Monday, December 21, 2009

Post-Weekend Three-Pointer

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2009 at 12:07 AM

The Grizzlies had a nice weekend, beating the Indiana Pacers 107-94 at FedExForum Friday night and then returning for a rare Sunday afternoon home game today to take down the Denver Nuggets 102-96.

Zach Randolphs interior toughness has helped given the Grizzlies an identity.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Zach Randolph's interior toughness has helped given the Grizzlies an identity.
After what threatened to be a season-killing 1-8 start, the Grizzlies have won 11 of 18 since to move to 12-15, including 6-3 so far in the month of December. With the Grizzlies potentially favorites in three of the remaining four December games (home against Golden State and Washington, at Indiana), the team could potentially find itself only a game away from .500 heading into 2010.

Since I had post-game plans immediately after both games this weekend, I wasn't able to do traditional post-game reports, so I'm going combining the games into this three-pointer.

There was a similar flow to both games: The Grizzlies jumping out to great starts (20-8 opening run versus the Pacers, a 50-27 lead midway through the second quarter against the Nuggets), faltering in the middle stretch (trailing by 5 at the half against the Pacers, letting the Nuggets creep to within two midway through the fourth quarter), and then finding their footing to close out the games (a dominant second half against the Pacers, and a series of clutch scores to hold on against the Nuggets).

Another similarity: Zach Randolph having words with opposing bigs. Against the Pacers, rookie Tyler Hansbrough showed up Randolph after a steal and dunk, despite Randolph dominating Hansbrough most of the game. Before Randolph took a seat in the fourth quarter, he wandered over to give the rookie some firm advice. Against the Nuggets, Randolph and Nene got tangled, had some words, and suddenly referees and coaches were breaking up a scrum of players shoving and jawing.

Three things I came out of this weekend thinking about:

1. The 30-20 Club: The Player of the Weekend was clearly Zach Randolph, who dominated both games. Against the Pacers, Randolph put up 26 points (11-20 shooting) and 16 rebounds, with 3 assists and 3 blocks. Against the Nuggets, Randolph almost single-handedly held off a Nuggets comeback, finishing with 32 points (13-21 shooting) and 24 rebounds (9 offensive), with 3 assists, a steal, and block and a game-clinching three-pointer in the final minute.

The 24 rebounds were a career high and the single-game high for the NBA so far this season. It was, I'm pretty sure, the first 30/20 game from a Grizzlies player since Lorenzen Wright's fluky 33/26 against the Dallas Mavericks in the inaugural Memphis season.

But while Randolph was soaking up points and rebounds in the paint this weekend, his frontcourt mate, Marc Gasol, was getting his share as well: 17 and 14 against the Pacers, 14 and 13 against the Nuggets.

While Randolph got a 30/20 by himself Sunday, he and Gasol are one of the few frontcourt duos to average a combined 30/20 on the season: Heading into Sunday's game, Randolph and Gasol had combined for 33.1 points and 20 rebounds a game. Only two other tandems in the NBA have combined to reach both marks, and both with asterisks: The Lakers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (34.4/21.2) and the Timberwolves Al Jefferson and Kevin Love (31.2/21.5). In both cases early injuries to one player (Gasol and Love) allowed their respective frontcourt teammates to bolster their individual averages.

The Grizzlies have gotten good interior play before, from the tandem of the elder Gasol and a crafty Wright during the playoff years, but have never been a power team. Until now. Ninth (Randolph) and 11th (Gasol) in the league in rebounding even prior to Sunday's game, the Grizzlies' interior duo is arguably the league's most bruising and most productive. And it's their play that has come to define this team's style and personality.

2. Mike Conley Coming Around: After a terrible first month to the season, Mike Conley seems to be coming around, giving the Grizzlies an effective full starting line-up rather than four good starters and a huge question mark.

Mike Conleys annual slow start seems to have abated.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Mike Conley's annual slow start seems to have abated.
Conley played arguably his best all-around game of the season against the Pacers: 19 points (7-11 from the floor, 5-6 from three), 8 assists, 5 rebounds. Against the Nuggets, Conley's game mirrored the team's: He was smooth, effective, in control in the first half. He was timid and rattled for much of the second half as the Nuggets made their comeback, but he rebounded to make a clutch shot down the stretch to help preserve the win.

After a dreadful opening month, something seems to have clicked with Conley in December: His shooting percentages are up across the board and his scoring rate with them (hitting double-digits in all but one December game), while he's averaging fewer turnovers than in November despite playing more minutes.

Meanwhile, Conley seems to have squashed — at least for the moment — any suggestion that he be supplanted as starter for Jamaal Tinsley (decidedly up and down in his comeback bid).

Can he keep building on this improved play or will he fall back into the maddening inconsistency that's marred his career? The answer to that question will be crucial to whether the team can continue this upward trend and actually get into the playoff conversation.

3. Bench Woes: The Grizzlies' success coming back from a poor start has been built on an extremely heavy workload from its starting lineup, with 7 of 10 starters playing more than 35 minutes against the Pacers or Nuggets. It's hard to imagine this starting unit maintaining these minutes all season without succumbing to reduced performance or injuries, which means the Grizzlies need to get better bench production later in the season to maintain their momentum.

Against the Pacers, the Grizzlies gave double-digit minutes to four reserves, but without much to show for it: 7 points on 3-11 shooting. Against the Nuggets, the Grizzlies played a three-man bench with slightly better results: 15 points (including 10 boards and 4 assists) on 6-14 shooting.

One troubling trend that's emerged: The team somehow trying to make Sam Young a go-to guy. Young shot 4-15 over the weekend and over his past three games (including a dreadful first-half against the Hawks Wednesday) Young has found himself in favorable match-ups that the team has spent far too much energy trying to exploit, Young forcing and missing shots in bunches while more talented offensive players (Randolph, O.J. Mayo) stand around and watch. It was particularly frustrating to watch the team isolate Young against Troy Murphy on at least three consecutive possessions Friday night and come away with zero points.

Hasheem Thabeet continues to show signs of growth — he had his best sequence of the season Sunday, blocking and altering multiple shots on one possession and getting a monster dunk at the other end — and Jamaal Tinsley is at least a viable back-up point guard. But the Grizzlies have no reliable scoring off the bench. Perhaps Allen Iverson could have provided this if he'd been willing. Certainly Hakim Warrick would have helped. As it is, this team is looking forward to potentially adding offensively talented journeyman Von Wafer midseason more than it probably should.

Deflections:

The Grizzlies welcomed roughly 1,500 fans from nearby Poplar Bluffs, Missouri, to Friday's game, who had bussed down to root on favorite son Tyler Hansbrough. That's cool. What wasn't: Letting the Poplar Bluffs high-school band play the anthem, wearing Hansbrough T-shirts. Grizzlies players — most visibly a smirking Rudy Gay and a glowering O.J. Mayo — were not amused. At least they took it out on the Pacers.

All of Mike Conley's career-high 5 three-pointers Friday night were assisted. These are the shots you expect Conley to get in this offense: Open catch-and-shoot threes created by defensive focus on the other scorers. If Conley can consistently knock them down, as he did down the stretch last season and has so far this month, that really helps the team's offense.

Tyler Hansbrough was bigger and more athletic than I anticipated, but just as energetic and annoying. Not even that extra three inches of neck could make up for his size disadvantage against Marc Gasol however, and he still got stuffed on multiple attempts by a non-shotblocking Zach Randolph.

Sunday afternoon, Hasheem Thabeet hit a Shane Battier Memorial Baseline Jumper and made both free-throw attempts. All three shots looked shockingly smooth. He also had a palpable positive impact on the Nuggets shooting and shot-selection in the first half. This was after some deplorable minutes Friday night against the Pacers. Baby steps.

Thabeet, however, still only scored 8 points Sunday, which means he's still waiting for his first double-digit scoring performance. Twenty-seven games and counting.

The announced attendance for the weekend's games certainly weren't good by any stretch: 13,217 for Pacers and 13,385 for Nuggets. But they were ahead of the team's current 29th-ranked season average (12,459).

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