The Lead: Even when the Grizzlies were a three-time playoff team, you rarely got the sense that the team had won a game through sheer talent disparity. But that was the case tonight. Even without Zach Randolph and on the night after a draining road victory against the Dallas Mavericks, the Grizzlies simply overwhelmed the Minnesota Timberwolves to start this game. With clear talent advantage at four of five positions (Kevin Love/Darrell Arthur the exception), the Grizzlies jumped out to a 25-5 lead eight minutes into the game, every point coming from the paint, the free-throw line, or beyond the arc.
The downside was that the team, never really feeling threatened, seemed to grow complacent whenever the lead would grow close to 20. After that 25-5 start, the Wolves went on a 7-0 run to cut it to 13, rookie Nikola Pekovic doing most of the damage. The lead seesawed between 10 and 17 most the rest of the way. The Grizzlies didn't get up to +20 again until midway through the fourth quarter, when they finally put the game away. A byproduct of allowing the Wolves a sliver of hope most of the game and still — especially with Arthur in the starting lineup — searching for consistent help off the bench was that the starters played an awful lot of minutes for a home "blowout" over a bad team: Gay played 44 minutes (after playing 44 against Dallas the previous night), Mayo 40, Conley 38. And after playing only 10 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Gasol played 21 straight in the second half.
A statistical indicator that the team probably got a little too comfortable tonight: The Grizzlies had more three-point attempts (20, although they did make 8 of them) than free-throw attempts (18). Did that ever happen last season?
Man of the Match: O.J. Mayo. We'll start with his final stat line, but we won't end there: a game-high 29 points (11-21 from the floor, 5-9 from three), 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 blocks. After struggling in preseason and on opening night, Mayo went for 49 this weekend, which is encouraging. But what was impressive tonight was how Mayo got his numbers:
With versatility: Mayo flashed his elite three-point stroke with 5-9 from long range, but also got into the paint, hitting 5-6 shots near the basket, including a rare dunk on a break.
In big moments: Mayo had a presence tonight, acting as the Grizzlies run stopper whenever Minnesota would show signs of getting back into the game. When the Wolves went on that 7-0 run in the first quarter to cut the Griz lead from 20 to 13, Mayo scored 7 straight for the Grizzlies to help push the lead back to 17. Late in the second quarter, when the Wolves cut the Griz lead to 9 (the closest it had been since midway through the first quarter and the closest it would get), Mayo hit two three-pointers in the final minute — including a buzzer-beater — to give the Griz a less threatening 13-point cushion going into the half. And midway through the fourth quarter, with the Wolves still hanging around, down 14, Mayo lead a 7-0 run in a two-minute stretch to put the game away, scoring five of the seven and assisting on the other basket.
And, most impressively, in the flow: Mayo didn't play on the ball much at all and didn't have isolation plays run for him. With the team sharing the ball far more than normal, Mayo's touches came naturally in the flow of the game.
Nightly Number: 22. The team's number of steals tonight, which set a franchise record. Leading the way was Mike Conley, who had 7 steals, tying a career high. Conley also tied a career high with 11 assists. Conley didn't have a great shooting night, going 5-15 from the floor. He couldn't find three-point range (1-5) and although he was getting to the rim, he couldn't get shots to fall or get to the line. But Conley still impacted the game, grabbing 7 rebounds to go with those career-highs in assists and steals, while only turning the ball over 3 times in 38 minutes. It's early, I know, but Conley has now followed a strong final couple of months last season with a strong preseason with a three-game start that's seen him average 15 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals. Could Conley be finally turning the corner?
I've always believed that this is the kind of player Conley could be, but had all but given up on it actually happening. But it maybe that Conley just came out too early and it's taken him a couple of years for his physicality to catch up with the talent he displayed in college. Everyone talks about Conley's confidence problems, but in tonight's post-game press conference, Lionel Hollins made what I think is a great point in tying Conley's faltering confidence to his physical development.
"We tend to dismiss that," Hollins said of how slight Conley was as a rookie and how much apparent muscle he's added over the past couple of seasons. "But this is a really tough league. If you come in as a baby and they're dominating you physically, it's hard to stay confident. So he had to get stronger."
The Match-Up: The Grizzlies so overwhelmed the Wolves that there really weren't any individual match-ups that were particularly determinative. But there were plenty of compelling player contrasts on the court. You had two notorious second-overall-pick big men having listless games in Darko Milicic and Hasheem Thabeet. You had the second (Michael Beasley) and third (O.J. Mayo) overall picks from the 2008 draft providing a stark contrast in professionalism and polish. But I think my favorite was between Rudy Gay and Wolves rookie Wesley Johnson. Both are 6'7"/6'8" small forwards and are less than a year apart age-wise (something that Gay noted, with amusement, when Johnson was drafted this summer). And yet Johnson is three games into his NBA career and Gay is entering year five.
Gay continued his strong start — mixing three-point bombs, highlight-reel dunks, and mid-range jumpers en route to 25 points. He also had 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and, most encouragingly, 5 assists. Johnson, coming off the bench, had 6 points on 2-10 shooting, including several bad misses. This is a somewhat unfair comparison. Johnson is a rookie, after all. And yet, watching them on the court and realizing that they are roughly the same age, it's amazing that Gay fell to #8 in the 2006 draft and Johnson was just picked #4. Johnson is simply not a special talent. He may yet have a good career, but he was clearly overdrafted.
The Jacob Riis Report: The Wolves are a mess. The team didn't seem to have any idea what it wanted to do or who it wanted doing it. The Wolves played all 12 players tonight, with none getting 30 minutes and all but one (Kosta Koufos) hitting double figures. The team does start a particularly colorful front line of Michael Beasley-Kevin Love-Darko Milicic, all former top 5 picks, all notable NBA personalities. Tonight, this trio combined for 15 turnovers and 2 assists. Beasley looked completely lost. Milicic looked like what he's long been: A serviceable back-up center miscast as a featured player. And Kevin Love? He had 14 and 13 but only played 25 minutes with 0 fouls. How far are we from his trade request? Two months?
Tweet O’ the Game: @cerrito The Ark State cheerleaders just performed and almost accidentally reenacted the Hellcats pilot when one of the girls did not land properly.
Arena Action:The Halloween game by default, with the team's game operations staff decked out in pirate garb. Magnet schedules were the giveaway, the one must-have promo item I seek out each season.
Where They Stand: At 2-1 for the first time since the 05-06 season. Currently second in the Southwest Division, behind the 3-0 New Orleans Hornets.
Looking Ahead: The team embarks on a four-game West Coast trip, starting Tuesday night with the Los Angeles Lakers, which will be broadcast nationally on NBATV.
Announced Attendance: 12,753. Perhaps it is a product of long-diminished expectations that this seemed like a decent crowd. The game after the home opener is usually a comedown, especially against a blasé opponent, but tonight's attendance was more than 2000 better than the team drew in a similar Game 2 a year ago against Toronto.
Zach Randolph was out again with his bruised tailbone. Xavier Henry sat with a strained neck.
The Grizzlies had 27 assists on 43 field goals, the second straight game the team's assist percentage has been over 50%. Rudy Gay's passing has noticeably improved. Mike Conley's assists are up. And Darrell Arthur has generally fed off of teammate set-ups. The question: Does this positive development continue when Randolph returns? Getting Z-Bo back will definitely help the rebounding and the bench (by moving Arthur to the second unit), but will he actually hurt the team's ball movement? Something worth watching.
With Henry out and the team pulling away, Greivis Vasquez made his NBA debut. Vasquez played three minutes, missing his only shot. The Wolves trapped and pressed Vasquez and he had to expend a lot of energy to get the ball upcourt in time. He never turned it over, but his progression was more labored than you need from a pro point guard. After missing all of preseason, however, this was Vasquez's first NBA game action. Too early to get too concerned about this potential problem.
Until a late garbage bucket by DeMarre Carroll, Tony Allen was the only bench player to score. Allen played well in a sixth-man role (22 minutes, 10 points on 5-8 shooting, 4 boards, 2 assists, 2 steals). Once Randolph returns, Arthur and Allen should give the team pretty competent sixth and seventh men. They need one or two more they can rely on. I think Xavier Henry will solidify himself at some point in the coming weeks.
Young Wolves bigs Kosta Koufos and Nikola Pekovic look hilariously similar. I hope the Wolves game-operations people have taken comic advantage of this.
Hasheem Thabeet's once-again-demoralizing line: 8 minutes, 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 block, 5 fouls.