Opening night! I'll be on hand for tonight's opener, tweeting during the game and filing a post-game blog at some point after the action. Until then, here are a few thoughts in advance of tonight's game:
But what happens if Gasol, as expected, misses tonight's opener due to his recently sprained ankle? Obviously, this hurts the Grizzlies, as Gasol was arguably the team's most important player a year ago. But, more specifically, how does this impact the match-ups?
The obvious response would seem to be moving Hasheem Thabeet into the starting lineup. But, given how Thabeet is unlikely to be able to exploit his size advantage over Horford on the offensive end, it might be better for the Grizzlies to go small, shifting Randolph to center and starting Darrell Arthur — who is coming off a strong preseason — at forward opposite Smith, who is perhaps the most athletic power forward in the league. And it might make sense for the Grizzlies to go even smaller at times, with Arthur at center and/or Rudy Gay (or even DeMarre Carroll) checking Smith.
Another potential wrinkle here is new Atlanta coach Larry Drew's stated desire to play some bigger lineups this season, with true center Zaza Pachulia in the middle and Horford and Smith shifting to power forward and small forward respectively. It might seem counterintuitive with Gasol out, but the Grizzlies would probably benefit from the Hawks going big. Without Gasol, the Grizzlies will struggle to press their size advantage, especially since Horford is likely to guard Randolph (effectively) in any configuration. So the Hawks going big would be undermining their own quickness advantage.
Backcourt Match-ups: More determinative in last year's Grizzlies-Hawks games were the backcourt match-ups, which is especially meaningful since these are two of the teams that changed personnel the least this season.
In the Grizzlies' 110-97 loss in Atlanta it was 6'7" starting two guard Joe Johnson who did the most damage, scoring 26 points on 10-16 shooting, with 8 rebounds and 3 assists. In the Grizzlies' 108-94 home loss to the Hawks, it was 6'5" sixth-man guard Jamal Crawford, who notched 28 points on 9-14 shooting.
In both cases, the problem was O.J. Mayo struggling to defend a bigger guard. If those match-ups present a similar problem tonight, what is the Grizzlies' response? Tony Allen was signed, in large part, to correct this problem — to come off the bench and cool off a hot perimeter scorer. But if that's needed tonight, does Mayo spend more time on the bench or does the team use Allen and Mayo together? Though we didn't see much of it in preseason, I continue to feel that an Allen/Mayo backcourt is inevitability against certain match-ups. If the Hawks put Johnson and Crawford on the floor together, then that would be exactly the type of match-up you'd want to use that combo against.
Another thing to watch among the backcourt match-ups is how much Mike Conley's preseason assertiveness carries over. Conley has a good match-up tonight in Hawks starter Mike Bibby, who is a weak defender and getting weaker. Conley should be able to break Bibby down and get into the paint.
System Change: The Grizzlies have match-up problems with the Hawks, and those have gotten worse with Gasol likely out. But it may be that the Grizzlies are catching the Hawks at the right time. Even though Atlanta was the third best offensive team in the league last season, new head coach Larry Drew is installing a new system, trading in the team's previous isolation-heavy style for a more movement-based system. And the learning curve has apparently been steep. The Hawks went 2-6 in the preseason and struggled offensively. They're still figuring it out. For the Grizzlies sake, hopefully their struggles will continue for at least one more game.