game. Memphis with Tayshaun Prince initially and then Tony Allen, does have a way of frustrating Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook can’t keep launching bad shots — good luck with all that — but the Thunder remain the more talented team. Sweeps are hard to come by and there’s no reason to think Memphis can’t take this to six games. But pick them to win it? Nah.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Still going Thunder. Because I think the previous 82 games mean something and because I think OKC also knows a lot about grit. It played through big injuries, still sees defense as the base of the success and developed young players while finishing with the second-best record in the West. I like the matchup for the Thunder, too. It’s not just tale of the tape with regular-season records.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: No. And it’s not because the Grizzlies aren’t great. They are. They’re better than what we should expect from a No. 7 seed. But they also had an uncharacteristically good shooting game from the perimeter on Monday and, more importantly, Oklahoma City is better. They’re the No. 2 seed for a reason, they’re strong on both ends of the floor, and they’ll find a way to loosen Tony Allen’s clamp on Kevin Durant.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Nope. Not yet, at least. But I am feeling like we have a seven-gamer on our hands for sure. The Grizzlies will pound you into submission with their defense, especially on the perimeter. And they wore the Thunder down and made sure that they had to work for every shot, good and bad (and Naismith knows, the Thunder get up plenty of both), the entire night. That’s a recipe for a Game 7 in OKC that I think we’d all enjoy.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: The Grizz looked pretty good, to be sure, but for large stretches of the game, the Thunder weren’t really rumbling. The Thunder had their usual array of self-created obstacles to overcome, like Scott Brooks stopping a late 3-on-2 break with a timeout, or like when they needed a 2 to tie with the game on the line and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get the ball to the presumptive MVP of the league, Kevin Durant. That said, these are fixable problems, and I think the Thunder should be able to take care of these things.

Thunder thrive on the good, shrug off the ugly in opening win

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Thunder weather Grizzlies’ rally to take Game 1

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the dust settled on one of the stranger wire-to-wire victories you’ll see, the Oklahoma City Thunder had to be wondering if what just happened really happened.

In the span of three quarters of Saturday night’s 100-86 Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, once again with Russell Westbrook riding postseason shotgun next to Kevin Durant, showed the world their magnificence, and their warts.

Westbrook started with a turbo blast and it looked like the Thunder might never look back. The lead was 20 before the second quarter was half over. It was 25 — 56-31 — with 6.6 seconds until halftime. Durant and Westbrook had already combined for 33.

Less than five minutes into the third quarter, the lead was down to nine. Nine minutes later Mike Miller drained a 3-pointer and it was Thunder 74, Grizzlies 72.

“They were going to make a run,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I didn’t anticipate the type of run they had in the third quarter.”

The sellout crowd moaned and groaned and hence the very reason Memphis and Dallas clobbered each other for four quarters and an overtime in the season finale for the right to call their shot against the roller coaster erraticism of the No. 2-seed Thunder over the precision performance of the Western Conference’s top-seeded Spurs.

Brooks went on to say it doesn’t matter how you win as long as you win. And that’s true. And maybe the Thunder, so fast, so athletic, so frenetic at either end for stretches of unpredictable length and fury that it’s simply impossible to maintain such a level throughout a 48-minute game; that a letdown is inevitable and that a quality opponent, as the Grizzlies are, will sense an opening.

“We want to play with that type of intensity,” Brooks said. “No question, it’s hard to play it for four quarters, 48 minutes, 85 or 90 offensive possessions, but we want to strive for that. Tonight in that third quarter, probably seven or eight minutes of that wasn’t as well as we would have liked. But, we fought back, we kept the lead and we extended it down the stretch.”

The Grizzlies have to believe they’re in trouble in this matchup. They’ve lost backup point guard Nick Calathes to a 20-game drug policy suspension and Tayshaun Prince left Game 1 early in the first quarter, too ill to continue on. In the third-quarter desperation to keep clawing, first-year coach Dave Joerger stuck with his four starters and Tony Allen for the entire quarter and deep into the fourth.

Marc Gasol played 45 minutes and all but 47 seconds of the second half with Game 2 approaching quickly Monday night. Zach Randolph logged 39 minutes. Together they went 14-for-40 from the field as the Thunder slacked off whatever outside threat Memphis could muster and hunkered down.

What should not be lost in the Thunder’s first step in getting back to the NBA Finals, a mission sabotaged right about a year ago when Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee, is how much deeper and more complete this Thunder squad is than the 2012 team with James Harden and last year’s club that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.

Ten players logged at least 12 minutes. Caron Butler put in 30. Rookie center Steven Adams played 12 minutes and had three blocks in his first six minutes. Serge Ibaka was spectacular with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks, two being skywalking power blocks that will replay on every highlight show over the next 24-hour news cycle. His eight-point third quarter saved the Thunder’s lead.

Westbrook, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Reggie Jackson combined for 18 rebounds, one more than Gasol and Randolph. Durant finished with 33 points on 13-for-25 shooting, seven assists and eight rebounds. Just 8-for-18 from the field, he closed the game 5-for-6 in the fourth quarter.

“We just stayed together and we made plays in that fourth quarter,”  Durant said. “The third quarter was tough for us, but we stayed together. We didn’t stray away. We talked it through and made it work on offense and the defensive end and were able to pull away in that fourth quarter.”

Nitpick if you like. Yes, the Thunder again showed their warts, but they also showed how magnificent they can be. This is a dangerous team, now healthy and eager, that would suggest it is just getting started.

Numbers preview: Thunder-Grizzlies

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Taking a closer look at the Thunder-Grizzlies matchup

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies both survived injuries that knocked out key players for big chunks of the season. Their reward is facing each other in the first round.

This is a rematch of last year’s conference semifinals, a series won by the Grizzlies in five games. Oklahoma City will have Russell Westbrook this time, but the Grizzlies aren’t the same team either. They’ve made some upgrades on the wings and still have one of the league’s best defenses.

Here are some statistical nuggets regarding the 2 and 7 seeds in the Western Conference, as well as the four regular-season games they played against each other.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)

Pace: 97.9 (9)
OffRtg: 108.1 (7)
DefRtg: 101.0 (5)
NetRtg: +7.1 (3)

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

Thunder notes:

  • The only team that has ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency each of the last three seasons.
  • Best second quarter team in the league, outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions.
  • Won 14 of the 31 games they trailed by 10 or more points. That winning percentage of .452 led the league and was more than twice the league average (.214) for situations when teams trailed by at least 10.
  • Kevin Durant grabbed 74.9 percent of his rebounding chances, the highest mark in the league.

Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

Pace: 92.2 (30)
OffRtg: 103.3 (16)
DefRtg: 102.1 (8)
NetRtg: +1.2 (14)

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

Grizzlies notes:

The matchup

Season series: Thunder won 3-1 (2-0 at home)
Pace: 94.6
OKC OffRtg: 106.5 (7th vs. MEM)
MEM OffRtg: 98.6 (21st vs. OKC)

Matchup notes:

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

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No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

***

No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Grizzlies showing their playoff teeth

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Grizzlies storm back in Salt Lake City to topple the Jazz

This is the way you always expect Grizzlies to look. Big and scary with sharp teeth and claws.

Dangerous, too.

Pity the poor team in the upper half of the contentious Western Conference bracket that wakes up on the eve of the playoffs to find Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph lumbering hungrily into their campsite.

At just the right time, in just the right way, the Memphis blues have given way to a more ominous sound. Think more of Darth Vader‘s “Imperial March”.

That should frighten everyone from San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Houston.

“Oh, you really don’t want to run into Memphis in the first round of the playoffs,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “Not with the style they play that is so different from most other teams these days, grinding it out and beating you up. Not with Randolph and Gasol on their games. They’re a bear.”

OK, pun appreciated.

It was, of course, no joke when the Grizzlies opened the season looking like they were in competition with the Lakers in a nose-dive competition to the bottom. Not with Gasol and eventually Tony Allen hobbled. Not when everyone in the locker room and on the court was trying to get adjusted to the coaching change and the style tweaks from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger. There were rumors that Randolph was on the trading block.

Back then, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole in the standings as deep as the No. 12 spot, yet now are at No. 7 and quite possibly climbing higher. They are just one game behind No. 6 Golden State and 1 1/2 games behind No. 5 Portland.

After last night’s 91-87 win at Utah, the Grizzlies have the best record (28-9) in the NBA since Jan. 10 and are positioning themselves maybe even make a return trip to the West finals.

Salt Lake City was the first stop on a critical five-game road trip that will also go through Golden State, Portland, Denver and Minnesota and go a long way toward determining where the Grizzlies wind up in the playoff chase.

“It’s the biggest trip of the year,” point guard Mike Conley told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “It’s going to test us a lot mentally and physically. We don’t overlook anybody. We just have to play our basketball and worry about making the plays we make, and not adjusting to what other teams do. We’re going to be ready for battle.”

Playing the Grizzlies of recent vintage has always been like a fight, with the scratch marks, bruises and scars left behind as proof. With Gasol now healthy and back in the middle to offer serious rim protection, the Grizzlies boast the No. 2-rated defense in the league since his return on Jan. 14. With Allen back and scrapping out on the wing, they are Grizzlies who can take a game — and an opponent — in their paws and squeeze the life out of them.

Memphis has won 11 of last 14 games with the only losses coming on the road at Miami, Brooklyn and Toronto. The Grizzlies have been taking care of business at home in the “Grind House,” defeating the teams they’re supposed to and outright devouring the awful ones.

“It shows our focus is at an all-time high,” Conley said. “Playing against good teams over the last few weeks has got our minds in a playoff mode and our sense of urgency back. We’re playing with a higher standard.”

While the return of Gasol has been credited the most for turning the season around and getting them back to their old snarling defensive ways, the Grizzlies are also are somewhat different and better on the offensive end. Memphis still ranks dead last in 3-point shots attempted and made, but the Grizzlies’ success rate from behind the arc (35.6) has crept closer to the middle of the pack (18th). Their overall field goal percentage (46.3) ranks eighth, making offense less of the teeth-gnashing affair it has been. The additions of Mike Miller, Courtney Lee and Jon Leuer have provided much needed outside shooting and given Conley more options to direct the ball. Miller hit three key jumpers, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the comeback at Utah.

And then there is Conley, who continues to get overlooked among a crowded Western Conference crop of point guards when the spots on the All-Star teams are handed out. He’s upped his scoring to a career-best 17.1 points as he continues to hand out an average half dozen assists each game. His PER (20.1) is just outside the top 25 in the league. He’s grown steadily through seven NBA seasons to become a veteran leader of an offense and concentrating less on making steals to play solid team defense at the other end.

Toss in a bench that also has Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos and the Grizzlies have a deeper, more balanced roster than even the team that went on the long playoff run a year ago.

For a season that could have gone over the edge, the Grizzlies have pulled themselves back up to the level of real threat in the playoffs to one of the so-called elite teams at the top.

“This is a crucial stretch of the season,” said Randolph at the start of the trip. “These five games can determine where we end up.”

And which team in the West gets a big and unexpected headache in the first round.


VIDEO: Inside Stuff’s crew talks about the Grizzlies’ comeback in the standings

Blake Takes High Road On Chin Music


VIDEO: The Randolph-Griffin battle is nothing new

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When the Clippers visit the Grizzlies tonight (8 ET, League Pass), Blake Griffin will once again tussle with old pal — nemesis, if you must — Zach Randolph.

Combined, you’re gazing at 511 pounds (listed weights) of pure power forward. When they get together, these two men of behemoth proportion often get tangled up, tied up, jostle and grapple. It’s not uncommon for it to end with the two twisted up like a giant pretzel on the hardwood.

Just search YouTube for either of last two playoff series between the Clips and Griz for video evidence.

Of course, it’s not unusual to see Griffin locked in a heated exchange or physically locked with another player. If NBA rosters were bound together like a phone book, chances are you could close your eyes, open it up and point a finger at a player that has tried to rile Griffin.

A simple Google search for “Griffin and fight” brings us, of course, Randolph, plus Serge Ibaka, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Lamar Odom and even an ornery little guy, Mario Chalmers. And that’s just the first page. Andre Miller, Tony Battie and Anderson Varejao also quickly pop up.

There’s just something about the 6-foot-10 brick wall that is Griffin that gets opponents a little on edge. Probably the part about him being 6-10 and built like a brick wall. There’s that whole dunking thing, too. Chaos can, and does, arise. Griffin tries to remain calm.

“I’ve been experiencing things like that since high school,” Griffin said during All-Star weekend. “Being a bigger guy you kind of get fouled a lot, fouled harder, and it’s something my dad always taught me and told me is just to respond with how you play because you don’t want to put your team in a bad situation by getting kicked out of the game.”

Sometimes tempers flare, stares turn into shoves, teams converge and elbows can fly and sometimes worse. Even when cooler heads seemingly prevail, ejections happen. Like when Griffin got the hook at Golden State on Christmas Day. It started when the Warriors’ Green threw an elbow at Griffin’s head and neck region, drawing a Flagrant 2 foul, which carries an automatic ejection. Griffin took exception to the play and got hit with a technical foul.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Griffin and Bogut got into a skirmish after Bogut got his arm up around Griffin’s head. Bogut received a Flagrant 1, and Griffin, who felt he did not retaliate, got nailed with a second technical resulting in an automatic ejection. Griffin couldn’t believe it and the next day the league agreed, issuing a statement saying Griffin should not have received the second technical, and thus should not have been ejected. But the damage was done and the Clippers lost the game, 105-103.

“He’s in a great place right now,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said of Griffin’s ability to mostly keep himself in check. “He doesn’t react to all those type of things. At the end of the day he knows we want to win games.”

Getting unnecessarily bruised and battered has long been a big-man complaint. Hakeem Olajuwon to Shaquille O’Neal to Yao Ming to Griffin, they’ve all complained, and mostly rightly so, that they’re getting killed down there. The biggest of the big tend to overpower their opponents, it puts their opponent’s in a bad mood and cheap shots the referees don’t see can result.

“There’s moments definitely when you’re close to snapping, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Griffin said. “When I feel like somebody is trying to hurt me, physically hurt me, that’s the point where you have to stand up for yourself.”

Old-school big guys see the effect Blake’s power and size have on opponents and three Hall of Famers of a more physical era of NBA basketball — Shaq, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone – have come out and said Blake needs to stand up for himself more often and more forcefully.

Barkley on a TNT postgame show earlier this season: “You’ve got to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to start hitting y’all back.”

Malone said he loves watching Griffin play and feels his frustration. During a recent appearance as guest analyst on a Utah Jazz game, Malone said he’d love to spend some time with Griffin: “First thing I’d do [is say], ‘Blake, the next time one guy cheap shots you, just lose your mind, I would pay your fine. Lose your mind, run roughshod.”

Griffin said he hears those guys, but taking things into his own hands is not that simple.

“The game was a little different back then,” Griffin said. “You could punch somebody in the face and they’d just get a technical and you just keep on playing, so I completely understand what they’re saying, and I completely understand the words of advice. But it’s one of those things where I’m trying to deal with it on my own terms. I don’t think anybody’s out there really trying to hurt you, I think just bigger guys — I’ve watched Dwight Howard for a lot of years take a lot of punishment because he’s so big and so strong.”

Just another angle to watch tonight as you settle in for Clippers-Grizzlies.