NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies go to work, Spurs go home

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The deed is done. Even the slightest doubts of the Grizzlies’ prowess in their first round series have been put to rest, as have the revered San Antonio Spurs. Memphis completed their seemingly improbable upset by dominating in the most probable ways; the Grizz scrambled, posted up, defended, rebounded, and scrapped their way to a 99-91 Game 6 victory, the final fantastic performance of their 4-2 upset of top-seeded San Antonio.

The momentum of Game 6 seemed to shift in favor of whichever team controlled the glass. Initially, the Grizzlies worked the offensive boards while limiting the Spurs to a single opportunity. Those two aspects of their first quarter play were crucial to forming an early cushion, and would later come into play when the Grizzlies started to create separation — however slight — from their opponents in pursuit. The Spurs had their moments, though; whether due to fatigue or just a lack of effort on Memphis’ part, San Antonio made a push in the second and hung around in the third due to their competition on the glass. It couldn’t last. Not with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bullying their way into prime rebound position. Not with Shane Battier darting around the court collecting more boards than all but two of the Spurs. Memphis outscored San Antonio in each of the quarters in which they held the rebounding advantage, and while that may be implicit (fewer points usually indicate more misses, and more misses beget more opportunities to rebound), the Grizzlies’ effort to control the boards was clearly explicit.

Rebounding was only a portion of Randolph’s contribution, though. His play in this game and this series is the reason why the Grizzlies are the toast of the league at present; when he hasn’t been dominating the glass, Randolph has been scoring like a legitimate superstar, and the consistency of his point production provided a steady pillar for Memphis’ surge. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cut into the Grizzlies’ lead repeatedly over the game’s final minutes, but Randolph never relented. He backed down Antonio McDyess. He hit turnaround jumpers over outstretched arms. He converted the kinds of shots usually reserved for the league’s true elite, a distinction which Randolph creeps closer toward with every performance like this one. His production is unquestionable, and now his résumé includes the toppling of a conference power despite being in a position of the greatest seeding disadvantage.

Gasol wasn’t quite as overtly punishing as Randolph, but his ability to exploit Tim Duncan on both ends of the court throughout the series has been eye-opening. Duncan’s decline over the last few seasons has been evident, but Gasol dominated their individual matchup to a degree that would surprise even Gasol’s greatest advocates. The box score only puts Gasol at an advantage of three rebounds and one turnover while merely matching Duncan’s point total, but his defensive presence removed an invaluable failsafe from San Antonio’s offensive plans. Duncan’s post and face-up game were both taken away, as Gasol’s size, length, and defensive acumen put him in an optimal position to contest at all times. Neutralizing Duncan doesn’t shut down the Spurs offense in itself, but it gives the Grizzlies’ team defense the opportunity it needs to swarm ball handlers and attack passing lanes. Duncan may have been Plan C, but removing him as an option puts all the more pressure on Plans A, B, and D. Manu Ginobili (A), Tony Parker (B), and the Spurs’ supporting cast (D) were never able to fully compensate.

The Spurs competed. They fought hard until the very end, and if not for Randolph’s unspeakable might, they likely could have ushered in the hope and potential salvation of a Game 7. Yet they didn’t, and as much as our natural basketball instincts wish to heap praise on the Grizzlies, it’s worth remembering that the Spurs lost this series. They came in with the second-best record in basketball and home court advantage against any Western Conference opponent and were dropped in the first round. I’m honestly not quite sure what the word “choke,” means anymore (the term has been recast and bastardized to the point that it no longer holds meaning), but by most conventional definitions of the word as I understand them, the Spurs did no such thing. They did, however, lose a series in which they were considered a sure favorite, and failed to capitalize on their strong regular season performance. San Antonio remains a tremendous organization and a quality team, but they disappointed in this series with their inefficacy.

In this championship-or-bust playoff framework, it’s not enough to just show up and play hard, even when boasting a supposedly superior roster. San Antonio worked, but they didn’t execute consistently enough; they failed to convert shots at the rim and beyond the arc, and had no answer for the Randolph-Gasol tandem, nor the capacity to match the wild card offensive contributions of Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen, and Sam Young. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are obviously still worthy of our respect, but Pop was out-coached and his team was out-played. The Spurs aren’t going home after the first round because of some fluke, but because the Grizzlies bested them — they of the No. 1 seed, the second-best offense in the league, and the fourth-best regular season margin of victory — in a legitimate measure of basketball worth.

Watch Russell Westbrook score season-high 45, help Rockets beat Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored a season-high 45 points and had 10 assists, and the Houston Rockets overcame another tough night from James Harden to rally past the Minnesota Timberwolves 131-124 on Friday night.

Westbrook helped key a second-half comeback after Minnesota led by six points in the third quarter. He finished 16-of-27 shooting, was 13 of 13 from the free-throw line and added six rebounds. Eric Gordon scored a season-high 27 points off the bench for Houston, which won its second straight game following a season-long, four-game losing streak.

Harden, who went 1 for 17 from 3-point range in a home loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night, was 3 of 13 overall and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc against Minnesota. He finished with a season-low 12 points. Harden also left the game for part of the third quarter, limping badly to the bench before returning in the fourth.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which has lost eight straight. Andrew Wiggins scored 28 points for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota’s streak prompted some frustration after Wednesday’s 117-110 loss at Chicago, when coach Ryan Saunders said the team is simply not playing well. Saunders also challenged Wiggins at halftime of that game to be more productive.

The Wolves started strong while Houston was missing shots. Minnesota led by six in the opening quarter. The Rockets hit just two of their first 11 shots and Harden was 1 of 5. The Rockets also trailed in Minnesota in November before recovering for a 125-105 win.

Led by Westbrook, Houston led by as many as 13 on Friday, but the Wolves didn’t fade.

Minnesota cut the Rockets’ lead to 110-108 with 6 minutes remaining.

Houston had the finisher in Westbrook. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 after the Wolves closed within two.

Kawhi Leonard racks up first career triple-double, lifts Clippers past Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Kawhi Leonard got his first career triple-double and scored 33 points, Landry Shamet added 22 and the Los Angeles Clippers shrugged off an early 15-point deficit before hanging on to beat the Miami Heat 122-117 Friday night.

Leonard finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He was first credited with the triple-double in the third quarter — briefly, because one of his rebounds was taken away after a stat review. He then officially got it on a rebound with 3:55 left.

Lou Williams scored 16 points, Montrezl Harrell had 15 and JaMychal Green added 14 for the Clippers.

Jimmy Butler led Miami with 20 points. Butler left midway through the fourth after appearing to turn his right ankle for the second time in the game, capping a night when he also got inadvertently popped in the eye during the first half.

Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro scored 19 points each, Bam Adebayo had 18 and Duncan Robinson added 16 for Miami. The Heat fell to 20-2 at home – 0-2 against teams from Los Angeles. Their only other home loss was to the Lakers.

Miami was down by 18 with 8:34 left, then went on a 24-9 run and got within three on a 3-pointer by Dion Waiters with 34 seconds remaining. But they got no closer, and Leonard sealed it by going 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final moments.

Leonard flirted with a triple-double on two other occasions this season, missing it by two rebounds on Oct. 26 at Phoenix and by one assist on Nov. 11 against Toronto.

The Clippers were without Paul George (left hamstring) for the eighth consecutive game and Patrick Beverley (right groin) for the second straight game, though Beverley tried lobbying his way into the lineup.

Miami was without two point guards – Kendrick Nunn missed the game with left Achilles soreness and Goran Dragic was out with a sore left calf, something that flared up after he got kicked in Wednesday night’s overtime win against Washington.

So, down to 10 available players, Miami had no choice: Dion Waiters played for the first time this season.

Waiters, who had been suspended three times for various issues since October and embarrassed himself and the organization when he ingested at least one cannabis-infused edible and needed medical attention when the team charter plane wrapped up a Phoenix-to-Los Angeles flight in November, played 18 minutes and scored 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, 4 for 9 from 3-point range.

Miami ran out to a 24-9 lead after seven minutes. The Clippers were within eight by the time the first quarter was done, and 65-63 at halftime. Then they outscored Miami 38-20 in the third to take total control.

Zion Williamson has big dunk, block, scores 15 but Pelicans still fall to Nuggets

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Zion Williamson is still making plays — his first NBA dunk and a dramatic block shot came in his second NBA game — and he is still facing a minutes limit, much to the frustration of fans in the arena.

And the Pelicans are still looking for their first win with Zion in the lineup.

Williamson had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus six rebounds, in his second NBA game. One highlight was his first NBA dunk, finishing an alley-oop from Jrue Holiday just :40 seconds into the game.

However, the most eye-popping of his second game highlights was a fourth quarter blocked shot of Malik Beasley.

Williamson played just 21 minutes, about three more than his first game but still under a tight minutes limit. The crowd chanted “we want Zion” late in the fourth, but the Pelicans are wisely bringing their No. 1 pick along slowly as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn meniscus.

The Pelicans also lost the game 113-106 to a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic‘s 27 points and 12 rebounds.

New Orleans is now 0-2 with Williamson in the lineup. When the team won 11-of-16 just before his return, the Pelicans pulled back from trade talks for Holiday, Derrick Favors, and J.J. Redick to make a playoff push. New Orleans now sits 4.5 games out of the playoffs in the West and would need to leap four teams to get in — if the wins don’t start coming soon (and a lot of them), David Griffin and company will have to reconsider what they do at the trade deadline.

Watch Zion Williamson get his first NBA dunk, an alley-oop finish from Jrue Holiday

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Zion Williamson was impressive in his NBA debut, but he did it from three, not with dunks.

That changed just 40 seconds into his second game.

It was a lob from Jrue Holiday against a Denver defense that did not get back fast enough. Zion and the Pelicans wanted to do this in his debut but give the Spurs credit, they got back in transition and cut off these opportunities. The very shorthanded Nuggets did not.

There will be a lot more Zion dunks — and a lot more spectacular ones — but you never forget your first.