The Grizzlies beat the Jazz in a hard-fought game tonight to move to 18-17. As the final horn sounded, streamers dropped, and the Gap Band's "You Dropped the Bomb on Me" blasted, an announced crowd of 14,213 in FedExForum got to cheer on an NBA team with a winning record. The last time that happened was in April of 2006.
A few quick thoughts late on a Friday night. (I'll make up for this relative brevity in the coming week.)
1. Toughness: This was not a typical Grizzlies win. The last time the team won without scoring at least 100 points was December 4th, when they scored 98 to beat Dallas. And the previous season-low point total in a win was 97 (twice, both against Minnesota). Friday night, the Grizzlies exploded in the first quarter, outscoring the Jazz 33-14 in large part by forcing turnovers and getting out into transition. In the second and third quarters, Utah dictated, turning it into a slower, uglier, more physical game, and the Jazz outscored the Grizzlies 53-38. The fourth quarter was a war, and the Grizzlies have not been a team likely to slug it out against the likes of the Jerry Sloan-coached Jazz and come away victorious.
This time, despite fielding the youngest roster in the league, they did so. Coach Lionel Hollins likened it to a pitcher in baseball winning without his best stuff. A year ago, this team wouldn't have been able to do that. Now they're displaying a level of both mental and physical toughness — and togetherness — that's been absent for the past three seasons. You could see it in Marc Gasol overcoming a fourth-quarter shoulder injury to come back for a game-saving block. In Mike Conley attacking a brawny Carlos Boozer, then getting up after a crushing foul to hit a free throw — and in his teammates immediately getting in Boozer's face after the foul. In O.J. Mayo overcoming a subpar game to hit a clutch pull-up jumper at the five-second mark to put the Grizzlies up for good.
2. Balance: With four starters averaging 15-plus points per game heading into the night, the Grizzlies have had great balance, at least in the starting line-up. That wasn't the case here, at least through three quarters, when Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph were keeping the Grizzlies alive with 45 of the team's then 71 points. But in the fourth quarter, and especially in the final stretch, the other three starters stepped up to make plays, Mayo, Gasol, and Conley combining for 12 of the team's final 14 points.
3. The Looming Problem: The team's "big four" each played between 39 and 44 minutes tonight, with the bench combining to score only 10 points on 3-8 shooting. With Conley hitting the floor hard and Gasol heading to the bench with his shoulder problem, there were more reminders of the potential trouble this team will face if starters wear down too much or miss games to injury. In the post-game, Hollins said that he manages game minutes to maximize "rest time" for his starters during the game. I'm not sure how much I believe in this — minutes played are still minutes played — but he's clearly thinking through the problem and trying to find a way to manage it while still giving his team a chance to win every night. And he acknowledged that the team needs more production from the bench, citing the lack of scoring in particular putting too much pressure on the team defensively when it goes to the bench.
The Jacob Riis Report: Kyle Korver has been banged up this season for the Jazz and made only his eighth appearance. But he appears to be rounding back into shape and was effective tonight, scoring 10 points off the bench on 4-5 shooting. With the Grizzlies' stated desire to add bench scoring without taking on multiple-year contracts, the Jazz's acknowledged need to shed salary in an attempt to get under the luxury-tax threshold, and the Grizzlies as one of the very few teams with remaining cap space, some kind of Korver-to-Memphis deal would seem to make a lot of sense. Korver for Steven Hunter would clear roughly $1.5 million for Utah. Korver for Hamed Haddadi and Marcus Williams would clear more than $2.5 million for the Jazz. Add in rookie guard Wes Matthews from the Jazz end — which they'd probably be reluctant to do — and Utah could clear more than $3 million. I can't think of any potential deals that make more sense than this.
The Grizzlies picked up former Central High School and UT-Martin production Lester Hudson, who was waived by the Celtics early this week. Hudson was in the building tonight, but not dressed. A combo guard with good size, athleticism, and a scoring knack, Hudson is an intriguing project for the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies blocked a season-high 14 shots. Five of those came from Marc Gasol, including two forceful rejections of Carlos Boozer and the game-saver on C.J. Miles. Hasheem Thabeet had two blocks in five minutes — along with four fouls and zero field-goals.
The Grizzlies have a dry-erase board at the entrance to the locker room that tracks the Western Conference standings. After beating the Jazz, the Grizzlies are still 11th in the West and still a half game behind Utah, but it's getting tight. The Grizzlies are currently only one game out of the 8th spot, and thus the playoffs. And only 1.5 games away from the 7th seed.