How good can the Memphis Grizzlies become?

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The Memphis Grizzlies provided one of the 2011 playoffs’ most endearing storylines for reasons that went beyond a mere appreciation for the underdog. They won their first-round series against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, sure, but it was the way the Grizzlies won — and the personnel with which they did so — that gave them their undeniable appeal. The Grizz were relentless, audacious, and thanks to Tony Allen, just a little bit insane. The playoff potency of that combination goes without saying at this point, but it should be interesting to see just how far the Grizzlies can climb without any true top-tier prospects in the pipeline. Memphis will be putting their own version of the one-star model to the test over the next few seasons, with their advancement dependent on the collective growth of a number of talented — but sub-elite — contributors.

The Grizzlies were good enough to usher the Spurs out of the postseason, but faltered slightly against an impressive Oklahoma City team. That’s an awesome showing for an eighth seed, but the Grizzlies will no longer be working within the expectations of an underdog club. Memphis has officially arrived, and while their ascent has brought the franchise its first ever playoff series win and an air of respectability, so too will come the weight of all they’ve earned. Wins only matter if a team can win consistently, and the season to come will serve as a referendum on all Memphis has accomplished thus far.

Zach Randolph and co. are certainly up to that challenge; their playoff success was no fluke, and virtually every aspect of their performance against the Spurs and Thunder should be replicable next season. That said, competitive teams do more than simply affirm their initial claims. The next few seasons in Memphis will be defined by the team’s ability to take the next step, a framework that would seem problematic for the Grizzlies on first glance. Memphis is essentially locked into their current roster (with the only exception being O.J. Mayo, who will likely be dealt as soon as possible) thanks to the team’s salary structure, and can’t count on any tremendous internal improvements.

Still, there’s reason to believe in the Grizzlies’ upward momentum. Their avenues toward improvement may not be as straightforward as those of younger, talent-laden clubs, but with a few minor tweaks, the Grizz could be ready to climb into the ranks of the West’s quasi-contenders. Such a climb is hardly a given, but whether or not Memphis can continue to thrive against such lofty expectations depends on a few crucial factors:

Incremental gains across the board

Memphis doesn’t have a star-in-waiting on the verge of a substantial leap, but the majority of the team’s rotation players are inching toward their respective primes. Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Darrell Arthur are all 26 years old or younger, and Xavier Henry — an intriguing long-term wing prospect — is just 20. All will see better production in their NBA careers if everything goes according to plan, and while a single player’s modest boost in field goal percentage or rebounding may not seem like much, collectively that group’s gains have the potential to propel the Grizz forward.

Memphis also benefits from the fact that the team’s vets — Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, et al — are still well within their most productive NBA years. If Zeebo keeps rolling, Allen continues to play some of the best perimeter defense in the league, and the rest of the crew develops on course, the Grizzlies could be ready to improve substantially even without a breakout star or a significant addition.

Shot redistribution

Rudy Gay’s shot selection isn’t quite worthy of an intervention, but he still needs to understand that a more conservative offensive role would be the best for both himself and the team. Randolph is the Memphis’ most dominant offensive player, but Gay plays in the most dominant offensive style. It’s all well and good that Gay posted career highs in field goal percentage and three-point percentage last season, but his shot creating ability still isn’t quite profound enough for him to function as an offensive star. Instead, he’s much better off deferring to Randolph and the team concept; Conley, Gasol, and Arthur are capable enough to be trusted with more shots, and only by working in concert with them can Gay maximize his own offensive efficiency.

Randolph is incredibly productive and Gay is an impressive player in his own right, but those two will have to lean more than ever on the cast around them for offensive buoyancy. The road to Memphis’ improvement comes in ramping up their middling offensive performance, and considering that Gay overstepped his bounds a bit in the way he controlled the ball early in the 2010-2011 season, striking a proper balance seems to be the most sensible way to reach that end.

Shore up their inexplicable shortcomings on the defensive glass

Memphis isn’t without their fair share of weaknesses: the Grizz could stand to contest shots a bit better, they could get to the free throw line a bit more, and they could exercise more patience in their half-court offense. Yet all of those limitations are understandable and explainable, while the team’s inability to secure defensive rebounds is a bit more baffling. Despite having a top-10 defensive rebounder (Randolph), another big with strong rebounding numbers (Gasol), and a group of pretty solid positional rebounders, the Grizzlies ranked 21st in the league last season in defensive rebounding rate. Randolph’s boards alone should be enough to vault Memphis toward rebounding respectability, but the team’s risky defensive style has apparently afforded opponents with a chance to dominate the glass. The Grizzlies need to strike that happy balance between generating turnovers and maintaining some semblance of a stable half-court defense, at least so much that solid individual rebounders don’t suffer as an aggregate.

Hawks battle back to knot series with Wizards, 2-2

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Paul Millsap shoved Markieff Morris out of the way, grabbed an offensive rebound in the middle of the paint and pushed through a shot while Marcin Gortat bumped him to the floor.

The Wizards knocked down Atlanta. They didn’t stop the Hawks.

Millsap and Atlanta showed plenty of fight, topping Washington 111-101 in Game 4 Monday to tie their first-round series 2-2 after falling behind 2-0.

Have the Hawks seized meaningful momentum? History says no.

Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home then lost the next two on the road have won 81% of the time. The Wizards’ regular-season superiority still speaks loudly, and up to two more home games – starting with Game  5 Wednesday – also help.

Still, credit Atlanta for making the series competitive after digging such a big hole.

Millsap (19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals) soundly outplayed Markieff Morris (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, -10) in the latest round of their personal feud. Millsap also got plenty of help with seven Hawks scoring double digits.

Kent Bazemore (16 points, seven assists and three steals) played meaningful defense and hit a couple big shots. Jose Calderon (10 points, five assists, +29 in 20 minutes) provided a huge spark. Dwight Howard (16 points and 15 rebounds) asserted himself for the first time this series. Taurean Prince (11 points on 5-of-7 shooting) picked his spots well. Dennis Schroder (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting) had his ups and downs. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points) at least offset some of his defensive shortcomings.

This was a total team win.

Washington, on the other hand, got little outside its starting backcourt. Bradley Beal (32 points) thrived, and John Wall (22 points and 10 assists) was still good in an off-by-his-standards performance. But the Wizards crumbled when either sat – especially with both on the bench in the late third/early fourth quarters. Erasing those few minutes with staggering would’ve helped, though it wouldn’t have been the answer tonight.

This has become a far less certain series than Washington hoped, but the Wizards don’t need a wild fix. They just need their top players to play better. Maybe going home will help.

Raptors break out best game of postseason, rout Bucks 118-93 to take 3-2 series lead

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Norman Powell was draining threes, throwing down dunks that would have won the contest All-Star weekend, and he finished with a career playoff-high 25 points on just 11 shots. Plus defensively he caused Khris Middleton trouble.

The Raptors finished with 28 assists, the most in a playoff game since Dwane Casey took over as coach.

Toronto shot 57.7 percent overall, a franchise playoff best.

The Raptors bench played well pitching in 27 points and growing the lead when they were in, part of an overall strong night from the role players in Toronto.

Combine that all with the expected good nights from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and you get the Raptors best game of the playoffs. It looked like a different team than the one in Milwaukee.

Toronto raced out to an early lead and went on to rout the Bucks 118-93, giving the Raptors a 3-2 series lead.

This was a game where the Bucks tried to force the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan as much as they could, using their length and athleticism. However, Lowry had 10 assists, and DeRozan would get the ball off pindown screens and feel the double coming, move the ball, and another quick pass or two later the role-playing player Raptors were getting good looks and knocking them down. Or throwing it down like this.

Or this.

Toronto just looked more comfortable against the Bucks pressure, having seen it for so many games in a row, than they have all series.

Powell had 25 points for Toronto, Serge Ibaka had 19 and three blocks, Lowry had 16 points and 10 assists, DeRozan had 18 points and six assists, even DeMarre Carroll had 12 points on six shots.

The question for the young Bucks team is how does it bounce back from this kind of loss in the biggest NBA game most of them have ever played? Can they get their defensive edge back?

“We’re going to miss some shots, and we can’t let our offense dictate our defense,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said postgame. “And also the turnovers, again. Right off the bat we had three…

“Our defense kind of got hit there in the first quarter, we knew that they were going to come after us, we had to expect that. And we just couldn’t respond.”

The Bucks had some runs in the second quarter and got the lead to nine at one point, but the Raptors always seemed to be in control.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had another strong game with 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and rookie Malcolm Brogdon pitched in 19 points on 11 shots, but for the most part the Bucks struggled with their offense in this game. As their coach noted — and as often happens to young teams — they let their offensive woes impact the other end of the court.

At home, the Bucks will likely feel more comfortable, and they will fight for their playoff lives.

The question is, can the Raptors be this sharp again and close them out? Or will the yo-yo nature of this team continue?

 

Kevin Durant will play in Game 4 for Warriors vs. Trail Blazers

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In case you were curious how serious Golden State was about closing out Portland in four…

After missing the last two games with a strained calf, both Warriors wins to put them up 3-0 in the series, the Warriors are bringing back Kevin Durant for Game 4.

Steve Kerr is also out tonight for Golden State, Mike Brown will coach the team.

There was buzz that Durant could have gone in Game 3 if needed, but the Warriors felt confident they would win without him and they don’t want this injury to linger. There’s no more holding him back now.

Durant averaged 25.1 points a game, and thanks to the space created by the other stars on the team had his most efficient season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.1. He also pulled down 8.3 rebounds a game, dished 4.9 assists, and had his best defensive season in a long time as well. If not for an injury after the All-Star break that had him missing games, he would have made a lot of voters’ All-NBA team.

He adds to Golden State’s size advantage against Portland. The Warriors would like to close out the series tonight and get additional rest before facing the Clippers or Jazz in the next round.

Serge Ibaka is dunking and Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t going to stop him. Twice. (VIDEO)

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The Toronto Raptors had their best half of their first-round series against the Bucks, taking an early lead and, despite a little shooting slump midway through the second they were up nine at the half.

That was all topped off by two emphatic Serge Ibaka dunks. Ones Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t going to stop.

Ibaka dunked around him more than over the Greek Freak, but still.