I've been on a Grizzlies hiatus for the past week or so as my wife and I welcomed our second child and first son into the world. Tonight was my first game back since the Orlando game on January 25th. Am I resentful that I sat through this desultory dud of a game while missing the packed-house nail-biter against the Lakers? You bet!
I'm hoping that the insistent demands of a nocturnal infant will force me to be a more concise and efficient post-game blogger. Let's find out:
1. Playoff Hopes Taking a Hit?: As of this writing, the Grizzlies are 10th place in the Western Conference — two games out of the eighth and final playoff seed, three games from the fifth seed, and, amazingly, only 4.5 games out of the third seed, all with nearly half a season still to play. In other words, still very much in the thick of a very tight playoff race.
But I think you'd have to be less confident about this team earning a playoff birth after the past week. Not only have the Grizzlies lost four of their past five games, but have lost very costly home games to the Hornets and Rockets.
If we give the San Antonio Spurs the benefit of the doubt they've earned and pencil them into the playoffs along with the Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Mavericks, then that leaves the Grizzlies competing with the following five teams for one of three remaining playoff spots: Phoenix Suns, Portland Trailblazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Hornets, and Houston Rockets.
Games against those teams are going to be particularly important, especially home games, which have been something of a problem for the Grizzlies despite an overall 18-6 home record heading into tonight's game.
The Grizzlies are 5-6 overall against these five opponents, but only 2-4 at home, losing home games to Portland, Oklahoma City, and, most recently, New Orleans and Houston. (Oddly, the Grizzlies have faired better on the home court against elite teams. Against the top five teams in the league as of today — Cleveland, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando, Denver, and Boston — the Grizzlies have gone 4-1 at home, losing only to the Celtics in a very close game. )
It's hard to imagine the Grizzlies having a losing record against this group of teams and still making the playoffs. They have seven left, including four at home.
2. An Ass-Kicking: What happened tonight? Let's turn it over to head coach Lionel Hollins for an explanation: "Have you even been in a fight and somebody beat your ass?," Hollins asked at his post-game press conference. "Well that's what happened tonight."
Hard to argue with that. The 18-point loss was the team's first double-digit home loss since November 10th against Portland and second-worst home loss of the season after the 22-point opening-night drubbing at the hands of the Pistons. Paired with the 16-point loss at Cleveland earlier in the week, this marks the first back-to-back double-digit losses for the Grizzlies since late November.
What were the details of this particular ass-kicking?
Offensively, the Grizzlies went 1-9 from three-point range (the only make was a garbage-time shot from Marcus Williams that I don't even remember) and couldn't get their transition game going after the first quarter. On the game, the team's 21 fastbreak points on an 8/12 conversion rate looks decent. But the Grizzlies scored 10 of those points on 4-6 shooting in the first quarter (after which the game was tied 25-25) and only 11 fastbreak points in the final three quarters (in which Houston outscored the Grizzlies 76-58).
This forced the Grizzlies to attack the heart of a very tough, very good halfcourt defense. Early on, Rudy Gay was effective, making quick dribble moves into the paint and elevating over defenders to get his shot off. He started the game 4-4. But the bigs were getting flustered by the Rockets, particularly Marc Gasol, who was matched against the Rockets' 6'6" starting center Chuck Hayes. Rather than exploiting this size mismatch, Gasol was getting stripped, bumped, and generally harassed into a rough start. Zach Randolph was having similar if less severe problems. In the second half, Gasol settled down and carried the Grizzlies for awhile, but then the perimeter players disappeared. (Rudy Gay didn't make another field goal after that 4-4 start.) And aside from a solid showing from Sam Young (12 points on 5-7 shooting), the bench was little help, with Jamaal Tinsley and DeMarre Carroll combining to shoot 0-10, mostly on a series of hopelessly flat jumpers.
Defensively, the Grizzlies were getting beat at their own game: Offensive rebounding. The Grizzlies have been the best offensive-rebounding team in the league this season, but tonight the Rockets were +8 on the offensive boards.
3. Questions at the Point: Another bad game for Mike Conley (4 points on 2-8 shooting) and another huge mismatch in terms of point-guard production, as Rockets counterpart Aaron Brooks scored 19 points (albeit with only 4 assists), including a dynamic third-quarter stretch when he put on a shot-making clinic — hoop and harm, deep three, floater off the glass. Brooks was a late first-rounder. A few games ago, Conley was thoroughly outplayed by a second-round rookie, New Orleans' Darren Collison.
The Grizzlies don't need to win the point-guard battle every night. This team is set up for the focus to be more on the other four positions. The Grizzlies are fine with a Mike Conley who hits opens shots, takes care of the ball, and plays decent defense. But Conley has been up-and-down all season and has been mired in a particularly bad stretch of late. With the meager options off the bench, the Grizzlies badly need Conley to be proficient.
Midway through the fourth quarter, down by 17, Hollins made a surprising move, subbing Young for Conley and shifting O.J. Mayo to the point. Hollins said after the game that he was merely looking for a spark. He didn't find one, and pulled all the starters two minutes later. (Mayo was struggling as much as Conley tonight: 11 points on 4-14 shooting, 1 assist, 3 turnovers.)
Hollins suggested after the game that he didn't intend to make use of the Mayo/Young backcourt going forward, that it was just a spur of the moment thing. But I'd like to see that backcourt get some minutes beyond garbage/desperation time. Not only would I like to see more evidence on whether Mayo can be shifted — full- or part-time — to the point, but given the struggles of both Conley and Tinsley and the relative production and defensive potential of Young, I think giving the Mayo/Young configuration some minutes could make better overall use of the team's talent.
All of these questions about Conley's rocky play and Mayo's potential for moving onto the ball more are subjects for further research. I hope to get into them in more detail sometime in the next couple of weeks.
The Jacob Riis Report: Former Tiger Joey Dorsey's career NBA production before tonight: 2 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes. His production tonight: 7 points and 12 rebounds in 19 minutes. So this really was a career game. Dorsey got a nice ovation from the home crowd and then went out and gave them the wrong idea about what kind of NBA player he is. Or did he? I've never been much of a believer in Dorsey as a pro, but I didn't see Chuck Hayes lasting in the league either, and look at what Houston's done with him. Dorsey fits the current Houston model: Undersized and underskilled but tough, defensive-oriented, and with a nose for the ball. Dorsey's knucklehead tendencies don't quite fit, and having your first productive NBA game midway through your second season at age 26 doesn't usually portend great things. But Daryl Morey and the Rockets have done a great job finding and developing quality players from unexpected sources. Maybe tonight was a fluke. But maybe it's something Dorsey can build on.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies head to Minnesota Saturday night for a game they really need to win, but it won't be easy. The Wolves have been one of the league's worst teams this season, but are playing better, winning three straight, including an impressive 117-108 win at Dallas tonight. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have gone 1-11 on the second night of back-to-backs.
Shane Battier was rocking a very Burt Reynolds-esque mustache tonight.
I'd like to see more of Lester Hudson. The shot-hungry rookie forces things a little too much, but he also has some shot-making ability the bench needs. He was 1-2 tonight in four minutes, but also had a made jumper wiped away after being called for pushing off on Chase Buddinger. It was a legit foul, but also a pro move.
Trevor Ariza's third-quarter dunk on Zach Randolph rivals Travis Outlaw's tomahawk on Rudy Gay for opponent dunk of the year (Non-Lebron-James Division) at FedExForum this season.