NBA Playoffs: Determined Grizzlies won’t go quietly

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From Games 2 through 5, Oklahoma City had kept the force of nature that can be Zach Randolph in check. They had packed the lane, threw multiple long defenders at him and never let him get comfortable. He shot just 32 percent in those four games.

But it all changed Friday night, starting with Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins putting shooter O.J. Mayo with the starters to spread out the Thunder defense and give Randolph a little more room to operate. He got going early and was even stronger as the game went on. It was a masterful performance from one of the best offensive big men in the game.

Randolph finished with 30 points on 22 shots and the Grizzlies won 95-83 to force a deciding Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday.

It seems corny to talk about a game won by heart and grit, which can often be the crutch of bad analysis. But I’m at a loss for another phrase to describe the Grizzlies’ second half. When a lot of teams just roll over — we’re looking right at you, Lakers — Memphis fought back. They executed better under pressure, something the Thunder have struggled with at times.

The Thunder made their plays in the first half and were up 10 at halftime. The Grizzlies offense got stagnant in the second quarter and missed jumpers led to Russell Westbrook and James Harden getting out in transition. The Thunder took their lead with Kevin Durant having just seven points, and you expected this to become a rout like the second half of Game 5.

But Shane Battier hit a 3-pointer right before halftime, and the Grizzlies came out on an 11-2 run to start the third quarter. And that was about grit and heart. About refusing to die. Memphis won the third quarter 28-14 as their shooters got hotter and more confident.

Meanwhile, Durant never got going, finishing with 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Battier, who has struggled to slow Durant this series, had a fantastic game.

Outside of Randolph, the Grizzlies didn’t light it up on offense — as a team they shot just 43.4 percent and averaged one point per possession. For some perspective, over the course of the season only three teams averaged less offense than one point per possession (Washington, Cleveland and Milwaukee).

But the Thunder were at 0.87 points per possession. They were 4-of-16 from three and 5-of-13 from 16 feet out to the arc – the jump shots were not falling. Westbrook (27 points) and Harden (14) had good games, but after that the rest of the Thunder struggled to score.

So it is off to Oklahoma for a Game 7. A game where Durant is fully capable of bouncing back and taking over. Or Randolph’s confidence could carry over to another huge game. Or both. And someone unexpected will invariably rise up.

This series has been a lot of fun, complete with improbable comebacks and thrilling overtimes. And now it all comes down to one game. This is going to be one of the highlights of these playoffs. You can just feel it.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving: “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

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The Celtics established themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams, a contender for the Eastern Conference title, during their 16-game win streak.

However, that hot streak to start the season will matter as much as Thanksgiving leftovers in the back of the refrigerator in April by the time the playoffs roll around. This is a team that still has work to do.

Which is what Kyrie Irving was getting at in this post-loss quote from Friday night, via Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.

“There’s still a lot to accomplish going forward,” Irving said. “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

This team still needs to get better and more consistent. The Celtics had to come from behind in the fourth quarter in eight of the 16 wins, and while the team defense was impressive the offense still can be hit and miss. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving play well off each other, but this is still the 20th ranked offense in the NBA. They are taking more long midrange jumpers than most coaches want, but the bigger challenge is they have not been finishing around the basket.

Titles are not won in November. Irving gets that. Jayson Tatum will hit the rookie wall at some point (they all do) and he needs to prove he can break through. Al Horford is playing maybe the best ball of his career and needs to keep it up. The Celtics need to keep their defensive focus (the fundamentals are there to have a top five defense). I could go on but you get the point, and so does Irving — there is a lot of work for this team to do.

Boston is off to a fantastic start, but it’s just that.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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