The Grizzlies delivered their worst home performance of the season. Individually, the poor effort was lead by what are supposed to be the team's two best players, with Rudy Gay having probably his worst game since his rookie season (1 point on 0-7 performance and listless play on both ends all night) and increasingly tired looking Marc Gasol registering 7 points on 3-11 shooting and an out-of-character zero assists. (He did have 12 rebounds.) But this just wasn't about poor individual play. It was a bad team effort, with the Grizzlies giving up more offensive rebounds (14) than they had assists (10).
From the opening tip, the Spurs — playing on the second night of a back-to-back after going to overtime against the Dallas Mavericks Sunday night — played with fluidity, all crisp passing and decisive play. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies, home from a long West Coast road trip and with a day's rest, looked as tired mentally as physically, playing an uncertain, hiccup-y game marked by equal doses of poor effort and poor execution.
“When you don't make shots and you don't defend and you don' rebound, you're going to lose,” Lionel Hollins said after the game, pointing out that those second two elements are a function of effort.
“Shooting comes and goes. You can't get discouraged when you're not hitting [and let it affect other parts of your game],” Hollins said.
The Grizzlies have had home performances this bad before — they seemed to happen on opening night most seasons — but this one felt particularly ill-timed, coming off a typically rough West Coast road trip and with a game tomorrow night against perhaps the league's deepest and most energetic team (the Denver Nuggets) followed by another potentially rough road trip (to Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Boston).
A four-game losing streak isn't inherently a big deal. Last season, en route to the playoffs, the Grizzlies had separate four- and five-game losing streaks. A year before, on the way to 40 wins, there were seven- and five-game losing streaks. In the franchise's three initial playoff seasons, they had eight different losing streaks of four games or more.
But Monday night's game was, on paper, a more likely win than the next four games. A four-game losing streak is one thing. What about seven or eight? And in a shorter season, these streaks are more damaging.
Beyond just the losses, there's a troubling trend of weak starts and sputtering offense, with the Grizzles under 92 points in each of their past five games.
Scrapping the usual long-form postgame notebook due to usual Tuesday deadlines with the print edition, but we'll be wading back into this when the Grizzlies face the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night.
As the eastern-most team in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies have never really taken well to West Coast road trips. Even in the past two seasons, over which the team had a winning record overall, they went 4-14 over four long West trips, including 1-8 in each season's early trip.
But with help from a quarter-ending halfcourt three from Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies went on a 15-0 run to get back into the game and it was close the rest of the way. But the Grizzlies just couldn't generate enough offense in the fourth quarter to pull this one out.
Gay scored a game-high 24 points on 9-18 shooting but also committed six turnovers, and didn't get much help from any other perimeter scorers. Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo combined to shoot 7-29, with reservers Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham (2-8) similarly ineffective off the bench. Meanwhile, the Clippers deployed five good perimeter shooters, all of whom — Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Mo Williams, and Randy Foye — hit at least one three-pointer.
All good streaks must end and so it was with the Grizzlies' seven-game win streak, which came to a sputtering halt last night in Portland, a game in which the Blazers' 6'11” mid-range sniper Lamarcus Aldridge torched an overmatched Marreese Speights for 14 first-quarter points, Blazers' center Marcus Camby maneuvered around an under-sized, under-skilled, and/or under-rested Griz frontcourt for 22 rebounds, and recently reliable scorers Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley (a combined 24 points on 10-38 shooting) routinely left shots short.
This game could be seen as either an anomaly or a revelation.
On one hand, there's plenty of reason to believe that this was a loss preordained by scheduling and the flow of the season. It was the second night of a back-to-back set on the road, which is historically a tough game to win. Added to that, it was the the team's third game in four days, against a team with one of the league's best home-court advantages (Portland is now 8-1 at home), and — perhaps most meaningful of all — followed a dramatic and no-doubt draining comeback win against the Warriors the night before. Gay, for instance, had played 44 minutes against Golden State. (Another element, of course, is that Portland presents some specific match-up problems for the Grizzlies with their dual quality length up front — akin to the Lakers — and the rare small forward in Gerald Wallace who's an athletic match for Gay.)
For more than three quarters, the Grizzlies' four-game West Coast road trip was off to a frustrating start. Shots wouldn't fall, the Golden State Warriors had more energy, and whenever the Grizzlies would make a mini-run, cutting the deficit to 15 or 13 or 12, the Warriors seemed to respond with a long jumper, pushing it back to 15 or 17 or 18.
Eighteen was where it stood a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, with the Grizzlies down 70-52 and seemingly a few possessions from calling it a night. That's when the defensive intensity started to ramp up, and the Grizzlies closed on an improbable, ferocious 33-15 run in the final eight minutes in which they forced eight Warriors turnovers on seven steals (three from Tony Allen).
Mike Conley scored a layup off an Allen steal and Rudy Gay pass to give the Grizzlies the lead (86-85), then Gay extended it with fade-away 17-footer at the :22 mark to put the Grizzlies up 88-85.
The Hottest Team in the League: After blistering overmatched opponents in back-to-back games this weekend — winning 98-81 in Detroit Friday night and 128-95 at home against Sacramento on Saturday — the Grizzlies head out on a four-game West Coast swing as the hottest team in the NBA.
The Grizzlies are tied with division rival Houston Rockets for the longest active winning streak in the NBA, but where the Rockets' current six-game streak has been more of a tightrope walk — a point-differential of +9.2, but with two wins in overtime and another by only three, and with five of six at home — the Grizzlies' streak has been a bit more dominant (and against three common opponents) — a point-differential of +15.3 with four of six at home.
Even accounting for the team's rough start, the Grizzlies have arguably been better than two of the four Western Conference teams with better records on the season, the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, both of whom have lower point differentials against easier schedules while feasting on an early slate extremely tilted toward home games. (Ten of 14 at home for the Clippers; 10 of 15 for the Jazz.)
The Grizzlies have moved up to 6th overall in John Hollinger's automated NBA power rankings — which take into account point differential, strength of schedule, home/road splits, and play over the past 10 games — and second in the West behind only the 13-3 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Some of the subjective rankings trickling out today also have the Grizzlies on the rise:
Sixth (third in West) via NBA.com's David Aldridge, who also tabs the Grizzlies “Team of the Week”
Ninth (fifth in the West) via SBNation's Tom Ziller
A more modest 12th on NBA.com's overall power rankings.
The biggest mover — from 17th to 10th — in Marc Stein's power rankings.
The Grizzlies extended their current winning streak to four games, moved above .500 for the first time this season (to 7-6), and — in conjunction with the Dallas Mavericks loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and for the moment at least — moved up into Western Conference playoff seedings at 8th place.
But even though the Grizzlies never trailed in this second meeting with the New Orleans Hornets, it wasn't easy, with the Hornets threatening for most of the second half. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley carried the team most of the way. Gasol had perhaps his most impressive stat-line of the season so far, notching 22 points (on 10-14 shooting), 12 rebounds, and 7 assists, and making physical plays late in help seal the game. Gasol has now notched double-digits rebounds every game in January, 10 in a row. Meanwhile, Conley continued his recent fine play with 18 points and 10 assists, including 4-7 shooting from three-point range. With the Grizzlies' lead in constant jeopardy and with coach Lionel Hollins still not fully trusting his back-up point-guard options, Conley played 42 minutes, including the entire second half.
With the rest of the team lagging down the stretch — especially Rudy Gay (12 points on 5-11 shooting, 5 rebounds, 4 turnovers), who was very sluggish after a strong first quarter — O.J. Mayo became the closer, holding over the surging Hornets with a series of clutch jump shots, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter.
After hopping onto the radio with Chris Vernon immediately after the game and having to deal with family duties afterward, I'm little late getting this up, but here's my notebook from today's Martin Luther King Jr. Day game down at FedExForum:
The Lead: Derrick Rose was a late scratch after re-aggravating his turf toe injury, which meant each team was without its top star in this game. As great as Rose is, he isn't the primary reason the Bulls have been dominant defensively. And for whatever reason — the early start time on the road? — the Bulls weren't themselves in the first half. Not facing the kind of intense defensive pressure they saw coming out of the gate in that earlier meeting in Chicago, the Grizzlies were able to get into a good groove early, shooting 69% and taking a 20-point lead into the break despite 11 first-half turnovers.
The Bulls did finally turn up their defensive intensity in the third quarter behind frontcourt reserves Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, pressing full court and collapsing into the paint to force turnovers and mid-range jumpers, respectively. This defensive tornado got the Grizzlies out of their game and spurred a 26-8 Bulls run, turning a 27-point Grizzlies lead early into the third quarter into a 9-point Grizzlies lead early in the fourth.
But, in the best collective game so far this season from Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol, it was this remaining trio from the team's four-man core that built and then rebuilt a big lead at the end of each half.
In the second quarter, the Grizzlies were leading by 7 points coming out of a timeout with 4:24 left in the half and finished on a 16-3 run in which Conley, Gay, and Gasol were involved in every basket: Conley began the run with a three-pointer off a Gay assist, got a steal on the sideline and raced down to put back a Tony Allen miss in transition, found Gasol at the rim for a layup. Gay had the sequence of the game, blocking Joakim Noah at the rim and then driving past Noah for a dunk on the other end, and then ending the run with a corner three. Gasol set up Marreese Speights for a dunk off a high-post feed, the only basket in the run not scored by one of the three.
And they were at it again in the fourth. Gay checked back in to join Conley and Gasol at the 8:00 mark, with the Griz lead still teetering at 9. From there, the Grizzlies went on a 17-5 run over the next five and a half minutes before the benches emptied. In that run, Conley assisted on two Gasol jumpers, went coast-to-coast off a steal. Gay scored five and assisted on a Dante Cunningham basket to finish off the run. Gasol added a third jumper and a couple of blocks.
Even with Rose out, this was a good win for the Grizzlies, who have now won three games in a row and have to be happy to be sitting at 6-6 despite their injuries, roster upheaval and early schedule heavy with elite opponents. And what we're learning is similar to what we learned when first O.J. Mayo and then Rudy Gay missed stretches last season and the team kept winning: The Grizzlies have a lot of good players. It's hard to imagination they could get back to where they were last post-season without Randolph, but if those left behind play up to their potential, the Grizzlies are good enough to compete for a playoff spot without him — and much more than that if and when Randolph is back in the line-up and effective.
The Lead: The Grizzlies weathered an unlikely, late run from a colorful Hornets' bench crew to hold on for a 108-99 win and remain undefeated at home against teams not named “the Oklahoma City Thunder.”
Despite being down as much as 17 points late in the third quarter, a Hornets lineup lead by former Grizzlies reserve Greivis Vasquez — making his first appearance in Memphis following his Christmas Eve trade to New Orleans — went on a 26-11 run over a seven-minute stretch in the late third and early fourth quarter, bringing the Hornets to within two points, 91-93. But the Grizzlies kept their composure and never let the Hornets pull even, with consecutive Tony Allen scores following the Hornets drawing to within two and Rudy Gay then taking advantage of mismatches to put the game away.
Gay, two nights after finally breaking out with his 26 points against the Knick, drove past Hornets big Jason Smith for a foul and hit both shots to make it a seven-point game at 2:54, then shot over Vasquez for a three-pointer that made it a 10-point game with just over two-minutes to go. After starting 2-7 and missing some good shots — including a power dunk attempt — Gay went 7-12 the rest of the way en route to a game high 23.
Man of the Match: It's a testament to the kind of season Marc Gasol is having that his stat line of 20 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, and 0 turnovers seems like a run-of-the-mill game. This was Gasol's third 20/10 game in his past five. It was his eighth straight double-digit rebound game. His fifth straight game with at least two blocks. His fifth straight game to play at least 40 minutes. Gasol's big post-season last spring overshadowed what had been a somewhat disappointing regular season. But Gasol is back to where he was two seasons ago, when he was the Grizzlies best all-around basketball player even with Rudy Gay scoring 20 a night and Zach Randolph making the all-star team. In fact, he's even better, and the Grizzlies' fall off is frequently steep in the rare minutes when he's not in the game. I'm not sure how much of the greater NBA audience has taken notice yet, but Gasol is, at worst, the third-best center in the Association right now.
The Lead: The Grizzlies ended a three-game losing streak — and got a couple of key scorers into a needed groove — with a commanding win over the Knicks, going up by as much as 25 points late in the third quarter before a combination of a defensive letup and a series of three-pointers from Knicks bench players made the score closer without ever putting the outcome in doubt.
The Grizzlies needed a game like this to rein in anxiety over the team's 3-6 start, but got plenty of help from a Knick team whose 6-4 record coming into the game was probably misleading (lots of wins against bad teams) and whose top two scorers (Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire) had dud games for different reasons.
Man of the Match: After getting off to a poor start to the season and struggling terribly in Tuesday night's game against the Thunder, the pressure was obviously on Rudy Gay, and he responded tonight, with a season-high 26 points on 11-16 shooting, heavy on fluid mid-range jumpers and alley-oop finishes (and one monster dunk in traffic). Gay's best sequence came late in the third quarter, when he stuffed Knicks seven-footer Tyson Chandler at the rim then buried a straight-away three-pointer at the opposite end. But, if onlookers shouldn't have gotten too low after Gay's poor showing against the Thunder, they should be wary of getting too high based on his play against the Knicks. Gay is apparently dealing with a minor hip injury in addition to the other challenges associated with his return from a major shoulder. He needs to put together a string of strong performances to really get right. We'll see if a trend develops when the Griz face the New Orleans Hornets Saturday night.
The Grizzlies host the New York Knicks tonight at FedExForum in a game that will be nationally televised on TNT. Some notes on the state of the team and tonight's game:
Rudy Redux: After writing in depth about the Rudy Gay “situation” after Tuesday night's game, I don't want to spend much time on it here. But I will clarify and underscore a couple of points. I wasn't trying to “excuse” Gay's poor play, but to try to understand and describe it, and “he just needs to play harder,” while probably true to some degree, seems too simple. It seems clear to me that Gay's struggles — which are real regardless of how defensible you think they are — are coming from a confluence of physical and mental issues: Conditioning/rust issues from his injury and layoff plus increased pressure to immediately better his pre-injury production in the wake of Zach Randolph's injury combining to exacerbate a pre-existing tendency for on-court adversity to disrupt his mental approach to the game. Gay's current play is bringing back old doubts about his make-up that he was starting to get past.
Is this weakness? Well, it's certainly a deficiency, and one that I think his current play suggests isn't going to be totally correctable. If you want to characterize this problem in accusatory or moralistic terms, so be it. My larger point was that this problem — which has not and, I would suspect, will not prevent him from still being an all-star caliber contributor — comes from somewhere. And I think it's what I called a relative lack of instinctiveness but which you could also call “feel for the game” or “court awareness” if you prefer. I think it's clear to anyone who watches him a lot, fans and detractors alike, that Gay has a tendency to think rather than react on the floor, and this makes him more susceptible to letting poor play and resulting frustration affect his performance. And that's happening right now perhaps more than ever. This is somewhat discouraging but, for me at least, doesn't wipe away all of the positive qualities he has as a player.
At the same time, I think this issue has, for the moment at least, been made into too big of a thing (and maybe I'm not helping in that regard), because “well-paid player returning from injury needs to be The Man and isn't doing it” is an easy peg for columns and radio shows and Twitter complaints. This is a team game and there's more going on with this team than Gay's disappointing recent play.
Other Rotation Issues: The consternation over Gay has obscured other developments with the team, so to move on to other areas, here are some bullet-point observations on five related pairs of Griz players:
* O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen: The other two main parts of what should be, at its best, a versatile, productive wing rotation are playing well. There were legitimate concerns about Allen entering the season — his breakout first campaign with the team had the look of a classic “fluke rule” season; would the success and attention go to his head and disrupt his game, a la James Posey before him? But, happily, Allen has looked like much the same player we saw a year ago. His steal rate (3.53 per 48 minutes, fourth best in the league among players notching at least 20 minutes a game) is again among the best in the NBA. His offensive is still a high-wire act, but at 48% shooting and with a turnover rate appreciably lower than his Boston years, he's still contributing with reasonable efficiency. The wing is one area where the Grizzlies still have good depth, but even with that in mind, Allen's 22.7 minutes per game seems a little low.
The Grizzlies lost 100-95 to the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night in a game that, in broad strokes, was similar to Sunday's 90-82 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers: A competitive game against a top team in which the Grizzlies kept it close down the stretch but could never completely close the gap.
In the details, however, it was drastically different. Against the Lakers, the Grizzlies' pestering perimeter defense was in rare form, forcing 27 Laker turnovers off of 18 steals and using this to rack up 31 fast-break points. But, in the halfcourt, against the Lakers dual seven-footers, the Grizzlies were completely lost, getting much of their meager production off newbie Marreese Speights' instant-trigger mid-range jumper.
Against the Thunder, the Grizzlies could only get their helter-skelter defense-into-offense game going in spurts, registering a mere six steals and 10 fast-break points. And yet they were still able to score 95 points on 46% shooting with a more functional halfcourt offense. Marc Gasol got back into an offensive groove (20 points on 8-16 shooting) after his 0-9 shooting against the Lakers. The team shot decently from three-point range (5-12, including 3-3 from O.J. Mayo). Mike Conley was very effective (10 assists to one turnover). And Dante Cunningham proved more useful (5-7 shooting, four offensive rebounds) against a team that didn't force him to guard a post scorer.
Unfortunately, the details of this good — if ultimately disappointing for the home team — game are secondary to what feels like a growing fan anxiety over recent struggles — the struggles of the team as a whole and the struggles of Rudy Gay in particular. So rather than go through the typical, detailed post-game report, let's take a broader look at those two issues:
The Team: Let's unpack this 3-6 start a little bit. Five of the team's six losses have come against elite teams (Spurs with Ginobili, Bulls, Lakers, Thunder twice). The Grizzlies are 1-4 on the road but 2-2 at home, with two close losses to the Thunder (the best team in the West) and blowout wins over the middling-to-bad Kings and Rockets.
Speights joined the team last night — at least according to Tony Allen's Twitter feed — and should be in uniform soon pending physicals for both players involved in the deal.
Of course, by the now the Grizzlies have lost both Zach Randolph (for 6-8 weeks if all goes well) and Darrell Arthur (for the season), so the need Speights will be asked to fill is even more pronounced.
At 6'10” and — at last count — 255 pounds, Speights has the size to log time at center and the shooting range to play with Marc Gasol at power forward. The book on Speights has been that he's a decent rebounder (with rates in the normal range for rotation-level big men) and very good mid-range shooter (over 40% on long twos in all three NBA seasons). On the downside, he's been a disinterested defender, puts up shots even more frequently than his skills suggest is wise, and there have been questions about his conditioning. In Philadelphia, he quickly fell out of favor with new coach Doug Collins, logging only 11.5 minutes a game last season and not getting on the floor at all this season. (Speights played in Rudy Gay's Memphis charity game during the lockout, and looked fine, but there's only so much you can tell in that kind of setting.)
The Grizzlies picked up a good win last night — the second night of a back-to-back set, on the road, against a much-improved Minnesota Timberwolves team that has already beaten the Spurs and Mavericks and lost close games to the Thunder and Heat.
Fatigue was apparent, especially from Marc Gasol, who was leaving a lot of shots short, but the team was able to play staunch enough defense and make enough plays offensively to pull it out. (Other than O.J. Mayo, the team really struggled from the perimeter, with Conley, Gasol, Rudy Gay, Dante Cunningham, and Jeremy Pargo a combined 0-17 on long two-point jumpers.)
The Grizzlies closed the game with a lineup of Conley-Mayo-Tony Allen-Gay-Gasol and, without Zach Randolph, I suspect that's going to be the team's best lineup on most nights. This group played the final eight minutes, starting with the team down 63-66 and went on a 13-0 run in the middle of this stretch, giving the Grizzlies a 76-68 lead with three minutes to play and control of the game, then hitting 8-8 free throws in final 22 seconds to maintain that control.
The curious case of Zach Randolph's knee injury took a more decisive turn today, with the Commercial Appeal reporting that an MRI has revealed a “slight tear” that will have him out of action for “up to eight weeks.”
Trainers and doctors initially diagnosed the injury — suffered in the first quarter of Sunday's loss at Chicago — as a deep bruise, and Randolph's MRI test, not taken until yesterday, was termed as only “precautionary” by the team. As recently as late yesterday afternoon, I'd been told by an internal Grizzlies source that the initial word from the MRI was positive and that Randolph was still considered “day to day.” But the team held off on releasing results for further evaluation of the MRI. Clearly there was some internal uncertainty — or, at least, miscommunication — about the severity of Randolph's injury.
The current prognosis is very similar to that of Rudy Gay in the days after his February shoulder injury — no surgery planned, a re-evaluation in two weeks, an expected absence of up to 8 weeks. In Gay's case, the injury didn't fully heal via treatment alone and surgery was required. The Grizzlies will hope that Randolph's recovery goes better.
ESPN's Marc Stein is reporting that the Grizzlies are close to acquiring Philadelphia 76ers forward/center Marreese Speights in a three-team trade with the Sixers and the New Orleans Hornets. The deal would apparently send second-year swingman Xavier Henry to New Orleans and a potential second-round pick in next summer's draft to Philadelphia for Speights.
Adding a rotation-quality big man without giving up anyone in the team's current rotation would be a good get for the Grizzlies right now and the deal would presumably make it much more likely that the Grizzlies would keep O.J. Mayo for the remainder of the season.
More on this if and when it becomes official.