Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Postgame Notebook: Grizzlies 113, Kings 96

Posted By on Wed, Jan 4, 2012 at 12:08 AM

The Lead: What we learned tonight: The Grizzlies don't need Zach Randolph … when they play a home game against a bad Sacramento Kings team in a bit of disarray. But coming off a 1-3 start, a terrible loss in Chicago, and a bevy of injury-related issues, the Grizzlies needed a good performance to tamp down the growing anxiety and a win any way they could get it.

So this game, in which Mike Conley returned to action, Rudy Gay got in a groove, Tony Allen made things happen (mostly for good), and the team scored 72 paint points even without Randolph was a huge relief.

After squandering a 17 point lead early in the 2nd quarter to let the Kings tie the game at 50-50, the Grizzlies carried a 52-50 lead into the half on a buzzer-beating tip-in from Gay. But they reasserted their control with a dominant third quarter, outscoring the Kings 35-18 and feeding off a swarming defense reminiscent of last year's Grizzlies at their best, turning Kings turnovers (19 overall) into transition scores (21 on the game).

Man of the Match: So many Grizzlies played well tonight that there are plenty of candidates here. But, though Rudy Gay (23 points and 8 rebounds on 10-16 shooting) had his best game of the season, Marc Gasol (14 points on 7-10 shooting, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) continued his terrific early play, and Sam Young (20 points on 8-13 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 steals) made a strong case for a regular rotation spot, Mike Conley was the most meaningful player on the floor for the Grizzlies tonight.

Conley had missed most of the past three games after aggravating a pre-existing ankle injury on the first possession of last week's home opener against the Thunder, and there had been mixed signals about his availability over the past couple of days. Lionel Hollins said in his post-game press conference that he wasn't sure Conley would play until this morning's shoot-around.

Conley came off the bench in the first half, playing seven minutes, in which the team outscored the Kings 17-7. He clearly needed to play more in the second half, and did, playing 16 minutes and guiding the team to a lead that maxed out at 23.

Rookies Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby had generally done good work in Conley's absence, but the difference with Conley on the floor tonight was palpable. The Grizzlies played with both more speed and more control. The whole game felt calmer, more organized, more purposeful. Conley was as solid on both ends tonight as I can remember, picking his spots as a scorer (14 points on 5-8 shooting), setting up teammates (7 assists to 2 turnovers), and, more than anything, disrupting the Kings at the head of the Grizzlies defense (4 steals) and getting the team scoring opportunities off their defense with open-court speed and long lead passes. Conley was +27 in 23 minutes and when he was on the floor he controlled the game.

Nightly Number: The Grizzlies lead the league with 9.4 steals a game last season and I suggested in my season-preview that, with a full season of Mike Conley-Tony Allen-Rudy Gay starting together, they might be able to push that number even further this year. The Grizzlies had 14 steals tonight and nine of those came in the second half, with Conley in the starting lineup. While undersized up front with Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur out, the Grizzlies mitigated their size problems on both ends with ball-hawking defense: disrupting the Kings on the perimeter before they could get the ball inside and turning those steals into a different variety of paint points at the other end.

The Match-Up: Dante Cunningham vs. J.J. Hickson. With Randolph out, Dante Cunningham got the start at power forward. I like Cunningham as a value signing and as someone who adds length and versatility to the roster, but he's not really a big. Watching him on the court tonight, he looked smaller than Rudy Gay and not much bigger than Kings small forward John Salmons. Matched up with Hickson — a pretty average NBA power forward in terms of both size and skill — Cunningham struggled, picking up four fouls in fewer than 20 minutes and getting beat on the boards badly. Hickson had what were, at the time, a team-high 12 points and 10 rebounds through three quarters, before sitting the entire fourth. The Grizzlies were probably fortunate that the Kings didn't put more effort into exploiting their only mismatch.

The Jacob Riis Report: This Kings roster makes no sense. Tyreke Evans is rumbling lay-up machine when he picks up a head of steam. Marcus Thornton is deadly volume scorer when he's on (tonight he was not: 5 points on 2-7 shooting). And rookie Jimmer Fredette is a pure shooter when he can get open. But the only point guard on this roster is tiny rookie Isaiah Thomas, who was effective in garbage time but who doesn't profile as a future starter. The Kings had a significant size advantage tonight, with their four rotation-quality bigs up against the Grizzlies' one, but with their incoherent, guard-oriented style, they didn't put much effort into exploiting it. And all of that doesn't even factor in the awkward clamor surrounding second-year center DeMarcus Cousins, who, following his suspension/trade demand controversy, was demoted to the bench in this game, playing 22 largely ineffective and dispirited minutes as the fourth big man to get into the game. A prime contender to be the West's worst team this season.

Elements of Style: Grizzlies fans got their first look at “The Jimmer” Fredette tonight, and while the white shoes/black socks look doesn't work for the college scoring phenom, he seems to have a little bit of game. Fredette is a deadeye shooter when he's got space and a better-looking athlete than you might think — quick off the dribble and reasonably strong. But you can still see how he's going to have to work harder at this level to get open looks. And he can't guard at all right now — or, maybe, ever. Fredette seems like someone with the potential to be a terrific role player on a the right team, but it's hard to imagine a worse fit for him than this misbegotten Kings squad. But the Jimmer worked his way to a team high 17 points tonight, knocking down 4-6 from long range.

Tweet O’ the Game:
The Tony Allen lay up jinx will continue until he unblocks me. — @Hamlin38103

Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improve to 2-3 with the win, out of the cellar and only 2 games out of first in a tightly packed West.

Looking Ahead: The team hit the airport after the game for a flight to the Twin Cities, where they'll take on the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night.

Announced Attendance: 12,391. A little disappointing, but a Tuesday night game against a team like the Kings should be one of the lowest-attendance games of the season. This game would have come in a couple of thousand lower in recent seasons. Hopefully this will represent something close to a floor for Grizzlies games this season.

Deflections:

During the game, it was announced that Gene Bartow, former University of Memphis head basketball coach and recent president of Grizzlies/FedExForum parent company Hoops LLC, had passed away after a long battle with cancer. Lionel Hollins spoke movingly of Bartow to begin his post-game press conference, calling Bartow, “a great friend to me” during his time with the organization.

Zach Randolph had what the Grizzlies are calling a “precautionary MRI” today and the team is saying they will have results tomorrow. One team official told me earlier in the evening that the MRI came out okay and that Randolph's “day to day” status is legit, but the Grizzlies have yet to issue a public statement on the matter, and the delay suggests some internal uncertainty about Randolph's precise status. Stay tuned.

After struggling offensively in his first four games, Rudy Gay finally broke out tonight, with a team-high 23. Gay attacked the basket consistently, with 11 of his 16 field-goal attempts coming in the paint and said after the game that he thought his issues early on were mostly due to struggling to regain his timing after a 10-month layoff.

With the Grizzlies forced into smaller lineups, Sam Young ended up spending his time at small forward and even power forward, and thrived. A shaky ballhandler and outside shooter by NBA guard standards, the powerful Young has always been at his best 15 feet and in and was able to spend more time in that area tonight. Adding his physical defense to the mix and Young had one of his most effective games tonight. Until an inevitable trade is made to exchange a wing player for a big, the Grizzlies are likely to be juggling multiple wing options on the bench in Young, O.J. Mayo, Quincy Pondexter, and Dante Cunningham. Young, who had been at the bottom of this pecking order a couple of days ago, lead this group in both minutes and production tonight. Who knows which way it will go Wednesday in Minnesota.

Lost a little amid the breakouts from Gay and Young was a strong performance from O.J. Mayo, who lived up to his instant-offense promise, scoring 16 points in 20 minutes on 8-11 shooting and looking for open jumpers with a confidence too often lacking since the start of last season. Given the makeup of the roster and the relative trade value of expendable pieces, I continue to think that a Mayo trade probably makes the most sense. But unless and until that happens, the Grizzlies need Mayo to provide the kind of off-the-bench scoring punch he did tonight.

One interesting match-up to look for in Wednesday's game with the Timberwolves is the back-up point guard battle between rookies Jeremy Pargo and Ricky Rubio. Pargo said tonight that he had played against Rubio a couple of times in Europe the past two seasons, but was reticent to give his opinion on the Spanish passing phenom, suggesting a skepticism that seemed to be common among American players who faced Rubio in Spain.

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