The Lost Weekend: Sadly, a very compelling long weekend of basketball went by without any activity in this space. I was on-hand for both Friday night's loss to the New Orleans Hornets and Monday's win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but my desire to knock out standard post-game write-ups was thwarted by — respectively — a post-game social engagement and pressing non-Grizzlies deadlines for both this week's paper and next month's Memphis magazine.
It's no use going into detail on the weekend's games at this point, but there are some individual and team trends worth putting a spotlight on.
Add in the home win last Tuesday against the Spurs and the past week — win over Spurs, loss to Hornets, win at Dallas, win over Thunder — was a continuation of a season-long trend for the team, in which the Grizzlies are extremely competitive against the West's elite but struggle more against the team middle group of teams they're competing with for playoff positioning.
Record vs. West's Big Four:
Spurs - 1-2
Mavs - 3-1
Lakers - 2-2
Thunder - 3-1
The Grizzlies have won the season series against the Mavs and Thunder, tied the season series against the Lakers, and have a chance to tie the series with the Spurs with San Antonio comes back to town on March 27th.
Record vs. Other 5-8 Contenders:
Nuggets - 1-2
Blazers - 1-1
Hornets - 0-2
Suns - 2-1
Rockets - 1-3
Jazz - 1-2
The Grizzlies have won the season series against the Suns but have lost the season series to the Rockets and Nuggets. They'll need to beat the Jazz on March 21st to tie that series and sweep the Hornets on their remaining two games (April 1st and 10th) to notch a tie with New Orleans. An April 12th game at Portland will determine who wins the season-series with the Blazers.
The first part of this juxtaposition — that 9-6 record against the elite — gives hope. The Grizzlies have demonstrated potential match-up advantages against all four prospective first-round playoff opponents, which lends confidence that this team can be competitive in the post-season.
But the second half of the juxtaposition gives pause — because you have to get there first. The Grizzlies are currently in the 8th — and final — playoff slot, but only 5 games separate the seven teams competing for the final four playoff slots. It is a very tight race and could easily come down to tiebreakers. And the Grizzlies are in danger of being on the bad end of most of those. If there's good news here, it's that the Grizzlies have secured the tiebreaker over the currently ninth-place Phoenix Suns, the team they are most likely to be playing defense against the rest of the way. That means the current 1.5 game cushion the Grizzlies have over the Suns is really 2.5.
A few recent trends of note relating to individual players:
Sam Young — A starter? A closer?: Sam Young has generally performed well — and the Grizzlies have performed well with him — since moving into the starting lineup. But with the team's wing position getting crowded — with the return from suspension of O.J. Mayo, the acquisition of Shane Battier, and the potential return of Rudy Gay — you have to wonder if the team can really keep Young in this position. Though he's established himself as a solid rotation-level player this season, Young is arguably only the fifth-best wing player on the roster. Can that person really be a starter?
Young has been a fourth-quarter problem in each of the team's past two losses. In a February 27th loss at San Antonio, two teammates (Shane Battier and Mike Conley) committed late turnovers passing to an inattentive Young, who was pulled for Tony Allen at the 2:30 mark as a result. In Friday's loss to the Hornets, the opposition bottled up Zach Randolph and smartly sagged off Young in their fourth-quarter halfcourt defense. The open shots ended up in Young's hands and he missed them all, shooting 0-4, all on jumpers, before the Grizzlies made a too-late lineup change in the final minutes. Young followed that up with only 13 generally ineffectual minutes against the Mavericks.
Young rebounded against the Thunder, replacing Marc Gasol in the final five minutes when Lionel Hollins decided to go small and quick. The Grizzlies were able to score transition baskets off turnovers (Young finished one off a Tony Allen feed) and, when forced into halfcourt sets, were able to exploit mismatches with Mike Conley. I'm not sure if Young even touched the ball in the halfcourt offense down the stretch. Young is a physical defender who excels in transition, but as defenses tighten up and the game becomes more halfcourt oriented, you have to wonder if most of his minutes wouldn't be better used on players (Mayo, Battier) with higher hoops IQs and surer jump shots.
Integrating Battier: With Rudy Gay out, I thought Battier would have moved into the starting lineup by now. That hasn't happened, but Battier has been playing "starter's minutes" — 27.6 minute per game over the past five — and closing out every close game. It's unclear if Battier will ever get into the starting lineup — especially given that a return from Rudy Gay would now make it potentially brief elevation — but he's predictably become a closer for Lionel Hollins. And though Battier's career 39% three-point stroke has been MIA lately — 2-10 in the past three games — he's been helping the team by doing other "Battier stuff": Rebounding (18 over the past two games), mistake-free ball handling (four turnovers in five games), hustle plays (two blocks vs. OKC, four steals at San Antonio), and solid, versatile defense.
Battier's twisting, under-the-basket put back late against Dallas — a shot that made Zach Randolph's rainbow game-winner possible — was one of the crucial plays of the season for the Grizzlies, but my favorite Battier moment so far was a quieter moment of team defense Monday night against the Thunder.
If you made a list of the NBA's 10 best perimeter defenders, Battier and Tony Allen would probably both be on it. And with two minutes left against the Thunder, the Grizzlies nursing a four-point lead, OKC with the ball, Battier and Allen were not only both on the floor, both were on the same side of the floor: Thunder guard James Harden had the ball and was trying to make an entry pass the star Kevin Durant, who was attempting to use his five-inch height advantage to post-up Allen, who was fronting and jockeying with Durant, not letting him get set-up. Meanwhile, Battier was guarding Harden — alternately sagging down on Durant and flashing out to Harden to deny an easy passing angle. It went on like this for what seemed like about 8 seconds of the 24 second shot clock, until Harden finally had to give up. When a pump fake didn't fool Battier and Harden had no shot himself, he was forced into a swing pass to point guard Russell Westbrook, which Mike Conley anticipated, picked off, and took to the bank. 100-94 Grizzlies, under two minutes to go.
Mike Conley establishing himself: Mike Conley's breakout season has only gotten better of late. With Rudy Gay out, Conley has stepped up to make up for much of the missing offense, averaging 17 points a game on 53% shooting over the past five games. Even more promising is the at-least-temporary disappearance of the late-game struggles that have been an issue for Conley this season.
At San Antonio, four of Conley's 13 second half points can in the final minutes, and while he had a turnover late, it was that aforementioned passing turnover that Young wasn't ready for, not a ball-handling problem.
At Dallas, Conley led a dramatic third-quarter comeback with 12 points and 4 assists in the period. In the fourth quarter, among his 5 points and 3 assists was a three-pointer at the 3:12 mark that gave the Grizzlies a 96-95 lead. Conley played the entire second half without a turnover.
Home against Oklahoma City Monday night, Conley put up 20 field goal attempts and registered 9 assists in 39 minutes against one of the most athletic perimeter teams in the league and didn't have a single turnover. (Meanwhile, his more explosive Thunder counterpart, Russell Westbrook had 5 turnovers to 7 assists alongside his game-high 27 points.) Down the stretch, Conley repeatedly found himself matched against 6'10" Kevin Durant on pick-and-roll switches, and attacked the mismatch aggressively. Conley scored eight points — all at the rim — in the fourth, including an off-hand hook over Durant to give the Grizzlies a 102-96 lead with 31 seconds to go and all but ice the game.
Zach Randolph's total game: Zach Randolph has been a scoring and rebounding machine all his career, and the recent run has been no different, with Randolph averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds in the past five games. But what's been most remarkable about Randolph this season — why he's been arguably even better than in last year's "career" year — is that he's been so much better in what have always been his weakest areas — passing and defending. A quick statistical snapshot: Randolph's career averages are 1.7 assists and 0.8 steals per game. Over the past five games, he's more than doubled those numbers, with 3.6 assists and 2.6 steals.
Tonight's Game: It should be a really interesting one tonight, as the Grizzlies welcome the high-profile New York Knicks — featuring two of the league's top five scorers in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony — to town for the only time this season. The big question is whether point guard Chauncey Billups, who has missed the past four games with a deep thigh bruise, will play. Regardless, I see three keys to the Grizzlies winning this one:
1. Dominate the offensive boards: The Grizzlies are the 7th best offensive rebounding team on the season and are probably better than that now, with Shane Battier added to a healthy Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Knicks are 25th in defensive rebounding, and may be worse than that now, having given up more quality size in the Anthony trade than they got back. The Grizzlies should have a big advantage on the offensive boards tonight, and need to press it.
2. Limit Carmelo Anthony's efficiency: A 25-point a game scorer, Anthony is likely to get his points. But with the Grizzlies able to rotate Tony Allen and Shane Battier on him, the Grizzlies would do well to make Anthony's scoring night an relatively inefficient one, much as they were able to do against Kevin Durant.
3. Don't lose track of secondary shooters: The Knicks are the NBA's second most prolific three-point-shooting team. The Grizzlies need to be aware, in particular, of secondary scorers such as Toney Douglas (36% but on more than four attempts a game), Landry Fields (40%), Bill Walker (40%), and Memphian Shawne Williams (45% on three attempts a game — not a typo.)