1. A Fragile Surge: The Grizzlies return home tonight 17-17. A few weeks ago, I wasn't sure if they'd ever hit the .500 mark. A week later, I thought they might get there during a mid-January stretch with games against Charlotte, Minnesota, and the Clippers. But the last month has been a story of gradually elevated expectations for the Grizzlies, who not only hit .500 on a recent four-game road swing, but actually got into the black with an inspired come-from-behind win at Portland earlier this week, before falling back to .500 with a bad loss the next night against the same Jazz team they'll face tonight.
I don't think there's anything flukish about this success: The Grizzlies starting line-up is absolutely playoff caliber and Lionel Hollins showed even down the stretch last season an ability to focus and lead players that we hadn't seen on a Grizzlies team in a while.
But I also think this recent surge is fragile: Despite the emergence of Sam Young as a reasonably consistent scoring option, the team is still getting little production from the bench. The success is being built off a heavy workload from a starting lineup that is starting to be hit with minor injuries: Zach Randolph's knee can now be added to Marc Gasol's elbow, Rudy Gay's ankle, and Mike Conley's shoulder on the list of aches and pains the starters are playing through. And playing through with big minutes: Gay, Randolph, and Mayo have all been playing more than 37 minutes a night, with Gasol not far behind. On the season, the Grizzlies starting five has logged nearly 75 more minutes together than any other unit in the NBA.
So, while the Grizzlies playoff potential right now is very real, fatigue, injury, and a lack of depth loom as serious problems going forward.
2. Mayo Emerging: If the Grizzlies season has been a story of the team's Big Four all putting up big numbers, it's been a bit of a relay race. Initially, it was Marc Gasol playing dramatically above expectations and establishing himself as one of the league's most improved players. Then it was Rudy Gay, tightening up his early bad defense, elevating his shooting percentage, and establishing this as a bounce-back season. Then it was Zach Randolph's turn, as he had arguably the best month in franchise history with his dominating 24/14 December and a stretch of nine straight double-doubles.
Well, now it's O.J. Mayo's turn. Early in the season, Mayo's more deferential offensive and faltering three-point stroke suggested a sophomore slump. But he was quietly expanding his game: While his three-point shooting was in decline, he was shooting a better percentage from inside the arc, getting to the basket more (inside attempts up from 21% to 26%), finishing better (interior field-goal percentage jumping from 50% to 65%), and getting few shots blocked (16% of inside shots blocked last year, 13% this year). He's been more aggressive and efficient in transition, at least as a finisher. His turnover ratio is down sharply from his rookie season and his assist ratio is up slightly and rising. Defensively, the Grizzlies were nine points worse (per 100 possessions) with Mayo on the court a year ago. This season, they've been only two points worse defensively.
And over the past couple of weeks, Mayo's three-point shot has returned (15-27 over his past five games) and he's begun to assert himself more offensively, with both 20+ point games and 4+ assist games becoming much more frequent. Layer that on top of the more subtle overall improvements Mayo had been making all along and he's starting to look like an emerging star again.
3. Tonight's Game: I don't put much meaning in the Grizzlies' 117-94 loss at Utah Wednesday night, coming on the second night of a back-to-back and at the end of a four-game trip. The Grizzlies were due for one of those. But I do think my radio colleague Chris Vernon made a good point yesterday about the reason the Jazz seem to be a bad match-up for the Grizzlies: Their well-executed bumper-car halfcourt offense demands a lot of discipline and focus from opposing defenses, and that hasn't been a Grizzlies specialty in recent years. Don't forget, this is still the NBA's youngest team.
So even though the Jazz have not being playing particularly well of late and the Grizzlies are returning home, I'd still rate tonight's game a toss-up. I'll be there tonight, so check back later for more in-game and post-game analysis and commentary.