1. Limping Into the Break: After starting the season 1-8, the Grizzlies are entering the All-Star break on a bad 1-6 stretch. What is this team's real level of ability? The 2-14 bookends or that 24-9 stretch in the middle? Those options are so stark that it's pretty clearly somewhere in the middle.
Even when this team was playing its very best, reasonable fans knew that potential injury, likely fatigue, a weak bench, and the deep field of good teams in the Western Conference would all work against the team's rather unlikely run at a playoff birth. The Grizzlies remain lucky on the injury front, but the rest of those concerns are all a factor in the team's recent slide from 7th to 11th in the conference standings.
I'll get into this in more detail in a post-All-Star-break preview post, but for the Grizzlies to remain a factor in the playoff race, they're going to need to get back on track in a hurry coming out of the break. With five of eight April games roadies against likely playoff teams, the Grizzlies probably need a cushion going into the final month. The rest of the February/March schedule is relatively favorable, but if the team can't relocate than December/January mojo it won't matter.
2. What Iverson Was Supposed to Be: Jamal Crawford was magnificent for the Hawks tonight. A shot-happy combo guard, Crawford has fit spectacularly as a volume-scorer off the bench. Tonight, he scored a game-high 28 points in 27 minutes, and on only 14 field-goal attempts, many of them contested, high-arcing three-pointers. The entire Grizzlies bench, by contrast, notched 17 points on 16 field-goal attempts.
In doing so, Crawford played slightly more minutes than starting point guard Mike Bibby (who put up a Conley-esque 11 points and 6 assists), put up many more shots, and finished off the game (at least until garbage-time commenced).
In other words, he played exactly the role I argued in the pre-season Allen Iverson should have played for the Grizzlies, the role the Grizzlies wanted him to play, and the role he refused to play. But instead of playing an important role on a playoff contender, he's getting his shots on a 20-31 Philadelphia team that's looking to ditch it's best player.
Even if he'd accepted what was the ideal role for his talents at this stage of his career, Iverson wouldn't have had the kind of impact on the Grizzlies Crawford has had on the Hawks. He's not as good right now. But Iverson's averaged 14 points and 4 assists on 45% shooting this season, playing 31 minutes a game and not forcing too many three-point attempts (where he's shot a respectable 36%). He would have been a big help to a team otherwise lacking in bench scoring, but his ego wouldn't let him.
In the post-game, Lionel Hollins was asked about having a player like Crawford coming off the bench, and said something about those players being hard to come by without spending too much. What he neglected to say — maybe it was an oversight, but I suspect he just didn't wanted to revisit the past — was that the Grizzlies had that player, and he quit on the team.
3. Losing the Center Match-Up: In his post-game, Hollins suggested that the Hawks presented a lot of match-up problems for the Grizzlies. You could see that as an excuse for the loss, but it's also a reason, and a legitimate one. I wrote the same thing before the game.
Given the recent 1-6 stretch, the Grizzlies have problems that are their own — poor defense, a bad bench, faltering on-court chemistry, shooting slumps, etc. — but there were match-up issues tonight.
The Grizzlies made a defensive switch for most of the game, putting Rudy Gay on Joe Johnson and O.J. Mayo on Marvin Williams. In the preseason, Johnson was very effective posting up Mayo and the Grizzlies apparently wanted to take that away. Williams presents a bigger mismatch size-wise, but isn't as dynamic of a scorer.
The strategy worked to a degree, as Williams was five points above his career average, but Johnson was 11 points under his season average.
The bigger problem was up front where one of the league's most powerful tandems (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol) faced off with one of the league's quickest and most athletic (Josh Smith and Horford). In this case, speed beat power. Randolph played with palpable energy after slumping recently, and put up a more typical stat-line: 20 points and 14 rebounds. But it took him 17 field-goal attempts to get that 20 points. Smith, using his athleticism to get in transition, was more efficient, with 17 points on 10 field-goal attempts.
And at center, this was the rare night where Marc Gasol was outplayed at both ends. Gasol and Horford are both among the league's more improved players, but Horford was the better man tonight. Offensively, he used his quickness to move to open spots and knock down short jumpers or to drive past Gasol and draw fouls. At the other end, the quick doubling and switching of Horford and Smith kept Gasol off balance and kept him from exploiting his considerable size advantage. As a result, Horford scored 15 points on seven field-goal attempts, with 8 boards, 4 assists, and 3 steals. Gasol scored 11 points on seven field-goal attempts, with 6 boards, 2 assists, and 0 steals.
The Jacob Riis Report: Can the Hawks get out of the East? It's probably a longshot, but I wouldn't rule them out. I definitely think they can beat the banged-up Celtics in a series. And Orlando is erratic enough that they could lose to the Hawks if Vince Carter isn't on his game. I think this Hawks team is going to make some post-season noise.
Darrell Arthur made his season debut tonight, logging 19 minutes, grabbing four rebounds, and scoring on a putback and a mid-range jumper. He's unlikely to be a big factor, but the Grizzlies have been playing this season without a legit back-up power forward and a work-in-progress back-up center. Arthur as the ability to be a good reserve player and should help.
With Arthur back and the Hawks generally playing without a true center, Hasheem Thabeet was heading toward a DNP-CD until a final bit of garbage time. Hollins seems to be losing his patience with Thabeet's poor and — more concerning — lackadaisical play. With Thabeet becoming less productive as the team has worked its way into the playoff race, the #2 pick is in danger of slipping out of the rotation completely. Given the big, albeit misguided, investment the team made in Thabeet this summer, the Grizzlies are in a tough spot regarding what his current role should be.
O.J. Mayo's 1-6 three-point shooting was a big problem tonight, but he continues to impress with his improving defense. He had three steals tonight and forced a turnover with harassing defense on Jamal Crawford at the end of the half.
Zach Randolph has been a more willing and effective passer this season, but he struggles passing out of hard double-teams, which has become more of a problem as teams are starting to focus on him more, and we saw this tonight.