TrueHoop: Tony Allen
Special to ESPN.com
On Thursday night, at Memphis' FedExForum, these teams will play for the 30th time in four seasons, including in three playoff series (counting this one). The Grizzlies hold a 15-14 edge, but the clashes have provided much more than that. The series has given Grizzlies fans six overtime games and the franchise’s first Game 7, and has paved the way for a first trip to the Western Conference finals.
Most of the lexicon of Grizzlies fan culture also has emanated in opposition to OKC: The boast-as-threat “We Don’t Bluff” traces to an altercation between Randolph and Kendrick Perkins in November 2012. The crunch-time penchant for converting “growl towels” into "Norma Rae"-style signs materialized organically during a Game 3 comeback against the Thunder in May 2011. Even “grit and grind” first came about on the sidelines of Chesapeake Energy Arena in February 2011. When Rudy Gay was traded, the team’s next game -- a loss, the “champagne taste on a beer budget" game -- was against the Thunder. When Marc Gasol unexpectedly returned from injury this season, in a win, it was against the Thunder.
If the Grizzlies-Clippers rivalry is embodied in Randolph vs. Griffin -- a prizefight of relative equals, made more compelling by their radically contrasting styles and personalities -- then the Grizzlies-Thunder rivalry is embodied in Tony Allen vs. Kevin Durant: an ostensible mismatch, the role player and the MVP, David and Goliath.
Last season, Allen was suddenly deemed too short for the assignment despite ample evidence to the contrary. He was kept off Durant for the first seven quarters of the teams’ second-round series, in which the Grizzlies lost one game and were headed toward losing a second. Finally let loose in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Allen held Durant scoreless for 7 minutes in a close win, stealing the ball for a meaningless-to-most exclamation dunk in the final seconds and then running by the scorer’s table, yelling, “First team, all-defense!”
Was he taunting his opponent? More likely speaking to some mixture of the basketball gods, himself and his coach. The Grizzlies swept the remaining games against the Thunder, with Durant increasingly overburdened.
This season, upon returning from injury, Allen reluctantly moved to a reserve role and averaged fewer minutes per game than increasingly limited starter Tayshaun Prince. But against the league’s most dominant scorer on Monday night, Allen played 35 minutes, while Prince played only 14. The Grizzlies won 111-105 in overtime to tie the series. As they say in Memphis, No. 9 when you need him.
Allen’s first couple of months with the Grizzlies didn’t go well, either. When he first came to the team, in 2010-11, he played behind rookie Xavier Henry and totaled nearly a dozen DNPs. He blackened the eye of teammate O.J. Mayo in a squabble over a card game. The first game after that incident was at home against the Thunder, and Allen spent the first quarter botching uncontested layups and suffering ballhandling misadventures. He ended it with 16 second-half points, a clutch 3-pointer (followed by a backpedaling shimmy), a violent block on a Russell Westbrook layup attempt, and several thousand new fans.
In Memphis, this became known as “The Tony Allen Game.” A February rematch that season in Oklahoma City, in which Allen had 27 points (still his high with the Grizzlies), 5 steals, 3 blocks, zero turnovers and brilliant late-game defense on Durant, rendered it “The First Tony Allen Game.” Following the overtime win Monday, Allen turned a postgame interview into an impromptu sideline soliloquy, warning of the dangers of the Ibakas and Sefoloshas of the world, but not before a now-familiar rallying cry: “It’s all heart. Grit. Grind.”
Oklahoma City brings out the best in Tony Allen. And now here he is again, matched up against arguably the best player of the 2013-14 season.
Grizzlies fans can work up a feverish, fun “sports hate” for Griffin and Chris Paul. Maybe even for smirking Westbrook or frowning Perkins or old-and-in-the-way Derek Fisher. But Durant? Not a chance. Grizzlies fans by and large don’t -- can’t -- dislike Durant. They regard him with a mix of awe and admiration, fear and resentment.
The fan cultures also seem so different in these small, middle-American markets.
Oklahoma City’s crowd acts more orderly. Everyone dutifully puts on their themed T-shirts, bearing sincere, agency-sublimating slogans.
Memphis’ crowd seems more unruly. The Grizzlies used to try T-shirts come playoff time -- the “whiteouts” and “blue-outs” and what have you -- but had to spend too much time before games shaming reluctant fans into putting them on. The lockstep look didn’t fit, especially with unofficial Tony Allen T-shirts erupting into a local cottage industry. People preferred the towels. They lend themselves to more boisterous, physical expression.
It’s easy to be snarky from a distance, of course. To roll your eyes in the abstract. But Grizzlies fans who make the trip to Oklahoma City inevitably come back impressed by the intensity and the dedication Thunder fans have for their team, by the family atmosphere at games, and by the graciousness bestowed upon guests.
These are two great fan bases. But they are different.
And if Durant and Allen embody their teams -- the gifted favorite and the scrapping underdog -- they’re also perhaps fitting reflections of their communities.
Allen might not make sense as a cult hero in every NBA city, but he fits in colorful, big-hearted but rough-edged Memphis, where he’s embraced his “The Grindfather” persona so fully that he displays the nickname on a vanity plate on the front of one of his cars.
Durant’s persona, of course, would play anywhere. But more befitting pious, respectful Oklahoma City, Durant has declined the similarly fun and intimidating moniker “Slim Reaper,” asking instead to be called “The Servant.”
Now it’s back to Memphis, with Allen’s team holding home-court advantage and his matchup with Durant squarely in the spotlight. In what has become one of the NBA’s most compelling rivalries, the best is yet to come.
Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin didn’t practice Thursday and spent a good portion of the day receiving treatment on his right ankle, which he sprained severely Monday, one day before the Clippers’ Game 5 loss in Los Angeles. If Griffin can’t go in Game 6, or is largely ineffective as a post presence on the offensive end, the Clippers have big issues. They’re not a team -- like San Antonio, for instance -- that runs an airtight system fueled by interchangeable parts. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are indispensable to their team’s success, but the Spurs can subsist for long stretches without them because the offensive objectives don’t change with their absences.
The Clippers need Griffin down low, where he draws defenders and forces rotations, and in the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, which forces the Memphis Grizzlies’ big guys to account for him, Chris Paul and the space around them.
How can the Clippers absorb Griffin’s absence? On Thursday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said that if Griffin isn’t available, veteran multitasker Lamar Odom would start at power forward for the Clippers. Odom’s presence on the floor with the starters would give the Clippers yet another versatile ball handler and a crafty -- if occasionally freelancing -- team defender. But a better bet might be to go small and hand the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward to Matt Barnes. That would enable them to replicate the successful formula of the bench and open up the game. The Grizzlies like chaos, but their very particular controlled brand of chaos, not the outright disorder a small-ball Clippers unit would bring.
This scheme wouldn’t be without serious challenges for the Clippers. They’d probably have to send quick double-teams from the top of the floor to help Barnes on Zach Randolph, something they did fairly effectively in spots during last season’s epic Game 7. And Paul has always preferred a more controlled approach to half-court offense. But the Clippers will need to move this game from paint to the perimeter, and Barnes at the 4 for significant periods certainly would do that.
Not exactly a label we normally affix to the Grizzlies’ offense, but racking up 114.4 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers in Game 5 definitely clears the bar for locomotive status. The Grizzlies have done a masterful job of moving Marc Gasol and Randolph around the half court, and by doing so, they’ve been able to cross up Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the bench bigs.
This isn’t stuff we haven’t seen from the Grizzlies before: pin-downs by Gasol for Randolph, or vice versa. Pick-and-roll-and-replace with Mike Conley and both Gasol and Randolph. The Clippers aren’t a bad defensive team (ranked ninth this season in defensive efficiency), but Memphis’ execution on these sets has been crisp, timely and deceptive. As capable as the Clippers are at defending initial actions, if a defense throws multiple-choice questions at them, things have a way of breaking down. That’s what we’ve seen over the past 3½ games from Memphis, and the trend line keeps improving.
When the Clippers have grasped for answers after the first quarter, they’ve frequently tapped a three-guard lineup composed of Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Not a terrible idea in theory, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has countered that combination with Conley, Tony Allen and reserve Quincy Pondexter.
Memphis has been winning this battle. Allen smothers Crawford, who has shot 43.8 percent during the Clippers’ three losses (only 3-for-11 beyond the arc), and many of those attempts have been with a Crawfordian degree of difficulty. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s size and brawn have bothered Paul. The Clippers point guard tallied 35 points in Game 5 but hasn’t distributed the ball (only 14 assists combined over the three losses). Offensively, Pondexter has given the Grizz some needed stretch, which has been just enough to complicate the Clippers’ rotations and give Gasol the room he needs to work. Bledsoe pesters Conley, but the Grizzlies have adjusted, running the offense through Gasol at the elbow or having Tayshaun Prince initiate possessions with Conley off the ball.
Playoff teams need X factors, players who outperform their baseline production. Pondexter has been that difference-maker in this series, and it’s helped Memphis inordinately.
For Memphis, closing out the Clippers on Friday night by winning the series’ final four games would be a resounding success after a sometimes tumultuous season. Dealing Rudy Gay created a lightning rod in Memphis and a period of discontent between Hollins and management. Randolph voiced his objections to some of the new wrinkles in the offense introduced after Gay’s departure and struggled after injuring his ankle in March, which was a major cause for concern. More than all that, though, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold (and in Memphis, it’s also served deep-fried with a heavy sauce), and we’ll see a fully catered event in the Grizzlies’ locker room on Friday night if they can close out the series.
On the Clippers’ side, a loss would be devastating. A 56-win team that looked like a serious contender for much of the season and as recently as 10 days ago would return to Los Angeles with some fateful questions: Paul’s free agency, doubts about roster composition, questions about managerial structure, unhappy ownership and Del Negro’s future.
Summers in Los Angeles are generally temperate, but if the Clippers bow out in Round 1, there will be a high-pressure system hanging over the Clippers offices and training facility in Playa Vista, Calif.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul: The All-Star point guard that dare not speak its name.
At Grizzlies practice on Wednesday, Tony Allen was asked very generally what adjustments his team needed to make in Game 3. Allen catalogued the greatest hits -- rebounding, “X factor” Eric Bledsoe, pick-and-roll coverage and “we need to try to make someone else beat us.”
Allen wasn’t referring to the aforementioned Bledsoe, rather Chris Paul.
Reporters are in the clarity business, so one asked Allen to confirm that Paul was, indeed, the person of interest. Allen conceded that he was. “I didn’t want to say his name,” Allen said. “I don’t mind talking about it. He is who he is. He’s an All-Star point guard. He’s been a pain in our behind these last two games, and we want to go out there and try to do our best to do a better job of containing him.”
Since Allen has been fixated on Paul since the Clippers point guard banked in the game winner in Game 2 on Monday night, it bears considering whether Allen will draw Him as his primary defensive assignment in Game 3. Cross-matching is fraught with risk because the rest of Memphis’ backcourt is on the small side, which means Chauncey Billups could post up and Jamal Crawford could rise and shoot. But the alternative -- having Paul probe the middle of the court unfettered -- could be fatal for Memphis.
After battling foul trouble in Game 1, when he finished with only 10 points in 25 minutes, Blake Griffin quickly established himself as the focal point of the Clippers’ offense early in Game 2. Possession after possession in the first quarter, the Clippers fed Griffin down on the block, at one point on four consecutive possessions -- left, then right, then left, then right.
There’s still a vocal contingent that believes Griffin’s post game is nothing more than a jack-in-the-box -- a long windup followed by a random burst -- but Griffin beat Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur with jump steps, spins to get baseline when the defender crowded him, spins to get middle when the defense was stretched. All the while, Griffin did his John Wooden Best, acting quickly but never hurrying.
The Grizzlies looked for Gasol down low, as well. Gasol drew mismatches, then dragged the likes of Caron Butler to the post. Arthur pinned DeAndre Jordan at the elbow to allow Gasol to move low a step ahead of his defender. And they had Gasol roll deeper with the intention of getting him the ball closer to the basket.
All of this highlights one truism -- the Clippers need Griffin and the Grizzlies really need Gasol to score down low.
Last season’s seven-game tilt between the Clippers and Grizzlies was an absolute slugfest. Perhaps in response, this season’s series has been officiated far more tightly, at least through the first two games. There’s some debate as to whom that favors, but the Grizzlies seem far more frustrated by the bevy of foul calls than the Clippers.
Asked on Wednesday how to avoid the kind of ticky-tack fouls that are hampering his team, a salty Lionel Hollins responded, “Stop committing ticky-tack fouls.”
Hollins has seen his team give up several points in the series by fouling 30 feet from the basket while the Clippers are in the bonus. The Grizzlies know better. They also know they’re the superior defensive team, albeit the one with less foot speed. As they come home for Game 3, the Grizzlies need to focus less on gladiating and more on what they do best as a defense -- sending opponents to destinations on the floor they have no desire to visit. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.
The word is out on Bledsoe who, in 32 total minutes, has outrebounded the 7-foot Gasol, wreaked havoc on the Grizzlies’ backcourt and injected into the series an element of chaos. That's a quality that normally favors Memphis, but has worked to the Clippers’ benefit over the first two games.
Allen is right -- Bledsoe is the series’ X factor, the player whose speed exposes the Grizzlies’ lack thereof, and whose pressure upsets an opponent that needs a modicum of space to get what it wants offensively.
No instructions exist to contain Bledsoe, apart from waiting for him to self-combust, which will happen from time to time. Bledsoe averaged 16 minutes over the first two games, but Vinny Del Negro kept him on the floor during the Clippers’ fourth-quarter surge in Game 1. The Clippers’ coach has gradually invested a level of trust in Bledsoe, one that will continue to pay dividends when the game calls for some guerrilla warfare.
Speaking of Del Negro, a number of NBA insiders and observers have come to a similar conclusion: He’s coached his tail off over the first two games of the series.
Rather than shorten the Clippers’ rotation, the much-maligned Del Negro returned to what worked in November and December, when the Clippers played championship-level basketball for nearly eight weeks -- two well-defined units, with extended minutes for Paul and Griffin and slightly abbreviated stints for the starting wings.
So far as play calling, Del Negro still defers much of it to Paul, but has also installed a number of nifty sets that use Paul off the ball in order to get him some live catches and destabilize the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense. And watch for another pretty scheme where Paul dishes the ball off to the wing, makes a UCLA cut before reversing course to set a back screen for Griffin.
These are just a couple of examples. Each game, the Clippers show off a few new wrinkles in what’s been an otherwise rudimentary offense during Del Negro’s tenure as coach. The stuff is working -- and Del Negro and staff deserve praise.
Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Grizzlies can't -- and probably won't -- get pummeled on the glass as they did in Game 1.
Finding signs of encouragement after a 21-point loss can be like leading a search party in the dark, but if the Grizzlies are looking for some reassurance, it should come in the near certainty that they won’t be outrebounded again by a 2-to-1 margin. If that seemed unprecedented, that's because it was. Memphis didn't come anywhere close to a margin like that in any game during the regular season.
There’s a general belief that rebounding doesn’t slump in the NBA. A team like the Grizzlies, which dominated the boards in the regular season (second in overall rebounding rate), doesn’t forget how to ply its trade. Short of injury or a deliberate strategy like a zone defense or fronting the post -- tactics that can make it harder to crash the glass -- a debacle such as Saturday night's is an outlier.
The Grizzlies better hope so. They’re not a team endowed with much perimeter firepower or natural athleticism. They win basketball games by controlling possessions, something they simply can’t accomplish if the Clippers are collecting 42 percent of their misses.
The Point God
Chris Paul exerts an element of control over a basketball game that’s uncanny, and this hasn't been news in ages. What’s more interesting to observe is how he manages his role within the emotional and strategic contours of that game, not unlike LeBron James, in a sense. Is Paul creating for others, or hunting shots for himself? Is he conserving energy off the ball, or is he in Probe Mode?
On Saturday night, the answer was all of the above, and that’s really where Paul needs to be for the Clippers to achieve their full potential as an offensive club. We saw some new wrinkles to the Clippers’ half-court game, with Paul not exclusively an initiator but also a scorer. He came off screens for live-ball catches in a couple of inventive sets, the kind of stuff we haven’t always seen from the Clippers. But Paul also claimed several possessions for himself to test the mobility of the Memphis big men.
For Memphis, the pick-and-roll coverage has to improve, and the Grizzlies know that. They’re an exceptionally well-prepared group that’s completely devoted to the execution of a very intelligent defensive system. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and several players laid it out Sunday at practice.
“The guards have to do a better job of pushing up on the ball handlers,” Mike Conley said. “They were flipping the screens, so our big would show one way, but then their big would flip the screen and Chris would see it. I’d run into the screen pretty good and he’d get a full head of steam on our big man, and you can’t guard him when he’s got a full head of steam with the confidence he has in the paint.”
A defense might not be able to take away Paul’s confidence, but it can take away some real estate.
OK, so who’s going to defend Paul? A tough question because there’s no entirely satisfying answer. In Game 1, Hollins opted for Conley. This wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion.
Conley did an acceptable job of checking Paul during last year’s playoff series. Paul certainly created some quality shots, but he worked for just about everything and spent a fair amount of time in spots on the floor where he had no interest being.
But on Saturday, it wasn’t just that Paul got where he wanted to go, but that he got there in such little traffic. As Blake Griffin said, there was something extremely un-Grizzly about the Clippers' "getting what they wanted," and it can largely be attributed to the little resistance encountered by Paul.
The obvious alternative would be to stick Tony Allen on Paul, but that presents other risks, such as Chauncey Billups dragging Conley into the post. We saw Billups draw Conley on a switch in Game 1 and then promptly back Conley down before draining an easy midrange shot over him.
There are no good choices for guarding Paul, but that might be a risk the Grizzlies have to take. If nothing else, it’s putting your best defender where he’s most useful.
The league has only a handful of players through whom you can run your offense at the high post. Marc Gasol is one of them. On the possessions when Memphis’ offense is at its most fluid and attractive, chances are Gasol is stationed at the elbow.
The Grizzlies need Gasol to spend time at that spot and feed his teammates, but they also need him to generate some offense for himself, which is why Gasol’s ratio of low-post to high-post touches has been increasing recently. When Gasol is aggressive down on the block, he’s effective, and it’s not as if working down low strips him of his ability to be a playmaker. Instead of playing high-low with Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies can play block to block -- horizontal passes rather than vertical ones.
Having Gasol set up in the low post has its drawbacks. For one, it cramps Randolph a bit. The right block is where Randolph makes his living and serves his team best, and he needs a ribbon of empty space around him. But the Grizzlies do a nice job of staggering the minutes of their big men, which should provide Gasol with plenty of feeds closer to the basket.
When the Clippers were ripping off 17 straight wins in December, the margins of victory could be credited to the performance of the second unit, which was decimating the league. Between Eric Bledsoe’s bedlam, Jamal Crawford’s marksmanship, Matt Barnes’ wiliness, Lamar Odom’s versatility and Ronny Turiaf’s … turiafity, the Clippers featured the most exciting and most productive bench in basketball. When excitement and productivity meet, you’re generally in a good place.
That’s the world the Clippers returned to in Game 1. “It felt like December” was something we heard a lot Saturday night and into Sunday, and nothing triggered that sense of deja vu more than the play of the bench.
The Grizzlies do chaos very well themselves, even if their complementary players aren't as talented. They also encountered this last April, so there’s no element of surprise. What they have to do now is neutralize to some degree the energy generated by the Clippers’ reinforcements.
Objectively terrible, don't you think? Allen couldn't remember word one of the song.
On Saturday at Grizzlies' shootaround prior to Memphis' Game 1 matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, Allen offered an explanation of the NBA's biggest karaoke fail in recent memory:
I thought I knew it. I froze up. You know what it was? I'm going to tell you what it was. The words were coming off the projector too slow, Man. So I was trying to read it and trying to remember what I knew, then look at the words and it didn't mix.
But I've been listening to that song ever since I left that place. There will be a comeback, definitely. Definitely.
There are second acts in Tony Allen's America.
Mike Conley | Tony Allen | Tayshaun Prince | Zach Randolph | Marc Gasol
Minutes Played: 540
Offensive Rating: 102.2 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 88.8 points per 100 possessions
How it works defensively
We traditionally begin Killer Lineup with the offensive analysis, but when the Memphis Grizzlies are the subject, that’s burying the lead. Memphis’ defense ranks second in the league behind Indiana (and plays in the Western Conference, home to 11 of the 15 most efficient offenses) and has set the standard of consistency in the West over the past few seasons.
That’s impressive when you consider the slow-footed Randolph is the primary big defender in the pick-and-roll, Mike Conley is a Lilliputian and Tayshaun Prince is slight of frame and relatively new to the Grizzlies' system. But the system in Memphis is now so refined, so precise in its mission, that the personnel is almost secondary to its overarching principles.
Over the course of a few seasons, the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll coverage has evolved from damage control to steady, and from steady to stranglehold. The Grizzlies down every screen with the intention of pushing the ball handler to the baseline. That’s every high screen-and-roll, every angle screen-and-roll and every side screen-and-roll.
Even if the Grizzlies wanted to toy with the idea of using the hard show as their primary defensive pick-and-roll tactic, that’s asking Randolph to jump out high, then dash back to find his man down low. The jumping out isn’t the problem. It’s the dashing back -- a brutal commute for a guy who moves the way he does. Randolph will occasionally stab or “short show,” but only when Conley is running under the pick.
The coverage schemes have worked, and we can attribute that to a common understanding of what each of the other four guys is going to do. The core of this unit has logged a lot of court time together, and it’s evident in their movements.
The big men intuitively can tell when Conley is going to get over a pick and when he won’t. That buys them a step or two, which is the difference between being in position for the ball handler’s attack, or being off-balanced while backpedaling against an oncoming driver.
Randolph’s teammates know he prefers not to leave the body of the guys he’s defending -- a job he’s confident he can do -- rather than be responsible for guarding open space or helping, a task he’s just not as naturally equipped for. This being the case, Conley, Tony Allen, Prince and Marc Gasol are a little more attuned to the possibility that they might need to rotate or, for the perimeter guys, at least stunt very hard.
On pick-and-rolls, Gasol is an avid reader. He drops carefully, gauging angles and sizing up the ball handler while shading the roll man, if necessary. Allen and Conley know Gasol’s tendencies, and on the rare occasions he gets beat in isolation, Allen almost always funnels the penetrator to a crowded spot, while Conley usually gets it done.
Conley used to struggle defending the pick-and-roll. Early in his career, he got hit a ton trying to fight around screens. Today he ranks as one of the more punctual point guards in the league at getting over or under a high pick. That’s essential for these big men, especially Randolph. The Grizzlies help Conley out in this capacity by having him to pressure the ball handler way out to 25 feet or so. This gives Conley the option to scamper under the pick without great risk that the ball handler will launch a shot from that distance.
It’s rare to see Allen get hung up on a screen, and on the ball he’s arguably the best defender in basketball. Culturally and strategically, he and Gasol act as the bookends of the Grizzlies’ defense. It’s hard to succeed against this unit with the pick-and-roll, but Allen is a deterrent to isolate, because even a potent one-on-one player rarely produces efficiently against Allen. An opposing scorer will often look to draw a foul early on Allen in hopes of loosening the vise.
The Grizzlies view another one of Allen’s specialities, the deflection, as essential to their defensive strategy. The Grizzlies aren’t as fixed to playing a gap defense on every possession, where defending space is the primary goal. They're more of a defense that applies constant pressure on the ball and will gamble ranks possession of the ball as its primary goal. Allen, Conley and Prince are constantly aggressive, but they opt for big plays on the ball selectively. Before they commit to risk, they run a cost-benefit analysis, and calculate while simultaneously reading the offense and hounding the ball. Meanwhile, Gasol and Randolph employ a constant awareness that teammates on the perimeter might strike for the ball, an instinct that’s learned over time.
The arrival of Prince has improved the starting unit’s defensive performance by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Prince doesn’t have Rudy Gay’s closing speed, nor can he shoot the gap for a steal as quickly, but he compensates in savvy. Prince saves himself several steps a game merely by being in the right place and can navigate screens and with his sheer intuition can beat a guy to his spot, something that makes life easier for everyone else.
All of these attributes in sum lure Grizz opponents into iffy decisions, because poor choices are all that remain for an offense once the Grizzlies have taken away the best stuff.
How it works offensively
How do you design a functional offense with no real lethal perimeter threat, very little foot speed or elite athleticism up front, an offensive cipher at shooting guard, a point guard who isn’t inclined to light up the scoreboard and a veteran wing who’s more intuitive than dangerous?
Not an easy question for Memphis, because an offense that doesn’t force rotations and can’t get much separation from defenders has a tough time finding clean looks at the basket. Many believed the task would grow even more difficult with the departure of Gay, the one player on the floor who could create his own shot out of nothing. But Prince has stepped into Gay’s place in the starting lineup, and the Grizzlies’ offense hasn’t suffered -- 0.6 points per 100 possessions more efficient to be exact.
The ball isn’t nearly as sticky in Memphis as it was four months ago. Randolph still gets his share of post-ups down on the right block, but Prince isn’t hunting for many 1-on-1 opportunities. As a result, the Grizzlies have taken most of those isolation calls for Gay and converted them into more fluid offense, much of it centered around Gasol at the elbow.
Gasol has emerged as one of the NBA’s most interesting two-way players. He’s simultaneously cerebral and emotive, deferential and assertive. He’s happiest when playmaking, but still gets the urge to work over a smaller defender down on the box. That instinct is a good one, because the Grizzlies need Gasol’s scoring to be successful.
As it turns out, finding opportunities for Gasol isn’t all that difficult. The Grizzlies are increasingly looking for him in the low post, and if he draws a mismatch against the opposing power forward (or, better yet, a perimeter player), that practically initiates an auto-feed. The Grizzlies also run a sequence of high picks for Conley -- first Randolph, who often draws Gasol’s man on the dive, then Gasol, who then moves into open space against a rotating defense. Gasol will face-up or, increasingly, put the ball on the floor and take two big strides before unleashing a running hook or that big whooping crane dunk. A pick-and-pop from the free throw line, a fake handoff before a turnaround jumper or a flash to the high post to release pressure against a double-team of Randolph all work, too.
Strange as it sounds, Gasol is still figuring stuff out. Should he roll deeper to the hoop to draw the defense low, or does that infringe on Randolph’s space? Should he shuttle the ball to the weak side out of principle, or launch his shot without hesitation? Wait for a baseline cut or initiate movement himself? There’s a lot on Marc Gasol’s mind, but the contents make Memphis smarter.
Risk can intimidate a conservative young point guard, but Conley has gradually gained the confidence to play in deeper water. He’s a more willing prober and will turn the corner off a pick regardless of the big defender’s position. Conley is no longer worried about Randolph’s man cutting him off at the rim or whether Gay gets the big drumstick. He’s learned that the offense works best when he initiates. Sometimes nothing will develop and the Grizzlies will get into a play late, but that’s OK, so long as you know where the best alternatives are.
He’s been helped by the collective awareness of the Memphis staff, Gasol and, to a lesser extent, Randolph. They’re aware that Conley is a point guard who needs an alley going to the basket, especially when he goes right. When Gasol and Randolph offer picks, they’re mindful of not only where their opportunities await, but how their movement will impact the Conley Empowerment Plan.
Early and direct post-ups to Randolph used to be the mainstay diet of the Grizzlies’ offense, but defenses now scheme for these calls. To compound matters, Randolph has absorbed plenty of wear and tear, and the Grizzlies don’t feature any long-range shooters whom Randolph can find out of a double-team. These inconveniences of life in the Grizzlies' offense necessitate that he work more often in the pick-and-roll.
Getting an old baller like Randolph to buy in requires some salesmanship. Randolph understands that pick-and-rolls mean he’s more likely to be facing single coverages, often against rotational defenders and/or guards. Those rotations create additional opportunities for the patented high-low game between Gasol and him. Yet pick-and-roll sequences still demand a whole lot more exertion than just establishing a beachhead on the edge of the paint and waiting for the ball. A rolling Randolph also puts the defense in motion, which allows supporting players like Prince and Allen to sneak behind the defense.
Prince has helped matters because he can pass and handle the ball, and these skills have precipitated new wrinkles in the offense. Now the Grizzlies can have Prince bring up the ball and screen down for Conley in the corner, or run 3-man, cornerish stuff with Prince, Conley and Gasol at the elbow.
Not that it’s easy for Memphis. For example, that 3-man action with the starting unit still means Allen and Randolph are manning the weak side, an invitation for defenses to tilt toward the ball. Allen can occasionally punish that negligence by cutting back door, but for every feed he gets underneath, there are still plenty of possessions where the Grizzlies’ lack of stretch can bottle things up, especially when the ball stops.
All this means that the Grizzlies have to work harder than most teams, as has been the case for a couple of seasons. It’s getting a little bit easier. Moving the ball to the second side of the floor in Memphis used to be like sledding uphill, but over the past couple of months, the terrain has leveled out a bit.
Chris Graythen/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Griz have been shutting down teams for a while. Is this the season the offense finally clicks?
By the time the Memphis Grizzlies are through mucking up your half-court possession, your offense looks like an unmade bed.
Your floor spacing is terrible, in part because Tony Allen brutalized your best wing, who never got to his intended destination. Not that it matters all that much, because Mike Conley has hounded your point guard so far to the sideline that the ball is now in a different area code. The passing lanes are clogged. Zach Randolph’s rump has pushed your big man off the block, and all you've got is a morass of bodies that’s flailing around or gathered in a clump in some undesirable location.
With the clock ticking, the ball might land in the first row off a panic pass, or get picked off by Conley or Allen, or maybe the buzzer will sound and the ref will pat his head, signaling a 24-second violation.
You didn't come close to getting what you wanted -- you got Grizzed.
The Grizzlies are the third-ranked defense in the league this season, and they’re a good bet to stick. They clocked in at seventh last season and ninth in 2010-11, when assistant Dave Joerger took over the primary defensive duties for a squad that had ranked 24th in 2009-10.
Over the past three seasons, Memphis has established a defensive system that's all about problem-solving. The Grizzlies push pick-and-rolls down. This gives their bigs, who have the turning radius of a '67 Pontiac Bonneville, time to drop back. Want to feed the post? The Grizzlies utilize their length to deny and their physicality to dig in. And about one in five possessions in the half court against the Griz ends in a turnover.
At the top of the floor, Conley has become more than just a pickpocket. He closes space exceptionally well for a little guy and knows how to force the ball away from the middle. He also offers some extras that keep opponents off balance. Off the ball, he’ll tease, faking as if he's going to help on the ball only to pull back once rhythm has been broken. There's an intelligence to his game that wasn't detectable when he first signed a deal that raised eyebrows and now looks like a bargain.
Faithful as they are to their system, the Grizzlies can adjust on the fly. Take their big win over Miami on Sunday. The Grizzlies' typical schemes left them vulnerable to the Heat's speed and perimeter power. So Memphis did what smart teams do -- it adapted. The Grizzlies' big men didn't show on pick-and-rolls, but tracked backward instead. The goal: Prevent Chris Bosh from sucking Memphis’ defense into the middle.
Bosh and LeBron James still went 11-for-14 at the rim, but the shooters had an atrocious night because Memphis exercised discipline. The Grizzlies didn't rotate the defense and kept a blanket over the arc.
Any decent team can go out and execute its stuff, but the elite ones have the confidence to pivot, to be shrewd and flexible against even the most nightmarish scenario (e.g., defending the Miami Heat), to have the guts to say, "Yeah, our schemes work 60 nights a season. We could run those coverages and hope for the best, but screw it -- let's prepare something unique and ballsy that could totally disarm them. It might blow up in our faces, but who cares?"
The dimensions of an NBA court haven’t changed, but today’s floor is more spacious than it used to be, partly because of some rule changes over the past decade that have favored guards, but also because guys can shoot.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, they've been the exception over the past couple of seasons. Memphis has ranked near the bottom of the league in just about every shooting stat, and the numbers from behind the 3-point line dating back to the 2008-09 season have been brutal.
For NBA teams prepping to defend the Grizzlies, this is like starting with 11 against the blackjack dealer's 5. Now you can run under most pick-and-rolls. Your defenders can sag and crowd the middle of the floor, which makes life more difficult for not only the Grizzlies' frontcourt, but anyone on the wing who wants to drive. Perimeter rotations and help decisions become less risky propositions.
The Grizzlies have run some beautiful stuff with their current core, but they haven't ranked above league average in offensive efficiency since Mike Fratello was roaming the sidelines. Even with nifty high-low passes between Marc Gasol and Randolph, or Rudy Gay elevating over a smaller defender, or Conley exploding off a high pick, the deficiencies from the outside have been too much to overcome many nights.
That's the challenge for the Grizzlies: Can they get some reliable outside shooting, or can they identify ways to compensate?
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesMike Conley: Breaking out.
It's early, but they seem to have acquired a bit of both. Although much of the production came from Wayne Ellington's explosion Sunday (7-for-11 from downtown), the Grizzlies rank fourth in 3-point accuracy.
You can't run under on Conley anymore, because he can hurt you from beyond the arc and spot up nicely when Gay is pounding the rock on the wing (although seeing a kickout from Gay is like spotting a red panda). Jerryd Bayless saw a nice uptick in his 3-point percentage last season, and that has carried over early. Elllington has been a find.
The improvement in proficiency has stretched the floor and given the Grizzlies' interior game more room to operate. Gasol's assist rate, always impressive, is off the charts. He prefers to pass and actively loves advancing the ball. For Gasol, the joy of the game lies in beating schemes, and a pass is simply the best way to accomplish that.
The high-low game between Gasol and Randolph is smoother than ever. Most of these connections used to be set plays, but Gasol and Randolph have become so familiar with one another that they're reading and reacting as often as they're following the script.
Conley learned a lot while Randolph was sidelined last season. With Randolph no longer eating up space on the right block, this opened a tunnel for Conley to drive nonstop to the hoop. Conley learned that attacking the defense allowed him to see the floor better. He has become a more comfortable pick-and-roll practitioner, and I often wonder how he'd fare on a team with two wings who stretched the floor and could make defenses pay if Conley found them with a kickout. Even with these limitations, Conley now can dominate the game for long stretches during which the Memphis offense is at its liveliest.
There's still one more mouth to feed for Memphis, one with a large appetite: Rudy Gay.
At 6-foot-8 (with a 7-foot-3 wingspan), Gay is a confounding player. Most nights, he has a decisive mismatch over a smaller defender. "Find the best mismatch on the floor and exploit it" has been a winning strategy in basketball for a long time, which makes it tempting for the Grizzlies to rely on Gay for an outsized chunk of their offense.
While Gay had some success as a post-up threat last season, he's a terrible pick-and-roll player who has trouble creating a play for anyone else off that drive. Isolation plays for Gay result on average in three-quarters of a point for Memphis, and he's made only a third of his shots from midrange since the start of the 2011-12 season. From distance, he's Wade-esque (but shoots a lot more than Wade). And no matter what the play call, Gay doesn't read defenses as fluently as most top-tier wings -- maybe because he didn't have to for so long -- nor does he get to the foul line enough.
This is the eternal struggle for this Grizzlies team. How many possessions can you entrust to Gay and still run an efficient offense? Are there ways to make him more efficient, slicing away the fat of his game while retaining the nutrients?
Right now, the Grizzlies are flourishing even if they don't have definitive answers to those questions. Their offense sits at No. 8 thanks to a reconstituted bench that's been solid, a jackrabbit start from Conley, and a big point-center who has turned touch and subtlety into opportunities and production.
Is all this stuff sustainable over an 82-game slog?
That's unknowable right now, but a win over Oklahoma City might give us another piece of evidence that the Grizzlies clean up nicely.
We might even discover that the Memphis Grizzlies -- the Memphis Grizzlies -- have found finesse.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Grizzlies established control of the series when they reacquainted themselves with the paint.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- What was once indifference between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies has descended into hostility over six games. These teams actively dislike each other. The Clippers have made light of Memphis' "Grit 'n' Grind" handle and generally annoyed the Grizzlies with their posturing. Memphis has countered that the Clippers are a bunch of floppers -- its head coach going so far as to accuse Chris Paul in a live interview during Game 4. When the topic of Paul's injury came up after Game 6, Zach Randolph fired back that he didn't even know Paul was hurt, implying that the Clippers' injuries were merely incidental, a sideshow.
All of it will come to a head on Sunday afternoon in Game 7.
The health of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Whatever Randolph says at the podium, the Clippers simply aren't the same team with Paul and Blake Griffin hobbled. On Friday night after the Grizzlies' Game 6 win in Los Angeles, Paul, Marc Gasol and Randolph pointed out that nobody is 100 percent this time of year. True, but the Clippers can't function as an offensive team without Paul and Griffin. When the Clippers had their offense rolling late in Games 1 and 3 and most of Games 2 and 4, the formula was simple: Make the Grizzlies choose between bringing bodies to the paint to stifle Paul's penetration, which presents problems on the perimeter and with balance, or yield seams to Paul and pray that the help will come from the right place at the right time.
Paul clearly doesn't have the same burst off the bounce or the ability to change speeds, probe, beat his guy and get to his spot for an elbow jumper before the defense can recover. Without that, the Clippers' offense suffers from rigor mortis. Paul can't split a trap, and ultimately, the Grizzlies can play him straight up, while the help can stay home on the Clippers' perimeter shooters. With Paul on the court in Game 6, the Clippers shot only 39 percent.
Meanwhile, Griffin pummeled Memphis in his breakout Game 4 as the roll man with Paul, posting up and going decisively into his move. That's the key: Griffin's knee won't prevent him from being on the floor, but without a confident face-up game, he must rely entirely on those up-and-unders, spins and step-throughs. With the bum knee, he's a step slow -- and you can slice a few inches off the vertical. That's the difference between wreaking destruction at the rim and having to finesse his way to the basket.
The Grizzlies' inside job
Gasol got what he wanted after a frustrating long weekend in Los Angeles during Games 3 and 4: He's again the centerpiece of the Memphis offense. On Friday night, there was a lovely balance to Gasol's game, an exhibition of his versatility. Memphis used him to run a pick-and-roll in the left slot, from where he was able to beat the Clippers' rotation on the dive. They posted him up on the left block, where he launched that pretty hook over the Clippers' defense. And when the Clippers came hard at Gasol in the high post, he dumped it off to Randolph (the recipient of all three of Gasol's assists) in Memphis' savvy high-low game.
The pinpoint bounce pass that Gasol delivered to Randolph at the three-minute mark in Game 6 was a thing of beauty. Mike Conley and Gasol ran that angle pick-and-roll on the left side. Gasol stopped at the edge of the paint and received the pass as the Clippers trapped Conley, forcing Kenyon Martin to rotate up from the baseline. As Martin approached, Gasol hit Randolph wide open beneath the hoop on the right side. A perfectly executed play by Memphis at the biggest moment of the series, which is how you advance in the postseason.
Randolph has found his legs and looks more like the bully from last season's playoffs than the player who was struggling to carve out space for himself down low. For Randolph to be successful, he needs to rip through and keep his defender moving. That's how he creates that space, and that's what he's been doing the past few games.
Having two big men with diverse but overlapping skill sets allows Memphis to do some interesting stuff in the half court. Sometimes the offense just needs a nudge.
Who else for the Clippers?
With Paul and Griffin banged-up, the Clippers must get something exceptional from one of the supporting actors. Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Mo Williams and Nick Young have each had their moments over this season and, to a lesser extent, in the playoffs. In Game 5, that performance came from second-year dragonfly Eric Bledsoe.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro isn't predisposed to trust young players. Whether it's because he's risk-averse, conflict-averse or just more comfortable with guys who've "been there," Del Negro favors vets. With Paul hurting and Williams suffering a hand injury in Game 6, Del Negro had to lean on Bledsoe for significant minutes -- and it's about time.
Bledsoe doesn't stretch the floor for the Clippers, but he's their best perimeter defender on and off the ball. He has an uncanny synergy with Paul in the backcourt. For aforementioned reasons, the two played together for only 76 minutes in the regular season. The Clippers scored 111.4 points per 100 possessions during that time and gave up only 93.5. In this series, Bledsoe is a plus-35. When Bledsoe on the floor, Conley is minus-34 (and plus-47 when Bledsoe is off).
Both Bledsoe and Foye, who has struggled in the series, will have to make major contributions on Sunday for the Clippers to escape Memphis with a W. The Clippers also will have to be more resourceful because their two best creators are limited. When Reggie Evans is your roll man off the high ball screen, life doesn't become any easier, because now two defenders are blitzing Paul. As it is, Tony Allen and Conley make things difficult enough because they can play the Clippers' perimeter straight up. Getting the shooters clean looks at the basket will have to come via flare screens and a ton of movement in the half court.
So who's it going to be?
The battle on the margins
In many ways, this series has been fought in the periphery -- on the offensive glass, in passing lanes, at the foul stripe. Neither team has gotten much of what it wants offensively, but there have been ample opportunities to supplement that cruddy output with extras. For instance, the Grizzlies have annihilated the Clippers on the offensive glass, where Memphis has collected more than one out of every three available rebounds -- its 33.7 offensive rebounding rate is tops among postseason teams. (As a frame of reference, the Bulls ranked first in the regular season with a 32.6 offensive rebounding rate.)
For the Grizzlies, this is vital because they're a terrible shooting team. They've been outshot by the Clippers in the series but have been able to make up ground by getting additional looks at the basket -- at short range, no less. Memphis' prowess on the offensive glass is especially impressive when you consider that the Clippers were a pretty decent defensive rebounding team during the regular season. Overall, the Grizzlies have racked up 15.4 second-chance points per 48 minutes, with only 10.2 for the Clippers.
In the turnover event, the Clippers protected the ball better than any team other than Philadelphia during the regular season, and Memphis led the league in opponent turnover rate. Something had to give, and true to form, the Clippers and Grizzlies have played to a draw with identical 12.69 turnover rates. The Grizzlies had been winning the turnover battle but coughed the ball up 22 times in Game 6 -- the only reason the Clippers were in a game in which the Grizzlies shot better and controlled the glass decisively.
Then there's the foul game. Both teams hack with impunity, and both are spending plenty of time at the stripe in this series. But the team that has gotten to the line with greater frequency has won five of the six games -- the Clippers' Game 3 rally the only exception.
Here, the Clippers have to be careful on Sunday. When players are gimpy, they have a tougher time staying in front of their guy. They're more desperate defenders and, in turn, tend to be more likely to foul. Paul didn't foul out of a game all season but was whistled for six fouls in Game 6. Evans, who likely will pick up some of Griffin's minutes, is a foul machine. With the Grizzlies re-establishing their inside game, there will be more pressure than ever on the Clippers' defense to body up on the block. They'll have to do so carefully.
Information in this post was provided by NBA.com.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
When Marc Gasol gets the ball in the middle of the floor, he's a terror.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Any team that blows a 27-point, second-half lead will assume the role of league punching bag until it suits up for their next game, and the Grizzlies have absorbed plenty of hits over the past 48 hours.
The early stages of Game 1 seem like an afterthought now, but if you're the Grizzlies (or the Clippers), a screening of Memphis' first-quarter reveals a team that got anything and everything it wanted in the half court on Sunday night. And most of those play calls were focused around one man -- Marc Gasol.
The Grizzlies aren't a very efficient offensive team in the half court. They have trouble spreading the floor because none of their starters drains more than one 3-pointer a game (Mike Conley's prolific, outlying Game 1 explosion notwithstanding), and there isn't a single player on the roster who hits at better than a 38 percent clip from beyond the arc. Their big men provide a little stretch -- and that can create pockets of space -- but they can't fully stretch a defense.
The Grizzlies staff understands those deficiencies better than anyone. They've designed a half-court offense whose best sets force the defense into impossible choices by putting the ball into the hands of their most skilled practitioner, Gasol.
Here's my favorite Grizzlies set, one they used to jump out early on the Clippers in Game 1.
Please look at the pair of smaller panels on the left side of the frame. The possession begins with an angle pick-and-roll with Zach Randolph screening for Conley, the Grizzlies' point guard. Conley then dribbles right of the pick. As Gasol flashes to the middle, Conley hits him with a pass (It's worth noting that, in the third quarter, the Clippers ran so far under this action, that Conley chose to use all that space to launch 3-pointers at will).
Options, options for the Grizzlies when Marc Gasol has the ball in the middle of the floor.
Now we're at the main event, which you can see in the larger panel on the right side of the frame. This is where all the good stuff happens for Memphis.
Know what's impressive about this set? Once the ball goes into Gasol at the foul line, all five guys on the floor are viable scoring options. If Gasol has space, he has a clean turnaround jumper (3rd quarter, 10:15). Rudy Gay can slice, picking up a handoff from Gasol, and rubbing his defender off the big center in the process. Now Gay is on the move with the ball with separation from his defender. He can drive or, if he prefers, he can stop and pop (1st quarter, 11:00). If the defense helps off of Tony Allen in the right corner, Allen goes back door with an aggressive baseline cut to the basket, where Gasol hits him with a pass (1st quarter, 10:07). We've seen beautiful high-low passes from Gasol to Randolph, and if Conley is left alone on the perimeter, Gasol can kick the ball back out to him.
You'll also see the Grizzlies run this with different combinations of big men. Marreese Speights doesn't have the full toolbox Gasol has, but if he flashes to the foul line unaccounted for, the Memphis ball handler can hit him there for an easy face-up jumper. We saw this toward the end of the first period, a bucket that gave the Grizzlies a 34-16 lead.
So what happened?
"We got away from it," Gasol said. "We took too many good shots and we turned the ball over. That was our fault. [The Clippers] also did a better job of showing. So we stopped running it or I'd set the pick."
Which is one way you blow a 27-point lead.
In fairness, the Clippers made an adjustment. Their harder shows, as Gasol alluded to, made the pass from Conley to Gasol harder to thread. The Clippers also stopped helping off Allen, which slammed the back door shut and opted to lay off Gay, who can't do as much harm from distance. If instead of going into Gasol where he's so dangerous, Conley decided to shuttle the ball to his right with Gay at the top of the floor one-on-one, the Clippers can live with that. Most of all, Reggie Evans and Blake Griffin brutalized Gasol at that spot, not only denying the pass, but pushing Gasol farther out on the floor.
The Grizzlies will inevitably make a counter-adjustment. They're unlikely to shoot 69 percent from 3-point range again, and will need to manufacture quality possessions by leveraging Gasol's capacity to make good things happen from his preferred spot.
- Kyle Weidie of Truth About It offers up a multimedia presentation of how Deron Williams tied the Wizards in knots with ball screens.
- The Heat posted unsightly numbers against the Celtics' zone on Tuesday night but, as Zach Lowe of The Point Forward writes, the Heat had a coherent strategy to combat it: "A great example came with about 3:30 left in the game, when the Heat flashed a key potential zone antidote they used a lot: starting a possession with one of their wing stars (Dwyane Wade on this one) as the only person on one entire side of the floor (the left side in this case). That forced the Boston defense to tilt heavily to the right, where James handled the ball on the outside, near all his teammates except Wade. As LeBron dribbled, Chris Bosh flashed from the top of the three-point arc to below the foul line, drawing the man closest to Wade (Dooling) down into the paint, and forcing him to temporarily turn his back to Wade. At that exact moment, LeBron tossed a pass to Wade, who caught it on the move toward the middle of the floor, his momentum taking him the opposite direction as Boston’s defenders, including Dooling, now tilting madly from James’ side of the floor to Wade’s. Wade did not hestitate: With Dooling wrong-footed, Wade drove into the paint, where Dooling fouled him. Without a shot, the play almost vanishes from game logs everywhere, but it represents one key way the Heat can combat a zone; both James and Wade got layups against it out of action just like this."
- Historiographers have identified the origins of sports panic -- the phenomenon dates back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century. Is it time to panic in Boston?
- Tony Allen kindly asks that you set up your voicemail already.
- You should buy the full 2011-12 PDF from Basketball Prospectus, but if you want the crib notes from Kevin Pelton -- a single paragraph and projected record for each of the 30 teams -- click here.
- An interview with Clippers vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey at Yahoo! Radio.
- Be Milwaukee!
- The Trail Blazers are 2-0 and when you take inventory of LaMarcus Aldridge's versatility as a big man and the smart pieces around them, they look primed for a pretty decent season. Tom Ziller of SB Nation: "[T]he way in which the Blazers have played, mixing the tough defense you know Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews will bring with the smooth scoring ability of LaMarcus Aldridge and deft shooting of Matthews and Nicolas Batum, mixed with able playmaking from Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby -- despite the caveats and despite the great misfortune of losing Brandon Roy forever and Greg Oden for a while longer, Portland looks like a real contender in the West."
- The Bucks led the Timberwolves 94-84 with under 4:00 remaining. Then Minnesota ripped off an 8-0 run to close the deficit to two points. The lineup on the floor for the Timberwolves? Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and Anthony Tolliver. Zach Harper describes the final play call of a frustrating night for Minnesota: "Finding themselves down three with seven seconds left, they devised a play without much action away from the ball to free up Kevin Love for the game-tying attempt. Love set a down screen for Luke which enabled Luke to catch the ball roughly 35 feet from the basket. Love then set a screen for Wes near the top of the arc and then ran to the other win. Luke took two dribbles passed it to Love and he took a contested 3-pointer with four seconds left. It was one of the most basic plays you would ever find coming out of a timeout and it resulted in Love taking a contested 26-footer to try to tie the game."
- Bret LaGree of Hoopinion on Joe Johnson: "Can still get anywhere he wants on the floor, presuming where he wants to get isn't within 15 feet of the basket."
- Want to talk Pacers-Raps after tonight's game? Visit with Jared Wade and Tim Donahue on Pacers Talk Live at Eight Points, Nine Seconds.
- Ricky Davis will start his NBA comeback as a Red Claw.
- NBA commentators put Google+ hangout to use.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Pelton writes that Bruce Bowen's legacy is a complicated one -- charitable spirit, borderline dirty player, hopeful symbol for the undrafted and, of course ...
I would also say Bowen brought a certain level of attention to the unglamorous work of defensive stoppers. Bowen wasn't the first player to gain accolades for individual perimeter defense, and he won't be the last. However, an entire generation of offensive-challenged defenders gets the luxury of the "next Bruce Bowen” tag, not unlike talented young swingmen in the post-Michael Jordan era. For a guy who took nearly a decade just to become the first Bruce Bowen, that's not bad at all.
That hyperlink to the "next Bruce Bowen" reveals 24,700 Google search results. For the record, the names include Trevor Ariza, Quinton Ross, Tony Allen, Corey Brewer, Ime Udoka, Kyle Weaver, Dahntay Jones, Justin Cage, Luke Walton, Marcus Dove, O. J. Mayo, Yakhouba Diawara, Paul Harris, and Gerald Henderson. And that's just the first 50 results.
Matt McHale of By the Horns: "Think about it. And I mean think about it really hard. I can say with something like 100 percent certainty that you can't remember a closer, more competitive playoff series. In fact, by all objective measures, there hasn't been one. It now has featured a mind-scrambling SEVEN overtime sessions. And yes, that's easily a NBA playoff record. (Celtics-Hawks and Celtics-Nationals are second with four each…and they took place in 1957 and 1953, respectively.) In fact, it's more than any team in NBA history has ever played in an entire postseason. I'm going to have to track down the official numbers later, but there have been more than 100 lead changes and over 60 ties through six games, and I'm pretty sure that has to be a record too. Again, I'll try to research the final word on those stats. But man oh man oh man, this matchup has been nothing short of legen - WAIT FOR IT - dary! Let's just say that if NASA suddenly revealed that it's sending a space shuttle to Mars using a new kind of super-fuel made up entirely of the awesomeness produced by this series, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. And Game 7 is on the way."
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "I am beginning to feel about this series like a drug addict must feel when he's ready to enter serious rehab. It started out as innocent fun, we experienced some unthinkable highs, but now I'm coming down and I'm ready for it to be over. My friends and loved ones would like to see me at some point. For god's sake, the Houston-Portland game was in the third quarter by the time this game ended. I have to start blocking out four hours just to watch these games. Everyone says you should step back and appreciate history while it's happening. That worked through Game 5. I am no longer appreciating history. I just want the series to be over. And it was over. It felt over. I am still not sure what happened. I know it involved Brad Miller, and that Tony Allen was taking pressure shots for some reason. I may have dreamt that last part."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "Without the suspended Dwight Howard and the injured Courtney Lee, Marcin Gortat (11 points, 15 rebounds) and JJ Redick (15 points, 5-of-7 from deep) played beautifully and almost made Orlando forget about their franchise center and superb rookie. Gortat was the best big man on the floor, a significant step above [Sam] Dalembert, Theo Ratliff and Reggie Evans. Gortat played his role perfectly -- he consistently brought in rebounds, he kept the Sixers from scoring in the paint, and he put in several dunks and easy lay-ups. And Redick's solid fundamentals and sweet stroke were on display, including a 30-footer in the first quarter when the shot clock was winding down. He looked a lot more like Duke JJ than Magic JJ ... Overall, this game gives a decent look into the mind of human beings. It's a lot easier to perform without the pressure of expectations, and it's a lot more difficult to succeed when a lot is expected out of you. The Magic weren't worried that they should be winning, they were just playing. Having fun, running, shooting 3s -- that's when the Magic are at their best."
THE FINAL WORD
Roundball Mining Company: Stellar breakdown of the upcoming Nuggets-Mavericks series.
Hardwood Paroxysm: Atmosphere? Hustle? Upsets? College ball has nothing on BOS-CHI!
Forum Blue & Gold: How Andrew Bynum is like "Cedric Ceballos on a Jet Ski."
(Photos by Nathaniel S. Butler, Jonathan Daniel, Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "In the last two minutes of regulation and overtime, Boston shot 8-of-10 from the floor, and Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo combined to hit seven of those field goals, including an epic five straight from the Captain. They manufactured points when [Kendrick] Perkins was too tired to score, Ray Allen had fouled out, [Stephon] Marbury was afraid to shoot, Tony Allen was a non-factor and Glen Davis was forced out of the game by the Bulls small line-up. The last four Pierce baskets were jump shots, and the last three, including the game-winner with 3.6 seconds left, were simple pull-ups over John Salmons. I'm not sure where this ranks on the list of all-time clutch Pierce performances, but it's up there. Paul Pierce is gassed. We can all see it. Kevin Harlan called him slow. He took just six shots combined in the second and third quarters. John Salmons was beating Pierce off the dribble -- a guy with a bad groin was coasting around the man who helped hold Kobe Bryant to 40 percent shooting in the Finals last season. And yet Pierce found something inside of him to move a little quicker and jump a little higher when the Celtics needed him most."
Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "The Spurs were 3-16 from beyond the 3-point line and gave up 106 points ... Throughout the season I attempted to play the role of augur. Each 3-point shot that flew overhead painted a disturbing portrait of the offensive inconsistency to come. All I asked is that a single shooter rise to the occasion this evening. I guess that was too much to ask. But my disappointment in our outside shooting pales in comparison to the frustration I experienced as a result of our defensive effort. The Mavericks would have had a more difficult time shooting from outside had they been in an empty gym. In between the catch and release, their 3-point shooters had time for a quick nap. Failed rotations weren't seen as opportunities to reorganize and retaliate. Instead, we shot one another incredulous looks in the hopes of passing the buck. I've never thought of the Spurs as an elite offensive team, even during the championship runs. But our defensive struggles this series shook the spirit in a way to which I am unaccustomed."
Matt McHale of By the Horns: "[Ben Gordon] gets full marks for logging a team-high 51 minutes on an injured hammy, but damn, that dude is a straight-up gun. A lot of times, an injured player will try to work himself into the offense. Not Gordon. He's more likely to grab the offense by the throat and try to wrestle it to the ground. Ben discharged eight shots in the first quarter, two of which hit the target. Hey, sometimes the only bad shot is the one you didn't take, right? I don't know why I'm complaining, though. That's the Air Gordon package. Complaining about his gunnery is like using a pack of wild, angry dogs to protect your home and then feeling guilty when they maul somebody."
THE FINAL WORD
Orlando Magic Daily: Rashard Lewis expands his game.
Two Man Game: A different kind of Mavericks team.
Daily Thunder: Exactly how big are OKC's "Big Three"?
(Photos by Brian Babineau, D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "This game felt more like an execution than a coronation; there's a strange lack of pleasure in taking this team that was once a juggernaut, that handed LeBron [James] his first playoff loss and bore witness to his greatest triumph (so far.) Ben Wallace was wearing our colors. Chauncey [Billups] is on fire a thousand miles away. The once-raucous Detroit crowd was chanting 'M-V-P' for LeBron instead of 'DEE-TROIT BASKET-BALL,' the tale of how the Pistons leading the league in attendance but having to send e-mails to Cavalier season ticket holders to fill their seats for the playoffs, a stark reminder of how Detroit's infastructure has crumbled around it while Allen Iverson and his $13 million dollars can't be bothered to be in the building. Those facts, tossed off in the third quarter, stirred up more emotions than anything happening on the court."
Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm: "[Tony] Parker's been brilliant. But as we've seen, the Mavs are essentially running Kobe rules on Parker. Throw different looks at him, let him get his, and shut down the rest of the squad. If the usage rates were more evenly distributed, you could at least make the case that the rest of the Spurs are trying, they're just not falling. However, the Spurs got to where they are by playing a team game ... I'm not trying to make the argument that Spurs need to have Parker score fewer points. Because that would be like saying I should dig my way out of a hole by throwing my shovel out of the hole. But what's happening is the Spurs aren't forcing the issue with their other components, the Mavs are playing better defense ... and the Spurs are turning to their two superstars to bail them out. If the Spurs want to get back in this series, they need to force the issue with the rest of their roster. Unfortunately ... it doesn't look like the talent is there for them to produce like that. Maybe believing in a team concept is only effective if you have productive members of the complete effort."
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "In this epic, ulcer-inducing 121-118 Bulls win, there were so many key moments in the last 30 seconds of regulation and the two overtimes that it's almost impossible to even remember what came before, let alone isolate a key moment from the first 46 minutes of the game. Just think, in the last 30 seconds of regulation and the two OTs, we had: Not just one, but both teams electing not to foul when nursing a three-point lead with fewer than 12 seconds to go ... three really great free shooters missed free throws in a 17-second span of the first overtime ... two separate misses on lay-ups by Glen Davis ... Doc [Rivers]' decision to bring Tony Allen off the bench cold to defend Ben Gordon with the game tied at 93-93 ... and at least three Pantheon Clutch Shots."
THE FINAL WORD
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(Photos by Allen Einstein, Ron Hoskins, Jonathan Daniel/NBAE via Getty Images)