It has been quite a year for [clears throat] LARRY SANDERS!. He broke out last season, blowing away his previous minutes totals, cutting his once astronomical foul rate, cleaning the defensive glass, and scaring the hell out of any opponent who dared enter the lane. Milwaukee’s defense collapsed whenever SANDERS! hit the bench, and his rare combination of elite rim protection and deft footwork against the pick-and-roll earned him a monster extension that kicks in next season. He is now the face of the Milwaukee Bucks, as strange as that sounds.
The debut of the funky-as-ever Bucks did not go well Wednesday night against the Knicks. Brandon Knight tweaked his hamstring less than two minutes into the game, SANDERS! barely played because of foul trouble (that old bugaboo), and a feisty group of reserves couldn’t complete a comeback down the stretch.
After the game, SANDERS! sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
When I first asked Chris Johnson, the lefty shooter from Dayton who signed two 10-day contracts with the Grizzlies last season, about his tax issues in Tennessee, he went into a stock answer about the luxury tax — how he understood Memphis had been facing cost concerns when they finally waived him in February.
But that wasn’t what I had meant at all. Johnson, unbeknownst to him at that time, was about to become the poster boy (poster man?) for a fight against Tennessee’s so-called “jock tax” — one of the harshest and quirkiest in the country, per tax experts. Lots of states have jock taxes; Jared Dudley and other members of the Suns discussed their bewildering state-by-state tax bills in this April piece by the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro. The idea is pretty basic: Professional athletes draw giant game checks while playing in different NBA cities, whose residents pay good money to watch those athletes perform in expensive local arenas with expensive game-day infrastructures. Taxing athletes for popping into each city has been an easy way for states to fluff the coffers without hiking taxes for local citizens. Tennessee is also among the group of states that lack a regular income tax, so athletes who live there catch a break in that sense.
Some might say the Grizzlies' crash-and-burn ending was a wakeup call to fans who went a little too crazy this past month. Maybe, but if anything, I think going down to the Spurs is our best proof yet that the Grizzlies were perfect and magical and wonderful. The same way the Spurs killed the '99 Knicks, the 2005 Suns, LeBron James in '07, and the Warriors two weeks ago, San Antonio took something fun and addictive and perfect and lit the whole thing on fire. Of course they did. That's what makes them the Spurs, the basketball empire that exists to ruin everyone's fun.
Together, they’re the best frontcourt in basketball, but in last night’s 103-93 Game 5 win, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph did it one at a time. It started with Gasol, just after the second half began. Memphis had a six-point lead by the end of two quarters, but it was in the third that the Grizzlies took control, on the shoulders of their Spanish big man. Starting at about the 10-minute mark, Gasol touched the ball on the low block on seemingly every possession. He either scored or assisted the next four Grizzlies baskets, and in three minutes, Memphis built a 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
From the start, it was clear each team knew this game was probably it. For the Clippers, a loss meant having to travel back to the Grindhouse and a frothing Friday-night crowd looking to seal the series. And for Memphis, it would mean that, at best, it would be heading back to Los Angeles for a Game 7, in a building where it couldn’t seem to win. The result was an edge from the opening tip. Chris Paul, normally content to wade his way into a game by creating offense for others, took the ball to the rim from the start, and the amount of contact in the paint never seemed to subside. By game’s end, Gasol’s shoulders were a collection of scratch marks, and it was in part because of that style of play (and in part because of a terrible call) that he left the game after picking up his fifth foul with more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth.
I guess when you have someone who plays crunch time in bullet time, it's not really crunch time, is it? When you have someone capable of scoring eight of your final 10 points, you don't really have to worry that your half-court offense is entirely reliant on moments of individual brilliance from your stars, rather than finding open looks for players through passing and off-the-ball movement. There's something magical about the Clippers (and I don't mean that in the sun-dappled, wheat-field-blowing way ... I mean that in the down-market Vegas lounge act way). You watch them, and it just doesn't make any sense. You could tell me they had the best or worst offensive efficiency in the league (it's closer to the former), and I'd believe you. But when you have Chris Paul in the fourth quarter, magic goes out the window. It stops making sense. Maybe you don't want to need him — if the Clippers had done better than 2-of-15 from behind the arc, or hadn't fouled the Grizzlies back into the game, they might not have required his legendary crunch-time services — but it's nice to know he's there, just in case.
As others have noted recently, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over Oklahoma City’s alleged vulnerability as we finally, mercifully approach the playoffs. The Thunder have lost three of their last four games against their brethren in the West’s top five, and four of their last five against 50-win teams once you toss in Sunday’s exciting Knicks win in OKC. That string of losses is either a random blip or an indication of some deep fatal flaw, and it has dropped the Thunder to a middling 7-7 against the quartet of Denver, San Antonio, Memphis, and the Clippers. Each loss brings screaming reminders that the Thunder dealt away their third-best player before the season, and have since watched that third option morph (predictably) into one of the league’s 10 or 12 best players.
In case you were busy dancing like no one was watching, despite the fact many, many people were watching, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Clayton Kershaw pitched a shutout and hit a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the San Francisco Giants, 4-0 to open their 2013 season. "I've been playing at such a high level for a number of years, and now it's time for me to make an impact at every level of the franchise," Kershaw said after the game, while directing traffic in Dodger Stadium's serpentine parking lot, adeptly moving those headed to the 110 away from those headed toward the 101. Kershaw reportedly spent the remainder of his evening helping the grounds crew reseed the playing surface, before finally heading to the locker room to do the team's laundry.
Mike Conley and the Memphis Grizzlies sent the Spurs to their second consecutive defeat, winning in Memphis, 92-90. Conley hit the game-winning shot with six-tenths of a second left on the clock, but was also held without a steal for the first time in 64 games. "I'm out of the game," Conley said after the win. "I've been taking things my whole life, but I'm done. I've got a wife now, and I think a more stable life is what we need." Despite these comments, Conley was, admittedly, "intrigued" by a plan that Marc Gasol was putting together for "one last big score," but at press time had still refused to commit to any more steals in a potential first-round matchup with the Denver Nuggets.
It's been an eventful two months for Lionel Hollins. Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies’ longtime owner, sold the team to Robert Pera and Jason Levien (among others), and the new group almost immediately overhauled the team’s front office. The new regime shifted Chris Wallace, the team’s GM, into more of a background role, and empowered newcomers such as Stu Lash (a former agent) and ex-ESPN.com analytics guru John Hollinger. The changes prompted Hollins to question the prominence of analytics in coaching decisions. Hollins told reporters in January he wanted Rudy Gay to stay, but the new front office dealt Gay anyway in a deal that brought back Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince. The Grizz lost three of their first four games after the trade, prompting another clever Hollins quip about small-market realities and general panic among the pro-Rudy portion of Memphis’s fan base.
But then things calmed down. Memphis is now in the thick of the most exciting postseason race — not the “who can lose the least number of games?” limp-fest for the no. 8 spot, but rather the ultra-competitive race for the coveted no. 3 slot between Denver, Memphis, and the Clippers. Hollins visited with Grantland this week to talk about life in a post-Rudy world, Tony Allen’s defense, my man-crush on Marc Gasol, and everything else Grizz.
When Memphis acquired Tayshaun Prince in the blockbuster deal that sent Rudy Gay north of the border, there was very little excitement upon his arrival. The trade itself was largely about helping the Grizzlies' financial situation for the future — not exactly the area where the average fan channels his or her excitement. Prince was simply considered a stopgap — a solid player with his best years behind him, brought in to improve the team’s spacing on offense and allow the Zach Randolph–Marc Gasol frontcourt duo to take center stage.
On the surface, Prince’s contributions have been in line with that expectation. The veteran forward has a PER of just 10.6 with averages of just 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game on a ho-hum 43.4 percent from the field. At 37.5 percent since arriving in Memphis, his 3-point shooting is a marked improvement from the departed Gay, but Prince attempts only one per game. There are two stats, however, that really stand out when evaluating what the ex-Piston has brought to his new digs — the Grizzlies' 11-3 record and their stifling 90.8 defensive rating when Prince is on the court.
A few quick notes on the Grizzlies trading Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a future first-round pick to Cleveland for Jon Leuer in a deal that is almost completely about Memphis going from $4.3 million over the luxury tax, to around $2 million under it:
• I was as guilty as anyone this morning in burying the lede on Twitter, in part because it makes sense to focus on the fringe title contender instead of the sad lottery team. So here’s the lede: This is a pretty great deal for Cleveland, and the greatness is in the details of the future first-round pick Memphis is sending. The Cavaliers had about $10.35 million in cap space before this trade, and they stood as one of just three teams (Phoenix and Houston being the others) with enough cap space to take on significant Memphis salary. Cleveland, of course, has to pay a prorated portion of those salaries, and that kind of spending has a price: the draft pick.
Following the most successful regular season in the history of the franchise, the Clippers won a playoff series for just the second time ever by beating the Grizzlies in Game 7 on Sunday. This series was already the most exciting first-round series in this year’s playoffs even before it went to Game 7, so I’m guessing that many of you had plans to catch the game. But with Sunday being Mother's Day, there’s a good chance that you ended up missing it because finding a store that had flowers and cards for your mom at the last minute wasn’t as easy as you thought it would be.
Well, don’t worry if that was you, because I watched the game for you and made sure to document all of the important things you missed.