9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Warriors -2, Over/Under: 227.5
The Second Round of the Playoffs continues in the Graceland, as the reborn Golden State Warriors look to press their advantage against the young Memphis Grizzlies, in Game Two of this Western Conference Semifinal from FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee. Given their problems over the previous two campaigns, we’d forgive you if you happened to write off the Warriors (53-29, 3rd in Western Conference) as legitimate contenders, but if we’ve learned anything from the postseason thus far, it’s that this team has indeed returned to their place among the NBA’s elite. After missing the postseason in each of the last two years thanks to significant injuries to foundational players, Golden State entered this season with a sense of confidence in themselves not seen since they advanced to FIVE consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, capturing three Larry O’Brien trophies along the way. Indeed, (Head Coach) Steve Kerr’s charges got off to a torrid 29-7 start, before finally welcoming back (All-Star sharpshooter) Klay Thompson (20.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 90.2% FT, 3.9 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 16.7 PER) following a two-year hiatus rehabbing from successive injuries to his ACL and Achilles. However, as soon as the two-time All-NBA selection returned, (versatile Forward) Draymond Green (7.5 PTS, 52.5% FG, 29.6% 3FG, 65.9% FT, 7.3 REB, 7.0 AST, 11.3 STL, 1.1 BLK, 14.3 PER) went down with a back injury that would cost him TWENTY-NINE straight games. And if that wasn’t enough, a late foot injury to (reigning scoring champion) Steph Curry (25.5 PTS, 43.7% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 92.3% FT, 5.2 REB, 6.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 21.4 PER) meant that and the Warriors’ big three only started ONE game together all season, which is nothing short of remarkable. As a result, they treaded water over the second half of the season, posting a 24-22 record post-January 5th, ultimately settling into the Third Seed out West. Granted, after everything that had happened in the previous two campaigns, Kerr was taking ZERO chances in making sure that his troops were completely healthy for the playoffs, and it appears that the 56-year-old was absolutely correct in his tactics, for the Warriors have looked nothing short of impressive to this point. Though there some concerns heading into their matchup with the shorthanded Nuggets, in hindsight it was all much ado about nothing, as the Dubs dominated the series, closing matters out in five games. Golden State averaged a whopping 118.0 points on a healthy 51.5% shooting from the field, including 42.2% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 28.6 assists in comparison to committing just 12.2 turnovers. Despite coming off the bench in the first four games of the affair, Curry spent his time on the hardwood cooking Denver from the perimeter, posting 28.0 points on 50.0% shooting, including 19-of-47 from downtown (40.4%), while Thompson finally looked like his old self with 22.6 points on 50.6% shooting, including 22-of-48 from three (45.8%). With that said, the biggest takeaway from that series was the emergence of (unheralded Guard) Jordan Poole (18.5 PTS, 44.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 92.5% FT, 3.4 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.1 PER), who continued his star turn from late in the season to demolish the Nuggets on 21.0 points, 54.8% shooting and 15-of-31 from long-range (48.4%). In the end, Denver simply didn’t have the weapons to outgun the Warriors, particularly when the tempo increased, which coincidentally led to their considerable size advantage being rendered moot. While their conquest of Denver served as a statement of their intentions moving forward, it also afforded the Dubs the luxury of resting and waiting for their next opponent finish handling their business, which appeared to have a sizable effect on the outcome of Game One. However, this wasn’t the case early on, as Memphis raced out to a 32-24 lead in the first quarter, with the visitors looking a bit lethargic on 10-of-26 shooting (38.5%), including 3-of-12 from deep (25.0%). The tide would gradually turn over the following twelve minutes, with none other than Green sparking his team’s comeback; the 2016-2017 Defensive Player of the Year was hit with a Grade Two Flagrant Foul and ejected from the contest after grabbing Brandon Clarke by the front of his jersey on a putback attempt and dragging him to the hardwood. While the call was certainly questionable, the impact that it had on his teammates was not; from that point, the Warriors would go on to outscore the Grizzlies 64-55, catching fire in the second half where they shot a blistering 52.2% overall and 9-of-20 from beyond the arc (45.0%), with the triumvirate of Curry, Thompson, and Poole combining for forty-five points on 17-of-35 shooting (48.5%) and 8-of-18 on triples (44.4%). With four ties and three lead changes inside the final three minutes of action, Golden State received some clutch contributions from other members of their rotation, with (former No. One Overall Pick) Andrew Wiggins (17.2 PTS, 46.6% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 63.4% FT, 4.5 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.0 PER) tying the score twice, while (Rookie Guard) Gary Payton II (7.1 PTS, 61.6% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 60.3% FT, 3.5 REB, 0.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 17.8 PER) tied it once again on a contested layup. And then following a Memphis turnover and a number of missed jumpers from the visitors, Thompson drained the decisive 26-footer to take a 117-116 lead with thirty-six seconds left to play. It wasn’t over yet, for after Thompson uncharacteristically missed a pair of free-throws, the home side would call a timeout and advance the basketball to halfcourt with three seconds left to play, eventually inbounding to Ja Morant (more on him shortly), with the explosive Guard driving to the lane for a lefthanded layup that was deflected away by none other than Curry, stealing Game One and thus home court in the series. The key to this matchup was that even without Green for the entire second half, the Warriors found a way to edge the best rebounding team in the NBA (51-47) and negating their typical advantage on the offensive glass (16-16). Furthermore, they outscored them in the paint (56-44), which again was surprising given how much smaller they are as an overall unit. Moving forward, we’ll have to see if they can maintain that prowess on the boards and in the paint, for Golden State can continue to limit Memphis’ second-chance opportunities, then they could very well be heading back to the west coast with a 2-0 lead.
Meanwhile, if they haven’t learned that the playoffs are indeed a mother@#$%^&, then the Grizzlies (56-26, 2nd in Western Conference) should have a keen understanding of that notion now, as they look to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole tonight. Arguably the most improved team in the Association, Memphis bested last year’s record by EIGHTEEN games en route to capturing the second seed out West. However, there were legitimate questions about this group coming into the postseason, with their youth and inexperience being the primary talking points. With an average age of 23.1 years old, (Head Coach) Taylor Jenkins and his staff did a tremendous job overseeing a wealth of internal growth with this team, with (newly-minted Most Improved Player) Ja Morant (27.4 PTS, 49.3% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 5.7 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 24.4 PER) serving as the poster-boy for their ascension. The explosive floor general has absolutely leveled up in this, his third year in the Association, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (27.4), field goal percentage (49.3%), three-point percentage (34.4%), two-point percentage (53.4%), rebounds (5.7), steals (1.2), and PER (24.4). One of the very best finishers in the game today, Morant has the electrifying quick step to routinely blow by defenders and the attitude and fearlessness to finish at the rim, evidenced by the fact that he became the first Guard in NBA history to lead the league in points in the paint. However, Memphis has been far from a one-man band, for the supporting cast has grown exponentially too; (versatile Forward) Jaren Jackson Jr. (16.3 PTS, 41.5% FG, 31.9% 3FG, 82.3% FT, 5.8 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 2.3 BLK, 17.0 PER) has finally begun to deliver on his enormous two-way potential, while (sharpshooting Guard) Desmond Bane (18.2 PTS, 46.1% FG, 43.6% 3FG, 90.3% FT, 4.4 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 17.6 PER) has offered crucial spacing from the perimeter, with the bullish Dillon Brooks (18.4 PTS, 43.2% FG, 30.9% 3FG, 84.9% FT, 3.2 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.5 PER) bringing a tenacious attitude to the defensive end, while (veteran Center) Steven Adams (6.9 PTS, 54.7% FG, 54.3% FT, 10.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.8 BLK, 17.6 PER) has proven to be an excellent fit in the frontcourt as the elder statesman at 28-years of age. With that said, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they were fortunate to meet an opponent in the first round that was just as young and inexperienced, though the Timberwolves would present a litany of issues for them throughout the course of their first-round matchup. On one hand, you could look at the Grizzlies and how they became the first team in NBA history to rally back from double-digit fourth quarter deficits to win multiple games in a single series, but on the other hand it’s fair to point out that they had also developed a troubling habit of falling into sizable holes. Though he struggled from a shooting perspective (38.6% FG), Morant nearly averaged a triple-double with 21.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists, stealing the show in Game Five with arguably the dunk of the playoffs and the game-winner to turn the tide of the 2-2 series. Not to be outdone, Bane was nothing short of excellent, leading the team with 23.5 points on 50.0% shooting, including a staggering 27-of-55 from beyond the arc (49.1%), as Memphis made Minnesota pay repeatedly for their recklessness and sloppy play. While it’s undeniable that that experience was invaluable, the outcome may have been very different had they been pitted against a more experienced opponent, which is precisely the case in this Semifinal versus the Warriors. In many ways, this is probably the WORST matchup for Jenkins’ troops, for a variety of reasons. With the likes of Curry, Thompson, and Green running the show, they’re not going to make the boneheaded mistakes that the Wolves made to allow anything remotely close to that 21-0 run that headlined Game Three in Minneapolis. They’re also a far more efficient offensive team, capable of speeding it up when they need to or slowing the tempo to a crawl if it suits them. Granted, the Grizzlies have a considerable size advantage in this series, but as we touched upon earlier, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to rely upon it. Two days after closing out Minnesota, Morant & Co returned to FedEx Forum energized in front of the home crowd, riding the wave of momentum following their first series victory since 2015; the hosts led by as many as thirteen points in the first quarter, thanks in large part to a 14-point explosion from Morant. However, they would be unable to maintain that form moving forward, for in the second half they netted just 42.6% of their attempts and committed seven turnovers opposed to dishing out eleven assists. Despite thirty-four points, nine rebounds, and ten assists from the All-Star Guard, along with a postseason career-high THIRTY-THREE points from the aforementioned Jackson, who after a particularly tough series rained down 6-of-9 threes (66.7%), Memphis still couldn’t get over the hump, trailing by as many as ten points in the final period. With that said, they would close the gap down the stretch in what turned into a nip-and-tuck affair over the final four minutes of action; Morant would give the home side the lead twice, while Clarke’s (10.4 PTS, 64.4% FG, 22.7% 3FG, 65.4% FT, 5.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 23.7 PER) layup made it 116-114 with 1:16 left to go in regulation. However, their inability to get a rebound following two missed three-point attempts led to a jump ball and that final dagger from Thompson, which forced them to foul the visitors in order to prolong the final thirty seconds. And the rest is history, as the Grizz lost the opening entry of a series on their homecourt for the second time in as many weeks. When Jenkins looks back on this one, he’s going to be wondering how his side came up short; Memphis edged Golden State from downtown (+6) and the charity stripe (+5), were neck and neck in points off turnovers (24-24), and nearly equal in fast break points (-1). However, the allowed the Dubs to get the better of them on the glass (-4), which is a huge surprise given their size advantage and the fact that the aforementioned Green missed over half the contest. This a team that led the NBA in rebounding (49.2), rebounding margin (6.2), offensive rebounding (14.1), and offensive rebounding percentage (30.0%). Simply put, the Grizzlies thrive off of getting more opportunities than their opponents, and it starts and ends on the glass, for if they can’t beat you on the defensive end, then they’re affording you extra shots, and if they can’t get them on the offensive end, then they’re being deprived of easier, second chance looks at the rim, which they also led the league in at 18.7 points per game. With all that said, there is no need to overreact, for after all, they had an excellent look to win the game and managed to control the Dubs in a number of categories. Reestablishing their rebounding might and getting more out of Bane (9 points on 3-of-10 shooting) should have them back in business before the scene shifts to Chase Center.