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May 2, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Grizzlies, Heat Take Openers

by Bradford Doolittle

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Memphis 114, at Oklahoma City 101 (Memphis leads series 1-0)
Pace: 89.5
Offensive Ratings: Memphis 127.4, Oklahoma City 112.9

Where do you even begin when discussing these Memphis Grizzlies? How can you not fall in love with them, with the amazing transformation the team has made during the tenure of head coach Lionel Hollins? How can you not admire the way the team has coalesced since the injury of its best player, Rudy Gay, who has to be sitting on the sidelines wondering just how he and his not-even-year-old max contract fits going forward? It's a great story, the best of the postseason so far, and you can't put a ceiling on what this team can accomplish.

In many ways, Hollins has crafted a squad that reminds me of the 1977 NBA champion Trail Blazers, on whom he was a starting guard. The team plays inside-out, with big men that can pass the ball. (And, yes, I can't believe I'm writing that about Zach Randolph 2.0.) They have a deep rotation, share the ball, play defense and, especially, is rising up from obscurity to make a stunning postseason run.

In Sunday's Game One, the Grizzlies were remarkably consistent in executing their gameplan, one which Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he knew was coming, yet Memphis churned out the same stuff possession after possession, quarter after quarter. Memphis beat San Antonio in the first round with its defense. It beat Oklahoma City on Sunday with an amazingly efficient offense. How efficient? Including the playoffs, Memphis posted a higher single-game Offensive Rating only once all season, and that came against the defensively-challenged Warriors in late March. Teams are simply not supposed to put up 1.27 points per possession in the second round of the playoffs.

As many others have noted, Memphis followed its formula by hammering the Thunder in the paint. Memphis scored 52 points in the lane, 28 in the first half and 24 after the break. That only begins to describe Hollins approach. When you talk about points in the paint, the assumption is that Memphis was dumping the ball into Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur again and again. There was certainly plenty of that going on, but if you read the shot charts, you find that Memphis perimeter players put up almost as many of those paint points as the bigs. Randolph, Gasol and Arthur, can all step outside the lane and knock down face-up shots. They work different areas of the court, too, with Gasol patrolling the high post, Randolph the elbows and Arthur the baseline. It's a wonderful contingent of complementary bigs, and it's old school. This is supposed to be the era of floor-spacing and non-traditional power forwards. Memphis' lineup would not look out of place in the NBA, circa 1975.

The versatility of those bigs and the persistence of the perimeter players in attacking off the dribble are the reasons why Memphis is so prolific in the paint. Well, there is the offensive rebounding as well, but that was the first part of Hollins' system to be established. Everything else, plus the ball sharing, has shown up in increments. Since Gay went down, the shots have come closer to the basket, the ball isn't held as long and the number of isolation plays has decreased. It's a joy to watch.

The ball sharing merits a special mention. Memphis raised it's assist percentage from 66.6 percent to 72.0 percent once Gay was injured. The change is difference between being at the bottom of the league in ball sharing, where the Grizzlies have resided for several seasons, and in the middle of the pack. Those numbers were down against the Spurs, but Memphis moved the ball extremely well on Sunday. They still aren't the Celtics or Jazz when it come to passing the ball, but the decrease in selfish play has made the Grizzlies that much more versatile and dangerous.

All this said, the real difference in Sunday's game was Memphis' ability to protect the basketball while forcing turnovers on the other end. The Grizzlies led league by forcing miscues on 18.2 percent of their opponents' possessions this season. On Sunday, that number was 20.1 percent. Memphis committed just eight turnovers, leading to eight Thunder points. Oklahoma City turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 23 points. That 15-point disparity was the game in a nutshell. Memphis' starters committed just two turnovers in the game; point guard Mike Conley didn't cough up the ball a single time. Meanwhile, his Oklahoma City counterpart, Russell Westbrook, turned the ball over seven times.

Westbrook has become a lightning rod whenever the Thunder loses. The suggestions are that he shoots too much, passes too little and doesn't take care of the ball. That was all true to varying degrees on Sunday, but let's not heap this all on Westbrook. Once Jeff Green was traded, the Thunder became increasingly a two-pronged offense with Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Not only is Westbrook counted upon to be the primary playmaker, but Oklahoma City needs him to take on a greater share of the scoring load. The Thunder have a fine group of role players, but with James Harden still struggling to find a consistent offensive niche and to win his coach's confidence in his defense, there simply aren't a lot of scorers on the OKC roster. After this season, it might be a good idea for the Thunder to find a Kirk Hinrich-like combo guard that can act as both a secondary scorer and secondary playmaker out of the backcourt.

at Miami 99, Boston 90 (Miami leads series 1-0)
Pace: 88.8
Offensive Ratings: Miami 111.5, Boston 101.4

The playoff-tested Celtics looked like anything but on Sunday, losing to Miami in Game One thanks to turnovers, poor defense and some ill-advised machismo. When I wrote my preview of the series (posted yesterday), I kept coming back to the importance of Boston taking care of the ball. Not only do the Celtics need to maximize their number of shooting possessions in the face of a Miami defense that has rendered them inefficient over five meetings this season, but those turnovers feed the Heat frenzy and allow Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to play like Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne, taking turns at quarterback while the other streaks down the court on a fly pattern.

In his postgame presser, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "They don't force a lot of turnovers. But when you do turn the ball over, it's a guaranteed basket."

Coaches have been saying that about the Heat all season, and it's undeniably true. It's breathtaking how quickly the Heat turn long rebounds and turnovers into baskets on the other end. But Miami doesn't force the tempo; it runs selectively. According to Synergy Sports Technology, 13 percent of the Heat's possessions were transition plays, which ranks in the middle of the pack of the NBA. The Heat averaged 1.22 points per possession on those plays, tops in the league. Boston actually outscored Miami 15-10 on fastbreak points Sunday, but they didn't get a single stop when the Heat got out and ran.

Turnovers were indeed a key to Game One, just as they were in the Memphis-Oklahoma City game, but it wasn't the difference in the contest. The Celtics committed 14 turnovers, leading to 26 points, but also matched Miami by getting 26 points off 18 miscues. No, the key to the game was Boston's inability to defend Miami without fouling. The Heat had a 26-14 edge from the charity stripe, led by James Jones' 10-of-10 performance. You cannot put a stationary player like Jones on the foul line 10 times. One of the free throws was after a technical and two more came on an end-of-the-game desperation foul, but that's still seven free throws for Jones resulting from the flow of action, including one behind the arc that turned into three points.

Jones scored 25 points in the game and needed only seven shots to get there. All five of his three-pointers came off defensive breakdowns by the Celtics. Twice in the first half, Jeff Green sagged too far off Jones and got caught up in traffic, resulting in uncontested shots. The same thing happened to Delonte West, who looked like he was playing a mindlessly aggressive one-man zone. Ray Allen sagged off Jones a little too far on a Wade penetration that ended with a side three. Then Miami went small, and Jones came off a pick to elude Kevin Garnett, who isn't used to chasing shooters out to the arc. Jones is as one-dimensional as they come, but that one dimension killed the Celtics on Sunday.

Wade was unconscious. After averaged just over 12 points in four regular-season games against Boston, he hit shots from all over the floor on Sunday, putting up 38 points on 14-of-21 shooting. That was the obvious highlight from Miami's perspective, but I also really admired the game Chris Bosh played. Early in the season, when Bosh's game was justifiably the subject of many a nasty critique of the Miami Experiment, one of the biggest issues was that he didn't fill in the gaps in productivity caused by his lack of scoring opportunities by doing other things well on the court. On Sunday, Bosh scored just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting. That's nothing new. Since Garnett arrived in Boston, he's generally given Bosh fits. However on Sunday, Bosh grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and helped hold Garnett to six points on 3-of-9 shooting. There may not be a lot of chances for Bosh to score in this series, so it's imperative that he roll out the floor game that he flashed on Sunday.

Ray Allen had a big game, scoring 25 points on 13 shots; he's done this against Miami all season. However, he didn't have single teammate play well on the offensive end. Pierce scored 19 points, but was ejected for being involved in a pair of double technicals in the fourth quarter, exiting with seven minutes still left in the game. I agree with Rivers' postgame assessment that the Miami fouls, one on Jones and one on Wade, should have been called flagrant fouls. In the regular season, I think they would have been, and I don't feel like the playoffs should be called any differently. Nevertheless, Pierce was an idiot for retaliating, especially on the second play, when Wade barreled into him like he was a tackling dummy. We get it Paul, you're tough. Are you smart? We think so. Smarter than that anyway.

Rajon Rondo, whom I suggested needed to score more this series, had eight points and struggled with foul trouble in the first half, allowing Miami to open up a lead that reached 19 points. Glen Davis defended poorly and put up a -21 plus-minus that was 12 points worse than any other player in the game. Garnett, as mentioned, was a non-factor on offense and he was another player who I pointed at and said he had to be a factor in the lane. Just three of his nine shots came in the lane. He made them all. On the jumpers? Zero for six.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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