Going to do a shorter-than-usual notebook for this one. Will finish up the “Mid-Season Player Notes” series Thursday.
The Lead: After winning five of six games before the All-Star break, the Grizzlies continued their winning ways to begin the second half, beating the defending champion and division rival Dallas Mavericks. With losses from a trio of other conference competitors — the Spurs, Rockets, and Blazers — the Grizzlies, at 20-15, are now closer to the third seed (1.5 games back) than they are to falling out of the playoffs (a two-game cushion).
It wasn't always pretty (the teams combined to shoot 6-35 from three-point range) and the Grizzlies got some help from the Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki labored without a field goal through 10 minutes of game time, having his lone shot, a baseline fade-away jumper, blocked by Marc Gasol before retreating to the locker room for the rest of the night with lower back tightness. But the Grizzlies got a bravura tag-team performance from Mike Conley (20 points, 10 assists, 4 steals) and Marc Gasol (22 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks), who, appropriately, connected for the team's final field goal, a baseline feed from Gasol that Conley converted at the rim.
Now they'll head into a winnable weekend — at 11-24 Toronto Friday, home against 12-25 Detroit Saturday — with real chance to push into upper half of the Western Conference playoff standings.
Man of the Match: Coming off his first All-Star nod, Marc Gasol played the kind of tough, skilled all-around game that makes him arguably the league's second-best center.
Gay had a couple of noticeably bad games in January — including a deplorable one-point performance in a home game with the Spurs — but settled into a more consistent groove in February that had him trending up heading into the break.
Given his individual circumstances and the shooting decline across the league, Gay's decline from 47% shooting last season to 45% so far this season isn't that big a concern. His drop from 82% from the free-throw line to 72% is a little more troubling, but like other facets of his game seems to be correcting itself: He shot 68% from the line in January, 80% in February.
Though this isn't the perception, Gay's been going to the rim more (27% of his attempts at the rim last season, 35% this season) and taking few jumpers overall (56% of his attempts from the perimeter last season, 46% this season). That his shooting percentage has still declined despite taking fewer jumpers is because Gay's shooting percentages are down from everywhere but non-corner threes (where he's hit 43% this season). In particular, Gay has struggled on shots in the lane, where he's hitting only 35% after connecting on 44% last season.
But to put Gay's offensive performance — where it is and where it needs to be — into more context, let's stack him up against other high-level small forwards. (I'm using what I think is pretty clearly the league's dozen best starters at the position this season.)
The Grizzlies return from the All-Star break tonight for their first meeting of the season with the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, led seven-foot jump-shooting wunderkind and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. Should be a compelling game — and you can be there.
We're giving away two club-level tickets to tonight's game. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at FedExForum.
You can enter to win here. The drawing will be at 2 p.m.
Though he seems more comfortable in his sixth-man role and seems to be approaching the game with a clearer head and more confidence, Mayo's minutes, scoring, and shooting percentages are essentially the same as they were a year ago.
There's reason to hope that Mayo's current 37% three-point shooting — a good mark in general, but not for a team's designated sniper — will trend up in the second half. Mayo shot 43% from long-range in January and was 3-5, 3-6, and 3-6 in three of four games before the break (the other was an 0-6). If Mayo can avoid longish shooting slumps like the one he had in early-to-mid-February, he can be a 40% three-point shooter, which the Grizzlies really need him to be given his role with the team and defensive limitations.
More evident of Mayo's renewed focus and energy level is that he's finishing better in the lane (29% last season, 39% this season) and, in the absence of Zach Randolph, helping out on the defensive boards more, with a sharp uptick in his defensive rebound rate. He also seems to be getting more chances to finish out games without Randolph.
Now established in the starting line-up after a yo-yo of an inaugural Grizzlies campaign, Allen's minutes have boosted from 20.8 a game last season to 26.3 this season and he's again been one of the league's very best perimeter defenders.
After putting up a historic steal rate — 4.14 per 48 minutes — last season, Allen's come back to earth a little, but his 3.47 per 48 is still best in the NBA among players averaging at least 15 minutes a game. And, again, Allen is the catalyst of a team defense that leads the NBA in both steals and opponent turnovers, with the starting perimeter trio of Allen (sixth), Mike Conley (first), and Rudy Gay (11th) all among the Top 11 in steals per game. Additionally, Allen is fifth among scoring guards in blocks per game, continues to mix shutdown one-on-one defense (memorably “turning the water off” on Houston's Kevin Martin at FedExForum) with sixth-sense team defense (where he sometimes seems to be guarding no one in particular but is, in fact, guarding the entire other team).
Together, Marc Gasol and Allen have been the inside/outside anchors for a near-elite defense, one whose 10th overall ranking in defensive efficiency might might sell them short given that the team's first-half schedule was heavy with games against elite offenses — 13 of 34 games against teams in the Top 7 in offensive efficiency. (The Griz will play current Top 7 offenses eight times in their remaining 32 games.)
Conley's floor game is in some rare company this season. He leads the NBA in steals per game at 2.5, bumping his average up from 1.8 last season despite no increase in playing time. At the break, he's the only point guard in the NBA who actually has more steals (79) than turnovers (77), with Chris Paul — the NBA's best true point guard — as the only other player at the position even close to that unusual achievement. And Paul and Toronto's Jose Calderon are the only point guards with both a higher assist ratio and lower turnover ratio than Conley.
Defensively, Conley is still prone to one-on-one struggles, especially against bigger, stronger opponents, but these mismatches seem less frequent or noticeable this season, and the Grizzlies have been four points better per 100 possessions defensively with Conley on the floor.
Over the next couple of days, I'm going to be putting up a series of snapshot posts breaking down the roster as we enter the season's second half. Let's start with the Grizzlies' current All-Star, center Marc Gasol:
(Note: Stats in these posts are drawn from a multitude of sources, with NBA.com's Advanced Stats site as the primary resource. Others used are: Hoopdata.com, ESPN.com, 82Games.com, BasketballValue.com, and TeamRankings.com.)
Gasol's season probably seems like a breakout to many, but it's really more of a rebound. Two years ago, while Zach Randolph was making the All-Star team and Rudy Gay was scoring around 20 points a game, I was telling people that Marc Gasol was actually the best all-around player on the team. And when he missed most of the season's final month and the Grizzlies' playoff hopes dissolved, his value was underscored.
Last season, Gasol's performance was down, something that was mostly forgotten when he came up big in the playoffs.
This season, Gasol is mostly back to where he was in '09-'10, with primary indicators like his Player Efficiency Rating, scoring and rebound rates, and on-court/off-court stats all returning to what we might now considered to be his norms.
But beyond just playing better, Gasol has stepped up in the absence of Zach Randolph by playing more, a sharp decline in his foul rate and seemingly better conditioning abetting a minutes increase from 31.9 per game last season to 38.1 so far this season, fifth highest in the league.
The Lead: A couple of months ago, when Zach Randolph joined Darrell Arthur on the sidelines with a torn knee ligament and after an already unsteady 1-3 start, I and many other people I know around the Grizzlies set an unofficial goal for this team of working their way back to .500 by the All-Star break. But even this seemed to be a hopeful goal. In reality, merely playing .500 without Randolph — and hitting the break a couple of games under — seemed a satisfactory response. Instead, the Grizzlies won five of their last six games before the break to get to a lofty 19-15, going 18-12 without their All-NBA power forward.
Tuesday night at FedExForum, the Grizzlies were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their fourth game in five nights, following a tough road loss in Houston on Monday. Waiting for them, with a day's rest, were the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia 76ers.
For a while, it looked like another Groundhog Day game. The Grizzlies came out like rockets, using crisp offense and energetic defense to build a 30-10 lead at the end of the first quarter. Then, just like in both weekend home games against the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, the Grizzlies offense sputtered as the bench began to work its way in and then the opposition starting hitting three-pointers. With point guard Jrue Holiday leading the way with 13 points, including 3-3 from long range, the Sixers roared back, outscoring the Grizzlies 32-17 in the second quarter to draw to within five points at halftime.
But then the half came and no shadow was seen and the rest of the weekend script got tossed away, as the Grizzlies maintained their lead from buzzer to buzzer, never allowing the Sixers to work their deficit down to less than four.
Along the way, the Grizzlies used an interior advantage and solid team defense to hold the Sixers to 76 points on 37% shooting — this despite allowing 8-15 three-point shooting and forcing a relatively mundane — by the Grizzlies standards — 14 turnovers.
The Lead: Friday night, against the Denver Nuggets, the Grizzlies played explosive offensive basketball to start, opening up a big first quarter lead. Their opponents roared back behind a barrage of three-point shots from one of their perimeter starters. The game wound down into a tight, hard-fought contest in the final minutes, with multiple ties and lead changes down the stretch. Rudy Gay scored six points in the final minutes, each score breaking a tie or regaining a lead. In the end, Gay held the ball, Griz down one, drew a double-team and pulled up for a mid-range jumper. It bounced off the rim and was tipped in by a teammate for the game-winning basket.
Saturday night against the Warriors? Same damn thing. The only things missing were Bill Murray and Andie McDowell.
Once again, the Grizzlies came out like gangbusters in the first nine minutes, building a 27-9 lead with strong work from all five starters, led by Mo Speights' 10 points on 5-6 shooting.
Then, first Warriors guard Steph Curry got hot, scoring 16 points across the late first and early second quarters. Then backcourt mate Monta Ellis joined in, scoring 14 points in a seven-minute stretch midway through the second quarter. With Curry and Ellis dominating (they scored 30 points between them in the second quarter and finished with 69 of Golden State's total 103 points), the Warriors outscored the Grizzlies 66-37 in the middle of the game to build an 11-point lead.
The Grizzlies fought back to tie the game early in the fourth and, the rest of the way, there were eight ties and nine lead changes. In the final three minutes, Gay hit three short jumpers, the first tying the game, the second breaking a tie, and the third bringing the Grizzlies from a one-point deficit to a one-point lead.
And, again, it came down to a one-point deficit, Grizzlies ball, fewer than 30 seconds on the clock. Gay's shot bounced up and Tony Allen tipped it in for a one-point lead. With six seconds left for the Warriors, Mike Conley stepped in to take a charge on Warriors forward David Lee and the Grizzlies survived another wild one.
The biggest difference? Well, that brings us to …
It was a game that featured some of the best basketball this team has ever played, and also some of the most frustrating.
“I expected it to be this close,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “I never expected it to be a runaway. We worked really hard for that win.”
The first nine minutes showcased some of the best offensive execution I've ever seen. The Grizzlies scored 30 points on 13 baskets, all either three-pointers (four) or lay-ups/dunks (nine), all but one of the baskets assisted. Marc Gasol scored or assisted on six of the first seven buckets.
“The start was what won the game for us,” Hollins said, at which time the early fireworks seemed to have happened weeks ago. “They were having to play from behind.”
The Grizzlies led by 19 at the end of the first quarter and had pushed the lead to 23 early in the second, and then Corey Brewer happened. The Nuggets forward, starting in place of injured Danilo Gallinari, hit three three-pointers in the span of a minute, a one-man 9-0 run that slashed the Grizzlies lead to 14.
The Grizzlies were able to maintain a double-digit lead for the rest of the third quarter, but in the fourth , the Nuggets steadily worked it down, going on an 18-10 run to take a one-point lead — their first of the game — on a Brewer tip-in at the 4:34 mark.
From there it was an alternately frustrating and exciting finish, featuring seven lead changes (no lead greater than 2 points), three ties, two terrible Grizzlies turnovers, six straight points from Rudy Gay (each score a go-ahead score), and, finally, the ball in the Grizzlies hands, down one, with 24.6 seconds left to play.
Well, Golden State hits town tomorrow night for a shot at revenge. And, if the Grizzlies can take care of business tonight against a depleted Denver Nuggets team, they could enter the game on a three-game win streak. Should be a fun one — and we can help you check it out.
We're giving away two lower-bowl tickets to tomorrow night's game between the Grizzlies and the Warriors. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at FedExForum.
You can enter to win here. The drawing will be at 3 p.m.
All of the Grizzlies' starters played well, lead by Marreese Speights, who did his best Zach Randolph impression en route to a career high 18 rebounds and season high 20 points on efficient 10-13 shooting, many of these rumbling, spinning hooks in the lane against a Nets defense still lacking starting center Brook Lopez. Allen, whose helter-skelter offensive yielded 5 turnovers, was far more treat than trick, matching season highs with 21 points (on 8-15 shooting) and 5 steals. Conley had one of his best all-around games, with 16 points, 10 assists, and 4 steals. Gay, who had moved up to 11th in the NBA in scoring average after Tuesday's win, was one off his season high with a team best 25 points — his fourth straight game scoring 20 or more. Marc Gasol was relatively quiet by comparison, with a solid 12-7-3, with each of his three assists setting up a dunk.
Despite boasting an elite player in point guard Deron Williams, the Nets are not a good team. But when it's the second night of a back-to-back on the road against a rested home team (the Nets hadn't played since Saturday) and you get nothing from your bench? That's a good win.
The win moved the Grizzlies at least temporarily into the eighth and final playoff slot in the West, pending a late game from the Portland Trailblazers. The Grizzlies return home Friday to host a Denver Nuggets team that lost badly in Dallas tonight.
The Lead: After a poor performance Sunday night against the otherwise-reeling Utah Jazz, the Grizzlies rebounded tonight with a strong win over division rival Houston Rockets, securing at least a tie in a potentially crucial season series and moving to within half a game of getting back into the Western Conference playoff bracket.
The Grizzlies got a balanced effort, with five players in double figures, and swiftly overcame an early five-point deficit to take a lead midway through the first quarter that they never relinquished.
The lead topped out at 15 points early in the third quarter, but though the Rockets made some mini-runs after that, the Grizzlies never let them claw all the way back. The two times the Rockets seriously threatened, the Grizzlies responded with big three-pointers. An O.J. Mayo three-pointer stretched the lead back to 9 early in the fourth quarter after the Rockets had pulled to within 6 to start the quarter. Later, after his own bad-pass turnover was converted into a layup by Rockets (and former Griz) guard Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley responded with the biggest play of the game, hitting a straightaway three-pointer off a Dante Cunningham offensive rebound to push the lead back to 8 with 2:25 to play. On the ensuing Rockets possession, a Rudy Gay steal and long lead pass for a Mayo lay-up all but iced the game.
The Rockets went small in the second half to try to get back in the game, but while Lowry was effective getting to the rim (a game-high 24 points, including 9-9 from the line), the Rockets couldn't get anything going from three-point range, hitting only 1-6 from beyond the arc in the second half.
“They went small and started to attack us off the dribble — but they didn't hit threes,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “When they really stretch us out is when they hit threes.”
Further — unlike the home losses to the Thunder, for instance — this one really felt like the Grizzlies lost rather than that they got beaten. And there were three short stretches that seemed to really kill them:
1. An 0-7 start in the first few minutes in which the Grizzlies somehow notched 5 offensive rebounds without scoring.
2. After the starters turned an 8-point deficit into a 2-point lead with strong play in the first half of the third quarter, the Grizzlies lost momentum when they started subbing in bench players. The Jazz went on a 10-2 run over a five-minute span after the Grizzlies first third-quarter substitution.
3. With the Grizzlies down 5 midway through the fourth quarter, unforced errors on consecutive fastbreak opportunities kept the Grizzlies from cutting the deficit to one: First Tony Allen got fouled in transition and missed both free throws, then Dante Cunningham bobbled an on-target lob from Mike Conley. Instead of being down one, the Griz allowed a lob dunk for Derrick Favors out of the ensuing timeout and were down 7 (83-76) with five minutes to play.
Man of the Match: Several players had decent stat lines for the Grizzlies, but nobody seemed to really put their stamp on the game. I guess I'll give it to Mike Conley, who was the best point guard on the floor and finished with 17 points (6-11 shooting), 6 assists, 2 steals, and only 2 turnovers.
The Lead: Heading into tonight's game, the Indiana Pacers were 10-6 on the road, hadn't suffered back-to-back losses, and had not lost a game in which they'd topped 90 points. So it was impressive for the Grizzlies to hand the Pacers their second straight loss despite not being able to play their usual style. The Grizzlies had 9 steals and the Pacers 15 turnovers — good numbers for the Grizzlies but both below their league-leading averages. Yet despite scoring only 8 points in transition, the Grizzlies were still able to score 98 points against what was the league's fifth best defense heading into the game.
In a game with 18 lead changes and a tie score at the end of each of the first three quarters, neither team was able to go on more than a minor run, but the Grizzlies were able to make the winning plays late in the game.
“In the first half they were outworking us. In the second half we did a good job defensively,” coach Lionel Hollins said after the game, commending his bench — including deep options Hamed Haddadi and Jeremy Pargo — for being able to buy rest for key starters, with the Grizzlies able to win a second straight game with Rudy Gay (38), Marc Gasol (35), and Mike Conley (36) all under 40 minutes.
“I thought that helped us stay fresh down the stretch,” Hollins said.
Man of the Match: It was the battle of the All-Star Reserve Centers with Marc Gasol facing off against Roy Hibbert. And while Gasol's final stat line was modest — 15 points on 4-8 shooting, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals — he badly outplayed Hibbert (5 points on 1-7 shooting, 7 rebounds, 0 blocks) and made a series of big plays in the final minutes.