Oklahoma City Thunder forward Durant walks with his head down after a teammate fouled a Memphis Grizzlies player in Game 5 of their NBA Western Conference semi-final playoffs in Oklahoma City.

Grizzlies advance to Conference finals for first time in team history after Game 5 win over Thunder


The Memphis Grizzlies have punched a ticket to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, thanks to closing out the Thunder 88-84 with a Game 5 victory in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder were going to need a superstar performance out of Kevin Durant in order to extend this series, and just as has been the case over the past few games, it simply didn’t come to pass.

Durant started this elimination game by missing his first seven shots, perhaps due to the fact that he was trying to do too much in the early part of things to keep his team within reach. He finished shooting just 5-of-21 from the field, with 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and seven turnovers.

With Durant unable to carry his undermanned team, the Grizzlies were able to lead by double digits for most of the game. They got a huge performance out of Zach Randolph, who contributed 28 points and 14 rebounds, and everyone else did just enough for Memphis to come out on top.

Oklahoma City made a late run to make a game of it, and legitimately had a chance to steal this one in the final minutes to extend the series.

After the Grizzlies had re-established a double digit lead with under three minutes to play, the Thunder went on a furious run to get back into it, and cut the lead to just two on a three-pointer from Reggie Jackson with 14 seconds remaining. An intentional foul by the Thunder sent Randolph to the free throw line, but he missed both of his attempts, giving the Thunder one final chance.

Somewhat miraculously, Durant was able to free himself from Tony Allen, and received the ball with a wide-open look from not much more than 15 feet out. Durant makes that shot in his sleep, yet couldn’t get it to go on this night, and the Grizzlies sealed the game at the free throw line following the rebound of the missed shot.

Once Russell Westbrook was lost for the remainder of the postseason due to injury, few expected the Thunder to advance beyond the second round. The fact that they were able to stay close with the Grizzlies until the final moments of every game in this series is a testament to their collective will, as well as to Durant’s ability to singlehandedly be great for extended stretches.

The Grizzlies were by no means dominant in this series, and those who are penciling them into an NBA Finals matchup with the Heat should be cautious in remembering just how efficient the Spurs can be on both ends of the floor before sliding Memphis past them into the championship round.

But regardless of how much you may choose to overvalue this Memphis team, this is a massive accomplishment for the Grizzlies, especially given how inconsistent they were during the regular season. The confidence they’ve gained to this point in the playoffs will serve them well in the Conference finals, though they’ll have to be much more efficient offensively to take down the likes of the Spurs in a seven game series in the next round.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.