by Kevin Lipe
1. If the Grizzlies don't win tonight, this series is probably going seven games. Portland smells blood in the water after their Game 4 win. Without Mike Conley, the Grizzlies struggle to run offensive sets and struggle to score, and they've been over-reliant on guard play in the three series wins so far. With the crowd behind them at home, it wouldn't be surprising for the Blazers to win again at home (especially since if they're playing another home game, that means they beat the Grizzlies in Memphis in Game 5).
The Grizzlies should treat tonight like a Game 7—if they win, they don't play again until Sunday. That means the whole team needs to play like the world will end if they don't win, like the fabric of spacetime will be torn asunder if they don't bend and bully every black-uniformed Portland player into submission before their Grizzly will. It's not a "win or go home" game, but it is a "win and get to rest before you have to deal with Golden State" game, and they'll need as much time as they can manage to prepare for the Warriors, especially if Conley is looking at an extended absence.
2. The Grizzlies have to figure out how to curb their reliance on guards for scoring. That's not the way the Grizzlies have played their basketball this season. Optimally, scoring from guards and wings just opens the floor up for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to visit wanton violence on opposing frontcourts. The Grizzlies haven't gotten much production from Randolph this series, and Gasol has focused on defense (mostly brilliantly) instead of scoring.
Tonight, Gasol and Randolph's mission should be to terminate the Blazers' season with extreme prejudice.
Randolph and LaMarcus Aldridge have played each other to a standstill, and neither has been efficient, but Randolph has basically sacrificed every aspect of his game to the fisticuffs with Aldridge. If Gasol can handle that matchup for more time tonight (which means "if Meyers Leonard or Chris Kaman don't become a problem while being guarded by Z-Bo") maybe it'd free Randolph up to be more of a factor. On the other end, Randolph struggles to score over Aldridge's length, so hitting him on the run in the high-low game might be a better option than the iso-Z-Bo postups that clogged the Grizzlies' offense in Game 4 worse than Jack Pirtle's clogs arteries all over our fair city.
Either way, without Mike Conley there to distribute the ball, and neither of his replacements being All-Star caliber point guards, the two remaining legs of the Big Three tripod have to step it up tonight. Courtney Lee is great, but the Griz can't rely on him to win Game 5 with one-dribble pullups. Jeff Green was barely at Game 4, much less playing well. It's got to come from Gasol and Randolph.
3. The Grizzlies need to figure out how to win playoff games without Mike Conley. At the time of my writing this, no one knows how long Conley will be out. It could be two games, it could be until next season. If it's the latter, the Grizzlies have a much-diminished chance of doing anything beyond the second round, but if it's going to be a chance at all, they need to figure out how to run their offense ("their" being the starting unit) with Beno Udrih or Nick Calathes calling the shots. That starts tonight.
In Game 4, the Grizzlies' offensive rating dropped below 110 points per 100 possessions for the first time in the postseason. (Game 2 was a low-scoring affair but it was played at an 83.9 pace, skewing the points-per-game numbers a bit). Slowing the game back down to something like that—a pace somewhere in the 85 range—and still figuring out how to get buckets through the bigs is the surest path to victory.
There's no question that the Grizzlies miss everything Conley brings to the table. He's regarded as one of the best point guards in the league for a reason. But there are ways to mitigate his absence to the extent possible, and that needs to be on the minds of the Grizzlies coaches and players tonight. Play like he's not coming back, and if/when he does, they'll be in that much better shape for it.
4. Can CJ McCollum play in Memphis the way he played in Portland? McCollum stepped in for the Blazers and had two huge games in Games 3 and 4 (not to mention the fact that he took Mike Conley out of the equation by accidentally breaking his face). He had 26 in Game 3, 18 in Game 4, and was generally unstoppable, flying around the court trying to do whatever he could to get the Blazers a win.
In Games 1 and 2, McCollum had 3 points and 6 points, respectively, while playing 36 and 29 minutes in each game. McCollum is a young guy, and so nerves were probably a factor at first, but can he really keep up the high level of Games 3 and 4 for one more night against what promises to be a loud FedExForum at least halfway grouchy that we all have to go back down there for another game in the first place?
If he can, and can put up stat lines similar to his Portland outings, that's a problem for the Grizzlies. If he plays more like he did in the previous two games in Memphis, that's a (bigger) problem for the Blazers, because he's been a big part of their scoring output since the series shifted westward.
5. This could/should be the last time we see this year's Grizzlies playing when they aren't the underdogs.
Historically, this group of players has performed far above expectations when their backs are against the wall and no one expects them to be able to do anything. Taking the Thunder to seven games both times they've done so. Getting to the Western Conference Finals in 2013. Obviously, knocking off the Spurs in the 2011 first round. This is a group of guys who relish proving people wrong, who enjoy defying expectations.
They're the favorites in this series, even without Mike Conley. They have home court advantage, they've owned Portland all year, and they have a 3-1 series lead that was this close to being the first sweep in Grizzlies history.
If the Grizzlies win tonight, all that changes. The narrative shifts back to "nobody believes we can beat Golden State." They—and we, Memphis, as an extension, because that's the way these Grizzlies playoff runs work—go back to our most comfortable posture, our civic position of strength: nobody thinks we can do this.
I think a return to the underdog status will give this Griz team an edge it's been missing for a little while now, a desire to prove they belong. That's invaluable for this group. It's when they do their best work. It's when the most indelible images are made, when the moment elevates to a level worthy of our long civic memory, the storytelling of sports fans about old warriors, long dead. If the Grizzlies make it out of the first round, they're right back where they belong: back in the epic.