1. A Team Emerging: Don't look now, but the Grizzlies are starting to look like a real basketball team. With a convincing win tonight, the team has won four of its past five and, at 5-9, is only a few tantalizing possessions away from being 7-7. They aren't that far from being a decent team (which makes the boneheaded way they rounded out the roster at the end of the summer even more depressing, but I've bemoaned that too much lately already) and aren't that far from being a fun team to watch, though a 1-8 start and the Iverson debacle have guaranteed that it'll be hard to get people to notice.
Tonight was a quality team win, with all five starters in double figures, good contributions from the bench, and six players with two or more assists. And an identity is emerging: One of the league's most rugged yet skilled post tandems (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) as a focal point, flanked by a couple of dynamic perimeter scorers (Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo), with young, hustling, defensive-oriented role players (Sam Young, DeMarre Carroll, hopefully Darrell Arthur later) off the bench. If the team can straighten out its point guard play (more on this in a bit) and mold top pick Hasheem Thabeet into an every-night contributor — neither an easy task right now — this team will start to make a lot of sense.
I know that teams built around dominant individual stars usually win big, but I have a long personal history of rooting for balanced teams (Bad Boys Pistons, Pippen/Sheed Blazers, Miller/Smits Pacers, Webber/Divac Kings, etc.) against superstars. I can get behind a team that has four players averaging between 15 and 22 points and looks like it's starting to grow some backbone. The question now is whether this progress can survive the five-game West Coast road trip the team embarked after tonight's game.
2. Rudy Gay: Creeping Up on "The Leap"?: I've already written about how Marc Gasol warrants at least a bit of all-star discussion. But what about Rudy Gay? On the season, Gay came into tonight's game averaging 22 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.7 steals on 51% shooting. And it's no coincidence that Gay has raised his game along with improved team play over the past five games: 24 points, 7.5 boards, 3 assists, 1.8 steals and 54% shooting over the past five games as the team's gone 4-1. And along the way, the abysmal defense that marred Gay's game early in the season has improved noticeably.
He's simply playing a more focused, forceful game than he ever has. And tonight was no exception: Gay scored 24 points (10-17 shooting), with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Gay is more focused on attacking the rim this season, but he's also been the kind of clutch late-game shooter he showed hints of in his breakout second season. Tonight, when the Kings cut a large Grizzlies lead to 10 with 4:30 to play, Gay held them off by sticking consecutive jumpers, one a three-pointer. Saturday night against the Bucks, Gay brought the team back from a five-point deficit late with back-to-back buckets to tie it at 90-90, before the Bucks pulled away again. And in the road win against Philadelphia Friday, Gay steadied a wobbly Grizzlies team with a game-sealing jumper at the 0:19 mark.
How many small forwards in the West have been better than Gay this season? Unfortunately the conference boasts probably the second and third best players in the league (after Lebron James) at the position:
Carmelo Anthony: 31-6-3 48%
Kevin Durant: 27-7-3 45%
After that? I'm not sure anyone's been better than Gay. You could argue Brandon Roy since he's played small forward so much in small-ball lineups this season, but he's a natural scoring guard. After that, the only cases to be made over Gay are Ron Artest and Grant Hill, who have taken on secondary scoring roles but have been strong role players on really good teams.
3. A Decent Night at the Point: The Grizzlies point guard play tonight doesn't look like much on the surface — Mike Conley and Jamaal Tinsley combined for 18 points (6-15 shooting), 10 assists, and 5 turnovers — but by the team's recent low standards, it was a good night at the point.
Conley's once-improving jump shot seems to have deserted him, but he's shown some signs of steadying himself over the past couple of games, logging decent scoring and assist numbers relative to his playing time (11 and 7 in 26 minutes tonight) and playing some pretty good on-ball defense at times. Any signs of life from Conley are encouraging right now.
As for Tinsley, he played 22 minutes in his third appearance, or double his total in the previous two games, putting up his first NBA points in two seasons and looking much better than in his rocky initial return. Tinsley had some really terrible bad-pass turnovers tonight that seemed to be a result of not quite being used to sizing up NBA-caliber defenders again, but was generally steady. Conley was probably better tonight individually, but Tinsley showed surer command of the team on the floor, especially in the fourth quarter, and his veteran presence could be a good contrast to Conley the rest of the way.
If Tinsley continues to round into shape and Conley neither plummets nor busts out, then a time share similar to what we saw tonight (Conley, 26 minutes; Tinsley, 22 minutes) could be the way things are headed. Given how much of a drag the point guard play has been most of the season, this arrangement should represent an upgrade.
The Jacob Riis Report: Man, I really like the Kings' rookies: After a poor first game against the Grizzlies, Tyreke Evans came to play in his return to FedExForum, scoring 28 points on 10-18 shooting (including 7-7 from the line; did he do that as a Tiger?), with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. It was the first time I'd seen him play in person, discounting his individual workout with the Grizzlies this summer, and he's more impressive up close. Watching him barrel past O.J. Mayo and then slither around Marc Gasol to finish at the rim was a display of power and elusiveness that is already special. Less than a month into his rookie season, Evans is already a guy that demands a team-defensive strategy to contain. You can't leave an individual defender on an island with him.
And I've loved Omri Casspi since I first saw him in FedExForum in the Nike Hoop Summit a few years ago, when he looked like the second best player on the floor (after Derrick Rose). Casspi plays with intensity, defends, runs the floor, and knocks down long jumpers. He had 15 points, a three, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals off the bench for the Kings, and might have done more but was ejected midway through the 4th quarter after picking up his second technical foul. I imagine he'll be the starting three for the Kings before too long, though he's got a pretty good role model there in Andres Nocioni — who has a similar build and game.
Heading into tonight's game, Marc Gasol was in the top three in both rebounds per game and field-goal percentage. His rebounds fell off a bit (only 6 tonight in a game where both teams shot well), but his shooting continued to sizzle, with an 8-10 from the floor. Over the past five games, he's shooting 83% and these aren't all uncontested dunks.
Overheard: "Three turnovers! Come on, let's get us a shot. I don't care if you shoot it as soon as you get across halfcourt!" — Kings coach Paul Westphal after the Kings opened the game with three consecutive turnovers.
Hasheem Thabeet entered the game and immediately launched a Tyreke Evans lay-up attempt into the stands. Small victories. He also had 3 fouls in 5 minutes before heading back to the bench.
Overheard II: "I can't have a bunch of guys calling each other pussies. What do you want me to do, wait until they start fighting?" — a referee to a Kings' assistant after Rudy Gay and Omri Casspi were whistled for double technical fouls.
DeMarre Carroll had a nice game off the bench (8 points, 5 boards, 4-7 shooting). But if he's going to be the "new Shane Battier" — a notion I've never endorsed, much preferring the "more skilled Bo Outlaw" comparison — then he's going to have to master the Shane Battier Memorial Baseline Jumper. Tonight, Carroll badly airballed a SBMBJ.