The Lead: With the University of Memphis men's basketball team starting their season this week, the now-annual topic of attendance disparities between the city's two professional basketball teams has been getting a lot of attention. The U of M's exhibition games against local colleges LeMoyne-Owen and Christian Brothers outdrew the Grizzlies' weeknight game against the Dallas Mavericks, and many wondered if the Tigers' regular-season opener against Centenary University last night would outdraw tonight's Grizzlies-Celtics game. It didn’t, but I think the contrast in the two basketball games at FedExForum this weekend is instructive.
The Tigers blew out an overmatched opponent — Centenary has an enrollment of less than 1000 and is apparently about to move down to Division III — by a score of 104-40. It was not technically an exhibition game — the win actually counts on the U of M's record — but Centenary was paid good money to come be cannon fodder. They weren't trying to lose, of course, but a loss was assumed. The Tigers' home schedule is loaded with payoff games against over-matched opponents. And, given the advantages the university's basketball program has over most other programs in the weak Conference USA, many of the team's in-conference games aren't much more competitive. Essentially, the bulk of the team's schedule — particularly at home — consists of unbalanced games in which the home team's victory is all but preordained.
The Grizzlies lost tonight, but it was a fiercely competitive game, at least through 48 minutes. And the overtime period wasn't a dud because the home team lost, but because the Celtics went up by too much too quickly, and the competitiveness dissipated. Not every Grizzlies game is competitive to the end, but as long as the team is decent — which it is now and was last season — most games are going to be competitive. And the outcome is never preordained.
So, what do fans prefer? Competitive games played at a high level by elite players in which the home team may only win 50-70 percent of the time? Or less competitive games played at a lower level by inferior players in which the home team almost always wins?
I fear the answer is the latter. You can't fill the building with basketball fans. It takes casual fans, and casual fans care most about cheering on the home team and seeing them win. And that's the uphill battle the Grizzlies are fighting, even more so than against the college program's long history. Even if the team is very good, they will be less likely to win games at the same rate as the Tigers.
But for basketball fans? This game was magnificent for 48 minutes. The Grizzlies battled a great team that started four future Hall-of-Famers (Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce) and one amazing young player who is currently better than them all (Rajon Rondo). The Grizzlies' own marquee player, Rudy Gay, made huge plays at both ends of the court at the end of regulation. And a rookie — Greivis Vasquez — playing the first meaningful minutes of his NBA career did so with a swagger that captivated the whole building. Would it have been more fun for most in the crowd had the home team pulled it out? Of course. But at some level appreciating the NBA game has to be about more than that. It has to be about appreciating great players and great play. And this game provided that.
Man of the Match: Before tonight, rookie point guard Greivis Vasquez has only played a few "garbage time" minutes. But tonight he was summoned with 3:27 to play in the third quarter and his team down 70-66 to the defending Eastern Conference champions. He was throw into a match-up with Rajon Rondo, who is one of the three-to-five best point guards on the planet right now. And Vasquez wasn't scared at all. As CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish tweeted me during the game, "He once told Duke fans that Cameron Indoor was his house. Dude has never been scared."
A minute of so after entering the game, Vasquez was called for a rather questionable foul that sent Rondo to the line for three free-throws. On the next trip down, Vasquez took a kickout from Rudy Gay and buried a three-pointer, the team's first of the night. And off he went: playing confident and reasonably effective defense on players ranging from Paul Pierce to Nate Robinson, grabbing defensive rebounds, seeing the floor, setting up teammates in the paint, hitting a pull-up jumper, and then a runner, inciting the fans to get louder.
When he finally left the game with just over three minutes to play in regulation, he'd notched 7 points on 3-3 shooting, with 2 rebounds and 2 assists and zero turnovers. And in his 12 straight minutes, the Grizzlies outscored the Celtics 28-25.
Could this end up being a mirage, like Lester Hudson's big performance off the bench against the Lakers last season? Could be, but I doubt it. As a first-round pick, the Grizzlies have more invested in Vasquez. And with Acie Law struggling in the back-up point guard role, they need him more. It would be shocking if Vasquez didn't go into the next game in the #2 point guard role. And while I'm not expecting him to play this well every night, I'm betting on him keeping that job going forward. There's a good chance the Grizzlies just found an answer to one of their biggest questions.
After the game, coach Lionel Hollins said he'd been contemplating the move for a while, but didn't think Vasquez — who missed all of preseason — was ready until tonight. In preparation for giving him his shot, Hollins had given Vasquez all of the second-team point guard reps in the most recent practice, letting Mike Conley and Law share the first-team reps. And when Law was ineffective in the first half tonight, he decided to give Vasquez a shot. And, needless to say, the rookie seized his chance. His play was so exciting and promising that it almost overshadowed the team's loss.
Nightly Number: 13-43. That's the combined shooting performance of the Grizzlies starting backcourt over the past two games, both losses. Mike Conley started the season strong and has fallen off. O.J. Mayo has been underperforming most of pre-season and through these first 10 regular-season games. With rookies Vasquez and Xavier Henry both looking like keepers and Tony Allen looking like he's getting on track, the Grizzlies may have more backcourt options this season. So if Mayo and/or Conley continue the slump, it might impact their minutes. But the Grizzlies won't get where they want to go without better production from their starting backcourt.
The Match-Up: After a strong start to the season, Mike Conley has cooled off. He had a particularly weak game tonight, shooting 3-10 (he was 1-7 through regulation) with 4 assists to 6 turnovers. Meanwhile, his opposite number, Celtics lead guard Rajon Rondo, continued his magnificent season. The league's assists leader by a comfortable margin, Rondo somehow managed to play 11 first-quarter minutes without an assist. No worry. When he re-entered the game in the second quarter, he started consistently blowing by Conley, and when he did the help defensive ranged from ineffective to non-existent. Rondo notched 17 assists over the next 33 minutes.
The Jacob Riis Report: I know that Kevin Garnett has become somewhat overbearing. But understand: I lived in the Twin Cities when the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him and I watched his development from teenage question mark to brilliant all-around basketball player on a daily basis. All hoop fans that were there for Garnett's Minnesota years love him unconditionally. And I am no exception. But now Rajon Rondo is the Celtic I'm most intrigued by. (Autobiographical note: My 9-month old son is wiry, with a huge wingspan. "Rajon" has become an occasional nickname.) Garnett and Rondo playing together is too perfect. They seem to have come to us from the same alien race of sleek, amazing basketball players.
Tweet O’ the Game:
Every time the Grizzlies play the Celtics I predict the Trailblazers to win #2007NBADraftLottery — @Cerrito
Arena Action: The stars were out tonight, with homegrown former NBA ballers Todd Day and Penny Hardaway sitting courtside, along with former mayor Willie Herenton and owner Michael Heisley. Heisley presented Rudy Gay with a watch before the game to commemorate Gay's service on the gold-medal-winning US national team.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies fall to 4-6 and are 11th in the Western Conference.
Looking Ahead: The brutal early schedule continues with at trip to Orlando Monday night.
Announced Attendance: 18,119, the first announced sellout of the season. But there was an awful lot of green out there.
Rudy Gay showed in the final minute of regulation tonight what kind of player he can be. With the Grizzlies down four points, Gay made a serious of plays on both ends of the floor to force overtime: On two offensive possessions, he made forceful moves to get himself good shots and knocked them down. On the first defensive possession, he secured the rebound after a Celtics miss. And on the final defensive possession, he denied Paul Pierce penetration, forcing him into a tough, contested shot that actually came after the final buzzer. Gay owned the final minute of regulation. Though Gay's generally raised his play to a new level this season, his defensive focus and offensive aggression still wander too much throughout the game. But that four-possession spurt tonight shows what he's capable of being. It's fully a matter of "want to" with Gay.
After appearing the be buried in Hollins' doghouse a few days ago, Tony Allen has played productive bench minutes the past two games. Against his former team, Allen played 21 minutes tonight, scoring 11 points (4-7 shooting), with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. And he was a team-best +11 on the night. Watching him out there, he makes a lot of frustrating, awkward plays offensively, and it's easy to see why he's been labeled "Trick or Treat," but the positives seem to outweigh the negatives, particularly on a team short on veterans or effective defenders. Hopefully these past two games have put Allen solidly in the rotation, where he belongs.
Play of the Game: Greivis Vasquez drives baseline and delivers a flashy, leaping scoop pass to Tony Allen for a lay-up.
Play of the Game Runner-Up: Tony Allen steals the ball from Paul Pierce under the Grizzlies goal and whips a pass to an open Zach Randolph, who DUNKS the ball. The general consensus at the game was that people weren't sure if they'd ever seen Randolph dunk before.