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.

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the regular season.

That can be easy to forget. Coronavirus caused a lengthy interruption. In the spotlight when play resumed, Antetokounmpo underwhelmed. The Bucks flamed out in the second round.

So, this timing is awkward.

But MVP is a regular-season award, and Antetokounmpo will deservedly win his second straight.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Antetokounmpo’s performance comes as speculation intensifies about his future in Milwaukee.

He’ll be eligible for a super-max extension this offseason. If he bypasses it, he’ll also be eligible for a super-max contract in 2021 free agency.

Because of this award, Antetokounmpo will now also be eligible to sign a super-max deal in 2022 free agency.

Maybe he won’t be a free agent that offseason. But this opens his options if he takes a shorter contract to let league-wide revenue rise post-pandemic and/or further assess the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo has that type of leverage. At just 25, he put himself in the pantheon of players to win consecutive MVPs:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry
  • LeBron James
  • Steve Nash
  • Tim Duncan
  • Michael Jordan
  • Magic Johnson
  • Larry Bird
  • Moses Malone
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Bill Russell

Antetokounmpo has a bright future, especially with the mentality to fix his shortcomings. He must polish his skills (and maybe approach) to thrive in the playoffs. But it’s easy to project growth there.

Already, Antetokounmpo has the regular season solved.

He joins Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Fun fact: Jordan’s Bulls also lost in the second round in five games the year he claimed both awards. It got better for Jordan and Chicago from there, eventually.

LeBron and James Harden finished second and third in some order for 2020 MVP. The NBA will officially announce the winner at 2 p.m. Presumably, we’ll also get full voting then.

Report: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown bickered in Celtics’ locker room

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After their Game 2 loss to the Heat last night, the Celtics – especially Marcus Smart – made a commotion in their locker room.

What actually happened?

Apparently, Smart and Jaylen Brown got into it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had a heated confrontation inside that locker room after the Game 2 loss and needed to be separated by teammates, multiple sources told The Athletic.

Sources told The Athletic that Smart stormed into the Celtics postgame locker room saying that other players needed to be held accountable and not simply point the finger toward him when things are going wrong. As Smart continued and his voice grew louder, sources said Brown snapped back and shouted that Celtics players must stay together and that their actions must come as a team, not individually, and that Smart needed to cool off. Those sources added Smart had verbal exchanges with a couple of the assistant coaches during the game.

None of this is new for Smart. Not jawing with a Boston assistant coach during a game. Not getting hot after a loss. Not even clashing with Brown.

This is who he is – sometimes for good, sometimes not. But the same reasons Smart thrives as a feisty player are the same reasons he was going off last night.

Brown, via Justin Leger of NBC Sports Boston:

“He plays with passion, he’s full of fire, and that’s what I love about him most, to be honest. He has that desire and that will and we need him to continue to have that. There’s ups and downs with families all the time. But we embrace each other for who we are. And who Marcus is, I love him for it.”

Brown doesn’t mind a little chaos if it serves a greater purpose. He’s emotionally mature enough to handle this.

But will last night’s incident actually help the Celtics? Maybe it’ll light a fire under them to keep their foot on the gas when leading.

Offensive sets that can beat a zone defense would probably go further, though.

Gordon Hayward reportedly feels good, hopes to return for Game 3

Gordon Hayward return
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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After a frustrating come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics need a boost.

Like the return of Gordon Hayward.

That is on track to happen in Game 3, although nothing is official, reports Jared Weiss of The Athletic.

Hayward has been sidelined since he suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He left the bubble for a time to get treatment, but has been back with the team, working out and going through a practice.

Gordon Hayward could be Boston’s X-factor in the conference finals — and his return may be the lift it needs. He gives the Celtics another versatile wing player — along with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — who can create his own shot and knock down open looks. Throw in Kemba Walker, and Hayward would be the fourth scoring option for Boston, making the Celtics deep and difficult to defend. Hayward also spent time guarding Butler during the regular-season matchups.

 

Celtics try to play down postgame yelling, things thrown in locker room

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“You’re not supposed to be happy when you’re down 0-2. Nothing out of the ordinary, just talking about the game.”

Jayson Tatum is right in his postgame comments, to a point. The Boston Celtics should be frustrated after blowing a 17-point lead and losing to the Miami Heat Thursday night, putting the Celtics in an 0-2 hole.

However, that part about “nothing out of the ordinary” and “just talking” in the locker room postgame? That’s not what went down, according to multiple reporters on the scene in the bubble.

After the game, the Celtics tried to play it all down. That started with coach Brad Stevens.

“Guys were emotional after a hard game, hard loss.”

Kemba Walker wouldn’t even discuss it.

“It was nothing. It was nothing. I’m not speaking about it.”

Enes Kanter took to Twitter to echo the comments of several Celtics, that they are still a family.

Boston may have just been venting postgame, but if they don’t bring the fire from the locker room out onto the court Saturday for Game 3, or this may be a very short series.