The Grizzlies return home tonight for Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. A few thoughts in preparation for what could be the season finale:
Elimination Game: In both Game 6 of the San Antonio series and Game 5 of this series with the Thunder, Lionel Hollins deflected pressure by pointing out that the team would still be playing regardless of the game's outcome. No more. Tonight will be the Grizzlies' first elimination of this post-season — first playoff elimination game since 2006. How the team — and the crowd, frankly — responds to the pressure will be compelling to watch. This game could be wild, could be triumphant, could be unbearably tense, could be deflating. Win or lose, this could be the final home game of the season. If so, let's hope we go out with a good performance and a fun game.
Offensive Drought: Game 5, in which the Grizzlies managed a mere 72 points, was obviously a disaster. But it was a continuation — culmination, hopefully — of a downward trend that had been developing since Game 2. The Grizzlies' team shooting percentages since the second game: 44%, 38%, 36%, 36%. These struggles start with the team's best scorer, Zach Randolph, who has had a national coming out party in these playoffs but whose production has actually been off his regular-season averages of the past two seasons. Randolph is shooting only 32% over the past four games. And, more recently, Mike Conley has joined him in his funk, shooting a combined 6-28 over the past two games.
Past Time for a Lineup Change: Randolph has complained that the Oklahoma City defense is sagging into the paint too much and the Grizzlies aren't doing a good enough job spacing the floor and stretching the defense. And he's right.
For reasons that passeth understanding, the Grizzlies continue to flank the Randolph-Marc Gasol-Conley triumvirate with two non-shooters on the wing in Sam Young and Tony Allen.
Young has established himself as a viable NBA player and had a couple of good games against the Spurs, but he's simply not as productive an all-around player right now as Allen, Shane Battier, or O.J. Mayo. And, as I've been saying on and off for months now, it can make sense to start your third best wing player if you're trying to balance rotations and ensure scoring from your bench. But I think it's harder to rationalize starting your fourth best wing player. Especially in the playoffs, where rotations can tighten up and, barring foul trouble (or triple overtime) you don't necessarily need to rotate four players at those two positions anyway.
And yet, look at the usage and performance this postseason of lineups that feature Conley, Randolph, and Gasol with each combination of the team's four win players. (All stats from NBA.com's Stats Cube service.):
Allen/Young 140 minutes -3.12 (+10.82)
Mayo/Battier 59 minutes +26.62 (+11.58)
Mayo/Allen 58 minutes +14.21 (-9.35)
Allen/Battier 25 minutes -33.95 (-3.95)
Young/Battier 22 minutes -3.56 (NA)
Mayo/Young 7 minutes -32.79 (-9.98)
The plus/minus number for each combination is a "net offense/defense rating" — essentially a point differential per 100 possessions. In parenthesis, I included each lineup's net rating for the regular season, which, in most cases, provides a larger sample size.
You can see that, in both cases, the Mayo/Battier combo — in conjunction with the other three starters — has been the most productive lineup. And yet that lineup has played fewer than half the minutes of the current Allen/Young starting lineup, which has a negative rating. The Mayo/Battier combo puts two shooters on the floor to stretch the defense and give Randolph and Gasol more room to work. The Allen/Young combo provides no outside shooting. And it's not like there's a huge drop-off defensively. Battier has been very credible on Kevin Durant and Mayo, like Tony Allen, gives the team a defensive option to move onto Russell Westbrook.
The Mayo/Allen combo has also been good in postseason and also gives the team good defensive options on Durant and Westbrook and a shooter to space the floor.
Facing elimination, it's time for the Grizzlies to put their best players on the floor, and that means using Mayo, Battier, and Allen on the wings. Sam Young, at this point, should be to the wing rotation what Hamed Haddadi is to the frontcourt rotation: A spot-minute option whose appearance is not guaranteed.
Greivis Vasquez: New X-Factor?: When the Thunder use sixth-man James Harden alongside scorers Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant it's really hurt the Grizzlies, and that's mainly because that lineup leaves Mike Conley no-one to guard. That's nothing against Conley, it's just a bad match-up.
If Conley continues to struggle defensively against this lineup and continues his shooting struggles of the past two games, the Grizzlies might think about shading a few more of those point-guard minutes — versus the Westbrook/Harden/Durant lineups — to Greivis Vasquez.
As John Hollinger notes in his recent column on playoff overachievers (which also features Marc Gasol), Vasquez has been good in the post-season, more than doubling his regular-season player efficiency rating, shooting better than 54% from the floor, and keeping turnovers down. If he's playing well offensively, Vasquez can provide a bigger defender on Harden while allowing the Grizzlies to use Allen or Battier on Durant and Allen or Mayo on Westbrook.
Game 6 tips at 8 p.m. tonight at FedExForum. Working internet permitting, I'll have commentary and info on-site via my FlyerGrizBlog Twitter feed and will have a full game report on Beyond the Arc later tonight.