After a long Thanksgiving holiday trip to visit my in-laws in Minnesota, I returned to FedExForum tonight for the first time in more than a week. Did I miss anything good? Let's count it off:
1. Zach Randolph and O.J. Mayo miss shootaround, are benched to start the Heat game.
2. Rudy Gay ends a wild final minute with a buzzer-beater over Lebron James in one of the great moments in Grizzlies history. The building goes bananas. The season, for the moment, is saved.
3. O.J. Mayo becomes Sixth Man. Xavier Henry installed as starter.
4. A ho-hum route of a bad Pistons team.
5. Hamed Haddadi loses his mind.
6. A fun win over the Golden State Warriors on national television.
7. The return of Hubie Brown, which may have hurt almost as much to miss as the Rudy Gay buzzer-beater.
Yikes. But, hey, at least I was gifted with a good game on my return to FedExForum tonight:
The Lead: Grizzlies fans are certainly no stranger to disappointment over the years. But — opening nights aside — it seems like whenever there's a high-profile team in town and a good crowd in the building, the result is a close, exciting game. This was the case with the Boston Celtics (overtime loss) and Miami Heat (final shot win) earlier this season and was the case with both home Laker games a year ago, both of which — if memory serves — came down to final Laker shots, one a Ron Artest miss and one a Kobe Bryant make.
Tonight was something of a repeat of last season's first home Laker game. In both instances, the Grizzlies held a two-point lead while the Lakers held the ball for the final shot. Like last season, a Griz defender closed out aggressively on Kobe Bryant (last year Marc Gasol, this time O.J. Mayo) and Bryant passed to Ron Artest for a potential game-winning three-pointer. And, like last season, Artest missed. (In this case, his attempt was blocked by Rudy Gay.)
In addition to the tightly contested play and oddly familiar finish, this game stood out as a contrast between a relatively balanced team offense and the star system. The Grizzlies had six players score in double figures with no one taking more than 15 field-goal attempts. The Lakers had only three players in double figures, with their leading scorer (Bryant, a game-high 29) taking 25 field-goal attempts (to go with 12 free-throw attempts, 5 assists, and 3 turnovers, the better illustrate how much Bryant dominated the ball).
Man of the Match: The Man of the Match for the Grizzlies was nearly the goat. With 28 seconds left on the clock and a two-point lead, the Grizzlies came out of a timeout with the ball, and I turned to a media-row companion and said that I'd be tempted to run an isolation play for Rudy Gay in that setting even with Ron Artest defending him because what I feared most was a Mike Conley turnover. Sure enough, the Grizzlies ran a high pick-and-roll with Conley and Marc Gasol and Conley's pass was intercepted by Pau Gasol for a turnover that gave the Lakers a chance to win or tie. They couldn't do so.
But the previous 47-and-a-half minutes? Conley was about as good as he's ever been. Granted a favorable match-up against slower, less dynamic Laker point guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, Conley responded by aggressively beating them off the dribble and scoring on 4 of 6 shot attempts in the paint. And the spot-up three-point shooting that had been Conley's primary scoring weapon the past two seasons came back as well. After shooting under 33% from three coming into the game, Conley was 4-5 from long-range tonight (and 8-15 over his past five games). Conley scored 10 points in the fourth quarter tonight, including the final five for the Grizzlies, hitting the bucket and then hitting the floor on a darting, diving foray to the rim to put the Grizzlies up 95-89, and then sticking a three-pointer off a Zach Randolph kickout to build a 98-91 lead with under two minutes to play.
The final line for Conley was a season-high 28 points on 10-13 shooting, with only 3 assists but also 2 steals and only 2 turnovers.
Nightly Number: 7. Last season, the Grizzlies feasted on offensive rebounding, but haven't been quite as beastly this season. Tonight, the Grizzlies were out-rebounded on the offensive glass 13-5. But the team made up for not creating extra possessions on the glass by not giving up possessions with sloppy execution. The team had only 7 turnovers on the game, allowing only 5 Laker points off those miscues. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies scored 16 points off 15 Laker turnovers.
The Match-Up: Heading into the game, the match-up of Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant against 19-year-old rookie Xavier Henry seemed potentially devastating for the Grizzlies, and the early signs weren't good as Henry missed a jumper on the first Grizzlies possession and then fouled Bryant on an three-point attempt on the first Laker possession. But after that, the rookie settled down. He was still plagued by the kinds of calls you'd expect to go against him in this situation, but didn't get rattled by them. Henry used his length and advanced-for-his age physicality to make Bryant work for his offense. And on the other end, Henry was aggressive but efficient with his own scoring, notching 12 points on 6-11 shooting.
I asked Lionel Hollins after the game if he was surprised by Henry's poise given the match-up, but Hollins said Henry's maturity was what impressed him most upon first meeting Henry during pre-draft workouts, likening Henry's demeanor to that of former Grizzlies stalwart Shane Battier.
If Henry responded reasonably well to the Bryant match-up, Tony Allen did not. Allen had performed notably well against Bryant in the NBA finals this past summer, but didn't get the call against Bryant until the second quarter tonight and had a dreadful couple of minutes, taking — and missing — shots on three consecutive possessions while Kobe Bryant — who seemed to take Allen's insertion personally — scored directly on Allen in-between each of Allen's misses.
Given the emergence of Henry, the reasonably effective play of Sam Young, the continued presence of O.J. Mayo, Allen's at times over-aggressive and ineffective offense, and the seeming reluctance of Hollins to give him regular minutes, we're probably about two weeks away from "Free Tony Allen" becoming "Trade Tony Allen."
The Jacob Riis Report: When the Lakers came back from 13 down early in the fourth quarter, it wasn't Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol who were as troubling for the Grizzlies as Laker reserves Steve Blake and Shannon Brown, who combined for 13 points in a seven-minute stretch in the middle of the final quarter as the Lakers cut the Grizzlies lead from 13 to 4. The combination of Blake, Brown, Matt Barnes (who did not play well tonight) and, at some point, either Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum should give the Lakers a very strong, tough bench come playoff time.
Tweet O’ the Game: Here's that sequence: Changed call because Bryant asked, Shannon Brown dog shot, no-call on Rudy, Brown dogshot2. Yup. That's life. — @HPbasketball
Arena Action: "That's a Greivis error" — a fan behind me with the line of the night, a gloriously bad pun, when the officiating crew got mixed up about whether Greivis Vasquez should have been allowed into the game.
Michael Heisley was in the building tonight clad in team gear, but in the second row rather than his usual front-row seat at center court.
ESPN.com's John Hollinger was at the game. I've long been a fan of Hollinger's work, dating back to before he was at ESPN, and had the pleasure to meet John and share some time with him on The Chris Vernon Show before the game. Looking forward to reading his take on the site tomorrow.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies are 8-10, 11th in the Western Conference but only half a game out of 8th place.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies left the arena for the airport for a short trip to Atlanta, where they take on the Hawks Wednesday night. The Grizzlies will be looking to avenge a bad home loss to the Hawks on opening night.
Announced Attendance: 17,638. Not quite a sellout, which is disappointing since both Laker home games sold out last season. The upside: While Faker fans were well represented, their presence wasn't as overwhelming as usual. And the arena worked up a pretty decent "Beat L.A." chant in the final minute.
Darrell Arthur was inactive tonight with a strained groin. No word on his availability against the Hawks. Even with Arthur out and Marc Gasol picking up two early fouls, Hasheem Thabeet still player fewer than 10 minutes, registering 0 points, 0 blocks, and more personal fouls (4) than rebounds (2) in his time on the court.
Rudy Gay had a career-high 6 blocks tonight, and had most of them in memorable fashion: Gay blocked Kobe Bryant twice early in the game, once at the rim and once on a mid-range jumper. He also spiked a mid-range attempt from Derek Fisher and deflected Ron Artest's attempted game-winner at the end.