1. An Improbable Victory: The Orlando Magic are the reigning Eastern Conference champions and currently have the league's seventh best record. And there's no secret to how they're effective. In Dwight Howard, they have the league's most physically imposing interior player — the league leader in both rebounding and shot-blocking. Offensively, Howard dominates in the paint, drawing attention from the Magic's deep array of shooters, resulting in the NBA's most prolific three-point attack. Defensively, Howard single-handedly controls the paint, allowing his teammates to play aggressively around the perimeter.
Tonight? Howard scored 27 points on 9-14 shooting, grabbed 15 rebounds, and blocked 6 shots. Meanwhile, the Magic were shooting 48% from three-point range at one point in the third quarter (13-27). And the Grizzlies had 20 turnovers, several of those turnovers coming on fastbreaks, of which the Grizzlies converted only five of 14 opportunities.
So how the hell did the Grizzlies win this game? I put this question to coach Lionel Hollins afterward, and he responded with words such as "grit," "toughness," and "perseverance." That might sound like happy talk, but it's hard to deny.
The Grizzlies fought back from a 16-point first-half deficit to take a two-point halftime lead after a full-court buzzer-beating heave from Zach Randolph found net. But in the second half, the Magic's combination of Howard and three-point shooters started to wear the Grizzlies down again, with a Jason Williams three-pointer pushing the Magic lead to 84-77 early in the third quarter.
But in the final 10 minutes, the Grizzlies outscored the Magic 22-10 as the Magic missed its final eight three-point attempts and the Grizzlies' starting unit made a series of clutch plays: A confident three-pointer from O.J. Mayo. A quarter-high 6 points, including a tip-in of a Mayo miss and an assist feed to a cutting Rudy Gay for Randolph. A steal and three-point play from Marc Gasol. A high, hanging runner from Mike Conley and the game-sealing feed to Gasol for his hoop-and-harm. Perhaps biggest of all, Gay tying up Magic point guard Jameer Nelson, winning the tip, and coming down the finish a reverse lay-up off the Randolph feed, putting the team up for good 96-94.
It was just a good, hard-fought team win over a high-level opponent, which has become a shockingly mundane thing over the past couple of months, except I really didn't expect it tonight with every indicator going Orlando's way most of the game.
2. Game Ball for Marc Gasol: If the Grizzlies have a representative among the all-star reserves who'll be announced later this week, it will be Zach Randolph, who deserves it. Randolph also had the night's highlight play with his three-quarter-court make to end the first half and the game's most impressive box-score line with 23 points, 19 rebounds, and 3 assists. But the most important player tonight for the Grizzlies was probably Randolph's frontcourt mate, Marc Gasol.
Gasol was charged with one of the toughest tasks in the NBA — guarding Dwight Howard straight-up. And though Howard put up big numbers, he didn't go crazy, putting up those numbers in 45 minutes. Gasol's ability to check Howard without getting in foul trouble or needing constant help allowed the Grizzlies to concentrate more on defending the perimeter and, perhaps more importantly, kept the team from having to use an overmatched Hasheem Thabeet (much less deep center reserves Steven Hunter or Hamed Haddadi) on Howard for more than a few minutes.
Meanwhile, Gasol still managed to put up some decent production of his own: 40 minutes, 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and a career-high 4 steals. Dwight Howard is a force of nature. Marc Gasol is just a tough, skilled basketball player. Among centers in the current NBA, Howard and Tim Duncan (whom I insist is a center) tower above the rest. But after that, Gasol can hold his own with anyone else. And this game was Exhibit A.
3. Burying the Lead: With this win and the Houston Rockets' 102-95 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the 24-19 Grizzlies (tying last season's win total, by the way) moved into sole possession of the Western Conference's 8th and final playoff seed. It's not only the first time this season the Grizzlies have been in that group, but the first time in three-and-a-half years. And with Portland's 98-97 home loss to the New Orleans Hornets, the Grizzlies find themselves a mere 1.5 games out of the 4th seed in the west. And no, that is not a typo. Of course, looking the other way, the Grizzlies are only half a game from being 11th. That's how unbelievably tight the Western Conference playoff race is, and with still a full half-season to go. Barring some sudden drought, the next few months could provide the most exciting basketball in franchise history. The game to watch tomorrow night: A struggling Phoenix Suns team at home against a solid Charlotte Bobcats. If the Suns get upset at home, the Grizzlies will move into 7th place.
The Jacob Riis Report: After a 17-4 start, the Magic have slumped through a 12-12 stretch. Getting a lot of the blame is off-season acquisition Vince Carter, who was mediocre in December and has been terrible in January. Carter started tonight's game with a reverse dunk and showed a few signs of exerting his big physical advantage over O.J. Mayo, but then he would just drift. None of this is surprising to longtime NBA fans, who have watched Carter underachieve throughout his career. If Carter had Mayo's heart and focus, he'd have been Kobe Bryant. As it is, it doesn't look like his stint with the Magic will end well.
O.J. Mayo had a quietly outstanding game: 20 points (7-15 shooting, 2-4 from three-point range), 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. But most impressive was his aggressive, chippy defense on both Carter and J.J. Redick. When Redick's head slammed against Sam Young's ankle after a Mayo drive and he was lying, bleeding on the floor (Redick turned out to be okay), Mayo didn't seem to notice. He was too busy arguing the offensive foul call — and getting a technical. Mayo was animated, however, when Zach Randolph hit that big shot at the end of the first half. Mayo ran over smiling and jumped on Randolph's back. It was a wildly out-of-character reaction.
The Grizzlies got all of 8 points on 4-11 shooting from their bench. Sam Young made some plays in his 12 minutes, but also too many turnovers to play more in such a close game.
Mike Conley had one of his more productive games of the season with 14 points and 7 assists. His three-point shooting — which was supposed to be his biggest weakness coming into the league — has instead been his biggest strength. In hitting 2-3 from long-range tonight, Conley pushed his percentage to 44% on the season and 61% for January.
After starting 5-16 despite a favorable offensive match-up against Rashard Lewis, Zach Randolph dialed-in down the stretch, hitting four of his last five shots.