The Grizzlies lost 100-99 to the Portland Trailblazers tonight in what I think can legitimately be called the worst loss of the season. It's the fourth loss in a row and the first game after a "player's only" meeting meant to get the team back on track. The game moves the team down to 4-8 (a win would have put them at 5-7 and the difference between those two records feels bigger than a single game).
I don't think a 4-8 start against a legitimately brutal early schedule, especially when so many losses have been so close (including two in overtime), is a cause for panic, but I worry that the players (see that "player's only" meeting) and the fans (bad starts are fan-interest killers that make it hard to win attention back) won't see things that way.
So, given that the team seems to have reached a rather fragile and perilous point already in the season, I'm going to dispense with my typical game-specific format and try to use tonight's game to riff on some wider issues with the team:
In his post-game press conference, coach Lionel Hollins seemed most concerned with the team's offensive struggles tonight, but I thought defense was the bigger issue. Before the game, on The Chris Vernon Show, Vernon and I cited a couple of particular match-up concerns for the Grizzlies tonight: Mike Conley on Andre Miller and Zach Randolph on LaMarcus Aldridge. And both of these were indeed issues.
Frontcourt defense: Aldridge hurt the Grizzlies early, shooting or finishing right over the top of Randolph (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Darrell Arthur). Aldridge was less effective against Marc Gasol, but Gasol's minutes were limited by foul trouble, and with Portland also featuring athletic 6'11" center Marcus Camby, the Grizzlies couldn't match-up with the Blazers' frontcourt length even with Gasol on the floor.
Randolph is a poor defender generally, but given his relatively short stature for the position and his floor-bound game, it would be hard for him to stop a 6'11" big man with a soft touch like Aldridge. If Randolph is going to be the starter, the team needs to be able to bring a longer defender off the bench at times. Theoretically, that player is there in the form of Hasheem Thabeet. But, of course, Thabeet has struggled terribly this year, appearing to regress even from his disastrous rookie season. Still, the Grizzlies were very effective, particularly on the defensive end, last season when they paired Thabeet and Gasol. And Thabeet also generally seemed more comfortable in that pairing, probably because Gasol is a better interior passer and more attentive teammate.
Given Thabeet's general struggles and the improved play of Darrell Arthur, it's understandable that it would be harder to get the Gasol/Thabeet pairing on the floor this season, but I think they've only played a couple of minutes together (and that in the game coached by assistant Dave Joerger). With the Grizzlies struggling against a particularly tall frontcourt, I think giving this lineup a shot would have been a good idea.
Regardless, the Grizzlies need a long, athletic defender in their frontcourt mix. Right now, they need to do everything they can to help Thabeet be that player. But if he can't, they need to find someone in the near future who can.
Perimeter Defense: Mike Conley did a solid job on Andre Miller through three quarters, but down the stretch, Miller honed in on the match-up and essentially took over the game. Unlike some players on the floor, I thought Conley's defensive focus and effort were good. But, like Randolph, he has physical deficiencies that were hard to overcome tonight. Miller is simply too big and too strong for Conley to handle if Miller decides to impose his physicality.
Meanwhile, there was a third match-up tonight that hurt the Grizzlies, this one unexpected. The Grizzlies seemed to be catching a break with Portland's best player, Brandon Roy, out with knee issues. But then Roy's replacement in the Blazers' starting lineup, Wesley Matthews, exploded, scoring a career-high 30 points. After entering the game 6-32 on the season from three-point range, he hit 5-6 in the first half.
The problems the Grizzlies had with Miller and Matthews tonight connect to issues related to individual defense, team defense, and playing rotations. The Grizzlies have been getting lit-up by opposing two guards this season, and O.J. Mayo certainly shouldn't get a pass there. Like Conley and Randolph, Mayo is undersized for his position and not a terrific athlete, so he is sometimes at a physical disadvantage. But I don't think that's been the biggest issue so far this year, with most of the opposing damage coming from long-range. Rather, it's been a combination of wavering individual focus and issues with team defense. A lot of the open shots given up by Mayo this season seem to be the result of Mayo's help defense, which seems almost too aggressive at times. It seems like either the team needs to get better with its defensive rotations or just stay at home against shooters.
Why is Tony Allen Here?: Of course, the Grizzlies signed a free agent in Tony Allen this summer, who is supposed to fill the role of defensive specialist. But tonight, despite Allen having played — and played reasonably well — over the past few games, and despite Matthews off to such a flaming start, the rotation changed. Sam Young, who had not been in the rotation lately, was summoned instead of Allen to be the first wing player off the bench in the first half. Given that Allen had been filling this role in recent games and given that Lionel Hollins had said in the preseason that he wanted to use Allen to "cool off" opposing scorers who get into a groove, it was curious move.
After the game, when asked about why he went to Young instead of Allen in the first half (Allen got the call in the second), Hollins' initial response was, "Because I wanted to." He elaborated by saying that he "wanted to give Sam an opportunity" and pointed out that the team has a lot of players at that position and that he's "trying to work [his] way through it." It is early in the season, and Hollins has suggested that he hopes to have a somewhat regular rotation in place by around the 20-game mark. And I buy the narrative that Allen has been forcing things too much offensively in pursuit of a role larger than his skills warrant. But still, this ended up being a one-point game and an opposing wing scorer had a career-high. Allen played fewer than 10 minutes, and none of that time came when this opposing wing scorer was hurting the team most. Isn't this exactly the role the team signed Allen to perform? And isn't it the role he has ably performed in the past?
Later in the press conference, Hollins was asked about not using Allen late in the game to defend Andre Miller. After first suggesting he might have wanted to do that but lacked the opportunity, Hollins pointed out that while such a move may have helped defensively, it would have left him without someone to run the offense.
I found this answer somewhat more persuasive (note: I asked the question about Allen and Young, but not the one about putting Allen on Miller), as both Allen and O.J. Mayo have been quite shaky as ballhandlers and passers. But I still suspect that, given how easy a time Miller was having with Conley, the tradeoff may have been worth it. Rather than having a conventional point guard running the offense in these final couple of minutes, the team might have been just as well off running clear-outs for Rudy Gay or running the offense through Marc Gasol. But I'll get into offensive issues more in the next post.
At some point, once rookie Greivis Vasquez settles down, perhaps he will give the team a late-game option who can match-up better with bigger point guards while manning the position at the other end as well. But Vasquez isn't there yet. (Although he managed to make me feel even better about him even after a 1-8 showing tonight.)
Let's Not Forget Rudy Gay: Rudy Gay's opposite number, Nicholas Batum, did not have a big night, scoring 11 points on 5-10 shooting, but he hurt the Grizzlies badly with an offensive rebound and put-back basket very late in the game, made possible by a lack of boxing out from Gay that is far more the norm than exception. A transition basket by Miller in the second half was also largely the result of Gay's lax defense. Gay is the most frustrating defensive player on the team, because there's no reason physically or athletically why he shouldn't be a plus defender. His defensive playmaking ability comes through with his good steal and block numbers and when he decides to commit himself to a stop — as on the final defensive possession in regulation against the Celtics — he can be very effective. But his effort and focus is so, so inconsistent. At this point, it might be the only thing holding him back from being a Top 20 caliber player and perennial all-star contender.
And now, because this is too long and it's too late, I'm going to stop and make this a two-part post. At some point tomorrow I'll wade into issues relating to the team's offense and into more general issues relating to coaching and the roster.