Dominant Zach Randolph returns to help Memphis force a Game 7

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As Zach Randolph goes, so go the Memphis Grizzlies.

While that statement might not necessarily be true on a game-by-game basis, it’s certainly true in terms of just how far Memphis will go in these playoffs. The Grizzlies needed every bit of Randolph’s 30 points and 13 rebounds in Game 6, on their way to a come-from-behind, 95-83 victory on Friday that will force a Game 7 back in Oklahoma City on Sunday.

“He got life early in the game,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said of Randolph. “I thought it gave him confidence, and throughout the game he was getting better. I thought the second half … it seemed like he made every big shot for them.”

Randolph started strong with eight points in the first quarter, but the second half was where he did most of his damage. While Oklahoma City tried to protect its double-digit halftime lead by launching again and again from beyond the 3-point arc, the Grizzlies went to Randolph down low, and he delivered, especially late, with 12 points and six rebounds in the fourth quarter.

Randolph’s game was especially important, given that he hadn’t done much of anything in this series since his dominant performance in Game 1. In the four games before this one, Randolph had largely been kept under wraps, managing to hit on just 22-of-69 in those games.

But Game 6 was different. And Randolph said he was feeling it from the very start.

“I felt pretty good tonight,” Randolph said. “My rhythm was there, my shot felt good, so I was just trying to be aggressive. I told myself from the beginning, I don’t want to sit back and wait. I want to try to push it — push myself, and assert myself early, and get into the game.”

The Grizzlies made a change to their starting lineup, and inserted O.J. Mayo in place of Sam Young to begin Game 6. Randolph admitted that this may have created some extra space for him to operate, but his aggressiveness from the start was really the difference, especially when comparing his efforts from the last four games of this series.

The Thunder are a young team, one that doesn’t yet possess the mental toughness to close a quality team out on the road in a playoff series, as evidenced by their poor shot selection when Memphis made a run to start the second half. Quick threes and long jumpers are no way to stop a run on the road, and as a team, OKC finished just 4-of-25 from 3-point land, with Kevin Durant — who couldn’t get into a rhythm all night after having to sit with two early personal fouls — missing eight of his nine attempts from distance.

Things will likely be different for the Thunder when they host Game 7, but the same might not be true for Randolph. The aggressive way he attacked on Friday was reminiscent of his dominant 34-point performance in Game 1, and if he can bring it like that for just one more game, the Grizzlies might just find themselves in the Western Conference finals against the well-rested Dallas Mavericks.

Russell Westbrook assists Andre Roberson transition dunk with sweet behind-the-back pass (video)

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Russell Westbrook produced a historic triple-double in the Thunder’s win over the 76ers last night, but merely counting his misses — zero — doesn’t do him justice.

Dunk-assisting behind-the-back passes are nice in any context. Considering how quickly Westbrook pushes the ball up the floor, the degree of difficulty here makes this one even more impressive.

Probably fake Cavaliers fan wears burnt LeBron James jersey (video)

AP Photo/Brett Davis
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Update: As pointed out by several, the Cavs didn’t introduce this jersey until after LeBron left. So, this was probably staged by the Nuggets. Still funny (and still searching for more evidence of Cleveland fans reconciling their about-face on LeBron).

 

Cavaliers fans went overboard when they burned LeBron James jerseys in the street when he left for the Heat in 2010.

Many of those same fans instantly forgot the terrible things they said about LeBron once he returned to Cleveland in 2014.

And then there’s this guy…

Ananth Pandian:

I’d like to believe this guy is publicly repenting for going too far in 2010.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: LeBron says Cavs lack toughness, or are they bored?

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The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season?
Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.

Yes, Cleveland had to go play at altitude in the middle of a long road trip. Still…

What is going on with the Cavaliers?

Opponents have outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 since the All-Star break, and the Cavs are playing terrible defense (second worst in the NBA since the break). Asked in Denver after the loss what is wrong with the Cavs, LeBron said the team lacked toughness, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.

To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.

That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.

It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.

The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?

2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.

Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.

The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.

3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.

As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.

Report: Hawks’ Paul Millsap to opt out, explore free agency

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Before the season, Paul Millsap said he was undecided on opting out.

We’re one step closer to completely dismissing that shaky pretense.

Adam Schefter of ESPN:

There’s no question Millsap can earn more than his $21,472,407 option-year salary. He might even earn the max, which projects to be north of $36 million. The 32-year-old will also have a chance to lock into a long-term contract.

Opting out is an easy call.

The only question is whether anyone will offer a max starting salary and max years.

That’s a risky proposition for a player his age, but for a team ready to win now, the short-term gains might outweigh the long-term risk. (And it’s not really a “risk.” Millsap is extremely likely to be overpaid by the end of a full max deal.) Millsap is an elite defender with an efficient offensive game.

How much would the Hawks pay? They called re-signing Millsap their priority, but they’ve also sent mixed messages about their desire to win now (signing Dwight Howard, keeping Millsap past the trade deadline) vs. rebuilding (trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).

And it’s not unilaterally up to Atlanta. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent, and if he plans to explore the market, you never know what he’ll find.