10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Warriors -8, Over/Under: 217.5
One team stands on the precipice of advancing to the Conference Finals while another continues to stare down elimination, as the Memphis Grizzlies attempt to prolong their fate a little while longer as they head back west to battle the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of this Western Conference Semifinal from Chase Center in San Francisco, California. Though their fate looks all but inevitable, the Grizzlies (56-26, 2nd in Western Conference) nonetheless have a duty to do everything within their power to stay alive, as they attempt to force a decisive Game Seven on their home court, where we’ll remind you that ANTHYING can happen. With that said, it’s truly a shame that after improving by leaps and bounds this season, Memphis has found themselves in their current predicament: after drawing their first two games of this series with Golden State, (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) suffered a knee injury in the latter stages of Game Four, with reports indicating that he’ll miss the REMAINDER of the playoffs. Needless to say, that’s a rather damning turn of events for a club that improved by a whopping EIGHTEEN games this season, thanks in large part to ascension of the explosive floor general; in his third season in the NBA, the 22-year-old made a giant leap in averaging 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. He’s averaged a whopping 38.3 points on 50.6% shooting from the field, along with 6.7 rebounds, 8.3 assists, and 3.0 steals through the first three games of the series, including a robust FORTY-SEVEN points and the go-ahead layup in Game Two (106-101), before suffering that mysterious knee injury in the latter stages of Game Three. Morant left the court after a tangle with Golden State’s Jordan Poole, who appeared to pull at his opponent’s knee during scrum for the basketball. Given that tensions have certainly run in this series after ejections and suspensions in Games One and Two, the youngster took to social media afterward to state that play “broke the code”, echoing that of (Warriors’ Head Coach) Steve Kerr only two days prior. However, (Head Coach) Taylor Jenkins’ troops have done nothing but persevere without the presence of the young All-Star, and by most metrics you could say that they thrived. The Grizzlies were a surprising 20-5 in his absence, thanks in large part to a wealth of internal growth throughout the roster; (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, along with (young Forward) Brandon Clarke (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) and (bullish Guard) 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) who have thrived within the collegiate-like atmosphere that Jenkins has fostered during his time with the franchise. And it’s with that said, that apart from a late collapse in Game Four (101-98), the tables could indeed have been turned with Memphis leading 3-2 instead of trailing, for the hosts utterly ANNIHILATED the Warriors in Game Five, a 134-95 blowout at FedEx Forum on Wednesday night. Perhaps they were pissed off for letting the previous contest get away from them, but it was impossible not to notice the aggression and fury that Jenkins’ charges played with, as they led 38-28 after the first quarter before going on to thrash Golden State 81-39 over the course of the second and third periods, amassing a 55-point lead at one point. The home side shot 47.5% from the field, including 18-of-41 from beyond the arc (43.9%), and 22-of-30 from the charity stripe (73.3%), while dishing out a healthy THIRTY-SEVEN assists in comparison to committing just nine turnovers, and dominating the glass 55-37, including 18-4 on the offensive end of the court. As you could imagine, Memphis held advantages across the bard, including threes (+12), free-throws (+13), assists (+15), points via turnovers (+19), fast break points (+7), and points in the paint (+14). SEVEN different players scored in double-figures, with Bane, Jackson, and (backup Guard Tyus Jones (8.7 PTS, 45.1% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 81.8% FT, 2.4 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 16.5 PER) scoring twenty-one points apiece on a combined 20-of-34 shooting (58.8%) and 12-of-19 on treys (63.1%). Furthermore, the bench thoroughly outperformed their counterpart, 52-35. So, moving forward, what can the Grizzlies to force a Game Seven, you ask? Well, performing as they did in the last two outings would be a great start. After struggling to adjust to the Warriors in the first three games, it appears that Jenkins’ outfit finally settled down and did what they do best, which is outwork their opponent. Whether it be on the offensive glass or via turnovers, no team in the Association thrives more off second-chance points than these guys (18.7), with their youth, size, and length playing a major role. Memphis totaled twenty-eight offensive rebounds and forced thirty-eight turnovers in the last two games, leading to twenty-five more field goal attempts in the process. Granted, part of the reason that it took so long to play this way is due to their lack of postseason experience, for the savvy Dubs managed to take them out of their game early in this series, and in turn conform to their opponent. While it may indeed be too late to save themselves, particularly without Morant, this affair has served as nothing but a valuable learning experience for the Grizzlies, which should bode well for them in the future.
Meanwhile, what a golden opportunity the Warriors (53-29, 3rd in Western Conference) wasted in their 134-95 thrashing at the hands of Grizzlies on Wednesday night. For those wondering, that pun is absolutely intended, for all throughout this series, Golden State has exhibited their wealth of playoff experience and ruthlessness at every turn up until Game Five’s utter capitulation. With a win, the Dubs would’ve advanced to their first Western Conference Final since 2019, further distancing this franchise from the disappointing nightmare that had been the previous two seasons. After representing the West in FIVE consecutive NBA Finals and claiming three Larry O’Brien trophies along the way, tragedy struck in a major way as the club lost both Kevin Durant and (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) in the 2019 Finals, with the former suffering a torn Achilles and the latter tearing his ACL. Of course, the rest is history; Durant left the franchise in Free Agency, while Thompson spent the whole season rehabbing from said knee injury, only to tear his own Achilles in a practice exercise roughly a year later. During this period, (Head Coach) Steve Kerr’s troops stumbled to their worst record under his outrageously successful tenure (15-50), missing the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2012. Even this season came with its unique challenges, for the Warriors’ dynastic triumvirate of Thompson, (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), and (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) only featured together in ONE game during the regular season thanks to a variety of injuries. However, it’s become clear that that was indeed by design as Kerr went out of his way to make sure that all three figures were completely health in lieu of the playoff run, and for all intents and purposes, that approach has paid dividends. Golden State breezed through their First-Round matchup against Denver, eliminating (two-time MVP) Nikola Jokic in five games, setting up a battle with Memphis, a team that has proven to be very much their opposite. Young, athletic, and hungry, the first two games of this series couldn’t have played out more entertainingly from a neutral’s perspective; the Dubs edged the Grizzlies in a nip-and-tuck Game One (117-116) on the strength of a clutch Thompson trey followed by a key stop from Curry, while the hosts turned around and rode the exploits of the aforementioned Morant (47 points) to victory in a tightly contested Game Two (106-101). Along the way, Green would be ejected for a hard foul on Clarke in the former, while Brooks was thrown out of the latter for a wild hit on (backup 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) in the latter, leading to suspension. With the scene shifting to Chase Center, the hosts let their play do the talking as they OBLITERATED the visitors in a 142-112 romp (that wasn’t without its own injury controversy), before rallying back to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in Game Four (101-98). Trailing throughout the affair, the Warriors finished the game on a 27-15 run capped by eighteen points courtesy of Curry, including 8-of-9 free-throws (88.9%), ending the night with a game-high thirty-two points on 10-of-25 shooting (40.0%) and 4-of-14 from beyond the arc (28.6%). Now, one would expect a veteran team such as this to put their proverbial boot on the neck of their opponent, and enjoy the luxury time off before the start of the next round of the playoffs, but that simply wasn’t the case on Wednesday night, as Kerr’s charges never looked very interested in handling their business in an expedited manner, as they never led in the blowout, trailing by as many as FIFTY-FIVE points thanks to a stretch between the second and third quarters in which the visitors were outscored 81-39 (you read that correctly). In the end, Golden State shot 45.0% from the field and 14-of-39 from downtown (35.9%), but were manhandled on the glass (-18) and paid dearly for their mistakes, as their twenty-two turnovers were manufactured into TWENTY-NINE points for the home side. Furthermore, their lack of size was exploited without mercy in this one, as the Grizzlies bested them 50-36 in the paint, while planting their flag at the charity stripe for the first time in this series, netting 22-of-30 free-throws (73.3%) in comparison to a meager 9-of-13 for the Dubs (69.2%). Curry and Thompson combined for just thirty-three points on 11-of-22 shooting from the field (50.0%) and 6-of-14 from three (42.8%) along with six rebounds, five assists, and four turnovers. Apart from that, (Rookie Forward) Jonathan Kuminga (9.3 PTS, 51.3% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 68.4% FT, 3.3 REB, 0.9 AST, 15.2 PER) played well with seventeen points, three rebounds, and a pair of assists, though did miss all five of his attempts from the perimeter. Lastly, the triumvirate of Green, (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), and (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) combined for only THIRTEEN points on 5-of-18 shooting (27.7%) and NINE turnovers. If there was ever a time to burn the game film, it would be this one, as Kerr & Co must put this debacle behind them before tonight’s affair. Granted, we can’t help but feel that this team rested on their laurels after the two games in San Francisco, fully confident that after taking Memphis’ last flurry of emotion in Graceland that they would finish them off at Chase Center. However, this is clearly a missed opportunity for a team that has suffered through so many injuries throughout the campaign, for an extra three to four days of rest would have been ideal in lieu of their next matchup, particularly when you consider that the other Western Conference Semifinal is now going seven games.