The NBA Dribbled Out

The Memphis Grizzlies just eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder—missing Russ—to reach their first Western Conference Final in team history. 
YEAHHH BUDDY for the Grit ‘n Grind crew, but I’m already missing KD’s smooth jumper. 

The Memphis Grizzlies just eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder—missing Russ—to reach their first Western Conference Final in team history. 

YEAHHH BUDDY for the Grit ‘n Grind crew, but I’m already missing KD’s smooth jumper. 

Here’s a couple sequences from Friday, when the Memphis Grizzlies handled the visiting Houston Rockets with relative ease. In fact, when the Houston starters came out at the end of the 3rd quarter, as part of their usual substitution patterns, they never went back in during the fourth as the Pete Pranica wondered why.  It might have had something to do with Memphis’ top 2 defense.

Watch as Tony Allen almost steals the pass to Harden (there were countless instances where Allen got his hand on a pass and deflected it out of bounds, enough to disrupt the rhythm of Houston’s offense, or for an outright steal), and then totally stops the dribble penetration of James Harden. Grizzlies coach, Lionel Hollins, and Zach Lowe discussed Allen’s roving madman routine in a piece for Grantland last week. Harden only finished with 7 points on 3-for-9 shooting on Friday, including this off-balance mid-range shot; Allen stays in front of him despite all the dribbling trickery and doesn’t allow him to get into the lane or get an open jumper.

On the other end, Tayshaun Prince brings the ball up court and waits until the perfect moment to feed Gasol on his usual place at the left elbow. Prince waits because Mike Conley is coming around the baseline and setting up his defender—Jeremy Lin—for a backdoor cut. Both Prince, Gasol and Conley know what they’re doing, but the timing of both Prince and Gasol’s pass’ with Conley’s cut is perfect. Lin has been burned ball watching on some backdoors this year (he’s still young, so he’ll need time to develop as a defender), and it’s obvious Memphis ran this set on purpose to get the backdoor lay-up for Conley. 

Both sequences are perfect illustrations of why the Grizzlies are so intriguing in a crazy Western Conference. If they were in the East, they’d be a 2 seed and the biggest obstacle in the path of the Heat. But in the West, they’re flip-flopping with Denver and the Clippers for the 3, 4, 5 seeds almost every other night. 

WHAT A NIGHT FOR THE NBA!

Anyone that claims NBA basketball in March should take a back seat to the NCAA Tourney Madness, wasn’t watching tonight’s action. Two games went down to the wire, and one of them featured a comeback that shocked most everyone while keeping the icy cold finger of woe firmly on the foreheads of Cleveland basketball fans. Then there was the defensive battle in Memphis, where Oklahoma City, fresh off their disappointing home loss to the Nuggets last night, matched the Grizzlies defensive intensity, as neither team seemed willing to relent. 

The Memphis-Oklahoma City game was sent to overtime after a pump fake gave Jerryd Bayless enough room to launch a three and tie the score at 83 with less than 3 seconds left. After Durant lost the ball out of bounds on the ensuing possession, the teams got set to play an extra five. 

The bruising battle in Memphis was playing second fiddle to the game in Cleveland, until the delayed Cleveland-Miami game ended and most League Pass subscribers switched to this Western elite matchup that would go a long way towards determining the seeding for this year’s Western Conference playoff run. After Bayless tied the score with his late three and it went to overtime, it was just as hard to drop buckets; defense was the rule, rather than the exception in this one. Anyone that’s watched Memphis this year, knows that’s a game they can win. 

In overtime, both teams matched buckets with Memphis coming out on top as they continually flustered Durant into a 11-for-28 shooting night. A floater in the lane for Durant cut the Memphis lead to one with just under a minute to play. A miss from a harried Gasol under pressure from the shot clock led to a running scoop shot for Westbrook on the other end that gave the Thunder the lead, 89-88, with just 13 seconds remaining (also, Durant traveled before Russell’s shot, but the refs missed it). It set the stage for Marc Gasol’s heroics.image

The Grizzlies cleared out the left side and let Zach Randolph go to work in isolation. Nick Collison had been giving Randolph fits for most of the game, and while Collison was given a bit of leeway from the referees in terms of bodying him up, Randolph still got a decent shot off from about 7 feet on the left baseline. The shot bounced off the front and then back of the rim before falling off. But the ever-present Spainard, Marc Gasol, tipped the ball in with just 0.8 seconds remaining. When he was asked what happened on his game-winning shot during the interview after the game, Gasol responded: “I just tapped it in, shit.” The ensuing lob from Westbrook fell fall short and the Grizzlies stayed a half game in front of the Clippers for the third seed in the West, and just three games back of the Thunder.

Wow. 

But while the game in Memphis was an exciting one, it was just the dessert for the entrée from earlier in the night. In Cleveland, Miami fell behind by 27 points with only 7:44 remaining in the third quarter, and everyone was sounding the alarm that the Heat’s continued winning streak was about to end. But Miami stormed back as only they know how. Down 40-67, their deficit seemed insurmountable until they started to get stops and their three’s started to drop. They closed the third quarter on a 28-10 run, punctuated by multiple three-pointers from Battier and Allen plus some timely offensive rebounding from Bosh. The Heat had cut the Cavaliers lead to 9 before the start of the fourth, 77-68. 

Pretty much everyone—including Cavaliers fans—knew their team was in trouble. The Heat eventually closed the Cavaliers out at Quicken Loans Arena in the fourth, outscoring them 30-18, as LeBron was 3-for-5 from long range and recorded his fourth triple-double of the season with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. After his third straight triplet, he did this little move, which I don’t know the history of (maybe a reader can tell me who he’s mimicking or when this started because I can’t remember seeing it before the Boston game on Monday).

[A reader wrote to tell me about this Sun-Sentinel Q & A with Ira Winderman, where he explains the genesis of the press-down move: ”It’s his tribute to former journeyman point guard Nick Van Exel, who used to do it when he made big shots. LeBron has been doing it for weeks now, amid his increased proficiency with his mid-range jumper, including Monday’s game-winner with 10.5 seconds left in Boston.”]

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LeBron didn’t shoot particularly well, just 8-for-22 on the game, but he nailed the buckets when the team needed them the most.

That Napoleon Dynamite dvde, clad in a homemade t-shirt that read: “We Miss You” on the back and “LeBron 2014” on the front, found his way to the court in the fourth after sneaking by security, but I don’t want to talk about that anymore. 

Perhaps my favorite part of the game was watching Shaun Livingston lead the Cavaliers in the first half to their large lead. The guy almost lost his leg a few year’s back, and it was a joy to watch him—not just compete—but excel on his way to 14 points (6-for-11 shooting) and 6 dimes. Glad you’re back and playing well Shaun. 

The Heat won their 24th straight game, and now they’re only 9 games away from tying the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers who won 33-straight on their way to a title that season (Jerry West AND Wilt were on that team, but Elgin retired earlier that season). After what I saw tonight, it seems impossible to stop the Heat when they give a shit. Sometimes they don’t give a shit, which is why I think they’ll fall short of equaling the Lakers. They seem to play down to their level of competition like against the Cavaliers and it’s that apathy that will cost them in the end; pretty soon the deficit will be too large, and they’ll lose. But when they want to, the Heat amp up the defense switching and trapping so fast it’s hard to imagine they’re playing so quickly on the perimeter without a big man down low. And of course ‘Bron, Wade and Bosh then start eviscerating opposting defenses while Battier, Chalmers and Allen line up behind the arc. The Heat are pretty good, is what I’m saying, and I don’t think there’s a team in the league that can take them in a 7-game series if they stay healthy through June. But hot damn, what a night to be an NBA fan. 

There are a lot of people freaking out about the trade between the Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons that’s gone through today. In the deal, as first reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein, Toronto acquires Rudy Gay and Hamed Haddadi (whom many are reporting on Twitter will be waived due to the issues with getting him a Canadian work visa), Detroit gets Jose Calderon, and Memphis gets Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye and a second round draft pick.

Pretty much everyone that follows basketball for a living says the Grizzlies and Pistons got the best deal. Rudy Gay is barely shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from beyond the arc this season, and his poor shooting augmented the case against him in the eyes of Memphis’ new ownership. But despite his inefficiencies scoring the basketball this season, this much is certain: Rudy Gay is a superior dunker to Jose Calderon.