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.
Man of the Match: Mike Conley celebrated Derrick Rose's absence by playing his best game of the season and arguably one of the best of his career, notching 20 points (9-13 shooting), 8 assists, 7 rebound, and 4 steals. Conley's shooting has been erratic, but his floor game — controlling the tempo, setting up teammates, disrupting the opposition with deflections and steals — has been a consistent plus for the Grizzlies all season, and today more than ever. When he's scoring efficiently on top of all that, as has been the case during this recent stretch (49% shooting over the past five games), Conley is an extremely effective player.
Nightly Number: The Grizzlies shot 54% against a Bulls defense that had allowed an average of only 41% on the season.
The Match-Up: Marc Gasol continued to bolster his credentials as an All-Star candidate with 19 points (9-13 shooting), 10 rebounds (double-digit board streak to 9), 3 assists, and 2 blocks (two-or-more-block streak to six). And he did so against one of the best defensive center tandems in the league in Joakim Noah and Omer Asik. My favorite moment in a game full of highlight plays: Gasol's nifty pump-fake into an up-and-under for a first-half lay-up. Skills, son.
Elements of Style: George Gervin was in the house today as one of the team's two recipients (along with Clyde Drexler) of the National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Award as part of the MLK Day celebration. As you all should know, one thing Gervin could do is finger roll, and Griz forward Marreese Speights paid respects to the Ice Man by finishing one of his seven buckets with a classic finger roll in the second quarter. That was unexpected. But so were Speights' three-count 'em-three power dunks, all in halfcourt sets. And the two times — by my count at least — that he picked up a charge. And his solid passing (2 assists). And his career-best 12 rebounds against on of the league's best frontlines. And 34 minutes that mark the second most run he's ever gotten in an NBA game. (Speights played 35 minutes in a game against the Clippers in December of 2009.) Speights seems to be enjoying his new home, even exhorting the crowd at one time out after a Griz run.
After the game, coach Lionel Hollins said he was pleased with Speights' improvement as far as conditioning and acclimation to the new system, and that he's been challenging Speights to keep his effort up for longer stretches and to make second, and third, and fourth efforts on possessions. And the returns on those challenges were very promising today. Speights himself gave credit to the team's coaches — particularly the strength and conditioning coaches — for helping him get up to speed after not playing at all in Philadelphia and also gave credit to post partner Marc Gasol — as, essentially, a coach on the court — for helping him get comfortable within the system.
The Jacob Riis Report: Are the Bulls better with reserves Gibson and Asik on the floor than starters Noah and Boozer? Seems like whenever I watch them that's the case, and as good as the Bulls have been overall so far this season, both Noah and Boozer have been down a little individually. Gibson and Asik are more active and, together, are sometimes destructive defensively. Asik looks like the demon spawn of Dikembo Mutombo and Judge Reinhold with his perpetual bedhead, translucent skin tone, and long knee pads (I'm guessing Reinhold hooped in long knee pads) all wrapped in a gangly seven feet of defensive intimidation. There's you starting center on the No-Stats All-Stars.
Arena Action: Other duties kept me from getting down early enough for the MLK Day symposium before the game, which is always a terrific event. In addition to Gervin and Drexler, who were interviewed at the symposium and received their awards before the game, the music today was terrific, with Robert Randolph & the Family Band performing at halftime and, even better, the Spirit of Memphis quartet on the anthem — phenomenal as always.
Zach Randolph made his way to the bench early in the first quarter drawing a big ovation from the crowd, and a bigger one when he was shown on the Jumbotron later.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies got back to .500 at 6-6 and are now a game and a half behind Portland, Denver, and Dallas, who are all tied for the 6-8 slots in the Western Conference. In a Western playoff race likely to be bunched up for quite a while, the Grizzlies are only 2.5 games out of second.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies remain undefeated at home against teams not from Oklahoma City, but are only 1-4 on the road (albeit against strong competition, with the four road losses against teams with a current combined 28-2 home record). The Grizzlies will now get a chance to see if their current good run can carry over into other gyms, as the Grizzlies will play six of their next seven games on the road. The competition will be a little lighter, with the Grizzlies facing New Orleans (1-6 at home) Wednesday and Detroit (2-5) Friday before embarking on a four-game West Coast trip next week that will include Golden State (3-4) and Phoenix (3-4). For the Grizzlies to stay in the playoff mix sans Randolph, they're going to have to beat a decent number of mediocre and bad teams on the road, so these upcoming sets of games will be a good test.
Announced Attendance: 18,119, the second sellout of the season, along with opening night.
It became official before the game that Rudy Gay is one of 20 finalists for Team USA in this summer's Olympics, and Gay celebrated with his third strong performance in a row, scoring a game-high 24 points on 11-18 shooting, with 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and a block. Gay is now averaging 22 points a game on better than 50% shooting over his past five games.