The Lead: The Grizzlies completed their long march back to .500 with a rather thorough pounding of a Washington Wizards team that is now 0-23 on the road.
The Griz have been making a habit of blowing double-digit leads of late — I know, "of late" — most recently against the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets last week. But not tonight. The Wizards held a two-point lead for a few seconds midway through the first quarter, amid five early ties, but then the Grizzlies built a multi-possession lead on a flurry of buckets from Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph and never really let the Wizards back into the game.
After a 9-2 Wizards run cut the Grizzlies' game-high 21-point lead to 14 early in the fourth quarter, instead of letting the momentum completely turn, the Grizzlies responded with run-stopping buckets from Sam Young and Marc Gasol and never let the Wizards get within single digits.
The Grizzlies got double-digit scoring from six players in a strong team-wide effort, that number not including O.J. Mayo, missing the second of 10 games to league suspension for violating the NBA's drug policy, or Rudy Gay, who struggled through foul trouble and general ineffectiveness en route to season-low four points on 2-11 shooting.
"It's nice to be back at .500," Lionel Hollins said after the game. "We've been scratching and clawing. Stuttering and starting and stuttering." The team was last at .500 back on November 8th, when a home win over the Phoenix Suns put the Grizzlies at 4-4. The team followed that game with a five-game losing streak that the culminated in a road loss to this same Washington Wizards team. Since then, the team had gotten to within two games of .500 six times without closing the deal. Now after winning five of its past six games to get back to even the team gets something of a clean slate, as Zach Randolph put it after the game, and a chance to build on this momentum and make a legitimate playoff push in the season's final three months.
O.J. Mayo's miserable season got a lot worse yesterday, when it was announced that he's been suspended for 10 games by the NBA for testing positive for the legal but banned-by-the-NBA steroid-like drug DHEA. This will cost Mayo more than $400,000 and cost the Grizzlies their fourth-leading scorer during a crucial stretch of games in which they're trying to catch the Portland Trailblazers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
A Bad Year
But this is only the latest and worst incident in what has been a bit of a nightmare season for the third-year guard, preceded by the following:
• The Grizzlies spent their top draft pick (Xavier Henry) and primary free-agent acquisition (Tony Allen) on players at Mayo's position.
• Mayo's attempt to develop his on-ball skills in the summer league resulted in a turnover-heavy performance aborted after two games and dismissive public comments from a head coach who has bristled at even the mildest criticisms of Mayo's backcourt partner, Mike Conley.
• Mayo failed to make the US national team only to watch teammate Rudy Gay and two-guard rival Eric Gordon not only make the team but shine at the World Basketball Championships.
• While Gordon and Gay followed up their international play with career-best seasons, Mayo was moved into a sixth-man role and has registered career lows pretty much across the board.
• Mayo caught the bad end of a fistfight with teammate Tony Allen following a gambling dispute on the team plane. Mayo missed the next game with a black eye labeled "bronchitis" while Allen shined in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, drawing public praise from his coach and teammates.
Last night in Toronto, the Grizzlies beat the Raptors 100-98, moving their record to 22-23, the closest they've been to .500 since early November. It wasn't easy. Leading 88-76 early in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies allowed the Raptors to go on an 11-0 run and eventually take the lead. At the end, the game was tied 98-98 and the Grizzlies held the ball, the shot clock turned off. And this happened (video has some salty language):
The Lead: To say the Grizzlies have struggled against the Houston Rockets lately is an understatement. Heading into tonight, the Griz had lost seven straight to Houston, the team's longest active losing streak against any opponent. And the two previous meetings this season had been ugly, both 16-point losses, with neither feeling even that close.
Asked if the team had gotten a monkey off its back tonight, coach Lionel Hollins called it "a two-ton monkey."
In a terrific, hard-fought contest, the Grizzlies were climbing uphill most of the way. The Rockets jumped out to an 18-8 lead in the opening minutes behind a scoring barrage from Luis Scola and Griz Killer captain Kevin Martin, who had combined for all of Houston's points.
The Griz battled back to tie the game at 37-37 early in the second quarter, only to see the Rockets immediately go on a 10-2 run. Then the Griz clawed back to within one late in the third behind strong off-the-bench backcourt play by Greivis Vasquez and O.J. Mayo, only to see the Rockets respond with an 8-1 run.
The Grizzlies finally got the deficit to within a single possession when a Mayo-to-Rudy Gay fastbreak dunk cut it to 85-82 late in the third quarter.
From there, the final 14 minutes were a slugfest, with 3 ties and 5 lead changes. At the 3:33 mark, the Grizzlies found themselves down 101-106. The closing 14-4 Griz run was the kind of sharp, decisive late-game execution Griz fans haven't seen enough this season, with Zach Randolph (six points) and Rudy Gay (four points, one assist) leading the effort.
It was a huge win for the team, not only to beat a playoff and division rival who had previously owned them, but to wash away the aftertaste of their poor late-game execution against New Orleans Wednesday night and to send the team off on its last long road trip of the season in a good mood.
Hollins called this "a team-bonding win." Fans can hope he's right.
The Lead: Fans tend to focus on their own teams, but this game was probably more about the Bulls than the Grizzlies. Under impressive rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls played hard and did everything right, leading from buzzer to buzzer even without starting frontcourt duo Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, both out due to injury.
The Bulls entered the game as the league's best defensive team, allowing only 97.3 points per 100 possessions, and they collapsed into the paint today, harassing and disrupting the Grizzlies' inside game and shutting down driving lanes, with the incredible length of forward duo Luol Deng and Taj Gibson (6 blocks) leading the way.
On the offensive end, Derrick Rose got to the rim at will. Rose's combination of speed, quickness, and power is both awe-inspiring and fear-inducing to witness from courtside, where you can almost feel the whoosh when he goes by. Rose finished with a triple-double: 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. And with Rose drawing attention, the Bulls secondary players stepped up and knocked down open shots, with Deng, Kyle Korver, and Kurt Thomas combining to shoot 23-36, mostly on jumpers.
After falling behind by 22 late in the third quarter, the Grizzlies made a run in the fourth with a lineup of Greivis Vasquez, O.J. Mayo, Sam Young, Darrell Arthur, and Hasheem Thabeet. This group went on a 15-5 run in the first five minutes of the fourth, cutting the deficit to nine, but a Luol Deng three-pointer and a trio of Grizzlies turnovers squelched the momentum.
"I told them this is what playoff intensity is," Lionel Hollis said after the game. "We played hard, but we didn't play hard enough."
The Lead: Dirk Nowitzki made his return for the Mavericks but didn't look good early on, moving gingerly and getting exploited defensively. Four minutes into the third quarter, his team down 53-41, Nowitzki was called for a foul while trying to check Zach Randolph on the block and decided he'd had enough, talking himself into two technical fouls and getting a much-desired ticket back to the locker room.
Nowitzki finished with seven points on 2-7 shooting. No one else was able to step up for a struggling Mavs team that has now lost five straight games and eight of its past 10, while the Grizzlies took care of the ball (nine turnovers through three quarters), shared it (20 assists on 36 made field-goals), and were focused defensively. The result was a fairly dominating buzzer-to-buzzer performance for the Grizzlies, who built a 10-point lead midway through the first quarter and never had less than a three-possession cushion the rest of the way before turning the game into a route in the third quarter.
Man of the Match: Before the game, Grizzlies general Manager Chris Wallace recognized Zach Randolph for dual recent accolades, being named the Western Conference Player of the Week and getting the NBA's Community Assist Award for the month of December. Then Randolph went out and continued his streak of gaudy performances, slicing up the Mavericks' depleted frontcourt to the tune of 23 points and 20 rebounds, his fourth 20-20 game of the season his sixth in two seasons with the Grizzlies. Randolph is averaging 26 and 14 on 54% shooting so far this month. After a somewhat rocky summer, Z-Bo is back in beast mode — in the best possible way — both on and off the court.
Is it reasonable to expect this season's Grizzlies team, as presently constituted, to make the playoffs? Why are we even asking this? Because of an implication in yesterday's Commercial Appeal that the roster isn't talented enough to earn a post-season birth:
The situation is such that Hollins again strongly suggested that Griz management should consider tweaking the roster. The bench just isn’t good enough.
In fairness to coach Lionel Hollins, he isn't quoted making this case, but it is implied, and he has made similar comments earlier this season to the effect that if the team doesn't make the post-season it will be because they aren't talented enough to do so.
In other words, the 7th and 8th playoff seeds — at least — are very much up for grabs, and the Grizzlies — who have played slightly better than their record (a +0.2 point differential) and have a much easier schedule going forward than they've had to this point — should be poised to claim one of those spots.
The Lead: The was the Grizzlies' third straight convincing win over a Western Conference playoff team, and the best thing about it was that it didn't feel at all surprising. Unlike the team's big road win against the Lakers, in which a desultory performance from the defending champs was a major factor, these past two wins — over Oklahoma City Wednesday and over Utah tonight — game against good teams playing normal games and without the Grizzlies seeming to play beyond their normal capabilities.
In both cases, the opposition boasted the game's biggest star — Kevin Durant for OKC, Deron Williams for Utah — but in both cases the Grizzlies countered with a collection of talent that was at least comparable. Looking out on the floor, at the players involved, the Grizzlies looked to be roughly as talented as the other team. And they are.
As has become all-too-common, the Grizzlies dug themselves a bit of a hole to start the season, but are now climbing their way out of it by finally getting what I believe is the most talented all-around roster in franchise history — not saying a lot, I know — to play well together. Among the seven core players used in this game, five scored in double figures, four had three or more assists, and five had two or more steals.
As we all know with this franchise, good fortune is subject to sudden change, but right now this is a good team — and should be. This little streak is no fluke.
The Grizzlies host the Utah Jazz at FedExForum tonight. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. and I'll be chiming in live at @FlyerGrizBlog. Until then, three thoughts on tonight's game:made nice and are ready to get back to business. Everyone will obviously be looking to see any lingering physical effects Mayo might still exhibit, but the real story will be how Mayo plays, whether Lionel Hollins will put Mayo and Allen on the floor together (I think he should), and, if he does, how they fare.
2. Closer Than it Looks?: The Utah Jazz are a perennial playoff team, are currently in line for a Top 4 playoff seed, are 7.5 games ahead of the Grizzlies in the standings, and are 2-0 on the Griz so far this season. All that looks daunting, but I'm not sure the difference between these two teams is that big.
It certainly it didn't look that way in the last meeting, where the Griz played the Jazz close deep into the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City, without Rudy Gay, and with Tony Allen playing only 14 generally ineffective minutes, only to come up short, 98-92.
The Jazz boast a top five head coach and a top five point guard, and that combination means an awful lot, but the rest of the roster is not that imposing, with a talented, but under-sized and sub-all-star frontcourt tandem of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, the latter of which has been a little disappointing for the Jazz. The frontcourt depth is sketchy. The wings (Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Raja Bell, Gordon, Hayward).
The Lead: Okay, so the real lead to this game has become O.J. Mayo missing the game with so-called "bronchitis" after catching the bad end of an apparently brief fight with Tony Allen on the team plane coming back from Los Angeles. This story was first reported by CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish. As I understand it, Mayo suffered a black eye and other aftereffects that would have been very evident had he been at the game. The team is still, apparently, claiming "bronchitis" as the explanation for Mayo's absence, but I don't know any reasonable person who believes that.
The Grizzlies followed up their surprising 104-85 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers by beating a Thunder team that's firmly established in the playoff picture, giving the team consecutive wins against quality teams for the first time this season.
But, beyond that, this was simply, as Lionel Hollins noted afterward, "a great NBA basketball game."
The Grizzlies were playing short-handed on the wings with Xavier Henry and O.J. Mayo still out, which allowed current (and, presumably, ongoing) starter Tony Allen a longer leash that he might have otherwise had, and despite some early struggles, he made the most of it. (More on that in a minute.) Meanwhile, the Grizzlies top scorers — Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph (58 combined points) — were matching the Thunder's destructive duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (56 points) bucket for bucket.
The home team went up early, first 7-0, then 15-5, but missed free-throws and turnovers stalled the Griz offense and the Thunder responded with feathery Durant jumpers, explosive Westbrook drives, and a big contribution off the bench from James Harden. Ultimately, the game was knotted 89-89 with seven minutes the play and it came down to who could make the big plays. From then on, Allen hit two wildly unlikely threes, Mike Conley set Randolph up inside with a crisp entry pass, Rudy Gay isolated on Durant and drove down the middle of the floor for a dunk, and Randolph hit 8-9 free throws to ice it. A great team win overall.
"It was a good, hard battle," Hollins said. "I don't know if we're learning. I hope so."
The Grizzlies return home from their unexpected road beat down of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to host the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's the first of four meetings between the two teams (the second is this Saturday in OKC). I'll be on hand tonight, tweeting from courtside (follow: @FlyerGrizBlog) and following up with a post-game blog notebook later tonight. Until then, a few thoughts in advance of a potentially momentum-building game for the Grizzlies.
Westbrook didn't kill the Grizzlies last season, averaging 13/7/6 in three games, though he did put up 23/6/7 in the Thunder's win at FedExForum. But Westbrook is a different player this season, and it will be interested how much the Grizzlies try to get defenders other than Conley on him. Obviously back-up point guard Greivis Vasquez gives the team a bigger defender on Westbrook, but the best match-ups are probably Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo.
For starters, if Conley struggles with Westbook, will the Griz move Conley onto Thunder two-guard Thabo Sefolosha, who is 6'7" but a non-scorer, and put presumed starter Tony Allen on Westbrook? And will tonight's match-ups present an opportunity to experiment again with the big lineup of Allen-Mayo-Rudy Gay on the perimeter, which we got a brief glimpse of last week against Toronto?