Thursday, January 12, 2012

Game Preview: Griz-Knicks

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2012 at 12:25 PM

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.

As for Mayo, he's playing with more pep than we saw most of last season, and shots are starting to fall. He's shooting 49% from the field over the past five games and was 3-3 from long range against the Thunder on Tuesday. Mayo's minutes are often limited for defensive reasons, but with the Grizzlies often struggling for points, perhaps a boost (from his current 24.4 per game) might be in order, depending on defensive match-ups and performance. Certainly, against the Thunder, with Rudy Gay struggling and Mayo in a good rhythm a disparity of 21 field-goal attempts for Gay and four for Mayo could have been a little more balanced. With Gay in a hopefully momentary funk, physically or mentally, and with another big body (in Marreese Speights) finally on hand to soak up some frontcourt minutes, sacrificing some of Gay's minutes (35.7 per) for Allen/Mayo might be better for the team.

*Mike Conley and Marc Gasol: The perimeter and post anchors on the team and primary playmakers have generally gotten off to good starts, though each can be counted on to struggle with their scoring here or there (Conley 3-13 against the Timberwolves, Gasol 0-9 against the Lakers, both rarely at or above the 20-point line). Gasol looks much better than he did last regular season. He's among the lead leaders in rebounding and shot-blocking, is finally making more frequent use of his elbow jumper, and continues to do so many “little things” on the floor that help the team. He's back to being the team's best all-around basketball player, and might remain so even when/if Randolph returns. While Conley's shooting — particularly from three-point range — is down a little, he's second in the league in steals and his assists are up without an increase in turnovers. He's playing a very sharp floor game. The big question for both is whether they can keep it up. With erratic play from rookie back-up Jeremy Pargo, Conley is averaging 36.4 minutes over the past five games. More concerning is Gasol who, in the absence of Randolph and Arthur and the delayed addition of Hamed Haddadi, has averaged 40.6 minutes per game. The Grizzlies games are going to start getting more frequent in this compressed schedule and that that load doesn't seem sustainable.


*Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby: The two rookie point guards fared well in the first two games after Mike Conley went down, but since Conley has been back in the starting lineup, Pargo has struggled and Selby has been out of the mix. Pargo is shooting 35% on the season and hasn't made a shot in his last three games, getting a quick hook with only six minutes over two stints of playing time against the Thunder. That Pargo is a strong, quick defender and has, so far, not been very turnover-prone for a rookie point guard suggests his spot in the pecking order is probably safe for now, but Selby looks like the more instinctive offensive player and his ability to handle the point in his brief stints so far has been surprising and encouraging. If Pargo continues to struggle offensively and the Grizzlies need points, you wander if the door may open for Selby to get more of a look behind Conley.


*Quincy Pondexter and Sam Young: These two players are pretty similar. Pondexter is a little bit bigger, a little bit — at least — better shooter, and seems to have better court awareness, while Young is a more dynamic athlete with more experience. But both are physical, 6'6” wing role players with offensive limitations and as long as everyone is healthy at those positions the Grizzlies don't really need both, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Pondexter and Young continue to play a little Marco Polo with that “fourth wing” role. Already, Young has a 20-point game and two DNPs.

*Dante Cunningham and Marreese Speights: Two late, low-cost additions that look like good gets for the Grizzlies based the team's severe frontcourt needs and limited resources for addressing them. Each would be better served for more of a spot-minute role and, if Randolph comes back full strength (or close to it), Gay rounds into form, and Gasol survives his current workload, they can slide into those roles in the second half and provide the quality frontcourt depth the Grizzlies weren't sure they would have. Even in a handful of games, I think Cunningham and Speights have given Grizzlies fans a pretty clear look at what they are. Cunningham doesn't have the physicality to defend real post players, but against the Thunder, he didn't have to and he was more effective (10 points, 6 boards, 24 minutes). Cunningham is better in space — mid-range jumpers, step-out defense, transition play. Speights might already rival Mayo as the best pure shooter on the team. While his 67% shooting from 16-23 feet (per Hoopdata.com) is not sustainable, it might not fall off much. He's been over 40% from that range every season of his career. And after shooting the ball almost literally every time he touched it against the Lakers (8-18 in 29 minutes), Speights cooled his trigger finger a bit against the Thunder (5-8 in 20 minutes). As long as he can find something approaching a workable balance between launching these shots and moving the ball in a team context, Speights' shooting will be a big help. This is provided he can stay on the floor. Even with the Grizzlies' dire need for frontcourt help, Speights' lackluster conditioning is a problem — limiting his minutes, his post player, and, perhaps most importantly, rebounding (one board in 20 minutes against the Thunder) that can and has to get better. (By contrast, fans probably can't expect Cunningham to become much more of a factor on the boards than he has been.)

Where the Knicks Fit: While a glamor team with glamor players, the New York Knicks have not been a terribly impressive 6-4. The Knicks have been pretty good on the road (3-2), but gotten most of their wins against bad teams (Sacramento, Washington, Detroit, Charlotte) while also losing to some bad teams (Golden State, Toronto, Charlotte). Through four home games, the Grizzlies have won big against mediocre (Houston) to bad (Sacramento) teams and lost close ones to elite opponents (Oklahoma City). The Knicks fall somewhere in between, so if the pattern holds, the most likely outcome tonight is a single-digit win for the home team. Where reality falls against that measuring stick could be a decent indicator of where the Grizzlies are right now.

Defending the Frontcourt: The biggest match-up issue for the Grizzlies will be defending the Knicks' talented frontcourt. The Grizzlies have good defenders, but their defensive depth (on the perimeter) doesn't line up with the Knicks' offensive talent (on the interior). The Grizzlies have plenty of decent options — Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Quincy Pondexer, Sam Young, Dante Cunningham — to throw at Carmelo Anthony, who is averaging better than 26 points a game and can go off against anybody. And Marc Gasol can keep Tyson Chandler (among the league's better offensive rebounders) off the boards as effectively as anyone (which means it'll be dicey instead of sure disaster). But Amare Stoudemire, in particular, could be a problem. Stoudemire's shooting is down considerably — 43% to 53% on his career — so far this season, but he's still a 20-point scorer who can be a menace both from mid-range and attacking the rim. It's difficult to imagine Speights being very effective on him, and almost as hard to imagine him containing Chandler if the Grizzlies were to switch Gasol onto Stoudemire. This means the team might have to rely on undersized options like Cunningham and Gay on Stoudemire.

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