NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies go to work, Spurs go home

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The deed is done. Even the slightest doubts of the Grizzlies’ prowess in their first round series have been put to rest, as have the revered San Antonio Spurs. Memphis completed their seemingly improbable upset by dominating in the most probable ways; the Grizz scrambled, posted up, defended, rebounded, and scrapped their way to a 99-91 Game 6 victory, the final fantastic performance of their 4-2 upset of top-seeded San Antonio.

The momentum of Game 6 seemed to shift in favor of whichever team controlled the glass. Initially, the Grizzlies worked the offensive boards while limiting the Spurs to a single opportunity. Those two aspects of their first quarter play were crucial to forming an early cushion, and would later come into play when the Grizzlies started to create separation — however slight — from their opponents in pursuit. The Spurs had their moments, though; whether due to fatigue or just a lack of effort on Memphis’ part, San Antonio made a push in the second and hung around in the third due to their competition on the glass. It couldn’t last. Not with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bullying their way into prime rebound position. Not with Shane Battier darting around the court collecting more boards than all but two of the Spurs. Memphis outscored San Antonio in each of the quarters in which they held the rebounding advantage, and while that may be implicit (fewer points usually indicate more misses, and more misses beget more opportunities to rebound), the Grizzlies’ effort to control the boards was clearly explicit.

Rebounding was only a portion of Randolph’s contribution, though. His play in this game and this series is the reason why the Grizzlies are the toast of the league at present; when he hasn’t been dominating the glass, Randolph has been scoring like a legitimate superstar, and the consistency of his point production provided a steady pillar for Memphis’ surge. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cut into the Grizzlies’ lead repeatedly over the game’s final minutes, but Randolph never relented. He backed down Antonio McDyess. He hit turnaround jumpers over outstretched arms. He converted the kinds of shots usually reserved for the league’s true elite, a distinction which Randolph creeps closer toward with every performance like this one. His production is unquestionable, and now his résumé includes the toppling of a conference power despite being in a position of the greatest seeding disadvantage.

Gasol wasn’t quite as overtly punishing as Randolph, but his ability to exploit Tim Duncan on both ends of the court throughout the series has been eye-opening. Duncan’s decline over the last few seasons has been evident, but Gasol dominated their individual matchup to a degree that would surprise even Gasol’s greatest advocates. The box score only puts Gasol at an advantage of three rebounds and one turnover while merely matching Duncan’s point total, but his defensive presence removed an invaluable failsafe from San Antonio’s offensive plans. Duncan’s post and face-up game were both taken away, as Gasol’s size, length, and defensive acumen put him in an optimal position to contest at all times. Neutralizing Duncan doesn’t shut down the Spurs offense in itself, but it gives the Grizzlies’ team defense the opportunity it needs to swarm ball handlers and attack passing lanes. Duncan may have been Plan C, but removing him as an option puts all the more pressure on Plans A, B, and D. Manu Ginobili (A), Tony Parker (B), and the Spurs’ supporting cast (D) were never able to fully compensate.

The Spurs competed. They fought hard until the very end, and if not for Randolph’s unspeakable might, they likely could have ushered in the hope and potential salvation of a Game 7. Yet they didn’t, and as much as our natural basketball instincts wish to heap praise on the Grizzlies, it’s worth remembering that the Spurs lost this series. They came in with the second-best record in basketball and home court advantage against any Western Conference opponent and were dropped in the first round. I’m honestly not quite sure what the word “choke,” means anymore (the term has been recast and bastardized to the point that it no longer holds meaning), but by most conventional definitions of the word as I understand them, the Spurs did no such thing. They did, however, lose a series in which they were considered a sure favorite, and failed to capitalize on their strong regular season performance. San Antonio remains a tremendous organization and a quality team, but they disappointed in this series with their inefficacy.

In this championship-or-bust playoff framework, it’s not enough to just show up and play hard, even when boasting a supposedly superior roster. San Antonio worked, but they didn’t execute consistently enough; they failed to convert shots at the rim and beyond the arc, and had no answer for the Randolph-Gasol tandem, nor the capacity to match the wild card offensive contributions of Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen, and Sam Young. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are obviously still worthy of our respect, but Pop was out-coached and his team was out-played. The Spurs aren’t going home after the first round because of some fluke, but because the Grizzlies bested them — they of the No. 1 seed, the second-best offense in the league, and the fourth-best regular season margin of victory — in a legitimate measure of basketball worth.

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did.

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.