A big win + a paucity of posts during the recent long road trip = a rare four-point play of a post-game report:
1. Win of the Year: Tonight's win over the Mavericks may not have been quite as surprising as the team's big win at Portland last week, but I think it's ultimately more impressive and more meaningful.
The Blazers followed their loss to the Grizzlies by getting blown out at Utah and then losing at home to Miami, so the Griz loss may have been part of a team slump. But tonight, the Grizzlies beat a near-elite (14-5 coming into the game, leading the Southwest Division) with an MVP-level star, and beat them soundly in front of a decent-sized home crowd.
Against the Blazers, the Grizzlies got a big lead and played tight, milking the clock too early, not getting great shots, and letting the Blazers cut into the lead. The Grizzlies held on, but the same thing happened two days later against the Clippers and the game fell apart.
There were signs of this tonight: The Grizzlies went up 17 with 7 minutes to play after a Rudy Gay three pointer, but coming out of a Dallas timeout the team seemed to settle into that familiar "playing not to lose" mold, milking clock without getting into the offense and getting good shots, and Dallas starting to creep up. A 9-4 Mavericks run over next two minutes cut the lead to 11 with 4:30 to play. But at this point, coach Lionel Hollins called a timeout and the Grizzlies came back with more aggression, going on a 8-0 run over the next 80 seconds — an O.J. Mayo 3, a Mike Conley 3, a Zach Randolph putback — to ice the game.
In many ways it was an ideal total game for the Grizzlies: They got O.J. Mayo involved early and he got into a shooting rhythm. Zach Randolph, after favoring his mid-range jumper too much on the road trip, got back to pounding the glass (9 offensive rebounds) and attacking defenders going to the basket instead of fading away. Though he had a few frustrating misses, Rudy Gay played a versatile game, scoring from long-range, mid-range, and at the rim and filling the stat sheet (18-6-3 with 3 "stocks" ["blocks + steals" — credit to Bill Simmons]). The bench contributed. The point guards were not terrible. The team defended the best opposing scorer smartly. They executed down the stretch. Great job all-around.
2. D on Dirk: I was very worried about the prospect of Zach Randolph trying to defend Dirk Nowitzki tonight. Dirk has been playing at an MVP level this season — 27-8-3 averages — and Randolph has never been a good defender. But the Grizzlies did a great job on Nowitzki tonight. Marc Gasol, DeMarre Carroll, and Rudy Gay were all on him at one time or another, but Randolph got the bulk of the duty and his effort and attentiveness were noticeable and impressive.
Nowitzki can dominate offensively from anywhere on the court. The best you can hope to do is contain him, force him into contested mid-range jumpers, and just hope he doesn't get hot anyway. The Grizzlies did this tonight: Nowitzki had only 16 points on 7-22 shooting, but 15 of his attempts were from mid-range, mostly contested fade-aways. He can make these tough shots like lay-ups when he's really on, but tonight he wasn't and he shot 5-15 from mid-range (0-3 from three and 2-4 in the paint).
A frustrated Nowitzki headed back to the locker room with several seconds still on the game clock.
3. O.J. Mayo's "Throwback" Game: O.J. Mayo led the Grizzlies tonight with 25 points on 10-16 shooting, including 5-8 from three-point range. Twenty games into the season, Mayo this was only Mayo's second 25+ scoring night. By contrast, through his first 20 games last season, Mayo had gone for 25+ seven times.
This year's Grizzlies team has more offensive weapons, and Mayo should be lauded for sacrificing some of his offense as the team has put more emphasis on an improved inside game. But Mayo's shooting percentages have also been down. He just hasn't been able to get into a good rhythm. That changed tonight, and immediately. The Grizzlies put the ball in Mayo's hands on the very first possession and he got involved in the offense early, hitting his first 6 shots en route to scoring 14 first-quarter points.
Mayo was stroking the ball with tonight with a confidence — no hesitation, dropping shots right in the defenders' faces — that looked more like what we saw in a rookie campaign that suggested future stardom. Let's hope it carries over.
4. Bench Coming Together: It might seem odd to praise bench play on a night where the Mavericks reserves outscored their Grizzlies counterparts 34-15, but the Griz bench played better than its collective stats tonight (helping to hold leads; all four bench rotation players with a positive +/- on the night) and the improving bench play is a story coming out of the road trip.
The bench was an open sore during the team's 1-8 start, but seems to be developing into a decent four-man unit:
Jamal Tinsley has stabilized the point guard rotation with a needed veteran presence and give the team a play-making option that can ably play majority minutes if Mike Conley isn't producing.
Sam Young, despite 1-5 shooting tonight, has become a generally consistent scoring threat and able wing defender, playing a slashing power game with an old-school twist — a knack for using the glass on short- and mid-range shots. Young needs to improve a flat, hitch-plagued jumper, but that's the only thing stopping him from developing into a starter-caliber pro.
Hasheem Thabeet is benefiting from the low expectations he set in Summer League and preseason but is showing signs. He's rebounding at a high level (5 boards in 17 minutes tonight) and blocking and altering shots (2 blocks tonight). He has no offensive game whatsoever, but is at least not forcing the issue on that end. He's still extremely raw and still has embarrassing moments, for sure. But lately Thabeet has emerged as a viable back-up center with legitimate defensive value and a tangible upside. It's a start.
DeMarre Carroll's minutes have fluctuated as Young and Thabeet have begun to emerge and he's struggled with his offense, but he was very good in 9 minutes tonight and displayed the strengths that should make him an extremely useful role player going forward: The ability to guard multiple positions and to make opportunistic and disruptive plays off the ball.
The Jacob Riis Report: Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois gave the Grizzlies — and particularly Mike Conley — fits early, scoring 9 points on 4-5 shooting in the first quarter, showing tremendous quickness getting to the rim and three-point range. He didn't do much the rest of the way, but Beaubois is clearly a high-upside young player. His quickness and freakish wingspan give him a chance to be a game-changer has he develops. One to watch.
The halftime show tonight was quite the spectacle: Tattooed girls in short-shorts doing a sort of amateurish hula-hoop routine. I kind of loved it but also kept looking around for Chuck Barris and the giant gong. I was told by a team employee that the girls were from Nashville. Note to the team: If you want hula-hoopin' punk-rock girls again, don’t ship them in. Buy local. This can be done. I also think this opens the door for all manner of lovably sketchy halftime shows. Can we get the roller-derby girls involved? Classic Memphis wrestling? Harvard vs. Horn Lake Trivia? Rap battles?
After a steal and breakaway, Mike Conley threw down a two-hand dunk. I think that's the first one of those I've seen.
The Grizzlies tonight were 9-17 from three-point range, with Mayo (5-8), Gay (2-2), and Conley (2-4) all contributing. Conley is now 6-11 from three over his past two games. Emerging trend or fluke? We shall see.
The Grizzlies paired Hasheem Thabeet and Hamed Haddadi for the last couple of minutes tonight. Definitely one of the most entertaining Twin Towers tandems in NBA history and some kind of awesome "victory cigar."