I'll try not to make these as long in the future, but, hey, it's opening night!
The Lead: Well, the Grizzlies lost their opener tonight by double digits. But before people over-react to this, let's establish some context. For starters, the team was missing Marc Gasol from the start with a sprained ankle and only got 15 unproductive minutes from Zach Randolph, who hit the floor hard in the first quarter, suffering a lower back contusion, tried to come back but was clearly struggling physically, and had to sit out the entire second half. We all knew that this team — built so much around its power game — would struggle if missing one of its starting bigs. But both? (And, yes, I blame myself for putting a Flyer cover jinx on them.)
And finally, the Grizzlies have a long history of deflating home openers, even in good seasons. Last season, the Grizzlies lost by 22 in the home opener to a mediocre Detroit Pistons squad but still got into the playoff race and finished with 40 wins. In 2005, the Grizzlies lost by 19 to the Miami Heat in the home opener and went on to 49 wins and a playoff appearance. In 2004, they lost the home opener by 12 to a severely undermanned Washington Wizards squad and ended up with 45 wins and made the playoffs. In other words, if you've been around the team awhile, then you've seen this play before. Though it is frustrating to see the team give a desultory performance in front of a large crowd, many of which may not see another game in person all season.
So, why did I actually find this game encouraging? Heading into this season what we thought we knew about the Grizzlies was this: The team's starters were good, with the caveat of Mike Conley being inconsistent and a historically poor starter. And the bench was an enormous problem. Coming out of this game, there's no reason to have lost any confidence in the starting lineup, with the added bonus of seeing Mike Conley begin a season with one of his better games. And with Darrell Arthur and Sam Young following up their strong preseasons with productive games tonight, the team shows signs of having two reliable bench options once the starting lineup is back intact. And that's two more than the team had a year ago. So, provided Gasol and Randolph don't miss much time — and right now their respective injuries appear minor — the Grizzlies look like they’re going to be fine. There are some rotation adjustments I might suggest, but I probably need to give it a couple more games before wading into that.
Man of the Match: Darrell Arthur deserves consideration for stepping into the starting lineup and scoring a career-high 19 points on 8-12 shooting. And his improved offensive game looked exactly like it did in the preseason, scoring on a mix of jump hooks, mid-range jumpers, and quick moves to the rim. But Arthur's 3 rebounds and 0 blocks in 31 minutes wasn't enough for a team that needed more physicality with Gasol and then Randolph out. Sam Young is my runner-up. Young came off the bench (but started the second half) and scored 17 points on 8-12 shooting and grabbing 5 boards and notching 3 steals in 26 minutes, while looking confident and active the whole time. Most impressive from Young: 1-1 from three-point range and 2 (!) assists. If Young can extend his shooting range and start playing better team basketball, he's got a chance to be a quality reserve. He did those things in the preseason and they carried over tonight.
But the Man of the Match (changed from "Game Ball" in tribute to my surprising enjoyment of the World Cup) goes to Mike Conley, who, with a good match-up against a weak defender (Mike Bibby), followed through on his aggressive, penetrating preseason play by routinely getting into the paint tonight. The result was a game-high 23 points (9-15 from the floor, 1-2 from three), 8 assists (to 2 turnovers), and 5 rebounds. Tonight, Conley looked like who I once thought he would be.
Nightly Number: 40/13.That's the Grizzlies' ratio of made field goals to assists. The Grizzlies were last in the league in team assist ratio last season and ever worse than normal tonight. Conley had a nice assist night, but that was it. Not having Gasol — possibly the team's best passer — was a factor. But a lot of it is just the offense, which has been very isolation-oriented and doesn't look like it's changing any time soon.
The Match-Up: With Gasol out and Atlanta's starting frontcourt among the league's smallest, the Grizzlies started Darrell Arthur over Hasheem Thabeet. This made sense, but the team needed Thabeet when Atlanta went big with true center Zaza Pachulia. Needless to say, this match-up did not go well for the Grizzlies. Pachulia (who also dominated a hobbled Randolph) scored 17 points on 5-7 shooting and grabbed 5 offensive rebounds. Thabeet — who was booed when he entered the game in the third quarter — was a non-factor, badly missing point-blank shot opportunities, giving up buckets and offensive rebounds with regularity, and only grabbing 3 rebounds in 19 minutes. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Thabeet also had the worst plus/minus on the night at -18)
Tweet O’ the Game: RTSblog @ChrisHerrington it's the famed "Young Gay Arthur" trio, not to be confused with early David Sedaris.
Arena Action: Obviously jam-packed for the opener: Lorenzen Wright moment of silence, Memphis Symphony Orchestra with Al Kapone, Lil P-Nut, Booker T. (on guitar) with the Bar-Kays at halftime, Beale Street Flippers, etc. But the most interesting non-scripted moment I saw was owner Michael Heisley — sitting courtside — stepping out to exchange some dap with Hawks point guard Mike Bibby, a former Vancouver Griz player whom Heisley once traded.
Announced Attendance: 17,592
The team's sudden rash of frontcourt injuries underscores what a sour move it was to not keep Josh Davis — presumably for financial reasons — when pretty much everyone in the organization seemed to want him.
Tony Allen had a dreadful debut for the Grizzlies, missing several layups and having the ball slip from his hands on multiple occasions. I took note of one terrific defensive stop (against Jamal Crawford), but otherwise that part of his game didn't stand out. Allen, Acie Law, and Thabeet combined to go 0-12 with 6 turnovers.
After forcing his shot too much in the first half (2-9 shooting), Rudy Gay came out in the third quarter and was much more physical and purposeful. Gay had 12 points on 4-4 shooting (including a three-pointer and 3-3 from the line), 5 rebounds and a steal in seven third-quarter minutes, but left the game after picking up a fourth foul and it was essentially over when he came back. I think Gay's going to have a big year.
Despite struggling and being undermanned all night, the Grizzlies fought back to within 4 points at the 3:25 mark of the third quarter. Then Allen and Law came in for Mayo and Conley and the team completely fell apart. The Hawks finished the quarter on a 12-0 run to push their lead back to 16.
Xavier Henry, fighting four more experienced wing players for minutes, had a quietly impressive debut. Henry only played 14 minutes, but made all three of his shots, including a long jumper and a contested layup, and went up high for a contested rebound. He looked like he belonged out there.
As I suggested earlier, I'm full of ideas for how I think the rotation should be managed when Gasol or Randolph are back. I'll give it a few games before I get into detail on that. But the main thing is that I'd like to see Law out of the rotation and Mayo given the minutes behind Conley, thus upgrading the back-up point guard spot (whatever Mayo's problems on the ball, I refuse to believe he wouldn't help the team there more than Law) and freeing up more minutes on the wings for Young, Henry, and Allen (who can't possibly be this bad again). That could be accomplished via a simple rotation shift, or via a the bold move of converting Mayo into a super-sub sixth-man a la the Hawks' Crawford, the Mavs' Jason Terry, or the Spurs' Manu Ginobili. More on rotation stuff later.