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.
Man of the Match: Marc Gasol headed to his first All-Star appearance in style, capping an outstanding first half with a dominant all-around performance: Leading the Grizzlies in points (15), rebounds (14), assists (7), and blocks (5).
With frontcourt starters Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes both out to injury, the Sixers were at a disadvantage on the interior, starting rookie Lavoy Allen and nearing-the-end vet Andres Nocioni, and coming off the bench with rookie Nikola Vucevic, ancient Tony Battie, and undersized Thaddeus Young. The Grizzlies responded by working through the post tandem of Gasol and former Sixer Marreese Speights early, with that duo scoring or assisting on the team's first five field goals.
The Grizzlies went big again in the late third quarter, using the rare Gasol and Hamed Haddadi combo — and playing a zone defense — to stop a 7-2 Sixers run that had cut the Grizzlies lead to six and instead push the lead back into double digits.
One thing we've seen over the past few seasons is that big men play better with Marc Gasol — the Grizzlies were even good with Gasol and Hasheem Thabeet together a couple of years ago. He directs his post partners on both ends, sets them up for easy shots with high-low feeds, encourages them. And we saw that tonight in those two stretches in particular.
And now he's off to his first All-Star Game, with one day off before heading out.
“I told him to go to the All-Star Game and drink a couple of mojitos. Enjoy yourself. Don't play,” Lionel Hollins joked after the game.
“Big Spain!,” Tony Allen exclaimed after the game. “I'm looking forward to seeing him. He earned it. I want to see him cross somebody over. I know he's been working on his handle.” Somebody asked Allen if he thought Gasol would win the game's MVP.
“MVP?,” Allen said, shaking his head. “I'm not gonna go that far.”
Asked what he had planned for the game, Gasol deadpanned, “I'm gonna take a charge or two.” Then he smiled. “No. No I'm not.”
Nightly Number: The Sixers have built their surprising start to a great degree on their depth. Even with their usual starting frontcourt tandem out, the Sixers still bring two Sixth-Man of the Year candidates (Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young — their leading and third-leading scorers, respectively) and a recent #2 overall draft pick (Evan Turner) off their bench. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies bench has been a problem most of the season. Tonight? The Grizzlies reserves outscored their Sixers counterparts 33-21, and, even more pointedly, outshot them 58% (14-24) to 21% (7-34). O.J. Mayo, despite some sloppy play (resulting in 5 turnovers), was productive, with 13 points (including 3-5 long-range shooting), 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. But this was also the rare night when the team got strong performances from Dante Cunningham (3-5 shooting, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Quincy Pondexter (3-6 shooting, including a three-pointer) at the same time.
The Match-Up: A year ago, before his season-ending shoulder injury, Rudy Gay was making the case for himself as the league's fifth best small forward (behind a clear Top 4 of Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and, for now at least, Paul Pierce). But Gay's uneven and rarely elite play in his first two months back from the injury have pushed him back down the list a bit, back into a jumbled tier of small forwards that includes the likes of Danny Granger, Luol Deng, Gerald Wallace, Danilo Gallinari, and — probably at the top of the tier for now — the Sixers' Andre Iguodala.
Tonight, Iguodala controlled the match-up for most of the game. Arguably the league's best current wing defender — with the Grizzlies' Tony Allen probably his biggest competition for that title — the powerful Iguodala harassed and denied Gay into 6 points on 1-7 shooting through three quarters, while pitching in offensively for Philly with 11 points and 6 assists.
But Gay came alive in a decisive stretch late in the fourth quarter during which a 10-2 Grizzlies run turned a five-point lead with six minutes to play into an insurmountable 13-point lead with under two minutes to play. In this stretch, Gay figured in every score — hitting two three-pointers, hitting two free throws after getting fouled on a drive, and saving a Marc Gasol outlet pass along the baseline and finding Tony Allen under the rim, who was fouled and hit both shots. Gay added two defensive rebounds in the stretch.
It was a strong finish to a previously lackluster effort. But though Gay's 14 points are a low for the month of February, the game continued some encouraging trends for Gay: His 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, and 9 free-throw attempts are all higher than his season averages. And Gay's averages in all those categories — along with scoring overall — have been trending up over the past month. Gay's still got some catching up to do if he wants to challenge Iguodala — a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate — for that last spot in the small forward top five, but enters the break with a sense of overall momentum.
Elements of Style: The Sixers are a young team, and they look it. Lavoy Allen and Jrue Holiday might both be starters on the NBA's current All-Babyface Team (with Ricky Rubio, Gordon Hayward, and Steph Curry).
The Jacob Riis Report: I continue to be skeptical about the second-tier teams in the Eastern Conference. After watching the Grizzlies handle the Sixers, Pacers, Hawks, and pre-Lin Knicks, I don't see those teams being the same quality as the teams fighting each other for the last few playoff spots out West. The Knicks, now, could emerge — along with the Heat and Bulls — as a legit contender if they can get all their different parts to fit. And the Celtics could regroup for one last hurrah lasting deep into a second-round series. But I think that's as deep as it goes in the East come playoff time. If I'm Philly, I'm looking to deal depth for a quality big; I would definitely make a play for Pau Gasol if there's one there to be made. But one player I do love for Philly is young point guard Jrue Holiday, who is turning into one of those big, physical, dynamic point guards with whom Mike Conley really struggles. And Holiday was the best player on the floor for the Sixers Tuesday night, scoring 22 points on 9-18 shooting, including 4-5 from long range.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies enter the break at 19-15, half a game behind 6th place Houston and half a game ahead of 8th place Denver. Houston is hosting the Sixers Wednesday night, while Denver has a back-to-back set with the Clippers and Spurs before hitting the break.
Looking Ahead: Zach Randolph's return is imminent. There's been some speculation that March 7th at Golden State is the most likely return date. But after talking with a few people at the game tonight, there's a growing sense that it could come even earlier, if not in the first game back next Wednesday against, then perhaps the following weekend, when the Grizzlies have games Friday and Saturday night. The Saturday game is at home. I might handicap that as a potential return date.
Announced Attendance: 14,258