NBA Playoffs 2011 Memes: Spurs' Dynasty Nears Its End, Russell Westbrook Goes Rogue

In Tuesday's edition, we begin our eulogies for the Spurs, label Russell Westbrook a selfish chucker, shed Dallas' choker label temporarily, redefine Chris Wallace and celebrate J.R. Smith's enthusiasm.

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Spurs Vs. Grizzlies: Memphis Routs San Antonio, Fuels Spurs Eulogies

The Spurs got blown out by the Grizzlies in Game 4 on Monday night, losing so spectacularly that coach Gregg Popovich pulled out his midseason "call off the dogs" trick and benched his starters midway through the fourth quarter, even though this was a playoff game. In the hours that followed, the idea that this is the end of an era in San Antonio caught steam. Of all the tweets and articles out there, this one from Aaron McNeill of 48 Minutes of Hell was my favorite.

Just got a text from a friend. The Spurs window as contenders might run lockout-to-lockout, and that's it.    

On the one hand, you can definitely sense that this is a "changing of the guard" series, one we see every so often in the NBA. The Spurs have not been eliminated, but all of their shortcomings have been exposed. The Spurs are small inside, highly dependent on driving and kicking and need their shooters to get open behind the arc. Memphis has great size, tremendous perimeter defenders and has made it an emphasis to chase the Spurs off the three-point line. Therefore, you're seeing what you see now. Combine that with the Spurs' age contrasted to Memphis' youth, and it's tempting to close the book on the Tim Duncan era.

I might be able to accept that, but I'm still not quite there. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of the Spurs' future right now. It seems like we write them off every year, only to see them force their way into the picture. In 2008, we thought they were too old. In 2009, we thought they would never be healthy again. In 2010, we thought they were too reliant on an aging Duncan. What's the issue this year? It's tough to put a finger on it, so naturally, these eulogies have begun.

To me, this still feels like a matchup issue more than anything. In 2007, the Mavericks ran through the league in the regular season, hiding flaws that could have been exposed by the right idiosyncratic team. That team ended up being Golden State, and those flaws were exposed in the first round. The Grizzlies are not the Warriors, but I think they present similar matchup issues with the Spurs. San Antonio had some major flaws this year, but were able to mask them most of the way. Memphis just so happens to be the team most equipped to expose those flaws. If you were daring and insightful in 2007, you would have seen Golden State giving Dallas issues based on their regular-season games. If you were daring and insightful in 2011, you would have seen Memphis doing the same with San Antonio.

Where does that leave us with the Spurs? I'm not sure. Whenever a team relies so heavily on a guy with as many miles as Duncan, it can all go away in a second. But I'm still sticking with the theory that San Antonio just got unlucky to run into a team perfectly equipped to deal with their weaknesses.


Thunder Vs. Nuggets: Russell Westbrook Stops Passing, Plays Hero Ball, Kills Puppy

The Oklahoma City Thunder embody everything we want the league to be about. They're a small-market team with likeable superstars that built around character, athleticism and defense. They stand in complete contrast to the big bullies in Los Angeles, Miami and Boston. So when Russell Westbrook pulls the act he did down the stretch in Game 4 against the Nuggets, we are OUTRAGED.

To review: Westbrook took 30 shots in the game, an entirely too large number from your point guard. He often stopped running the Thunder's offense to make mad dashes to the rim or shoot horribly contested jump shots. In the last seven minutes, Westbrook ended 10 of the Thunder's possessions. Kevin Durant, meanwhile, ended just five. Clearly, the balance is a bit out of whack, and it's a problem that needs to be fixed. 

But let's get real folks. There was a massive overreaction to what transpired on Monday night, and a few things need to be cleared up:

First, this has been happening all season. Between the two players, it was Westbrook, not Durant, that had the higher usage rate. In crunch time, the two have been awkward at best. There are tons of reasons for this, only some of which has to do with Westbrook. Yes, Russell gets a little antsy and tries to make too much happen, but Durant's got things to overcome too. His issue is that he's still not great at powering through defenders in isolation situations down the stretch. They crowd him, and his high dribble is an issue. He's so good at shooting over people that it often doesn't matter, but I can't blame Westbrook for sometimes thinking a drive to the basket is better. Also, don't forget Scott Brooks' overly-simple schemes, which have only marginally improved this year. In short: it's not just about Russell.

Second, we forget how young these players are. Westbrook is 22. Durant is 22. How often do we see two superstars perfectly share the ball every game? It didn't happen with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, even though one is a guard and one is a big man. It's not going to always happen with Westbrook and Durant, especially given how both are perimeter players. Westbrook has come a long way in his development, but he's still a converted point guard that has issues to work out. Let's give him some latitude to do that.

Finally, let's think about what the Thunder really have to solve here. Besides Miami, is there any other team whose biggest issue is crunch time? Sure, it's an important issue, but other teams have bigger problems. In Los Angeles, they're wondering if they can stop point guards. In Boston, they're wondering if they're too old and small. In San Antonio, they're wondering if they can even win a round. In Chicago, they're wondering if they have enough offense to supplement Derrick Rose. Among contenders, it's only in Miami and Oklahoma City where the specific issue is how two stars get along. I don't know about you, but I'd rather have that problem than any of the others. You can overcome iffy crunch-time execution with great players making great plays. It's much harder to fill a more fundamental void.

Point being: Westbrook will be fine, the Thunder won't be perfect and we all need to relax. One bad game out of four can be allowed. Are we really shocked at a young team experiencing some struggles in high-pressure situations in the playoffs?


Blazers Vs. Mavericks: As It Turns Out, Dallas Isn't A Team That Chokes

When will we put away the stupid meme that the Dallas Mavericks are soft? Hopefully, we can now that the Mavericks did what they did to beat the Blazers in Game 5. All weekend, we had to hear about how the Mavericks are choke artists that would blow this series like they blew Game 4 in Portland. In the end, Dallas got tough and won Game 5 with one of the grittier performances you'll see.

Dallas scrapped and clawed, especially in that third quarter. They attacked the basket instead of settling for jumpers. They pounded the offensive glass, with Tyson Chandler procuring 13 all by himself. They did this even though Portland is the bigger, taller and more athletic team. Dallas shot 3-17 from three-point range and just 41 percent from the field, yet they still won by 11 because it did things the tougher team should do. The Mavericks outrebounded Portland 49-37 and took 35 free throws. 

Who was the man who set the tone? Yup, it was supposed soft superstar Dirk Nowitzki. We think of Dirk as just a jump-shooter, but that's unnecessarily demeaning. Only six of his 18 field-goal attempts on Monday were outside of the paint, and that's not including all those possessions that led to his 11 free-throw attempts. This despite the Blazers checking Nowitzki with a taller, longer and more athletic big man in LaMarcus Aldridge for much of the game. Dirk had his shot blocked and/or altered several times, but that didn't stop him from attacking the rim. His team followed and got a huge, huge win.

Dallas isn't perfect. But they are most definitely not soft. 


Spurs Vs. Grizzlies: Memphis' Success Causes Us To Rethink Chris Wallace

Earlier, we talked about the Spurs' demise. But there's another story in this series, one that is slowly starting to emerge. Maybe, just maybe, Chris Wallace, Michael Heisley and the rest of the Grizzlies management that we've joked about over the years is actually competent.

Specifically, we might need to rethink the Pau Gasol trade a bit. The seemingly lopsided trade provided Memphis cap space in the form of Kwame Brown's expiring contract, two late-round draft picks and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies used most of the cap space to absorb Zach Randolph's contract two years ago, then used the picks to acquire Darrell Arthur and Greivis Vasquez. On Monday, those four players combined to score 43 points on 17-27 shooting in a Game 4 rout of the Spurs. In other games in this series, the four players have scored even more. Not bad for a seemingly lopsided trade.

The truth is that Wallace, Heisley and the others are neither geniuses or frauds. Heisley is pretty terrible at PR and jerked around rookie Xavier Henry over a couple hundred thousand dollars last summer, but this is the second time as the Grizzlies owner that he has willingly opened his pocketbook to support a winner, despite the possibility he will lose a lot of his money. Wallace made his share of mistakes, gave Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and Randolph too much money and may have been the guy who decided to draft Hasheem Thabeet in 2009 (we'll never know where Wallace's autonomy stops and Heisley's begins), but he also signed Tony Allen cheaply, executed the Gasol trade and found a spectacular coach in Lionel Hollins. They're both like anyone else: good at some things, bad at others. 

We were wrong to ridicule them earlier. Now, let's not swing too far in the other direction and unconditionally praise them.


Thunder Vs. Nuggets: J.R. Smith Goes Bananas, Lets You Know About It

There are few sights more entertaining in professional basketball than J.R. Smith getting hot in a playoff game. That's what happened Monday night, and it was just the spark the Nuggets needed to knock off the Thunder and force a Game 5. Smith dropped 11 of his 15 points after checking into the game late in the third quarter, hitting contested three-pointers that only he is capable of hitting. 

To call Smith mercurial is to say the sky is blue. For five years, he has driven coach George Karl insane with his inconsistent play, his shot selection and his off-court antics. Earlier in this series, Smith, a free agent at the end of the year, decided it was the right time to declare that he was probably not coming back. My guess is that the Nuggets don't really want him back either, which means we'll get to see another team take a chance on the package he brings to the table. 

Smith is the kind of guy you want to root for, but never want to deal with. If you work for the Denver Nuggets, you're probably a bit appalled by the excessive celebration, given the timing of the shots and the fact that Smith's team is down 3-0. If you're a critic, you probably wonder when Smith is ever going to "get it." But sometimes, it's OK to just be a fan and enjoy the show. Where else can you get this sort of face?


Honorable mention: Tony Allen's haircut ... the Blazers go cold again ... this glorious Nuggets sign.

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