The NBA Playoffs kicked off the weekend with a devastating injury to one of the league’s superstars and closed it with an unbelievable comeback that can’t be explained… but I’ll try anyway.
Clippers steal one from Grizzlies
For close to 40 minutes, the Memphis Grizzlies put on perhaps the most dominating performance of Round One. Memphis abused, bullied, and pushed around the more tentative Los Angeles Clippers en route to a 27 point 2nd half lead. The Grizzlies had their way inside and out. Marc Gasol was too much for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Rudy Gay continually took whatever he wanted. That success created open shots for O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley, who finished a combined 9/11 from beyond the arc. Whatever Memphis tried, worked. Even when the Clipper bench cut into a Memphis 20 point lead late in the 2nd quarter, the Grizzlies responded. Chris Paul was flustered. The FedEx Forum was jumping. Memphis looked destined for a blowout victory. Then, without warning or even a distinct turning point, the game flipped.
All of a sudden Memphis couldn’t hit a shot. They relaxed, lost focus, and forgot who they were. Instead of pounding the ball inside and allowing Gasol to regain control of the game, Memphis continually forced bad shots. While the Grizzlies collapsed, Reggie Evans, Drew Bledsoe, and Nick Young took over, finishing a combined +75 on the night.
The best comparison for the Grizzlies 4th quarter collapse is waterboarding. The Clippers didn’t do anything astronomical to erase a 95-71 Memphis lead with eight minutes to go. No one drained seven three pointers. Griffin didn’t turn into Charles Barkley in the post. The Grizzlies simply fell apart. And with each turnover, with each missed shot, you could hear the water drip one drop after another, each drip louder than the first and the crowd growing more anxious until finally they were gasping and panicking as much as the Grizzlies. The final blow came when Rudy Gay’s potential game-winning shot clanked off the front of the rim. The game was over and thankfully, so was the torture.
After re-watching the final eight minutes twice, the same three things came to mind. First, where was Lionel Hollins? As the Clippers continually slashed Memphis’ lead, Hollins refused to use his timeouts. Gregg Popovich calls a timeout when his team gives up an easy layup. The Clippers cut a 20 point lead to single digits late in the 4th quarter and Hollins stared off into space. Timeouts settle a team and help to slow the opponent’s momentum. Wasn’t Hollins a coach of the year candidate?
Second, this is what happens when you’re an inexperienced playoff team. Yes, the Grizzlies took the Thunder to seven games in the conference semifinals in 2011, but one playoff run doesn’t make you an experienced postseason team. Memphis’ inexperience stuck out like a sore thumb on Sunday night. Instead of someone stepping up and demanding the ball or getting a stop, the Grizzlies continually looked lost, waiting for someone to rescue them. Last year, that someone was Zach Randolph, which leads me to…
Third, Randolph isn’t even 80% of what he was last year. Just four months removed from knee surgery, Randolph’s legs have little hop and he can’t dominate in the low post as he typically can. It looks more and more likely that Memphis will have to win in the playoffs without their biggest weapon from 2011.
Fourth, can a team bounce back from such a horrific loss? Scoring just 3 points in the final nine minutes of a playoff game in which you had a 27 point 2nd half lead isn’t something you shrug off and move on. Losses like that linger. The noise of that crowd, as they watched a building collapse brick-by-brick, lingers. How Memphis responds in Game 2 will decide the series. At 11PM ET Sunday night I believed the Clippers would be gone in five games. By 1AM ET, I wasn’t sure the Grizzlies would be around for a Game 5. Destinies change that quickly in the NBA Playoffs.
(Also, two thumbs waaayyyy down for that Memphis crowd. After 2 ½ quarters, I thought they were the best crowd of the weekend (in the NBA, at least). They were loud, raucous and into the game. The atmosphere they created made the Clippers and especially, Blake Griffin, nervous and hesitant. Then, when the Grizzlies needed them most, the crowd abandoned them. Where a great home crowd would pick its team up, the FedEx Forum panicked. The groans and moans grew with every lousy Memphis possession. If the Grizzlies didn’t doubt themselves, they certainly did after the crowd jumped ship at about the three minute mark of the 4th quarter. Not only did the Grizzlies show their lack of playoff experience, but the crowd did, too.)
Derrick Rose Injury
I was out all Saturday afternoon, so I missed the game and the injury. Needless to say, I was shocked and even devastated when I heard the news. And that’s coming from a 76ers fan. (Why’d I miss my favorite team’s first playoff game? Because my son is like a Siberian Husky. If you don’t get him outside and let him run around, he starts tearing apart furniture and destroying your house. It was a cold, rainy week. He was overdue. It had to happen.)
Anyway, Rose’s injury doesn’t put the 76ers into the 2nd round. In fact, I think it only makes them look worse. Losing to the Bulls in four or five games with Derrick Rose on the floor is understandable and even acceptable. Losing to the Bulls in four or five games when Rose is out is somewhat embarrassing. And no, despite the Rose injury, I still don’t see the 76ers competing in this series.
Chicago’s regular season prepared the team for this moment. They won all year without Rose. They beat the NBA’s elite without Rose. Some even (foolishly) argued the Bulls were just as good, if not better, without Rose. Instead of being the best team in the East, the Bulls are now the second best team. Boston looks especially vulnerable right now without Ray Allen, so Chicago is still the favorites to meet Miami in the conference finals. Once there, anything can happen.
However, all that depends solely on the mentality of the team. Losing a player like Rose is obviously a huge loss to a team on the court. But more importantly, it’s a devastating hit to a team’s psyche. If the Bulls can’t bounce back emotionally, they’re done.
Lakers, Heat roll to victory
I missed the entire Heat game as well and only watched the Lakers during the intermissions of the Flyers victory. Nevertheless, I’ll share my thoughts.
Miami’s thrashing of the Knicks was legit. New York is overrated and celebrated because they play in New York. The loss of Iman Shumpert will be especially devastating. Now the Knicks have only two players that know what defense is as opposed to three. While I certainly hope this isn’t already the end of what could have been (and could still possibly be) an entertaining series, I fear the worst.
As for the Nuggets disappointing loss, I’m chalking it up to nerves. Am I 45% less confident in the Nuggets ability to make this series interesting? Yes, yes I am. However, Denver can take solace in knowing their two best players played poorly, they failed to establish any semblance of a transition game, and it took Andrew Bynum six seasons to realize solid defense contributes to winning. (Seriously, Bynum openly admitted he learned today that when he plays defense, the Lakers are a better team. Uh, congrats?)
Magic beat Pacers late
In Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal with the Orlando Magic, the Pacers showed why it’s insanely difficult to compete in the postseason without a legitimate superstar. Although the Pacers played poorly throughout the game, they held a seven point lead late in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, the Pacers would be outscored 11-0 over the game’s final four minutes en route to a discouraging and shocking loss to the undermanned and embattled Magic. Danny Granger had two huge miscues in the final minutes including an embarrassingly obvious travel with the Pacers down three in the closing seconds. Granger also missed two free throws with Indiana up two and 1:14 remaining. It wasn’t just Granger that struggled, though. David West went cold, Paul George missed shots, and Darren Collision was just plain bad. Even coach Frank Vogel was off – Roy Hibbert didn’t get touches down the stretch and George Hill inexplicably wasn’t even in the game. (Why Hill wasn’t on the floor until there were only 10 seconds left is beyond me. He’s arguably Indiana’s best crunch time option.)
On the other hand, it wasn’t all Indiana’s fault. The Magic has extensive playoff experience. They know what it takes to win in the postseason. Their 4th quarter execution was on point. Despite being shorthanded and down for most of the game, Orlando continued to battle and never fell so far beyond that the game was out of reach. It was a gutsy effort worthy of a team that has clawed its way through a disastrous and forgettable season. As I mentioned last week, the Magic has nothing to lose. A team playing for pride and possibly even for their coach’s job can be a potent combination. The Pacers may have thought they’d have an easy road to the next round but Orlando appears poised to put up a fight. Somewhere, Dwight Howard is moping.
Spurs handle Jazz
As many expected, San Antonio came out sluggish and out of rhythm after an extended break. The Big three hadn’t played since last Monday, so it wasn’t shocking to see Utah take an early lead and hang around until midway through the 3rd quarter. The common reaction to this game has been, “the game was closer than the score,” which may or may not be true, depending on your view. Here’s mine:
The Jazz hung around mostly because the Spurs toyed with their prey instead of devouring it. When the Spurs would get an extended lead, they’d relax a bit, get a little careless and allow Utah to climb back within single digits. Then, without contention, San Antonio would immediately stretch the lead back to 14 or 15. Essentially, when the Spurs wanted to score, they scored. When they wanted to make a push, they made a push. Outside of the first 20 minutes, Utah never dictated the game. San Antonio was in control. As I mentioned in my NBA Playoff Picks, the Jazz can’t contend with the Spurs because the Jazz don’t play defense.
Celtics lose, Rajon Rondo suspended?
There’s little chance the Celtics no-show Game 1 like that if they’re in Boston, which makes the team’s decision to essentially forfeit home court over the final week of the regular season questionable. It took a full two quarters before Boston finally woke up and found their legs, and by that time, just fighting to get back in the game required too much energy. The Celtics essentially ran out of time.
Now for what really matters; the Rajon Rondo belly bump. It’s important to note this is the second time this year Rondo lost control with an official – he threw a ball at an official in February and received a multiple game suspension – so I don’t expect leniency from the NBA. Even back then, his coach and teammates were angry that Rondo would hurt the team like that, so I can only imagine how pissed the Celtics are at Rondo right now.
Rondo is undoubtedly Boston’s best player. While the Celtics can’t realistically compete without all their pieces, Rondo is certainly the most important. He’s their offensive catalyst and his defense creates easy baskets for an older team that doesn’t get transition points otherwise. His decision to bump an official was completely selfish and will probably cost his team Game 2 and perhaps even a trip to the 2nd round. However…
I think Rondo’s explanation of “tripping” into the official has some weight to it. He clearly does trip over his own left foot when the official abruptly stops. While it still looks like Rondo intentional bumped the official, the argument can be made he accidentally stumbled. (Then why didn’t he look remorseful? Uhhhh, yeah, it looks bad for Rondo.)
Here’s my pet peeve, though: Why do officials linger near a player in those moments? The NBA wants its stars on the court. Basketball is an emotionally charged game. The intensity of those emotions is ratcheted up in the playoffs. As soon as the first technical foul was called, the official should’ve walked as far away from Rondo as possible. This would have allowed Rondo to cool down and if he charged after the official, it would have given a teammate time to intervene (Avery Bradley was two seconds too late on Sunday). Officials are emotional, too. I get that, but their best interests must always be the game. The game suffers when the best players aren’t on the floor. I’m neither condoning nor excusing Rondo’s actions, but in a critical moment of a tense game, I think it helps everyone if officials move as far away from the “scene of the crime” as possible until cooler heads prevail.
Kevin Durant beats Mavericks on final shot, again
Few things bring me more joy than watching the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki lose on an off-balanced runner/fade away that had no business going in. (Or as Dirk calls it, “every one of my shots.”)
I’ll admit, I may have been wrong about the Mavericks. Even without Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks zone gave the Thunder all sorts of trouble Saturday night. Oklahoma City looked out of sorts and overwhelmed for most of the game. Though, in the end, the Thunder’s playoff experience was evident.
While the Grizzlies panicked and couldn’t muster any offense down the stretch against the Clippers, the Thunder calmly kept chugging away knowing their superstar forward would carry them through. This is OKC’s third postseason. They’ve hung with and been knocked out by heavy favorites in the 1st round and battled all the way to the conference finals. The Thunder understands the pressure of the playoffs and what it takes to survive and win. OKC was outplayed and outwitted for nearly all of Game 1 and yet they figured out a way to grind out a win. To some extent, that says more about the Thunder than a 20 point blowout. Maybe the kids are all grown up.