The Lead: The Grizzlies struggled early tonight, trailing the Sacramento Kings for much of the first quarter before ending the period down 28-23. But over the next three quarters, the Grizzlies put on perhaps their most dominating display since an early home win over the Minnesota Timberwolves — outscoring the Kings 97-64 over the final three quarters.
Along the way, there were so many interesting in-game storylines and subplots that putting them in list form is about the only way to keep up:
*Shane Battier made his first appearance since Thursday's trade back to the place where his NBA career began.
*Former University of Memphis star Rodney Carney made his debut in a Grizzlies uniform.
*Marc Gasol got in a little tiff with coach Lionel Hollins and took it out on the Kings in his most swaggering performance maybe ever.
*Hamed Haddadi took the departed Hasheem Thabeet's back-up center role and responded with his first career double-double off the bench.
*Jason Williams got comfortable and loose, showing the first flashbacks of the "old" J-Will we've seen since he rejoined the team.
*O.J. Mayo, in his first game since his awkward near-trade to the Indiana Pacers, fought hard through his shooting slump and busted out with a big fourth quarter.
That all of this occurred with Rudy Gay on the bench in street clothes, Zach Randolph delivering a ho-hum 23-12, Sam Young and Darrell Arthur continuing their breakout seasons, Tony Allen howling in approval at teammates' plays, Greivis Vasquez providing good spot minutes, and Mike Conley having a quietly effective night underscores how a team that, a year ago, was perhaps the most shallow in the NBA, has suddenly become impressively deep. The necessary caveat is that this blowout game came against a bad team playing without its best player (former UofM Tiger Tyreke Evans), and playing its fourth game in five nights — all on the road — on the second night of a back-to-back. The Kings were primed to get knocked around tonight, but the Grizzlies sure looked good obliging them.
Shane Battier's first return game for the Grizzlies, Saturday night against the Sacramento Kings, is not being televised. But we can give you a chance to welcome Battier back to town up close. We've got two lower-level tickets for Saturday night's game to give away. Go to this link to enter the contest. The drawing is at 4 p.m. today.
In the wake of a chaotic trade deadline day in the NBA, let's look at the crowded race for the bottom four seeds in the Western Conference playoffs. With the top four seeds — San Antonio, Dallas, L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City, in some order — seemingly locked up and with three teams — L.A. Clippers, Sacramento, Minnesota — too far back, there seem to be eight teams competing for four spots. How it might shake out:
5. New Orleans Hornets 34-25 14 games back
What They Did: Traded Marcus Thornton to the Sacramento Kings for Carl Landry.
What it Means: They essentially exchanged a high-level reserve guard for a high-level reserve forward. Given the injury concerns with starting center Emeka Okafor and the lack of quality frontcourt depth, this was probably a good deal for the Hornets. New Orleans has had a very erratic season so far and are hard to predict, but as long as Chris Paul stays healthy the rest of the way, they might be hard to catch. I like New Orleans for the 6th seed. Home/Road splits remaining: 12/11.
6. Denver Nuggets 34-25 14 games back
What They Did: They traded Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks for half the Knicks roster. You probably heard about it.
What it Means: The Nuggets have looked great in two games since the Melo trade, notching double-digit wins against both the Grizzlies and Boston Celtics. But do we need to put an asterisk next to those games? For starters, both were in Denver, where the Nuggets have been unusually good, with the league's fourth best home record (24-7). The Grizzlies game felt like a "Home Alone" game, with the Nuggets relieved to finally be past the on-going Melodrama and eager to prove they could win without him. The Boston game came against a Celtics team emotionally reeling from the unexpected trade of center Kendrick Perkins just hours earlier. The Nuggets might look a little different once things settle down, and a slightly road-heavy schedule won't help. But this is still a deep, talented, well-coached team. I'm guessing the race between Denver and Memphis could come down to tiebreaker the Nuggets won by taking the season-series. So, I like Denver for 7th. Home/Road splits remaining: 10/13
The Grizzlies made only one trade yesterday, but it was a doozy. And even the deal they did make was obscured by the one they tried and failed to make.
None of those posts — I hope — will be nearly as long as this one.
But I will offer a quick take on the Mayo non-deal first: Don't believe stuff suggesting that the Grizzlies decided to back out of that trade. Michael Heisley himself has made clear that the team tried to make the deal but that it just didn't come together in time for the deadline.
In addition to a desire by some in the organization to trade Mayo for immediate on-court purposes, I think much of the deal was also financially motivated. In the short term, it would have mitigated the extra money the team took on in the Battier deal. And heading into the summer, the team hopes to resign Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Battier and has decent cheap players (Tony Allen, Sam Young, and Xavier Henry) in place at the two guard. I think they wanted to move off Mayo's money in order to free up more room for Randolph/Gasol/Battier.
The Pacers deal, while nowhere close to good value for Mayo, would have done three things: Freed up cash now and this summer, given them a better back-up center (Josh McRoberts) to replace Thabeet the rest of this season, and given them a first-round pick as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I wouldn't have liked the deal at all, but I understand it.
And, with that, on to the main event:
The Deal: The Grizzlies trade Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and a lottery-protected future first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Shane Battier and Ish Smith.
A flurry of activity at the NBA trade deadline will bring Shane Battier back to Memphis — at least briefly. The Grizzlies acquired Battier, an impending free agent, from the Houston Rockets for Hasheem Thabeet and a future first round pick.
A second, more controversial, deal is on the table but not official as of right now. It would send O.J. Mayo to the Indiana Pacers for reserve big man Josh McRoberts and a future first-round pick. The Pacers hold a trade exception that would make the deal possible despite a disparity in salaries between the two players. At the moment, however, it is uncertain if the Grizzlies and Pacers submitted trade in time.
I'll be discussing all this on the Chris Vernon Show (730 AM) at 5 p.m. and will have a full — and sure to be lengthy — post trade deadline report up later tonight.
The Grizzlies also got some help with losses by the Utah Jazz and Portland Trailblazers last night.
The Standings: With the win over the Timberwolves and the Jazz loss to the Mavs, the Grizzlies moved back into the final playoff slot, half a game ahead of the Jazz and a game behind the Blazers, who are 7th. The Grizzlies are 1.5 games behind the 6th-place Denver Nuggets and 2 games back of the 5th-place New Orleans Hornets. Game of consequence tonight: The Nuggets are at home against the Boston Celtics.
Two days after losing Rudy Gay for at least a month, the Grizzlies are set to sign free-agent small forward Rodney Carney to a 10-day contract, as first reported by the Commercial Appeal.
Carney's local connection will draw attention: I've already seen comments praising the signing on those terms and wondering — with apparent seriousness — when the Grizzlies will finally sign former Tiger Antonio Anderson, and I've seen comments blasting the idea that former Tigers drive ticket sales.
But Carney's collegiate record is pretty much irrelevant to this signing. Carney was simply the best available free agent small forward.
Carney has three viable NBA skills: He's a terrific athlete at 6'7" who can run the floor and finish in transition. He's a decent defender (though not as good on that end as I thought he would be). And he's a viable catch-and-shoot threat from long-distance, making 34% on his career.
UPDATE: It's been brought to my attention that the on court/off court stats cited via 82Games.com haven't been updated in about a month — which I didn't notice. Current numbers underscore the same point about the team being better with Gay on the floor at both the offensive and defensive ends, though the difference now isn't quite as extreme because the "bench" has improved over the past month. I'll update the numbers when I have a chance.
The Grizzlies got bad news yesterday when an MRI on Rudy Gay's injured shoulder revealed enough damage to keep him out of the lineup for what's estimated to be at least four weeks — which would be nearly half the remaining season. This loss comes at the team's most optimistic moment of the season, in the midst of four-game winning streak and a playoff situation in which the Grizzlies are now tied for the 8th seed and only 1.5 games out of the 5th seed. Can they remain in the playoff race without him?
Playing Without Him: While the Grizzlies have been much worse this season when Gay's gone to the bench, they've actually been pretty solid in the three-and-a-half games in which Gay hasn't been available at all.
With Gay serving a one-game league suspension on December 18th, the Grizzlies took the San Antonio Spurs — the league's top team so far this season — to overtime on the road before losing. With Gay out sick on January 1st, the Grizzlies played at Utah in what was a single-possession game into the final minute before losing 98-92. And with Gay out with a sprained toe on February 8th, the Grizzlies won a rousing overtime road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Lead: The Grizzlies head into the All-Star break with a four-game winning streak and a 12-3 record over their past 15 games, but the real lead tonight was the injury Rudy Gay suffered in the middle of the second quarter.
After hitting the floor on a drive and taking two free throws on one-hand shots, Gay left the game for good with a subluxation on his non-shooting shoulder. As I understand it, a subluxation is a partial dislocation. Essentially, Gay's shoulder popped out and immediate popped back in. The damage this did will be determined by an MRI tomorrow, and until that happens, no one can be sure about how serious this is. The range could be anywhere from surgery to a few days rest and treatment. The best guess seems to be that given Gay's youth, lack of history with shoulder problems, and where the injury occurred (i.e., shoulder rather than knee), there's a good chance that this isn't serious. But we won't know until tomorrow. If nothing else, the All-Star break gives Gay a weeklong rehab cushion that could minimize the number of games missed.
As for the game itself, the Grizzlies came out tonight and blitzed the Sixers in the first quarter with stifling defense that, for once, wasn't a by-product of Tony Allen, who played only two minutes in the quarter. The Grizzlies used five steals and three blocks in the quarter to force eight Philadelphia turnovers while not having any turnovers themselves. As a result, the Grizzlies went up 26-10 after one quarter.
The Grizzlies pushed the lead to 18 midway through the second quarter and were up 41-26 when Gay left the game. But Gay's departure and the free-throw awkwardness — both Gay's and the Grizzlies fouling on the other end to get him out of the game — seemed to knock the team out of its rhythm. Over the next 15 minutes, the Sixers outscored the Grizzlies 44-30 to pull to within one but could never get over the hump, as the Grizzlies used a fourth quarter shooting explosion from Mike Conley — 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including 3-4 from three-point range — to put the game away.
Got sidetracked after last night's 116-108 Grizzlies win over the Denver Nuggets. So rather than the standard post-game notebook, a few thoughts on both last night's game and the immediate future of a very real playoff race:
Last Night's Game, Signature Plays, and the Griz Three Factors: The Grizzlies enjoyed one of their best wins of the season last night. Down 17 points (86-69) late in the third quarter to a Denver Nuggets team whose league-best offense was humming, everything was going wrong.
Grizzlies basketball this season has been defined in large part by three statistical indicators: The team leads the NBA in turnover differential and points in the paint. And after a slow start they've pushed themselves up to 6th in offensive rebounding, a category where the Grizzlies lead the NBA a year ago.
But, down 17, with four minutes to play in the third quarter, the Grizzlies were lagging behind the Nuggets in all three of these pet categories. The Nuggets offense was not being disrupted and the Grizzlies were not getting themselves the extra possessions and easy baskets needed to offset their nightly deficiencies from long-range.
Two types of signature plays embody the brand of basketball the Grizzlies have thrived with this season: The Tony Allen Steal and the Zach Randolph Putback. Down 86-69, the Griz were also getting blanked on both of those types of tone-setting plays. Allen had zero steals. Randolph had a lone offensive rebounded, but no putbacks.
The Lead: You could see this one coming. The Milwaukee Bucks entered the game 29th in offensive efficiency and were facing a Grizzlies team currently ranked 9th in defensive efficiency and moving up. Meanwhile, the Bucks were 6th in defensive efficiency and were getting a Grizzlies offense ranked 20th on the season and coming into this game without O.J. Mayo (league suspension) and Zach Randolph (nursing a sore ankle) and with Rudy Gay gutting his way through multiple injuries.
Given all that, this was shaping up to be a low-scoring muddle of a game, and that's exactly what it was.
Other than an unlikely third-quarter explosion from Corey Maggette, who scored 20 points in the quarter on 4-4 three-point shooting (he's a career 32% shooter from distance), the Bucks could never get anything going offensively. But that one little run of shot-making was enough to make this a competitive game as the Grizzlies own offense was searching for scoring options for much of the game: Mike Conley and Darrell Arthur, suddenly the primary shot creators, combined to shoot 4-17 in the first half. Back-up point guards Greivis Vasquez and a debuting Jason Williams created exactly zero points in a combined 11 minutes.
Rudy Gay delivered an admirably effective 14 points (5-11 shooting) and 3 assists in nearly 40 minutes, but you could tell early on that he was severely limited. In the first quarter, he finished a play on the block with a soft lay-up that would normally be a dunk, and with a reasonably clear angle to the basket on a 2-on-1 break, he gave the ball to Conley instead. Gay was clearly trying to pick his spots, but when the team ran a few isolation plays for him down the stretch, he struggled with turnovers.
Ultimately, good defense, a spark of energy from Tony Allen, and a bounce-back second half from Mike Conley was enough to polish off a bad Bucks team. But I don't think the Grizzlies could be this limited against better Denver and Philadelphia teams on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively, and hope to win.
A quicker than usual post-game report as I face Tuesday deadlines on non-hoops work:
The Lead: The Lakers used strong defense from their pair of seven-foot post players and deft three-point shooting from secondary scorers (Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Steve Blake, and Shannon Brown combining to go 8-15) to pull away from the Grizzlies in a physical, often intense, but not terribly elegant game.
In the late third quarter, Marc Gasol bloodied Ron Artest's nose fighting for the ball and the game stopped for a couple of minutes as no one — Griz players, referees, coaches, Artest's teammates — seemed quite sure how Artest would react. This was followed by a Rudy Gay technical, a hard foul on Gay by Kobe Bryant, and other bits of potential chaos.
The Grizzlies responded well to all of this, using a series of steals to pull within 78-76 at the midway mark of the fourth quarter. From there, the Grizzlies' offense fell apart as the Lakers went on a 13-2 run before a couple of late Sam Young three-pointers brought the final deficit into single digits.
With a 112-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at FedExForum Friday night and an earlier loss by the Portland Trailblazers to the Indiana Pacers, the Grizzlies improved to 27-24 and moved into 8th place in the Western Conference, good enough for a playoff birth if the season ended today.
It wasn't as easy as many anticipated. Trying to avoid tying an NBA record with 23 consecutive single-season losses, the Cavs stayed with the Grizzlies for three quarters. The Grizzlies began by making their first 10 field-goal attempts, but you got the sense that with the offense humming so smoothly against such an ostensibly inferior opponent, that the Grizzlies got complacent at the defensive end — and three early fouls for Marc Gasol didn't help. Even when making every shot, the Grizzlies couldn't get more than 6 or 8 up on the Cavs, and when the offense bogged down with missed shots and turnovers, the Cavs kept going, holding a seven-point lead at halftime and going up by as many as 12 in the third quarter. The Grizzlies finally got serious, turning up their defense, focusing the offense more on Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, and cutting the deficit to one at the end of the third quarter. The Grizzlies started the fourth quarter with a 13-0 run and essentially put it away.
Enjoy this playoff perch for a moment Griz fans, because a tough road game tomorrow night against the Houston Rockets could make it short-lived, especially since the team had to play Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph 45 and 44 minutes tonight, respectively.
But the Grizzlies head to Houston on a season-best five-game winning streak. And rather than go deep into the win over the Cavs, I'm going to instead highlight four individual-player trends that are helping drive the team's current good play:
The Right Idea: The instinctual reaction of most close followers of the Grizzlies will be to kill this move. But before we go that route, let's establish a few things.
First, the Grizzlies are one of the few teams in the league that are carrying only two point guards on their roster. And given that one of those is a late-first-round-pick rookie, in Greivis Vasquez, currently sporting a 36% shooting percentage and a 7.96 player efficiency rating (15 is league average), and given that, rightly or wrongly, the team isn't willing to give O.J. Mayo spot minutes at the position, clearly this is an area of potential need.
I like Vasquez. I think he's been a viable back-up point guard for the Grizzlies this season and I think he could develop into one of the better back-up points in the league with his combination of size, court vision, and gutsy play. But the idea of adding a third point guard to the roster — as insurance and to give the coaches an alternative to a rookie providing middling production — makes plenty of sense. If that player can be an NBA veteran with playoff experience, all the better.