For most of the first 45 minutes of Sunday's Game 1, the Memphis Grizzlies controlled the pace, the style and the action of their Western Conference semifinals opening matchup with the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. But in those final few minutes, it all went away, seemingly quicker than a Kevin Durant rise-and-fire that puts you behind and, eventually, away for good. It must feel like climbing a mountain and find yourself one last push from the summit, then losing your foothold and falling all the way down to the ground below.
"Every player on our team saw this win, and it didn't happen," Grizzlies reserve Quincy Pondexter, who missed a key late fourth-quarter free throw that could have enabled Memphis to tie the game in the closing seconds, told Jeff Latzke of The Associated Press after Game 1. "So, you've just got to move on and not make the same mistakes twice."
But what mistakes are those, specifically? How can Memphis find surer footing and finish the job in Tuesday's Game 2? Let's take a closer look at a few particular areas of interest:
1. #YGTMYFT, bros. That is to say: You've got to make your free throws. The Grizzlies finished the regular season tied with the Chicago Bulls for the NBA's ninth-best mark from the charity stripe (77.3 percent), and basically held steady in their six-game opening-round win over the Los Angeles Clippers (76.2 percent). They shot a woeful 58.3 percent in Game 1; if they make either their season or Round 1 average, they get a four-point swing on the score sheet, which would seem pretty useful in a game they lost by two.
There are two bits of good news. First, making better than three out of four free throws for the past 88 games is a stronger indicator of how good a foul-shooting team you are than one bad outing, so the percentages are likely to bounce back. Second, the guys who missed multiple freebies in Game 1 have all been way better than Sunday's performance — Marc Gasol (4 for 7) shot 84.8 percent this year, Pondexter (2 for 5, including that key late miss) shot 78.7 percent this year and Tayshaun Prince (0 for 2 after taking a hard foul from Nick Collison) shot 73.8 percent this season, though he was sub-60 percent after coming over in trade from the Detroit Pistons. Eight more misses from that group in Game 2 seems unlikely.
Also of note: In the extremely physical opening-round matchup with L.A., Memphis took a postseason-leading 34.3 free-throw attempts per game. They took just 24 free throws in Game 1 against Oklahoma City, fewer than they managed in any single game against the Clippers. It'll be interesting to see if the refs tighten things up a bit as the series progresses, and whether we'll start to see more whistles as the two teams' bruising frontcourts continue to battle.
2. Come back to us, Mike Conley. After being roundly outplayed by Chris Paul and harassed all over the court by Eric Bledsoe in Game 1, Conley came back with a very strong Game 2 (28 points on 50 percent shooting, 13 free-throw attempts earned, nine assists against three turnovers) that kickstarted a big turnaround for his series. The Grizzlies triggerman bounced back to average 18.4 points and nine assists per game in the final five outings against L.A., refusing to shrink from the challenge of matching CP3 and going right at Clippers defenders to help spark the Grizzlies' offense to Round 2.
Conley opened the semifinals with another dud, missing 10 of his 15 shots and managing just three assists against two turnovers in 38 minutes. The 25-year-old point guard has to — has to — be able to outperform the Reggie Jackson-Derek Fisher combination, whether by beating them off the bounce or by working in the pick-and-roll game to lose them, gain dribble penetration and create either paint looks for himself, dump-offs for his bigs or kickouts for shooters like Prince, Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless. If he returns to even average shooting and facilitating form, he should be able to use his quickness to generate some higher-percentage chances and open up more opportunities for his teammates.
3. Get Tony Allen engaged early, and keep him there. In Round 1, the Grizzlies perimeter stopper saw time on just about every one of the Clippers' perimeter threats, but he specialized in shutting down Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Jamal Crawford, who was so quiet by the end of the series that you barely realized he was sitting on the bench for the lion's share of the late action of Game 6. In Game 1, many expected he'd pull similar duty on Thunder reserve Kevin Martin ... except Martin got loose for 15 points in the second quarter, much of it coming while defended by Allen, thanks in large part to solid off-ball movement and smart baseline back-cuts to catch Allen watching the ball on the perimeter.
It felt weird watching a defender as attentive and disruptive as Allen get back-cut like that; it seemed to speak to a certain level of distraction or lack of in-game focus. Well, what better way to ensure you've got Allen's full and undivided attention than by giving him a few possessions of one-on-one, on-ball matchups with Kevin Durant? Allen's defended Durant well in the past — I know you remember his "hands behind my back" guarding of KD — and having responsibility for putting the clamps on the best scorer in the world would undoubtedly keep Allen on his toes. It might also be good for coach Lionel Hollins to run something aimed at getting Allen an easy bucket early, since his 0 for 4 start from the floor likely didn't help matters too much. (Then again, Tony plus layups can sometimes equal adventure.)
There's reason for optimism on an Allen bounce-back, too — as Chris Herrington of the Memphis Flyer notes, like Conley, Allen had a rough Game 1 against the Clippers, but bounced back to both play well and play big minutes throughout the rest of the series. Memphis will need him to do both to conbat the scoring tandem of Durant and Martin.
4. Turn up the defensive heat. During the regular season, Memphis forced opponents into turnovers on nearly 17 percent of offensive possessions, the second-highest rate in the league, and scored 17.4 points per game off turnovers, tied for the NBA's ninth-best mark. Oklahoma City was in the middle of the NBA pack in points allowed off turnovers (16.7 per game, tied for 17th among 30 teams) but was near the top of the league in frequency of cough-ups, turning it over nearly 16 percent of their possessions, tied for fifth-most. Memphis wreaked havoc less often in Round 1, and Oklahoma City was more careful with the ball against the Houston Rockets, but still, the relative passivity in Game 1 — just 10 OKC turnovers, which were capitalized upon for 14 points — suggests things moving in a different direction than Memphis might want.
Increased ball pressure and more opportunistic passing-lane intervention — especially by the tandem of Conley and Allen, who finished fourth and sixth in the NBA in steal percentage, respectively — could help disrupt the OKC offense, create some instant offense transition opportunities and shift momentum in what promises to be a raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena for Game 2.
5. Keep going at Serge Ibaka with Zach Randolph on offense. This one isn't really a mistake that needs to be corrected, but rather a point of emphasis that should be emphasized even further — while Ibaka held up pretty brilliantly on the defensive end for the most part, Randolph still got 18 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes. On the other end, the Congolese power forward struggled with his jumper, managing just five points and five rebounds on 1 for 10 shooting. That might just be the result of bad luck and missed open looks, but I'm not positive the two aren't to some degree related.
The more body blows Memphis can land on the OKC defense, and especially on Ibaka, with Randolph down low, the less likely it is that Ibaka will have the legs to provide the sort of floor-spacing midrange touch he's showcased so often this season. If he doesn't provide a reliable frontcourt scoring option to complement the wing productivity of Durant and Martin, it gives the Grizzlies' five-men-on-a-string defense a better shot of being able to load up on the wings, and putting themselves in position to once again pick up a road win to leave Oklahoma with a split.