OK, let's acknowledge this up front: When Russell Westbrook got hurt, everyone agreed it almost certainly killed OKC's title chances. They probably wouldn't even make it to the conference finals, we thought. Fast-forward two weeks, they go down in the Western semis, and suddenly people are criticizing Kevin Durant, second-guessing Sam Presti, and calling for Scott Brooks's job. It's ridiculous, yes.
And yet ... Even if the title window isn't closing as long as Durant and Westbrook are there, shouldn't it matter that the best young team we've seen since the Kobe-Shaq Lakers blew the doors off the West and went to the NBA Finals last year, and then came back and got worse? That happened, right? Even with Westbrook, this Grizzlies team would've given Oklahoma City problems, ditto for the Spurs, and the Heat would've destroyed them if they had gotten that far. Their regular-season numbers were great, but I tend to be on Team Marc Stein here: "The regular season didn't expose OKC but the playoffs would have."
Chris Ryan: This happened right after Zach Randolph's official postgame interview with one of TNT's sideline reporters. He was respectful of the Thunder, generous with his time, and praised both Golden State and San Antonio. Then he went over to Tony Allen and they rubbed their foreheads together and they spoke bear to one another and punched each other in the chest. Whatever the Grizzlies lack in the aesthetics department on the court, they more than make up for with their collective personality. This happens in the playoffs a lot. You watch a team enough times and they become three-dimensional; you start to notice all their personality quirks. It's happening in a big way with the Grizzlies. You just see them talking. ALL. GAME. LONG. No matter what. Talking to themselves, to each other, to the refs, to the opponents, to fans, to hecklers, to no one in particular. They talk when things go right, they talk when things go wrong. And when they aren't talking their facial expressions are doing the talking for them …
1. It’s almost refreshing how little “maybe Kevin Durant isn’t clutch!!??!” idiocy we’ve been hearing over the last three days, after Durant’s shaky shooting performances down the stretch of the last three Thunder losses. Durant has shot 2-of-14 in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime (with the scoring margin at five points or fewer) over those three games, per NBA.com, and he shockingly bonked two free throws with 39 seconds left in Game 3 that would have brought Oklahoma City back within two. He missed a midrange jumper right before those free throws (and probably got fouled) and two more isolation jumpers in the last minute of overtime on Monday.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Tony Allen
Danny Chau: I’ve replayed Tony Allen’s game-clinching steal in Game 4 a hundred times and it doesn’t get any less awesome. Kevin Martin fakes a pick for Kevin Durant, which leaves him completely open behind enemy lines. All Derek Fisher had to do was bullet it to Martin and he most likely would have had an easy basket or gotten fouled by a recovering Marc Gasol. Instead, Fisher opts for a bounce pass that travels at a rate slower than the man himself. Allen sees this somehow, and pirouettes around Gasol in the paint to snatch the ball and essentially seal the victory. It all happens in less than a second. The crowd roars and starts a “TONY!” chant during the timeout. He blows a kiss right back at them. It’s love. It’s that simple.
You get a sense that they appreciate things differently down in Memphis. They accept most of Allen’s feckless layup attempts because one day, when the moon’s glow is just right, some fool is going to bite on one of his pump fakes from way out in the boonies (relative to Allen’s range), and he’ll have a layup so easy even he can’t miss it.
And the fans will cheer because he deserves it, he who has spent his entire career mastering the most difficult craft in basketball, which has left him more or less incapable of making a sensible offensive play. But it’s a fair price to pay, and no team understands that more than the Grizzlies. Allen could play for any team he wants next season, but on any other team, he’s just a defender. In Memphis, he’s a spirit animal.
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous weekend, along with ones you will remember forever.
The Black Falcon Has Landed
Jay Caspian Kang: Last spring, when the Golden State Warriors were redefining the acceptable parameters of tanking and Harrison Barnes was redefining the boundaries of how badly I could troll a player on my beloved Carolina Tar Heels, I wrote a series of columns stating the Warriors were doing the NBA a disservice and that Barnes was a bust. Around that time, I recall a friend joking that the best possible outcome would be if the Warriors tanked their way into the middle of the lottery and picked up Barnes. That way, my two beloved hatreds could be intertwined forever. If Barnes ended up being an NBA bust, the specious logic of sports predictions and the Internet record would vindicate me forever.
If the first two games were any indication, the second-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies is going to be decided by the slimmest of margins. A mere eight points is all that has separated the two squads as they head to the River City, and between two evenly matched sides, any advantage, no matter how minuscule, could prove to be the deciding factor. It’s with this in mind that a four-minute stretch from Game 2’s second quarter might say a lot about Oklahoma City’s chances.
In the absence of Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City can no longer overcome its role players’ offensive deficiencies with the sheer firepower of two superstars. To come anywhere close to the incredibly efficient offense they were in the regular season, the Thunder now need space and shooters around Kevin Durant. Against Houston, a team with exactly one effective big man (Omer Asik), this was easily accomplished without exposing the Thunder to mismatch problems inside.
The Grizzlies duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring a different challenge. They make it much more difficult for the Thunder to both field these smaller lineups and match up with the Memphis front line. In two games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has chosen to match the Grizzlies behemoths with his own, but this has meant giving a staggering number of minutes to two players, Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet, who should be relative afterthoughts.
The first round started as a boring chalk-fest, with six of eight series going to 2-0, and only Nuggets-Warriors promising to double as both competitive and aesthetically pleasing. It transformed into madness, of course, with four Game 6s on a single delightful Friday night.
The conference semifinals have skipped right to the promising stage, with all four series tied at 1-1 as the league takes a breather tonight. Let’s use this blessed off day to do those errands we’ve been postponing, break out that vacuum, hit the gym, spend time with our loved ones, and take stock of where these four series might go from here — starting today with the two series that began first, but for some reason don’t resume until Saturday.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Mike & Zach & Marc & Tony
Chris Ryan: Aside from 8Ball & MJG, Big Star, and Three 6, these guys are now my favorite Memphis band. My favorite song by them is probably "We Don't Care If We're Home or On the Road," but other favorites include "Is This a Playoff Beard or Did We All Collectively Run Out of Razors at the Same Time?," "Tony Plays Like a Velociraptor (a.k.a. Clever Girl)," "Talk, Talk Zach," "Mikey Ice," "I Once Drafted Tony Wroten in a Keeper League" (whoops, that one's actually my demo; not sure how this got here), "It's a Trap (Where You Will Find Kevin Durant Because We're Going to Make Reggie Jackson Beat Us Down the Stretch)," and that old chestnut, "If You're Going to Play in the Post, You Should Wear a Catcher's Mask (Marc's Song)." Buy their album, This Should Take Us Six, on Unsmiling Lionel/Grindhouse Records, today.
In case you were busy stirring up debate, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
LeBron James was a near unanimous choice for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award, securing 120 of the 121 available votes. About Last Night is all about starting debate, not shying away from controversy, and being real with the audience, so we salute the brave soul who decided that Carmelo Anthony had a better season than LeBron James. Unfortunately, that voter, who remains anonymous as of press time, didn't go far enough, placing James second on his ballot. That's no way to start a real debate about value in the NBA! For those interested in engaging in the debate, the official ALN MVP ballot (which was submitted to the NBA in the hopes that they would include it, though ALN is, despite much public pressure, still denied a vote) will be revealed at the end of this column.
The Chicago Bulls, again playing without Luol Deng, who was suffering the aftereffects of a spinal-tap procedure gone awry, still managed to close out the Brooklyn Nets, 99-93, to set up a second-round matchup with the Miami Heat. Now I know a lot of people in Chicago are up in arms about whether Deng and Derrick Rose should be playing at less than 100 percent. Here's my thing: I don't think any Chicago Bulls should be playing. Carlos Boozer's steadfast refusal to sit out games is an affront to sports, and he should not be allowed to continue any longer.
The Thunder offense has been tough to watch since Russell Westbrook’s injury, mostly because it’s less an “offense” than a series of predictable, slow-moving sets designed to maximize the talent of two individual superstars. Take one of those superstars away, and those same predictable, slow-moving sets aren’t as powerful.
This isn’t Miami or San Antonio, where there is a system of constant movement, screening, and side-to-side action that functions in the same general way, creating the same efficient shot types, regardless of which parts you plug into it. And so the Oklahoma City offense without Westbrook has become drudgery for Kevin Durant. He’s isolating much more, which means the team is isolating much more — on nearly 22 percent of its offensive possessions in three games without Westbrook, up from about 14.5 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports. They’re getting fewer shots out of the pick-and-roll or via transition, two Westbrook specialties, and Durant is not exaggerating by much when he suggests Houston is quadruple-teaming him.
Chris Ryan: I think it was Pete Carril who said the the playoffs don't really start until one guy taunts another guy about a separate guy sleeping with his wife. Well, Jordan Crawford, I guess that makes you the starting gun.
You heard it over and over again over the last two nights of games: playoff basketball. Somebody gets tagged coming down the lane? Playoff basketball. Francisco Garcia checking Kevin Durant for about 90 feet with his hand around his hip? Playoff basketball. Hitmen? Playoff basketball. Open-play, timeout-call retaliations? Playoff basketball. Some bench scrub telling one of the 10 best players in the world that another one of the 10 best players in the world did something that rhymes with "plucked your fife"? Playoff. Basketball.
Tonight is a night for both rejoicing and sadness: Depending on the results of three crucial games, including two elimination games, this could be the last night featuring more than two games until next season opens. This is a bad thing for fans seeking a variety of entertainment options, especially on nights with one or two blowouts, but a good thing for the spouses and loved ones of us poor saps watching every single one of these first-round bad boys.
A lot is at stake in tonight’s tripleheader, obviously. A game-by-game look at some key questions on this busy Wednesday, in order of Most Intriguing to Least Intriguing:
That’s right — I’m giving Most Intriguing status to this season’s NBA TV/Illegal Streaming/Ratings Basement special. (It’s a league rule, by the way, that the NBA TV Special first-round series must include either Indiana or Atlanta every season. Seriously — I think it’s in the new collective bargaining agreement. Plenty of good seats still available on the cheap for tonight in Indy, by the way. Catch the fever!) After three boring blowouts, these two finally gave us a competitive contest in Game 4, albeit one in which the Hawks were in control after a blistering second-quarter run. Some key questions:
• Can Indiana figure out the Hawks' “big” lineups?
Chris Ryan: At various points last night, during Grantland Live's live-tweet coverage of the Rockets-Thunder game, Chandler Parsons was compared to Brad Pitt's character in True Romance and someone out of a Whit Stillman movie, was described as trade bait for Dwight Howard, and had his possible Los Angeles real estate preferences scrutinized (Manhattan Beach, Beverly Hills). Funny thing happened on the way to making fun of Chandler Parsons: Dude saved the series for Houston.
The Brooklyn Nets took care of business at home, beating the Chicago Bulls, 110-91, to force a return trip to Chicago. Brook Lopez, who led the Nets with 28 points and added 10 rebounds, said after the game, "I dedicated my game to fellow tall Stanford alumnus and twin, Jason Collins, for his bravery today. I have nothing but love." Lopez then hung his head and added, "Unfortunately, I let him down by amassing a large number of points and rebounds. If you're listening, Jason, I'm sorry. But also, I'm really proud of you. I'll try to contribute in fewer tangible ways next game."
Rarely have so many non-involved NBA people watched a playoff game out of sheer curiosity as was the case Saturday night, when the NBA world tuned in to see how the Thunder would function without Russell Westbrook. Things went well in many basic senses. Oklahoma City won, Kevin Durant didn’t pass out from a Luol Deng–ian minutes requirement, and the Thunder’s offense, no. 2 in the league in points per possession during the regular season, checked in with a scoring mark that would've tied San Antonio for seventh-best overall, per NBA.com.
And yet the verdict from those curious onlookers was almost unanimous: The Thunder might be in even deeper trouble than we thought. Oklahoma City has never had an offensive system in the way the Spurs or Heat do — a structure in which each possession features a series of movements, countermovements, built-in options, and side-to-side actions the teams run through until the most desirable shot becomes available. The Thunder instead have a series of pet plays designed to produce certain end outcomes — a Serge Ibaka midrange jumper, an open Kevin Durant shot, a driving lane for Westbrook, or a favorable isolation for one of the perimeter stars. There aren’t really third, fourth, and fifth counters; if the first or second actions don’t produce a clean look, the players mostly stand still and watch Durant or Westbrook go to work.