The Golden State Warriors were in some trouble. After falling behind by double digits early in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals at FedExForum, the Memphis Grizzlies came through with a very strong third-quarter to cut the margin to as little as one point. In the final seconds of the period, they held the ball down 73-68 with a chance to cut the deficit to one possession.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Then, like so many teams this season, they fell victim to the greatness of NBA MVP Stephen Curry. Andre Iguodala blocked a three-point attempt from Jeff Green (on a play that easily could have been whistled for a foul) and Curry positioned perfectly for a buzzer-beating heave. He made it look surprisingly easy:
Those tremendous three points from 62 feet away gave Golden State a 76-68 lead heading into the fourth quarter, where they eventually built a 15-point lead on their way to a series-ending 108-95 victory. They have now moved on to the conference finals for the first time since 1976.
The Warriors saw many players step up in Game 6, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that Curry was the difference. The Grizzlies fought back from the 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to get the margin back to eight with six minutes left. That's when Curry took over, knocking down three three-pointers in just over two minutes to fight off any chance of a comeback. Curry scored 13 of his game-high 35 points (11-of-25 FG, 8-of-13 3FG) in the last six minutes to cinch up the win. The Grizzlies put forth a valiant effort throughout this game, but they had no answer for the Warriors superstar.
It looked early on as if the Warriors wouldn't need anyone to step up in the fourth. A dominant first quarter saw Golden State shoot 6-of-9 from beyond the arc (many in transition), with Curry (3-of-5) and Thompson (3-of-3) each scoring 11 points as if to make sure that they would not have to return to Oakland for a Game 7 on Sunday. The Warriors shot 13-of-20 from the field in the period for 32 points, a total depressed only by five turnovers committed largely while making aggressive moves.
By comparison, the Grizzlies looked to have very few options. Tony Allen returned to the starting lineup after missing Game 5 with a left hamstring injury, but managed just five minutes before leaving for good. His presence saw the Warriors return to the 5-on-4 defensive scheme that gave the Grizzlies such problems in Game 4, and they had trouble scoring again on their way to just 19 points on 7-of-24 shooting in the opening quarter. No one looked good, from Marc Gasol (the only player to make two shots, albeit on seven attempts) to Zach Randolph (only 1-of-3) to Mike Conley (1-of-4). For the third straight game, Memphis looked too limited to keep up with a team as explosive as Golden State, particularly with Andrew Bogut providing excellent rim protection.
Things got much better for the Grizzlies in the second period, in large part due to their ability to get to the free throw line. They shot 9-of-11 from the stripe to create necessary points and break up the Warriors' flow in transition. Gasol turned around his shooting by hitting 3-of-5 field goals, and Vince Carter (strong all game with 16 points on 5-of-7 FG) and Kosta Koufos (eight points in 14 total minutes) provided a necessary lift off the bench. Meanwhile, the Warriors missed all six of their threes in the period and subsisted largely on lay-ups, including three for Draymond Green (11 points on 5-of-7 FG and eight boards in the half). The Warriors scored a respectable 26 points in the second, but the Grizzlies saw massive improvement to get back in the game. Courtney Lee banked in a foot-on-the-line two at the buzzer to get the score to 58-49, a much more manageable deficit.
For at least a few minutes of third, the Grizzlies looked set to push the Warriors to the limit for the first time since their series-altering wins in Games 2 and 3. Gasol made baskets on the first two possessions to cut the lead to five right away, and the defense tightened up to hold the Warriors to 2-of-14 shooting over the first eight minutes of the quarter. When Jeff Green hit two free throws to make it a 65-64 game with 3:19 remaining, it appeared that the pressure of playing to extend their season had brought out the best in Memphis.
However, it's hard to hold the Warriors down for long. Harrison Barnes (who finished off a terrific series at both ends with 13 points and more great defense) knocked down a jumper to get the offense back on track. While Jeff Green made his own mid-range shot right away to make the lead one point again, the Warriors closed the quarter on an 11-4 run capped by Curry's improbable buzzer-beater. Yet the run depended far more on the contributions of bench players like Andre Iguodala, who shot 8-of-14 from deep in the last three games of the series. The reserves have gotten fairly little attention in this series due to the excellence of Curry and other starters, but the Warriors' fortunes coincided with a decision by Steve Kerr to limit the rotation to eight men with Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and David Lee becoming the only players to get steady minutes. All three of them finished at plus-6 or better in their Game 6 minutes.
Of course, Curry is still the biggest reason for the team's success, and he proved why in a masterful Game 6. The Warriors did many things to come back from a 2-1 deficit that appeared to put their season in peril, but none stands out more than the fact that Curry made 26 three-pointers in the series (22 in the four wins), or one more than the Grizzlies did as a team. The threat of long-range shots gave the Warriors the ability to maintain most any lead, both because they could keep adding to it and because the Grizzlies had so much trouble playing from behind.
Memphis out-performed many expectations in this series with their back-to-back wins in Games 2 and 3, and on balance they acquitted themselves well against what was far and away the best team of the regular season. They had some bad luck, of course, most clearly in the form of the various injuries that kept Conley out of Game 1 and limited his effectiveness after his inspiring Game 2. (Allen's injury was big, too, but much less important once the Warriors turned him into a low-percentage shooter on offense.) The Grizzlies have never had much of a perimeter threat over the past few years, but Conley's inability to score with consistency (he went 3-of-13 from the field and 0-of-6 from beyond the arc in Game 6) made them even more one-dimensional. It might've been a different story if he had been healthy. They leave the postseason with a respectable showing and their grit-and-grind image very much intact. Unfortunately, the team expected more out of this season.
The Warriors move on with the expectation of a title. They will be favored in the Western Conference Finals against either the Houston Rockets (a team they swept in four matchups this season) or the Los Angeles Clippers (a team they beat three of four times). Perhaps more importantly, they faced genuine adversity against Memphis and came out on the other side better for it, having proven the ability to make necessary adjustments and dominate while doing it. Their next challenge starts Tuesday at home, and we should expect them to be ready for it.
- - - - - - -