The Grizzlies moved to 20-18 in a wild, record-setting night at FedExForum, setting a new season high in points, assists (33), and three-pointers (11) en route to tying the franchise record for consecutive home wins with seven.
A lot to look at coming out of this one. A few of the things I took away:
1. The Best They Can Be: The Grizzlies starting five has had plenty of time to build chemistry this season, having played nearly 75 more minutes as a unit than any other five-man group in the NBA this season. But that starting five has probably never been better than they were against an overmatched Timberwolves squad Friday night.
On the season, the Grizzlies — 11th in offensive efficiency — have been a good offensive team despite getting very little production from the bench. And they've done this despite a series of lingering problems: Aside from the bench, the Grizzlies this season have generally been plagued by a lack of three-point shooting (29th in attempts per game, 25th in percentage), poor assist production (27th in assist ratio; an overrated problem but a problem nonetheless), too many turnovers (19th in turnover ratio, and number that’s been improving of late), and inconsistent play from starting point guard Mike Conley.
But against the Timberwolves, none of these things were problems: The Grizzlies hit 11-23 from three-point range (10-15 from starters), notched 33 assists (28 from starters), only nine turnovers (only four from the starters), and Mike Conley had one of his best games of the season (18 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover, 7-10 shooting).
So what happens to the starting unit when all the usual offensive weaknesses turn into strengths? Against the Wolves, as a full unit, the starters outscored their opponents 80-52 in 25.5 minutes. Pro-rated over a full 48-minute game, that would be a 151-98 score.
The third quarter against Minnesota, which the Grizzlies won 40-22 with the starting unit playing 10 minutes together, was the most explosive stretch of basketball the team's had all season, with 14 assists on 17-24 shooting, including 23 fastbreak points on a perfect 10-10 conversion rate.
It got a little Globetrotter-like in one three-minute stretch early in the quarter, in which the Grizzlies outscored the Wolves 17-6 with Rudy Gay scoring 10 of those points as well as leading a break off his own steal and setting up Zach Randolph for a lay-up with a flashy "Showtime Magic"-style pass. This stretch was one of those zones you don't see that often, and it was fun to watch. Gay and Randolph each had 5 assists on the game. It was that kind of night.
2. A Long Look for the Bench: The Grizzlies started the second quarter with a full line-up of bench players. I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time this season the Grizzlies have put five bench players on the floor together in the first half of a game.
Lionel Hollins said after the game that he'd been experimenting with a five-man bench unit in practice and still wasn't comfortable with it, and you could see why: With that unit on the floor to start the second, the Wolves cut into the Grizzlies lead quickly and after three minutes, Hollins summoned Marc Gasol to replace a foggy-headed Hasheem Thabeet. It's hard to expect much when the five-man bench unit you're putting on the floor includes three rookies picked #28 or later, another rookie lotto pick who just isn't good at basketball right now, and a dude who hasn't played in two years.
But Hollins still used the bench more in the first half than has been the season norm, and in the second half the starters made sure Hollins could give his bench a nice, long look, playing only bench players the entire fourth quarter.
Rookies Sam Young and DeMarre Carroll both shot the ball well from mid-range — something that certainly can't be counted on every night — with Young also making some crafty plays around the rim to score 17 points in 18 minutes (7-12 shooting). Young has solidified himself as an every-night player, but I've been thinking for the past couple of weeks that Carroll should be getting a longer look and was pleased with his play tonight. Carroll's shaky shot-making can be frustrating, but he's settled down since his too shot-happy early play and seems like he's capable of soaking up more minutes without hurting the team too much.
Hasheem Thabeet had a terrible stretch in the first half but was more focused in the second, rebounding (9 on the game) and defending well even when he wasn't blocking shots (he had 3).
But the most interesting bench player was Lester Hudson, the recent signee and local native who made his second appearance with the team and played 21 minutes. Hudson had some bad moments — forcing some jump shots and missing them badly. But he stopped pressing as much with his long fourth-quarter run and made some plays: He knocked down a couple of mid-range jumpers finished a couple of plays at the rim off feeds from Sam Young, and, most impressively, fed Hasheem Thabeet on a drive-and-dish play for a big dunk late. True, it was garbage minutes against a bad team, but it was still an encouraging stretch from Hudson, who clearly at least has the potential to give the team some scoring off the bench and has certainly earned more chances for himself in the coming games.
3. O.J. Mayo is All Business: It was probably telling that, with things going exceedingly well for the starting unit, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph finally started to get a little too loose — looking for three-point shots and, in Randolph's case, trying to dribble coast-to-coast in traffic rather than throwing it ahead to an open teammate (result: failure to get a shot off before the buzzer). But not O.J. Mayo, who never lost his focus no matter how well things were going.
It's has sometimes been considered a demerit for Mayo that he isn't more expressive on or off the court, but it's becoming clear that he plays with a Tim Duncan-like steely calm. After hanging back early on, Mayo has begun to assert himself more over the past couple of weeks, with a streak of memorable clutch plays — stealing the ball from Brandon Roy and, in the process, the game from the Blazers; his game-winning jumper against Utah; his game-tying contested three-pointer against the Bobcats. In most of these cases, Mayo's reactions are not particularly demonstrative. He nods, and heads back to the bench or to the other end.
Against the Wolves, Mayo was ridiculously efficient: 20 points on 8-11 shooting (2-3 from long-range) with 7 assists, 3 steals, and 0 turnovers in only 27 minutes. Every little part of his game — assists, turnovers, defense, finishing at the rim, converting in transition, etc. — has been subtly improving this season, but a lot of that development was masked by an early three-point shooting slump. Now that the shot's back — and Mayo's jumper is the part of his game to least be worried about — he's playing like a star. The numbers aren't overwhelming only because of the wealth of other options.
The most interesting specific things about Mayo's game tonight was the nature of those 7 assists: Four of the seven were on the break, three of those to Rudy Gay, and two of those on alley-oops. A couple of points about this:
A couple of games ago, Mayo declined to feed an open Gay on the break late against the Bobcats and ended up getting his own lay-up attempt blocked from behind by Gerald Wallace. It was a rare mistake in a stretch of sharp late-game play for Mayo, who should recognize that Gay is the much more talented finisher in transition and should be deferred to when he has an equal or better path to the basket. With that in mind and the fact that the on-court chemistry between Gay and Mayo is a question that still hasn't been put to rest, seeing Mayo set up Gay in transition so often and so well was very positive.
But beyond the connection with Gay, the fact that Mayo is making better passes in transition is a big positive, especially for the case that Mayo should begin to get more minutes on the ball. As a rookie and even earlier this season, Mayo's struggles to set up teammates on even basic transition plays have been among his biggest weaknesses.
The Jacob Riis Report: A few quick thoughts on the Timberwolves since this post is already out of control: The Wolves frontcourt tandem of Kevin Love and Al Jefferson is like a split-atom version of Zach Randolph. Love, who had 9 rebounds in 21 minutes, including 5 on the offensive end, might be the only player Randolph has faced this season who is actually a better pure rebounder. Like Randolph, Love is an undersized, somewhat floor-bound power forward who dominates the boards purely based on strength, hands, timing, and feel. And Jefferson might be the only player Randolph has faced who's a better pure low post scorer. There was a stretch in the second quarter where Jefferson was simply unstoppable, on the way to 21 first-half points on 10-12 shooting. Randolph, of course, is combining both of these strengths into one package this year.
Elsewhere, I'm impressed that Corey Brewer seems to be turning himself into a useful player after such a rough start to his career. I'd still like him better as a seventh or eighth man, I think, but he's a real player now. I remain skeptical about Jonny Flynn, whose strong rookie scoring average seems primarily a function of minutes and touches on a bad team. Having watched him about half a dozen times this season, including now twice in person, I just don't see what's special about Flynn — not his size or his athleticism or his shooting or his playmaking ability. He's only halfway through his rookie season and can certainly still get a lot better, but Flynn has the look of a good back-up point guard to me.
Looking ahead: Marc Gasol was the only starter to top 30 minutes for the Grizzlies, which should help the team a lot as it seeks to win the second game of a back-to-back set for the first time this season against the Spurs Saturday night. San Antonio will come into the game having lost 92-76 at Charlotte Friday night.
Scores from around the league were good for the Grizzlies Friday night, as most of the team's competitors for the Western Conference's final couple of playoff spots lost. The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Hornets, and Los Angles Clippers all lost, leaving the Grizzlies tied for 10th in the conference standings and only a single game out of the eighth and final playoff seed.
O.J. Mayo may have been doing a great job setting up teammates in transition, but he was also on the receiving end a few times. There was a role-reversal with Rudy Gay sending an alley-oop feed Mayo's way, but the sequence of the night happened late in the third quarter when Hasheem Thabeet smothered a Corey Brewer lay-up attempt, Zach Randolph corralled the loose ball and sailed a long pass down court to Mayo, who finished with a reverse dunk in traffic.
Announced attendance tonight: 12,812. Not much of a crowd really, but there are three games in four days and this was the runt of the litter for ticket buyers.