Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Postgame Notebook: Grizzlies 93, Wolves 86 — Where Dante Cunningham Out-Boards Kevin Love and the Griz Win Without Gasol.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 at 12:51 AM

Dante Cunningham
The Lead: In their last game before their toughest stretch of the season, the Grizzlies got a win they really had to have, but it wasn't easy.

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.

Cunningham had played very well against Wolves rookie forward Derrick Williams in the last meeting with the Wolves, and with the Wolves starting Williams in a smaller lineup in the absence of their own center, Nikola Pekovic, Cunningham was the right match-up. He smothered Williams again, who started 1-5 in the first quarter against Cunningham on the way to 4-15 overall shooting. Later in the game, Cunningham found himself battling Kevin Love, routinely fighting him for rebounds and winning more than he lost. Love is second in the league in rebounding at 13.8 a game, but tonight the smaller Cunningham bested him on the glass 14-11.

Cunningham had only played one minute in the previous game against a Laker team that starts two seven-footers up front, while back-up center Hamed Haddadi had perhaps the best all-around game of his career. Tuesday night against a Wolves team playing most of the game with only one big man and without a true center, Haddadi never saw the floor while Cunningham had potentially his best all-around game. This see-saw in the frontcourt rotation represents Lionel Hollins ably using his team's depth to play match-ups and the team's now-deep bench responding for him.

An 8-0 Grizzlies run over the course of about a minute-and-a-half in the fourth quarter pushed their lead from three to 11 (86-75) with under five minutes to play. In this explosive mini-run, Cunningham had four rebounds, the first on the defensive end to set up Rudy Gay in transition, the last a tip-in of an Allen miss, along with a blocked shot.

Cunningham has been an exceptionally good fit for the Grizzlies' high-octane, defense-into-transition-play style. His locker is right next to Tony Allen's and as a scrum of media surrounded Cunningham after the game, Allen leaned over his shoulder to mess with his young teammate. They're a good fit on the court too. Cunningham, in some ways, is like a bigger, less flamboyant Allen, with a similar ability and willingness to make energy plays all over the floor. Like Allen, Cunningham seems wired defensively. Watch him every time he scores at the rim. He immediately looks to deflect or steal the subsequent in-bounds pass and, if he can't, otherwise disrupt the other team's attempt to advance the ball up the floor.

Cunningham said after the game that the Grizzlies style of play and his fit with it reminds him of his college days at Villanova, where he was often used at the top of the team's pressing defense. And he noted that the team's combination of opportunistic defense and uptempo play matches his own playing style predicated on speed and aggression.

Nightly Number: The Grizzlies' 25 second-chance points were a season high and most of them came late. After getting beat on the offensive boards 7-1 in the first quarter, the Grizzlies turned up their intensity, out-rebounding the Wolves offensively 13-5 the rest of the way.

Zach Randolph

The Match-Up: Despite watching his younger counterpart make the All-Star team ahead of him, Zach Randolph devoured Kevin Love last season. When Randolph entered the game midway through the first quarter, a Wolves beat writer sitting next to me looked at the duo bodying each other up on the right block and said, “There's Love's kryptonite.”

But a slimmed-down, smoother-shooting Love has made a Leap this season while Randolph is fighting his way back from a significant injury. If one could reasonably argue that Randolph was actually the better player coming into this season, at this moment that's no longer true. Love lead with Wolves with a game-high 28 points and team-high 11 rebounds, flashing his increasingly awesome outside stroke with 4-8 three-point shooting and absorbing lots of punishment in the paint without getting much help from the officials.

As for Randolph, he was more up-and-down. At least 10 pounds overweight and clearly still trying to regain his timing and quickness, Randolph gave the team 8 points (3-6 shooting) and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench. He was helpful, but still far from where he was pre-injury. One stretch in the second half was particularly instructive. Randolph ended up matched with the smaller, quicker Derrick Williams. At his best, Randolph would have tortured the under-sized rookie, but only went to work against Williams on the block once, while Williams was able to get by Randolph easily at the other end, making the match-up more of a wash.

But Randolph was in good spirits after the game. He knows he's not there yet and he knows it will come. He seemed happy to be back, happy to get the win, and understood that the current set-up is both temporary and the best thing for the team right now.

“I like Zach coming off the bench right now, until he's fully conditioned,” Hollins said after the game. “You can see that Zach can't really go at people the way he likes.”

The Jacob Riis Report: The only time I can remember Rudy Gay ever being snarky about another player — at least as I read it — was when the Wolves drafted Wesley Johnson with the 4th pick in the 2010 draft. As soon as the pick was announced, Gay joked on Twitter “Wesley Johnson is older than me.” That's not exactly true, but there is less than a year's age difference between the two forwards despite Gay having four more years of NBA experience. The Wolves have a dynamic young point guard in Ricky Rubio, talented, burly bigs in Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, and a dynamic forward in Derrick Williams. But they've got nothing on the wings, with the mundane-in-every-way Johnson cementing himself as “just a guy” at the NBA level. Johnson scored 6 points in 22 minutes. Gay, meanwhile, lead the Grizzlies with 21 points, overcoming a rough night from the perimeter (0-4 from three) with a couple of thunder dunks and 7-7 free-throw shooting.

Tweet O’ the Game: Griz are 100-0 when Speights is having fun on the court — @Merrick7950

Arena Action: Michael Heisley and his right-hand-man Stan Meadows sat mid-court tonight. They were in town for a meeting with local big-wigs that John Branston wrote about here.

Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improve to 27-21 and sit all alone in 6th place in the Western Conference. The team is only a half game behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks for 4th place and now have a 1.5 game cushion over 9th place Houston.

Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies have two days off before traveling to Houston to begin a brutal stretch of seven games in nine days, five on the road and six against playoff contenders.

Announced Attendance: 14,769

Deflections:

Marc Gasol missed his first game of the season with an ankle sprain. Watching him in the recent road games, I didn't think he looked quite right, and noted his declining block totals, among other areas. Not knowing about an injury, I suggested that maybe the heavy minutes in this compressed season were wearing him down. And maybe they are. But we now know that there was something more specific holding him back on the road trip. It's been suggested that Gasol might be sidelined for five days, which would mean he misses the two road games this weekend. But word around FedExForum was that Gasol had to be forced to sit out this one and, if you remember, he missed only one game early last season with another ankle sprain, clearly returning — and playing effectively – before it was fully healed. So we shall see.

The revolving door at back-up point guard continued to spin, with Gilbert Arenas getting a DNP in his first game at FedExForum, Jeremy Pargo getting the call in the first half, and O.J. Mayo moving onto the ball in the second half when Mike Conley went to the bench. Lionel Hollins said after the game that Arenas' absence in the past couple of games wasn't just about what he had done in his minutes so far. “When we were struggling with our chemistry, I decided we needed to get back to the guys who had been playing,” Hollins explained, tying Arenas' recent DNPs to the move of Randolph back to the bench. And Mayo's minutes came from a desire to get him on the floor without taking out an effective Tony Allen or Rudy Gay, Hollins said. I'd expect the rotation behind Conley to remain somewhat flexible in the near future, with Pargo, who seemed more settled despite his 1-5 shooting, having a slight edge over Arenas who, like Randolph, is still not fully in good game shape. But as I've said and written repeatedly, the make-up of the roster dictates that Mayo spend time at the point as a way of maximizing the minutes for the team's best players. Look for Hollins to juggle all three options based on match-ups and other in-game factors, but I suspect Mayo will be the primary option when the playoffs start. (Provided the Grizzlies are in the playoffs, of course.)

Mike Conley came up limp late in the first half, apparently twisting his ankle on a pull-up jumper. He left the game but returned in the second half with only a slight limp and played effectively.

The Grizzlies pulled this one out despite a collective 0-11 from three-point range.

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