The title of this post is about the wonderful collective Lionel Hollins has created in Memphis. But it’s not just about Memphis because, more than ever, I’m unable to stay away from the cyclonic Russell Westbrook and, less intriguingly, the OKC Thunder.
Even in defeat, the Grizzlies put on a presentation to make basketball purists smile. Even though Zbo and Marc Gasol combined for nearly 50% of Memphis’s total 123 points, the team was selflessly expressive. For their stats, effort and abilities, the Memphis bigs get the their names in lights, but Shane Battier’s harassing defense, Mike Conley’s huge three to send the game into OT and Greivis Vasquez’s shot-put style deep three to put the game into a third OT proved anyone in a Grizz uniform (Haddadi?) can carry the flame of the moment. How a cast of NBA orphans that includes Zbo, Tony Allen, OJ Mayo, Sam Young, Mike Conley, etc. arrived at this style and accepted it is a feel-good story, NBA style.
Whether it was osmosis or never-ending note taking, recalling coaching strategies and tactics from memory or utilizing a network of NBA champion coaches, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins learned a few things from his time in the NBA: How to lead and coach. In one of the three overtimes, TNT cut away to the Grizzlies bench where Hollins was sitting quietly, nodding in approval while Shane Battier rattled off motivational encouragements worthy of Krzyzewski. In the world of basketball idealism, Coach K and Dr. Jack nodded along with Hollins—game recognize. That everyone else was buying in to Battier’s earnest words evidenced the cult of trust Hollins has created in a short time in Memphis.
Tracing Hollins’s basketball roots through the years, you can see the current Grizzlies predecessors in Dr. Jack Ramsay’s Blazer squads and it’s not a stretch to believe Hollins learned a few things from Chuck Daly in the few months he played for Daly in Detroit. Daly’s and Ramsay’s squads were inclusive, moving the ball and riding hot hands from night to night. Everyone contributed and was expected to. Coupling Hollins’s lineage with his up-front communication style (he was at the helm when Memphis let Iverson know he wouldn’t be treated different from any other player) and you have a coach who’s going to give everyone a chance (Haddadi, again) and not take any guff from his players.
The template for Marc G?
The cult of trust instills guys like Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez with the confidence needed to bang home clutch threes when everyone’s expecting them to wilt in the bright, shining, face of the basketball-prince, Kevin Durant. It creates opportunities for Tony Allen to be reborn and OJ Mayo and Shane Battier to be welcomed back home not just with open arms, but with open roles on a winning basketball team.
Beyond all the good times in Memphis, down at the seedy end of the court, something strange and fun continues to happen: the all-to-public maturation of the relationship between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Whether it’s been mandated by Sam Presti up on high or if it’s just natural for Kevin Durant and Scott Brooks to do so, there’s an element of protectionism that surrounds Russell Westbrook. When Russell-related questions pop up in Durant’s interviews, he takes the high road and talks about his point guard warm, earthy tones. Keep saying the right things, Kevin, but we saw you getting exasperated the last two games. In the post-game presser, Scotty Brooks took the same sweet route when talking about Russell. Everything was peachy and kind and why not? The guy put up 40 including several on drives that could maybe be duplicated by Derrick Rose or Monta Ellis. And, most importantly for the Oklahomans, they left town with a series-equalizing victory.
Not everyone’s sucking lollipops and eating cotton candy though. How can they be when their point guard’s field goal attempts per game jump up almost 30% from the regular season to the post season? And how about his field goal percentage dropping from 44% to 40%? The same trends show up in his advanced stats. Russell’s Edge continues to be a twisted riddle. It seems appropriate and logical to compare him to Derrick Rose, but the bolder Russell becomes, the more I see him riding a fine, narrow, dangerous edge—Evel Knievel style. I don’t mean that just to add humor to his tales, but because the comparison is accurate and legitimate. Russell’s aware of the dangers of his freelancing (alienating Durant and/or putting OKC in a position to get knocked out of the playoffs), but it doesn’t slow down his improvisational drives or macho pull-up jumpers. The combination of ultra-confidence and the need to prove he can be Durant has crash and burn written all over it. Yet young Russell continues down that same path with fury and venom (anyone else notice that road rage element to his game?).
Lost in the ongoing Westbrook-Durant drama are the Oaklean efforts of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. Every play in the paint and rebound up for grabs is being contested by desperate players on both sides. These small efforts on every play are making a good series great. I can’t not mention the bearded playmaking genius of James Harden. What secrets does his beard hold? I haven’t been this surprised about a player’s playmaking abilities since JR Smith diced up the Lakers in a losing series in 2009.
In the sense that styles make fights, basketball isn’t any different from boxing. OKC and Memphis are a perfect matchup and proved it on Monday night. The feel-good-Grizzlies with their labor party lineup (Comrade Gasol?) aren’t walking the path of righteousness any more than OKC with Westbrook trying to tip the superstar seesaw closer to his side. The contrasting styles and storylines, hungry fan bases and 63-minute instant classics are encompassing a wide range of this league’s great potential. Who knew we’d reach this potential somewhere between Oklahoma City and Memphis?