The Memphis Grizzlies are known for their toughness, a quality that's given birth to a franchise motto (Grit and Grind) and the sort of ever-present identity that makes them a fearsome opponent in any circumstance. In Monday night Game 2 of their first-round series against the No. 2-seed Oklahoma City Thunder, that resilience helped them withstand what could have gone down as a legendary comeback.
Let's start with the Thunder's massive plays late in regulation, because they spoke to the overall quality of this game and the general desperation of playoff basketball. With 18 seconds remaining in regulation and Memphis up 98-93 after having bounced back from a lead-stealing dunk from OKC star Kevin Durant, the game appeared to be near its end. The Grizzlies had controlled tempo for the vast majority, imposed their style at both ends and appeared heading to a series-tying victory.
Unfortunately for them, the Thunder had other ideas. Durant, the NBA's presumptive MVP this season, came through with one of the most dramatic shots of his career. Take a look below:
Durant's absurd four-point play gave the Thunder renewed hope, but they still needed a few breaks to get the game to overtime. On Memphis's next possession, point guard Mike Conley, who shot 81.5 percent from the line this season, split a pair to make the score 99-97 with 12 seconds on the clock. OKC had one possession to win or send the game to overtime, and the ball ended up in the hands of Russell Westbrook for an off-balance three-pointer. He missed, but an unlikely hero forced overtime:
Kendrick Perkins has been much-maligned throughout this season for statistical contributions that don't match up with his reputation, but he does have a meaningful role in this series as he attempts to match up with Grizzlies big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Nevertheless, no one expected Perk to serve as the Thunder's savior in this moment — this was his only shot attempt of the game. The combination of Durant's crazy shot and Perkins's improbable moment made it seem as if the Thunder had fate and momentum on their side.
Yet the Grizzlies have always been a team to focus on apparent realities, not mysterious concepts. Instead of falling into despair at their misfortune at the end of regulation, they went about playing the same kind of game that served them so well for the majority of Game 2. After playing the Thunder to a standstill for 4:30 of the five-minute extra period, the Grizzlies' execution won out. The pivotal play occurred with 26 seconds on the clock and the score tied at 105-105. As several Thunder defenders cut off Tony Allen near the basket, the Grizzlies wing found Randolph for a simple lay-up.
Serge Ibaka was called for a traveling violation on the next possession, a poorly executed pick-and-roll and the Thunder failed to score the rest of the way. With Courtney Lee and Zach Randolph knocking down two free throws apiece after necessary fouls (one of which came on a very poor inbounds pass into the backcourt that was nearly stolen by Westbrook), the Grizzlies came away with a hard-fought 111-105 win and a 1-1 series tie with the next two games on their home floor, where they won 14 games in a row to close out the regular season.
The Thunder don't need to be ashamed of their performance, because a few different bounces would have given them a memorable win with one play — Durant's shot — that figures to be a signature moment of this postseason regardless of the game's result. Nevertheless, the Grizzlies were the superior team in Game 2. While Durant will get deserved attention for the four-point play and finished with 36 points, Memphis made him uncomfortable and forced a decidedly inefficient 12-of-28 shooting performance. Westbrook helped pick up the slack in the first half, but he finished with an 11-of-28 shooting line and made several out-of-control mistakes in key moments. As a team, OKC shot 39.8 percent from the field, so it's safe to say the Memphis game plan worked.
The Grizzlies are likely still slight underdogs in this series, but the next few games are officially unpredictable. Thursday night's Game 3 looks like appointment viewing.
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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!
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- A year ago, Memphis blew past Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals. Back then, Oklahoma City was without dynamic point guard Russell Westbrook because of a season-ending right knee injury from the previous series, and the Thunder were eliminated by the Grizzlies in five games. Westbrook is healthy now, and Oklahoma City is confident the results will be different when the teams meet again this year in the first round of the playoffs, starting Saturday night. Westbrook's rare athletic ability is especially difficult to handle because scoring champion Kevin Durant draws so much attention that it limits the options for dealing with the team's No. 2 scorer and three-time All-Star.
A year ago, Memphis blew past Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals. Back then, Oklahoma City was without dynamic point guard Russell Westbrook because of a season-ending right knee injury from the previous series, and the Thunder were eliminated by the Grizzlies in five games. Westbrook is healthy now, and Oklahoma City is confident the results will be different when the teams meet again this year in the first round of the playoffs, starting Saturday night. Westbrook's rare athletic ability is especially difficult to handle because scoring champion Kevin Durant draws so much attention that it limits the options for dealing with the team's No. 2 scorer and three-time All-Star.
The playoffs began on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
Without the paper, this looks like yet another fantastic Western pairing. San Antonio and Dallas, those ancient combatants, teams that took on each other to great acclaim several postseason times over the course of the dueling Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki eras, in a first-round matchup that shouldn’t be predetermined by Dallas’ stinkful eighth seed and San Antonio’s well-worked top overall seed in the Western Conference.
In 2014, though, these records seem to hold out. Dallas is a respected 49-win team, one that had to navigate a terrific Western Conference and make sure that every game counted down the tough playoff-earning stretch. San Antonio is a league-best 62-win squad, the only such NBA club to top 60 wins in 82 tries, a beaming achievement considering they are the only club in NBA history to not boast a player working over 30 minutes a contest.
Considering the history, and the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, and the fact that Dallas is just three years removed from a title in comparison to San Antonio’s seven , one would think that 13-win difference could be trimmed to near-nil. Though you should respect these Mavericks and expect that they’ll put up their typical fight, don’t bet on as much.
(Seriously, don’t wager.)
San Antonio had a regular season for the ages, and there’s no reason to think this wouldn’t carry over into the playoffs. It’s completely true depth and versatility are often outmoded once things turn into a best-of-seven routine, but these are the bloody Spurs we’re talking about. We’re talking about potentially handing seven games to San Antonio in a full two-week term, presuming San Antonio needs as long to dispatch the Mavericks.
Which they won’t. The Mavericks are to be respected, and everyone wishes that in a modern Adam Silver-led world they would be starting their postseason against the Portland Trail Blazers (which would be the case if the NBA shifted to a 1-through-16 seeded format for the playoffs), but the Spurs just seem to have Dallas’ number.
This isn’t a case of respecting the seeds above all. The typical No. 1-versus-8 matchup, at least prior to the Western Conference’s recent regular season dominance of NBA basketball, pitted a .500 team against a club that had topped 60-some wins, and these Mavericks were on pace for those 49 wins for just about all of 2013-14. It’s true they are the worst defensive team in the playoffs by a sound margin, but the Nowitzki and Monta Ellis-led club is a fantastic offensive team, one that rarely turns the ball over, one shoots exceedingly well in all areas – top six from any stripe or paint you can think of during the regular season.
Somehow, San Antonio still has this team licked, despite playing someone like Duncan nearly a thousand minutes less than Monta Ellis played during the regular season, and despite Manu Ginobili seeing half as much court time as Mr. Ellis in Monta’s first season in Dallas.
Injuries and rest played a part, but by and large this was San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s intention. Those who are just tuning into the NBA in mid-April might give such fawning a big “ho-hum” to San Antonio’s West-beating routine, but Popovich masterfully worked with his enviable core and full rotation, in a legendary mixture of coaching and commitment from the players in the wake of a 2012-13 season that lasted 103 games plus a month-long “preseason.”
That century-long turn didn’t even result in a title win, which could have been a killer to most, and coupled with the onset of age and perhaps the most fearsome of conferences we’ve seen in NBA lore, it would have been understandable for the Spurs to roll over. The return of Russell Westbrook and rise of Kevin Durant could have sent the Spurs into a tizzy, as could the pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden or the move to let Doc Rivers run the Los Angeles Clippers like adults.
Instead, the Spurs kept on. As did the Mavericks, to the best of their abilities. In spite of the relative growth of Ellis and sound work of Jose Calderon, plus the continued solid play of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, or the pocket-filling add-ons from Brandan Wright and the returning Devin Harris, it was somehow “only” worth 49 wins. Even with Nowitzki around. With no flies on him.
The reward is a chance to match up and match wits with San Antonio. And though in most cases you’d expect a lengthy battle pitched irrespective of seeding, San Antonio is still a full Tim Duncan arm’s length removed from Dallas.
Prediction: San Antonio in 5.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Can Dallas even make this interesting?
There is, I'll grant, a fundamental hole in the question -- Rick Carlisle's flowing, whirring offense is always worth watching, Dirk Nowitzki In The Playoffs will be must-see TV until he heads back to Wurzburg for good, and there always exists the possibility that Monta Ellis will go nuclear. But there's also a reason I'm asking.
The Spurs have bounced back from Games 6 and 7 with great vengeance and furious anger, storming to the NBA's best record, ripping off a franchise-record 19-game winning streak and outscoring their opposition by just under 10 points per 100 possessions (tops in the league) since the All-Star break. They have done so while ensuring that all of their players average less than 30 minutes per game for the season. They've developed depth and rotational versatility along the way, giving Gregg Popovich multiple options to deploy whether the run of play dictates going big or small, allowing him to run out potent offensive lineups that won't give up the store or stout defensive units that won't stagnate. They're the favorites to return to the NBA finals, and while dangerous matchups lurk -- namely, in Houston and Oklahoma City -- the Mavericks aren't one of them.
This intra-Texas rivalry was once the stuff of legend, but at this stage in the two teams' life cycles, the state of affairs is simple: San Antonio beats the hell out of Dallas, because that's just what they do. The Spurs are 13-3 against the Mavericks over the past four years, including 4-0 sweeps in each of the past two seasons, and the 1 vs. 8 seeding disparity is borne out when you look at how this year's series played out. Only one of the four meetings (a 112-90 early January beating) was a blowout, but the Spurs essentially smothered the Mavericks everywhere.
Against the league at large, the Dallas offense was a vicious machine on par with the Miami Heat (109 points per 100 possessions, tied for No. 2 in the league). Against the Spurs, the Mavericks were basically the Atlanta Hawks (103.5 points-per-100, smack dab in the middle of the NBA pack).
Against everybody else, Dallas' high-powered attack fired 22.9 3-point tries per game (12th-most in the NBA) and made 38.4 percent of them (second-best, behind only San Antonio). Against a Spurs team dedicated to shutting off opponents at the arc, the Mavs managed only 16.5 long attempts per game, which would've ranked between the everything-on-the-interior Chicago Bulls and without-injured-Ryan-Anderson New Orleans Pelicans for the third-lowest per-game mark over the course of the full season, and connected on a comparatively pedestrian 36.4 percent.
San Antonio's sound positional defense kept Dallas off the foul line (only 18.5 free-throw attempts per game, which is about 2 1/2 fewer than their season average and would've been dead last in the league). Their commitment to