NBA Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

Memphis Grizzlies: 50-32 (7 seed)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 59-23 (2 seed)

KEY INJURIES

None to speak of. Both teams have all the guys in their regular rotations. While Oklahoma City had kept Russell Westbrook out of back-to-backs as a precaution down the stretch, but that’s not an issue come the postseason.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Memphis Grizzlies: Offense 103.3 (16th in NBA), Defense 102.1 (T-7th in NBA)

Oklahoma City Thunder: 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 101 (5th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can Memphis slow Kevin Durant? Durant will be the NBA’s MVP — 32 points a game on 50.3 percent shooting, hitting 39.1 percent from three. He is going to get his in this series, but during the season the Grizzlies have had some success keeping Durant in check when Tayshaun Prince was guarding him. In the more than 30 minutes Prince was on Durant this season Durant was 19-of-47 overall (40 percent) and 4-of-12 from three (33 percent), according to the NBA’s SportsVU camera data. The questions here for Memphis are: 1) Can Prince sustain that? Durant has torched Tony Allen and the other Grizzlies’ wings, so there aren’t a lot of good options; 2) If Prince can somehow sustain it he is an offensive black hole (true shooting percentage of 43.8, PER of 8.2) and they need scoring. Durant is an incredibly efficient scorer and will probably average 30 points a game in this series, but can the Grizzlies grind him and just make him less efficient? It’s key for them.

2) Can Oklahoma City slow Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol? Last year when these teams met in the playoffs Scott Brooks played Kendrick Perkins better than 20 minutes a game and that was an issue because they needed offense with Westbrook out. This year Westbrook is back and this may be the one series where leaning on Perkins is not a bad thing — when matched up on Gasol or Randolph, Perkins allowed fewer shots than any other Thunder big and held them to 40 percent shooting, according to the NBA’s SportsVU data. Gasol-Randolph shot 42 percent against Steven Adams and 48 percent against Serge Ibaka (but he had four blocks). Memphis is going to grind and get most of their points from this tandem, if OKC’s bigs can keep them from being efficient it will be a tough go for Memphis.

3) Russell Westbrook vs. Mike Conley. Mike Conley has become the best point guard in the NBA nobody is talking about. He is a traditional floor general, although the Grizzlies will needs one points out of him this series. More importantly, he’s one of the better defensive point guards in the league and he’ll be tasked with keeping Russell Westbrook in front of him and out of the paint — penetration breaks down any defense, the physical Grizzlies included. Westbrook cannot have an open runway to the rim and that falls on Conley — a task he is up to. The other key that ties into this (and falls on all the Grizzlies and not just Conley) is keeping Westbrook and the Thunder out of transition. If the game is fast paced — even for just a stretch — and the Thunder are getting easy buckets in transition, the Grizzlies will not be able to match that scoring. This needs to be grit and grind at its best for the Grizzlies. The Thunder need Westbrook to put up points, especially if the Grizzlies focus on Durant, but to do it efficiently.

PREDICTION

Thunder in seven. Memphis is not your standard seven seed — this is a 50-win team that was 33-13 after Marc Gasol returned from his knee injury and is hitting its stride at the right time. For Memphis to pull the upset (and it’s possible) they will need a monster series from Mike Miller — spacing the floor has been the Grizzlies’ issue the past few seasons (only 17.1 percent of their shot attempts this season were threes, lowest in the league) yet Oklahoma City can take mental defensive vacations where they give up good look threes. If Miller (45 percent from three this season) and the Grizzlies (Courtney Lee matters here too) can hit enough threes they have a chance. But Oklahoma City’s perimeter defense when focused is too much… plus they have that Kevin Durant guy. He’ll get them a win or two this series alone.

Did Cavaliers dropping David Griffin lead to Kyrie Irving’s trade request?

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Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had the NBA’s hardest coaching job. Following that thinking, former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin might have had the most difficult front-office job.

Not only did he face the same championship-or-bust pressure and oversee the same players (and their egos) as Lue, Griffin also reported directly to Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ sometimes-difficult owner. The Gilbert aspect is often discussed, as is working with great/brilliant/passive-aggressive LeBron James. But it has probably been undersold how high-maintenance Kyrie Irving – who requested a trade – also was for Griffin before the general manager was ousted last month.

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Over the previous few months, the Cavs had been worried about Irving’s mindset. They knew at times he’d grown unhappy with playing a secondary role on the team. Griffin had several conversations with Irving throughout the year, sources said, trying to find ways to work on the situation.

After the season, there was a desire to arrange a meeting to clear the air from all sides, sources said, but it didn’t take place. Unlike most teams, the Cavs did not have postseason exit meetings with their players.

What followed was a whirlwind, with the Cavs putting forth a series of trade packages looking to acquire either Butler or George. Some of these talks included Irving, which upset him even more when he found out about it, sources said. Previously, Griffin had worked to keep lines of communication with Irving open, but now Irving was in the dark.

Irving’s trade request had been building for years. The reported timing is vague, but Irving might have even requested a trade while Griffin was still in charge.

Either way, there’s no guarantee the Cavs keeping Griffin would have placated Irving. But it seems an experienced voice running the front office could have only helped.

Now, the task of trading Irving or mending fences falls to new general manager Koby Altman – who must solve this issue in a spotlight he never wanted.

If only Cleveland had Phil Jackson to insist on exit meetings. Maybe this would have been smoothed over a month ago.

LaVar Ball gets technical foul, pulls his AAU team off the court, forfeits game it was winning (video)

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Magic Johnson said he’s convinced LaVar Ball’s outlandishness is just marketing and that the father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is truly committed to developing younger players.

This didn’t look like someone who put youth player development over his own image.

With LaVar Ball’s AAU team leading by nine, he got a technical foul then pulled his team off the court:

He (kind of) explained why after the game (warning: profanity):

He also touched on his reasons in a video that, of course, quickly turns to promoting his brand:

This doesn’t mean Johnson is completely wrong, but the Lakers president seemingly misdiagnosed Ball’s priorities. What if Johnson is also wrong about Ball staying clear of the Lakers? That could create problems – if it hasn’t already.

I was never convinced, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver predicted, LaVar would settle down after Lonzo was drafted. I still believe Lonzo’s talent justifies managing LaVar, but that appears increasingly likely to be a burden the Lakers must actually handle rather than just brush off.

James Dolan’s MSG threatens to sue Steve Ballmer’s Los Angeles Clippers

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This story requires a little background.

The Forum in Inglewood was best known for decades as being both fabulous and the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, back from the Jerry West era and through Magic’s “Showtime” teams. Then in 2001 the Lakers moved downtown to Staples Center, and after that the Forum went through some rough times. It was a number of things, including a mega church for a while, but mostly it was empty. Then several years ago the Madison Square Garden company (owned by Knicks owner James Dolan) bought the Forum, fixed it up, and started booking it again. Now the Forum is one of the hot major concert/event spaces in Los Angeles again, and it’s about to get a boost because it’s adjacent to where Stan Kroenke is building the new Los Angeles Rams stadium. Hello gentrification!

Now enter Steve Ballmer. The Clippers’ owner wants out of Staples Center and the Lakers’ shadow, so he has proposed to build his new arena in Inglewood in another space adjacent to the Rams stadium — land that MSG used to lease. As you might imagine, Dolan’s MSG is not thrilled — they are already battling with Staples to fill their space, now a state-of-the-art arena is moving in down the street.

In a proxy Knicks/Clippers battle, MSG may sue to Clippers and Inglewood in an attempt to block the new building. Here is what Dolan’s attorney in the case, Marvin Putnam, told the Daily Breeze in Los Angeles.

“The mayor made it extremely clear that he needed that piece of land back for a kind of ‘Silicon Beach,’ ” said Marvin Putnam, a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins, which filed the damage claim that serves as a precursor to a lawsuit. “They’re attempting to flat-out trick people.”

(Inglewood Mayor James) Butts declined to comment, and there is no proof that he made those statements. But when Madison Square Garden Co. relinquished the parking lease to the city, its approved contract states that the land would not be used for anything that would hurt the Forum’s business, according to documents.

Right now the Clippers and Inglewood are in an exclusive negotiating agreement to come to terms on the sale and plans for the property. Putnam told the paper — and the Inglewood City Council — that if the deal goes forward they will sue to block it.

It’s impossible to say how this will turn out, although as a former government reporter I will say these cases tend to be decided in favor of the side about to spend a ton of money on a new building.

 

Jaylen Brown’s #drivebydunkchallenge video is awesome

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I love the drive by dunk challenge (if you prefer, the #drivebydunkchallenge), it would be the best thing on NBA Twitter this summer, if it wasn’t for Kyrie Irving.

But the best one yet comes from Boston’s Jaylen Brown.

He steals the ball, and the best part is the guy who comes over like he’s going to stop Brown from throwing it down.

Was it staged… I don’t want to know.