Down But Not Out: How the Grizzlies Can Advance
Sure, the recency effect is in play, but the series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder has been one of the best series in quite some time.
There have been nail-biters (four overtime games). There have been double-digit comebacks and blowouts. There's been a stud performance from a typically-unheralded Tony Allen, a jaw-dropping-head-scratching four-point play from Kevin Durant, and a never-ending debate about whether or not Russell Westbrook shoots too much.
There's also been controversy.
Loads of it.
Before the series, Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes was suspended for 20 games after testing positive - not for testosterone or other PEDs - for tamoxifen. In Game 5, official Joe Crawford divided two late-game Durant free throw attempts with a trot to the scorer's table in order to scold someone for Joe Crawford reasons. Before Game 6, Durant was deemed "Mr. Unreliable" by a local paper, The Oklahoman, for his abnormal play. Now, on the dawn of Game 7, Zach Randolph has been suspended for the series-deciding tilt for punching Thunder center Steven Adams in the fourth quarter of Game 6 while the Grizzlies were down double digits.
Obviously, the second-seeded Thunder were the likely choice to win the series before it began; our algorithms projected they'd end the series after just five games, and it's been close enough that a few bounces the other way could have ended with just that result.
Instead, the Thunder find themselves with home-court advantage and a chance to close out the series. We're projecting a 76.9% chance that they do just that and with Randolph and Calathes suspended and with Mike Conley entering Game 7 with an ailing hamstring, those odds seem on point.
This is the Thunder's game to lose. A typical game from Durant and Westbrook will likely get the job done. We can go into detail about the rest of the team, but it's rather futile. Adams has already done his job, and it's unlikely the Thunder will need to rely on a Caron Butler hot streak to advance.
In fact, the Thunder won't be crowning any heroes if they win, but there will be plenty of blame to go around if they collapse tonight.
The Grizzlies' hopes, though, are another story altogether.
Randolph has averaged 18.2 points, including 6.8 free throw attempts, and 8.7 rebounds in the series. Just as important, his presence has forced the offensively-inept Kendrick Perkins to be on the court quite a bit. Perkins has averaged 24.4 minutes this series compared to only 19.5 during the regular season. The smaller lineup the Grizzlies will be forced into will probably help the Thunder by being able to leave Perkins on the bench.
Beno Udrih has filled in adequately as the backup point guard for Memphis in Calathes' absence. Udrih is averaging 7.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in 16.3 minutes, but Calathes stepped up earlier in the season when Conley missed time, too. The Florida rookie posted 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 2.6 steals in 36.0 minutes over seven starts. If Conley is unable to perform, the Calathes suspension could be the death knell, but the Grizzlies are a resilient bunch and have persevered through the gruelling Western Conference even through injuries to Conley, Allen, and Marc Gasol during the regular season.
Who then can be the hero for Memphis tonight?
Perhaps the most obvious choice is Gasol, Memphis's Mr. Reliable. Gasol is already averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.8 blocks in the series. While Gasol has the potential to be far more aggressive on the offensive end, a 40-point game from the former Defensive Player of the Year is uncharacteristic. Gasol's on-court leadership on defense drives the team, so head coach Dave Joerger needs to look elsewhere for an x-factor, a player who can have himself a game resembling Mike Miller's Game 5 in the NBA Finals against the Thunder two years ago.
Hey, how about Miller? He's already had a 5-for-8 game from three back in Game 5 and has hit at least one three in every game but one. He's shooting 50% from beyond the arc in the series, and we've all seen Miller torch the Thunder in the past with his 7-for-8 game when he played for the Miami Heat. The Thunder allowed 8.3 three-point makes during the regular season (23rd-best in the NBA), and Miller's green light will be even greener tonight.
Another, less likely, candidate for the hero role is fellow forward Jon Leuer. You might not know who he is, but just stay with me. Leuer is averaging a whopping 1.8 minutes in the series and has only played in two games. If you tend to fade out of the NBA's daily grind a few months every season, it's probably during December and January. If that's the case, then you missed out on Leuer's productivity. From December 3 to January 5, Leuer averaged 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 51.6% from three. Leuer even went for 17 points, six rebounds, two steals, two blocks, and two assists against the Thunder during his stretch of increased playing time. Sure, it's a long shot, but that's what the Grizzlies need tonight.
Speaking of previous success against the Thunder in the middle portion of the season, Courtney Lee posted a season-high 24 points against the Thunder on January 14. Lee has struggled with his shot in the series, recording only 9.0 points per game on 40.0% shooting from the field. He shot 48.0% during the regular season including 37.1% from three. If Udrih's defense disappoints tonight, Lee could see all the minutes he can handle.
With four other Game 7s to be played this weekend, perhaps the most exciting one of all is getting left for dead as a result of the Randolph suspension. It'll be a tough win to accomplish, but as Randolph showed in Game 6, this Grizzlies team won't go down without a fight.
numberFire algorithms: 76.9% odds the Thunder win
My head: Thunder by 10
My heart: Mike Miller does it again