Memphis advances to first-ever Eastern Conference Final
The Memphis Grizzlies, led by NBA defensive player of the year Marc Gasol, held off a late surge by the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night en route to an 88-84 victory and a four games to one Western Conference semifinal series win – their first-ever trip to the conference finals. The Grizzlies got mammoth production from big man Zach Randolph, who had 28 points and 14 rebounds. Memphis guard Mike Conley had 13 points and 11 assists to put away the Thunder in front of the 113th consecutive sellout crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
Without the added perimeter threat of Russell Westbrook, there was just too much pressure on Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, who was held to only 21 points – he went 0-for-6 during the first quarter and finished 5-for-21 from the floor – his third worst shooting percentage ever in a playoff game. He was guarded for a majority of the contest by the Grizzlies’ Tayshaun Prince, who stuck to him like fly paper.
The Thunder were playing from behind for much of the game, and with the exception of Serge Ibaka, could never really make inroads against Randolph and Gasol, who batted away balls with regularity. On offense, the Grizzlies were able to drive the lane almost at will, with Prince, Conley and Tony Allen (who had 11 points on the night) supplementing the post play of Randolph and Gasol. In addition, Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins was particularly disappointing on both ends of the floor, with only 2 points and 3 rebounds. There were moments of tension during the game between him and Durant, and that didn’t help either.
Oklahoma City, who like Memphis had four scorers in double-figures, had their chances inside - they had 38 points in the paint to Memphis’ 36 and took second-chance points, 16-11 – but they also turned the ball over 14 times, which the opportunistic Grizzlies converted into 22 points.
Oklahoma City ended the third quarter with a 16-4 scoring drive, but that was countered by a 10-2 Memphis run to start the fourth. Down at the time by 11, the Thunder’s run was started by a curious play with 5 minutes to go in the third: missing a three from in front of the Grizzlies’ bench, the Thunder’s Derek Fisher had been distracted by a shirt that had been thrown to the side of him on the floor, courtesy of Memphis’ Tony Allen. Fisher was given the three, Allen was assessed a technical, and it was an instant four-point turnaround that got the home team’s momentum going again.
Likewise, the last 11 seconds of the game, with the Thunder roaring back to get the score to 86-84, were a nail biter. Randolph, who’d been fouled by the Thunder’s Fisher, missed two free throws. Memphis prevailed when, with only a few ticks left, Durant couldn’t convert a short jumper in the lane (which was clear at the time), resulting in the Grizzlies’ victory. The Grizzlies now await the winner of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors series - Game 6 of which takes place Thursday night.
Heat charge back while Bulls flame out
The Miami Heat got 23 points from LeBron James and 18 from Dwyane Wade Wednesday night to defeat the Chicago Bulls, 94-91, on the way to winning their Eastern Conference semifinal series with Chicago, four games to one, at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena. The Heat now move on to the conference finals for the third consecutive year.
The Bulls put up a valiant effort, dropping 32 points on the Heat in the second quarter largely due to the play of Carlos Boozer, who scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds on the night. His strong play was supplemented by Nate Robinson (21 points and 6 assists), Jimmy Butler (19 points, 4 assists and 3 steals), and Rip Hamilton (15 points). But the absence of Derrick Rose (who missed his 99th consecutive game due to a knee injury Wednesday night), Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich was just too much for their teammates to overcome.
Miami led by as many as 18 points in the first half, but let that evaporate to where by the third period, Chicago had amassed an 11-point lead. However, the Heat went on a 10-2 run at the end of the third quarter, and it put them in a comfortable position to mount their comeback. In addition to James and Wade, Chris Bosh (12 points) and Udonis Haslem (10 points) finished in double figures.
As for the Bulls, they were effectively extinguished by hitting only 6 of 18 shots when they really counted in the fourth period. It was clear they just ran out of gas and allowed the home team to hit the accelerator in the fourth. The Heat have now won 28 consecutive playoff games when they’ve led at one point by 18 or more points and will now face either the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers in the conference final – the only two teams in the NBA against whom the Heat had a losing regular season record.