The Memphis Grizzlies can go ahead and kiss their season goodbye.
Winning a do-or-die Game 7 in Chesapeake Energy Arena was always going to be a difficult proposition. Kevin Durant regaining his confidence during a blowout victory on Thursday night—0-of-6 shooting from downtown notwithstanding—was sure to make things even harder, as was a hobbled Mike Conley, who will play with a strained hamstring.
But expecting to emerge victorious without Zach Randolph in the lineup?
After Z-Bo lost his temper with Steven Adams during the fourth quarter of the Game 6 proceedings, he connected on a punch to the jaw. And according to the NBA's rules, that's an automatic suspension, regardless of the circumstances.
Sure enough, the news came rolling in:
"Per NBA suspension rules, it's a no-brainer," wrote Royce Young for CBSSports.com.
There just isn't any way around the punishment, which has to be decided in a vacuum. The game Randolph would miss—in this case, it just happens to be Game 7—cannot factor into the league's decision. If you want to blame anyone, blame him for losing control when the timing of the repercussions would make them seem so severe.
The league isn't trying to manufacture results and matchups, but rather interpreting the rulebook properly. And that book states both that punches above the neck result in suspensions and that players must leave the vicinity of the bench during an altercation in order to be banned.
Of course, nothing will make the absence of Randolph any easier to swallow for the Grizzlies, who have to deal with one of their most effective players watching from outside the lines as everything is laid on the line. By the rules, he certainly should've been suspended, though it's hard to accept such an impactful punishment at this time.
Memphis was already going to have a nearly impossible task in front of it, but this throws a whole new wrench in the plans.
Thunder Already Rolling
First of all, it's worth noting with some degree of detail that the Thunder were already wresting away control of the series.
Six games have been played, and only two were decided in four quarters; both of those contests were definitive victories for OKC. Each of the other four games went to overtime, with the Grizz taking three of them by a combined 10 points.
That's why this chart makes it look as though Oklahoma City should have a had distinct advantage in the first six contests of the series:
|Memphis vs. OKC|
|Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
There are different types of series that go seven games.
Some feature two perfectly even teams, and others showcase a pair of squads that really haven't played at the same level, though a few bounces have evened up the series. However, once Game 7 starts, anything can happen.
Kevin Durant could get in foul trouble. Russell Westbrook could have a cold shooting night. And voila, the Grizzlies could advance to the second round.
But if this particular Game 7 was played 10 times, the Thunder would emerge victoriously more often than not, simply because they're the superior team. And on top of that, they're the superior team coming off a momentum-earning win on the road in a do-or-die situation.
And on top of that again, they're the superior team coming off a momentum-earning win on the road in a do-or-die situation and getting ready to play against an opponent without one of its truly crucial cogs.
Go back and look at that chart once more.
The Grizzlies have scored 100.6 points per 100 possessions, which is an embarrassingly low number. Not only is it the worst mark of any postseason team, per Basketball-Reference, but it would rank No. 29 in the league during the regular season. Only the inept Philadelphia 76ers managed to score at a lower rate.
And now they're losing one of the most important players within their offense, a man who allows them to score when everything is slowed down.
Z-Bo was averaging 18.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game during the postseason, and while he was shooting only 40.4 percent from the field, the ability to serve as a go-to scorer still helped out the Memphis offense rather dramatically.
Those numbers aren't as impressive as they should be, though, since one game can swing them quite a bit when the sample is only six contests. And between Games 3 and 4, there was a lot of swinging.
But the problems go well beyond the individual contributions that Randolph can make and the mental blow that losing him forces the Grizzlies to withstand.
"The Grizzlies have a couple options in replacing Randolph," Young wrote almost immediately after the suspension was announced. "They can start Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos in his place and stay big, or they could go small with Tony Allen in the starting five. The second option seems more likely."
If you start Davis or Koufos, you're maintaining size but sacrificing a lot of offense. And while putting Allen back into the starting five doesn't exactly help the offense, it greatly improves the defensive capacity of the initial group on the court.
But with Allen replacing Z-Bo, the Thunder no longer have to match size. Kendrick Perkins can remain on the bench, with Serge Ibaka checking Marc Gasol and the rest of the OKC lineup shifting accordingly. All of a sudden, the Thunder's potent offense gets even more deadly.
The Allen lineup simply isn't a good idea.
Are either of them?
Additionally, the hidden problem with a suspension doesn't come in the starting lineup. Good teams—which Memphis certainly qualifies as—generally have enough talent to replace one starter for a short time.
But when that starter is lost, a backup replaces him, and a fringe rotation member is forced to play even more. Either that, or all the members of the compressed lineup have to go through even more wear and tear for that one game, leading to tired legs down the stretch.
None of this is good news for the Grizzlies.
"Nothing comes easy for us," Z-Bo said to The Associated Press after his team held on to win in Game 5, via ESPN. "We get it out of the mud, we grind and we're underdogs. It's what we do."
Well, they'll be bigger underdogs than they've been at any point in the first-round series when the apparently prescient power forward isn't able to suit up for the must-win game on Saturday night.
This one definitely won't be easy.