Stopping the San Antonio Spurs offense, one of the league’s three best over the last three seasons combined, is always going to be a chore. Smart defenses can construct wonderful theoretical game plans centered on limiting the Spurs to midrange jumpers off Tony Parker pick-and-rolls by cutting off Parker around the foul line and staying home on San Antonio’s unfair army of deadly shooters. And some of those smart defenses are good enough to actually execute that kind of game plan over long stretches, or even entire games.
But the Spurs have top midrange shooters at key positions, and they are so good that over time they're going to find cracks in even the most well-meaning team defenses. Parker and Manu Ginobili, even this aging and limited version, are brilliant ball handlers who can slice through the gut of a defense with wily crossover dribbles, tiny bits of misdirection, and pinpoint passing. The constant whirring of the Spurs system often gives them a head start by putting their defenders through all sorts of off-ball movement before Parker or Ginobili finally catch the ball in position to attack — and with their defenders off-balance and/or fatigued. And no group of NBA big men is better versed in the art of setting screens in tricky little ways that disguise which direction the Spurs’ ball handlers might jet around those picks.
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.
Chris Ryan: The fact that whatever happens on the court is so grimy, Tony Allen feels the need to wander off with that look on his face. Also, it looks like Z-Bo is using that cup as a dip-spitting receptacle, and the Keyon Dooling photo bomb in the back is Bosh-ian. But my favorite thing right here is the apparent difference between what Z-Bo is saying and what Jon Leuer is saying.
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces who will be populating basketball's second season.
Who Is He? Quincy Pondexter.
Where Is He From? Washington.
Years Played: 3.
What’s His Salary? $1.23 million.
Nickname: Back at San Joaquin Memorial High School, where Pondexter played with Brook and Robin Lopez, they used to call him “Slow Mo.” He didn’t like that. These days, it seems to be “QPon,” which counts, I guess.
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: Improved shooter whose main value on offense comes via the corner 3. A capable defender who has a length advantage when matched up on 2s.
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.
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 lot has changed since the Grizzlies started the season scoring at a top-10 rate and looking like a legitimate title contender. Their offense has stalled out, falling to 19th in points per 100 possessions, and three other Western Conference contenders — the Spurs, Clippers, and Thunder — have settled in at a slightly higher level than Memphis. If Memphis can only squeeze a league-average offense out of this group, they’ll grade out as more of an “absolutely everything has to go right” fringe contender than a true title threat.
Imagine if every year, your workplace went through layoffs and employee reviews the week before and after Christmas. That light at the end of the tunnel is in touching distance, it's all gift wrap and roasting chestnuts and holiday parties, and then, all of a sudden, your job is thrown into chaos because everyone is watching their backs and wondering what the future holds.
This pretty much describes the NBA right before the All-Star break. And this season's compressed schedule and back-to-back-to-back games have already taken a mental toll on the players. Now, right when most of them are supposed to get a few days off, here come the whispers.
And I love it. I love the NBA rumor culture. On the surface, it's just a fantastically entertaining component of the league. It fuels endless second-guessing and speculation and hope and terror. Then, beneath it all, for league obsessives, there's the whole shadow economy of the rumor industry: The "sources" giving anonymous quotes, the strongly slanted pieces outing players as locker-room pariahs or ball hogs to lower their value.
With all the enjoyment you can take from this game within a game, it's sometimes hard to think about any of it ever having consequences. Today, we learn that it does.
Greivis Vasquez knows all about the importance of a full training camp, which is why he worries about this season’s crop of rookies. Vasquez missed most of camp in his rookie year and was relegated to spot duty much of the regular season. But he shined in the playoffs for the surprising Grizzlies. Grantland's Jonathan Abrams talked to the Venezuela native about the lockout and the wait for a shot at redemption after Memphis’ narrow second-round playoff loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What have you been up to during the lockout? I just got done playing with my national team. I was back home for a little while after that, but right now, I’m going back home and thinking about playing there if the NBA doesn’t start for a while.