Playing without Marc Gasol, who missed the game with a sprained ankle, the Grizzlies struggled on the defensive boards early, giving up seven offensive rebounds in the first quarter. With those rebounding problems exacerbated by a flurry of turnovers (nine in the first half), the Grizzlies were letting the Wolves beat them at their own game.
The Grizzlies held a tenuous three-point lead at the half, 44-41, but that fell apart in the third quarter when the Wolves, only 2-11 in the first half, started hitting threes. The Wolves shot 4-5 from three (two from Kevin Love) in about a two-and-a-half minute stretch in the quarter that turned a six-point Grizzlies lead into a six-point deficit.
Mixing lineups in the down the stretch, the Grizzlies got back into the game with a Tony Allen burst in the late third (back-to-back scores separated by one of those occasional defensive possessions where a peeved Allen just decides he's going to steal the ball and then goes and does it), re-built a lead with O.J. Mayo scoring six straight on the ball to start the fourth, and then put the game away with frontcourt starters Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham joining Allen for a wave of energy plays on both ends of the floor in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Man of the Match: With Gasol out and Lionel Hollins committed to bringing Zach Randolph off the bench for the time being, early-season acquisitions Cunningham and Speights started together up front and combined to give the team efficient scoring (14-20 shooting), strong rebounding (21 combined boards), and aggressive defense (6 blocks and 3 steals). But as strong as they were as a duo, the “Man of the Match” has to be Dante Cunningham, who played a season-high 40 minutes with a season-high 13 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, and a career-high-tying 4 blocks.
There were encouraging moments for the Grizzlies last night in Portland. Despite 1-4 shooting, Gilbert Arenas looked promising in a 12-minute debut stint. He looked good physically all things considered, was active defensively (2 steals), and made plays, especially in the pick and roll (his three assists were augmented by a couple of feeds — both to Marc Gasol I think — for lay-up attempts that drew fouls). Zach Randolph did some Zach Randolph stuff in the first half. Despite my ongoing concerns about fatigue, Marc Gasol was sharp offensively (a team-high 22 points and 3 assists on 8-13 shooting). And Tony Allen's effectiveness (17 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) was rewarded with full starter minutes (34), though he did lose his dribble and turn the ball over on a crucial late possession.
But none of that was enough. With Mike Conley (5-16 shooting, only 1 steal) and Rudy Gay (10 points on 4-10 shooting) having subpar games and the Grizzlies giving up way too many open three-pointers (Portland was 10-25 from deep), the Grizzlies lost again, their fifth loss in their past seven games and fourth to a team currently outside the playoff picture. Now the Grizzlies will play seven of their next nine on the road, mostly against playoff teams.
Clearly the Grizzlies' chemistry is a little off with rotation changes provoked by Randolph's return, but the biggest problem seems to be flagging defensive intensity. When the Grizzlies did built a lead against Portland in the third quarter (where they outscored the Blazers 25-17) it came from a familiarly hectic, harassing defense that turned the Blazers over and got the Grizzlies in transition. That's this team's identity and lately that defensive level hasn't been on display with enough consistency.
Emerging from my week-long hoops hiatus for some belated notes on the Gilbert Arenas signing, one I endorse with tempered expectations and minor reservations.
I'll wade into other issues surrounding the team — the rusty return of Zach Randolph, the disappointing reduction in Tony Allen's playing time, the threat of Marc Gasol fatigue, other curious rotation changes — over the next few games, as they remain relevant.
Sam Young/Gilbert Arenas as Unintentional Fallout: The two roster moves that I missed last week are related, and not just in that gifting Sam Young to the Philadelphia 76ers presumably freed up the money under the luxury tax to sign Gilbert Arenas to a rest-of-season contract. Both moves were also made necessary by the eve-of-the-season trade that sent Greivis Vasquez to the New Orleans Hornets for Quincy Pondexter.
The Grizzlies did great work early to fill their dire frontcourt needs with the low-cost acquisitions of Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham, but the Vasquez-Pondexter trade was an unnecessary gamble that essentially became a two-for-one. Vasquez has averaged more than 23 minutes a game with a very high assist rate, viable shooting, and a PER (14.8) right at the league average, solidifying himself as a high-level reserve in the league. And this is a leap that the team should have seen coming. Thankfully, for the Grizzlies, Pondexter has made a noticeable — if less dramatic — leap as well, his energy and improving shooting making him a valuable bench player as the season's progressed — at least until a somewhat mysterious decline in minutes and production the past three games. Pondexter's not as meaningful a player, at least yet, as Vasquez, but he is a legit contributor.
The problem with the deal has been its impact beyond that simple player-to-player contrast. Adding Pondexter and getting back Rudy Gay had, understandably, pushed Sam Young out of the rotation, devaluing a cost-effective contributor to the point that the Grizzlies dealt him for no return in an accounting-maneuver-style trade. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies had made the deal to begin with out of a misplaced faith in unproven rookie Jeremy Pargo, who has — unsurprisingly — not been ready for consistent rotation minutes.
The deal created a need at point guard that wasn't already there without appreciably upgrading the team's wing rotation. It made no sense, and the ultimate fallout happened last week. If Arenas pans out and Pondexter gets back on track, it's a mistake that will be easily forgotten, at least in the short term. But that's how we got to where we are.
Arenas the Player: Zach Lowe at CNNSI did a nice long piece this week on what we might be able to expect from Arenas and how he could address a need for the Grizzlies. I had previously written about how unacceptable Pargo and Selby, with their killer turnover rates, have been in the back-up role.
Chris Herrington is off covering SXSW in Austin, but nonetheless we've got some Grizzlies tickets to give away.
We're giving away two lower-bowl tickets to tomorrow night's game between the Grizzlies and the Raptors. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at FedExForum.
Enter here to win. Drawing will be held at noon tomorrow (Friday). Good luck!
The hometown fans — the real ones, not the Fakers — can take solace in this: It took monster games from Kobe Bryant (34 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) and Andrew Bynum (37 points and 16 rebounds, winning the battle for the #2 center spot decisively in this one), some hinky officiating (particularly on a phantom foul on Laker forward Matt Barnes that became a clear-path foul on a video review that wasn't allowed to overturn the initial bad call), and an ocean of missed Griz jumpers (Marc Gasol, O.J. Mayo, and Mike Conley shot a combined 22-65, including 0-13 from three-point range) for the full-strength Los Angeles Lakers to survive a double-overtime game in which the Grizzlies were playing without their two best scorers.
An epic game like this one deserves an epic post-game notebook, but, sadly, the calendar is cruel. I'm leaving early Wednesday morning for a long solo drive to Austin, Texas, for my annual trip to the South by Southwest Music Festival, so my Twitter coverage — check the feed to the right — and this quick post is all I can handle for this one.
As a result of the trip, this space will be on hiatus for the rest of the week — including home games with the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. Hopefully, by the time I'm back, both Gay (concussion) and Randolph (knee) will be back on the court. Either way, I'll be not-so-rested and ready for a big finish to this compressed season.
Remember when we were talking about the Grizzlies just staying in the playoff race? Staying around .500 and within a couple of games of that precious #8 seed and then try to make a run when Zach Randolph comes back? Well …
A month ago today, the Grizzlies were a losing team, standing at 12-13. Since then, they've won 11 of 13 games and, after a commanding road win against the Warriors last night, currently five in a row. And with the Lakers and Clippers both losing last night, the Grizzlies wake up this morning to find themselves in sole possession of third place in the Western Conference. The team's playoff odds, per John Hollinger, are now up to nearly 95 percent.
And it wasn't just the Los Angeles teams falling last night. There were also down-ballot losses from West playoff contenders in Houston and Denver.
If the playoffs started today, the Grizzlies would host the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. (And we would also have a Lakers-Clippers first-round match-up and a really fun Thunder-Wolves pairing. Can we please start the playoffs today?)
Coming off a three-day layoff, the Grizzlies were more rested than rusty, jumping all over the Warriors to start, going up 21-4 and assisting on all 13 first-quarter field goal. The Warriors roared back behind Steph Curry and a phalanx of three-point shooters (at one point, the Warriors were 5-7 from long-range with buckets from five different players) to take the lead and it seemed like we were going to have another crazy Grizzlies-Warriors game.
Instead, the Grizzlies came out in the third quarter and firmly established their superiority, reeling off 11 points in a row early in the quarter to and never losing their grip on the game again. Rudy Gay lead the way with one of his best all-around games of the season, with 26 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and — cherry on top — zero turnovers. Mike Conley had 12 assists. Marc Gasol had a double-double (17/12). O.J. Mayo was on offensive force off the bench (16 points, 5 assists), continuing to be effective in his back-up point guard minutes. And Marreese Speights (18), Tony Allen (12), and Quincy Pondexter (11) all chipped in double figures as well. (Pondexter was 2-3 from three-point range and has now hit a three-pointer in four of his past six games, a good trend for him and the team's bench production.)
All-in-all, the good vibes continue. (Minus maybe a wishing-to-be-traded Sam Young; check the bottom left corner of that photo.) Now the team will have two more days off heading into another winnable road game Saturday night in Phoenix.
The Grizzlies had played a close game in Toronto last night and had flown home afterward, where a well-rested Pistons team — which hadn't played since Wednesday — awaited them. And, despite their horrid overall record, the Pistons have been very competitive lately, going 8-6 in February.
For three quarters, the Grizzlies just couldn't put it together. They seemed to be playing hard, but were plagued by bad turnovers (including two by three-point shooters stepping on the sideline), fouls (eight in the third quarter alone), and lots of missed shots in the paint.
They trailed 70-69 entering the third quarter and then 78-76 on a three-pointer from Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey four minutes into the quarter. From that point on, the Grizzlies went on a 17-0 run over the course of about five minutes to put the game away, a stretch that included two big three-pointers from O.J. Mayo, 8 dynamic points from Quincy Pondexter, and stifling team defense throughout.
This was a game that could easily have been a “one of those nights” or “they were due for a letdown” kind of game. But the Grizzlies found an extra reservoir of energy, focus, and teamwork when they needed it, turning a battle into a blowout. Legit contenders do this. And that's what the Grizzlies, even without their ostensible best player, are starting to look like.
Wrapping this up with some quick observations on the rest of the roster. Additionally, my team overview mid-season column for this week's print addition is now online. You can read it here. Honestly, it's a better read than these blog posts. Had a little bit more time to craft it. These player posts — like most blog stuff — is basically automatic writing. But I digress …
While he's not as physical a defender as Young, Pondexter seems more solid in team concepts and the team seems to be better with him defensively overall. And while his individual statistical profile is not as good as Young's was a season ago, he similarly seems to fit in a little better as an offensive role player as well.
Pondexter has a better looking jumper, but it remains unclear what kind of shooter he is. This season he's been very good from mid-range but shaky from three-point range. Last season in New Orleans he shot well from three — especially from the corner — but was mediocre from mid-range.
Pondexter's role seems to be expanding of late and when he plays with efficiency and energy it's a big help. There's potential here for Pondexter to be a very solid role player for the team the rest of this season and beyond. I'd like to see him get more frequent looks at that corner three to get a better gauge of his shooting ability.
Speights has been a good-not-great rebounder and viable scoring threat while responding well to the on-court tutelage of post partner Marc Gasol, giving the Grizzlies 9 points and 6.5 rebounds a game in 23 minutes. He's a little bit more of a shot-blocker and defensive presence at the rim than Zach Randolph but obviously nowhere near as good a player.
The biggest tangible difference between the two — beyond Randolph's relentlessness — is where their offense comes from. Though it's a strength for both players, Speights is a somewhat better mid-range shooter than Randolph (making 43% to Randolph's 39% last a season), but is more dependent on it for his offense, taking 43% of his attempts from mid-range compared to 24% for Randolph. And the shift from Randolph's paint-oriented game — 73% of his attempts last season in the paint — to Speights' mid-range-oriented game in the starting lineup has been the biggest drag on the Grizzlies' offense this season.
The one area where they're most similar is that Speights shoots nearly as much relative to his playing time as Randolph, and that quick-trigger approach might actually make the transition back to Randolph smoother because the Grizzlies haven't changed the way they play radically with Randolph out.