Monday, February 14, 2011

About Last Night: Three Factors in Effect, Playoff Race Heating Up

Posted By on Mon, Feb 14, 2011 at 11:00 AM

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.

But for the final 16 minutes, the Grizzlies put on what was essentially a showcase of the way this team likes to play: They outscored the Nuggets 47-22 the rest of the way. They turned the Nuggets over nine times while only coughing up the ball twice themselves. The forced turnovers were ignited by seven steals, three of them from Allen. Randolph alone beat the Nuggets on the offensive boards 4-0, putting two of them back in for Grizzlies points.

At the end of the game, after being behind in all three factors late in the third, the Grizzlies had gotten back to where they needed to be: -3 on turnovers, +3 on offensive rebounds, +8 in the paint. Grizzlies basketball.

And while it was a total team effort — Rudy Gay playing Carmelo Anthony close to even, Darrell Arthur scoring a career-high 24 off the bench, Marc Gasol stepping up with 15 and 6 in the first half when Randolph was struggling, Mike Conley solid across the board — it was Allen and Randolph who defined the win. As with so many other games this season, Allen's defensive intensity re-routed the game, igniting teammates and the home crowd. And Randolph, after struggling mightily all night, morphed into a beast again in the home stretch, scoring 13 of his 14 points in those final 16 minutes while dominating the glass (16 rebounds overall).

Rotation Questions: The Grizzlies are on a roll, winning 11 of their past 14 games. But that doesn't mean the team's rotation is settled. Far from it. There are lots of questions about the backcourt in particular. Last night was Jason Williams' second appearance for the Grizzlies and Lionel Hollins split back-up point-guard minutes pretty evenly between Williams and Vasquez. Vasquez got the nod in the first half and the team was -10 in his six minutes. Vasquez had a couple of assists, but threw up a couple of questionable shots and picked up a foul and seemed to get away from the game plan at times. Williams got the call in the second half, and while his stat line in seven minutes was almost non-existent — two assists but zeros across the board otherwise — he played with (believe it or not) more maturity. He increased the tempo, got the ball to scorers, and didn't make mistakes. It wasn't the dynamic J-Will of old, but more the equivalent of a "game manager" quarterback in the NFL. The Grizzlies were +10 in Williams' seven minutes.

As @HPBasketball tweeted last night:

Jason Williams: 0 FGA, 0 RB, 2 assists, 0 points, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 0 fouls, +10 in 6:34. A JEDI CRAVES NOT THESE THINGS.

That's just one game, but I have a hunch that, as the Grizzlies get down into a serious playoff race these last two months, the veteran Williams will increasingly take over the bulk of the back-up point guard role over the rookie Vasquez. I think the Grizzlies like Greivis and have high hopes for him, but for now I suspect Hollins is going be grow more comfortable with the veteran. And I think it will probably be the right move.

There are also questions at the other guard position, where O.J. Mayo is set to return from his 10-game league suspension Tuesday. At this point, I'll be surprised if Mayo is traded. So if the Grizzlies are going to have this roster the rest of the season, there are playing-time issues to be sorted out. Sam Young has played well as a started over the past few weeks and has, I think, established himself as a legitimate rotation-worthy NBA player. But he's not as talented as Mayo and doesn't impact the game as much as Tony Allen.

I think Hollins likes the idea of Mayo as an offensive-boost off the bench, and that's defensible. And I think he likes the idea of Tony Allen as a game-changer off the bench, also defensible. But I'm skeptical that the team could bring both Mayo AND Allen off the bench and get them both the minutes they need. I feel like one of the two needs to start but I'm not sure if Hollins will really change the starting lineup in the middle of a good streak. This will bear watching.

Where They Stand: Last night's win improved the Grizzlies' record to 30-26, but they remain in ninth place in the Western Conference and remain a game behind the Portland Trailblazers, who had the gall to win in Detroit last night. But the middle of the West continues to tighten up. The Grizzlies are now only 1.5 games behind the 7th seed Utah Jazz and 6th seed Nuggets and only three games back of the 5th seed New Orleans Hornets.

Tonight's Games: The Grizzlies are off but there are two games of relevance to the team's playoff race: Portland travels to Minnesota and Denver plays at Houston. The Grizzlies have a nice cushion ahead of Houston now and could move to within a single game of the Nuggets if they lose, so Griz plans should probably root for the Rockets at home tonight.

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