“Seven of nine!,” a smiling, near-punch-drunk Joerger exclaimed, “This is it right here! Day off tomorrow!”
Here's betting Joerger was even more excited a few hours later, after the Grizzlies lead from buzzer to buzzer in beating the division rival Mavericks in a game with playoff implications and playoff atmosphere.
The Grizzlies finished the toughest stretch on their schedule — seven games in nine days, six against playoff contenders, five on the road — with an unlikely 5-2 record. And despite dramatic road wins against Finals favorites Oklahoma City and Miami, this last one was perhaps the most meaningful, strengthening the team's hold on the #5 position in the West — and positioning them for a move toward #4 — by not only gaining back the game the team lost against Dallas earlier in the week, but more importantly securing a tiebreaker against them by taking the season series 2-1.
“It was huge,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We're three up on them now in the loss column and with the tiebreaker it's more like four. It's going to be a tight race, but we have to keep winning.”
“If you had told us we'd be 5-2 in that stretch, we would have been happy about it,” Mike Conley said. “But we feel like we're getting better. There's been a lot of growth on this team in the past couple of weeks.”
The Grizzlies built a 20-point lead in the first quarter and while the Mavericks chipped away — drawing to within one when a three-pointer from Vince Carter made it 63-62 late in the third quarter — the Grizzlies never lost their lead, making plays down the stretch to keep a multi-possession lead until the shot-clock was off and the Mavericks were forced to foul.
Paired with Friday night's 15-point win in Miami, the Grizzlies beat both teams from last year's Finals in back-to-back games, without ever trailing. Now that's a good weekend.
Making the weekend even better was that both wins featured strong performances from the team's previously struggling stars — Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay, who had both played very poorly in the three-games-in-three-nights stretch earlier in the week.
Randolph followed his 14 and 14 off the bench against Miami with another double-double, a more efficient 15 and 11, with 4 assists.
And Gay's breakout was even more dramatic. After having his least productive three-game stretch in more than three seasons, Gay lead the Grizzlies with 17 points against Miami, pairing the scoring with solid defense that only started with his three steals. Gay was even better Saturday against Dallas, scoring a game-high 25 points on only 15 field goal attempts, along with 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
Gay also broke his maddening three-point drought. Gay hadn't hit a three-pointer since March 25th against the Lakers. And missing his first two against Dallas brought him to a stretch of 19 consecutive misses over eight games. Gay finally made one late in the first quarter, pushing the Grizzlies lead to 22-5, and then hit his next two attempts, bringing him to 3-5 on the game.
But Gay's biggest basket came at the rim, late in the fourth, with the Grizzlies nursing a five-point lead. Guarded tightly at the three-point line by Shawn Marion, an elite defender who had thoroughly outplayed him at Dallas earlier in the week, Gay got around him and to the bucket, giving the Grizzlies a 90-83 lead with under four minutes to go.
After the game, I asked Gay if he could remember ever having a shooting slump that bad.
“Never. Never,” he said. “I was trying to think back to when I had my last one.”
Other have suggested illness and fatigue as factors in Gay's terrible mid-week performance, but he waived off those factors while remaining vague.
“It's just basketball. I've been doing this since I was six. I can't say it's fatigue,” Gay said. “ I think it was just mental. Once you shoot the ball a few times and it doesn't go in a few times you start thinking about it. It's not a good feeling, I'll say that. It was a bad stretch. I can't say I've felt that way [on the court] in a long time. But you live and you learn. I learned a lot from that stretch and I'm going to apply that to the rest of the season.”
Man of the Match: Despite the bounce back from Gay and the palpable progress from Randolph, I'm giving this one to Gilbert Arenas, who followed his 4-5 three-point shooting display against Miami with perhaps an even stronger game tonight.
Arenas scored 14 points in 17 minutes, shooting 3-5 from three and 5-5 from the free-throw line, and made a series of big plays in the late third and early fourth when the Mavericks were threatening.
In the span of a few days, Arenas seems to be checking a lot of previously empty boxes for the Grizzlies: Veteran leader on the court and in the locker room? Check. Three-point threat? Check. Back-up point guard you can count on? Check. Not bad for a cheap in-season free-agent signing. Certainly, the Grizzlies are so-far getting more from Arenas than the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting from Derek Fisher, a similar but more celebrated signing made at roughly the same time.
“The effort has been outstanding from Gilbert,” Hollins said, citing Arenas' experience as an explanation for his surprisingly effective defensive play. “Guys who've been in the league know where to be. They know the shortcuts and they can recognize the sets other teams are running.”
Certainly, unlike with another high-scoring point-guard reclamation project a couple of years ago, the stalwarts in the Grizzlies locker room seem very happy to have Arenas in the mix.
“Gilbert brings a lot to the table. Not just his play, but his experience,” Gay said.
“He's a leader, and it's not only that he's going out there and shooting the shots we expect him to take, and he's making them,” said Mike Conley, who certainly didn't have nearly as pleasant experience with Allen Iverson. “He adds another threat to that second unit, with Juice and Zach. That's what we need at the point guard, a veteran leader. Someone who's been in those situations and understands possession and time and all those things.”
“Gilbert's been an All-Star, been in the playoffs, and got a $126 million contract,” Zach Randolph said, laughing. “You know, you can't forget about a guy like that.”
Nightly Number: With Arenas leading the way, the Grizzlies have recently transformed from one of the league's worst and least prolific three-point shooting teams into a pretty good one, with Arenas (10-15 over the past four games), Conley (9-15 in the same stretch), and Mayo (10-18 in the four games prior to tonight's 0-4) leading the charge and Gay joining in Saturday night.
Against the Mavericks, the Grizzlies actually shot better from three (9-20, 45%) than they did overall (31-80, 39%).
“We've been shooting the three-ball pretty well,” Hollins said, suggesting that the three-point shooting still needs to build off the team's interior identity. “I trust the three-point shooting, but when we're in transition and have numbers, I want the highest percentage shot we can get. And then the next highest percentage shot, and so on. When we have guys at the basket who can score and take the layup, I'd rather take the layup.”
But Arenas' long-range aptitude seems to be contagious.
“Especially in practice, he'll go like 20 for 20,” Conley said with a laugh. “So you don't watch to go against him when he's shooting well. It's rubbing off on us. A couple of times I want to pull up in transition and take one, but [I know how Lionel would react] so I just stick to my game.”
The Match-Up: Last spring, Dirk Nowitzki was star of the post-season, and Zach Randolph wasn't far behind. Both are unusual players who are match-up nightmare scoring threats at the power forward position, but neither was at his best tonight.
Nowitzki started the game 0-5 and while he finally got going late, with 11 points in the fourth quarter, it wasn't enough. He finished with 17 points on 5-16 shooting.
Randolph was also at his best in the fourth quarter, scoring a team high 8 points on 3-6 shooting, to go with 3 rebounds and the team's only 2 assists in the quarter.
All game long, the Grizzlies were running offense through Randolph more than we've seen since his return. In the first half, it wasn't quite working: Either Randolph, with the longer but thinner Brandon Wright on him, wasn't quite able to finish, or guys he was setting up (O.J. Mayo and Quincy Pondexter) were coming up short. In the second half, the same strategy was more fruitful, with Randolph demanding the ball and making aggressive moves that that represented at least a decent facsimile of his pre-injury form.
There was the jab-step and rainbow baseline jumper he hit on Nowitzki. And then there was the baseline drive in the late fourth on Wright, where Randolph drive right, reversed it, and then spun in a hook shot to give the Grizzlies a 92-85 lead with 3:10 to play. This was near-vintage Z-Bo.
After the game, Randolph said his improved mobility had more to do with him than the lighter knee brace he switched to a couple of games ago, and he allowed that increased confidence was also a big factor.
Conley says he saw a difference on the court tonight.
“It felt like Zach was starting to get his mojo back a little bit,” Conley said “He's used to making some moves and hasn't been able to get the [first] step that he wants. But he's getting there, and that's a good sign. We hit him a couple of times in the early post, when he'll run and get his early position. And we expect to see more of that from Z. He's getting his rhythm back.”
“Zach had a match-up that we thought we could exploit,” Hollins said, about Randolph's increased usage tonight. “I actually like him coming off the bench. He has had two double-doubles now and between Zach, Arenas, and O.J., we have three scorers on the bench. And when we bring Zach in we can go to him exclusively because Rudy may be off the floor and Marc eventually is off the floor, so he has better space to operate.”
This is a little different from Hollins assertion earlier in the week that Randolph would be back in the starting lineup when and if he started to look like his old self.
“Nothing I say is ever etched in stone,” Hollins said “Eventually I think he will be back in the starting lineup. But I like the way the balance is [now]. He played in the fourth quarter and ended the game. He played more minutes than a starter, so what difference does it make whether he starts or not? I know it makes a difference to those guys, but as far as the team, how we function most efficiently is important as well.”
Elements of Style: Tony Allen missed his second game after suffering a cut inside his mouth at the game in Dallas earlier in the week. Marc Gasol paid unintentional homage to his missing teammate by missing an uncontested lay-up to start the game. A more comical miscue came in the second half, when O.J. Mayo entered the game and ran the wrong way before quickly recognizing his mistake. (Which didn't stop NBATV from showing his mistake or teammates Tony Allen and Mike Conley from good-naturedly mocking him on Twitter afterward.)
The visitors tonight offered lots of interesting stuff to watch outside the mundane details of winning and losing: Roddy Beaubois has to be one of the quickest players in the league off the dribble. Brandon Wright's length feels almost alien up close; he's finally turning into the long, athletic finisher I thought he would be coming into the league. And I hope I get to see Dirk Nowitzki draining that one-legged jumper for several more seasons.
The Jacob Riis Report: This loss dropped the Mavs all the way down to eighth before a later Nuggets loss bumped them up to seventh in a tight Western Conference playoff race. Could the defending champs actually miss the post-season? It's possible. But I still wouldn't rule them out from becoming a difficult out if they can make it there. They've still got a brilliant coach, a generational star, a big-time sidekick shot-maker (Jason Terry), and some other good role players (Shawn Marion is having a terrific season). Limiting their upside is the maddening play of Lamar Odom, who should be their third or fourth best player but has been invisible. Odom played four forgettable minutes off the bench tonight.
Tweet O’ the Game: "Big team Win!!! S/o 2 the Home team!! Grizz nation stand up !!! Big boy performances from!! @rudygay22. And @MacBo50 !!! GNG" — @aa000g9: Tony Allen, one of the league's best cheerleaders even when he's not on the bench.
Arena Action: It was the annual Tour de Grizz event, where apparently a few hundred fans made the bicycle trek from Midtown to the game, parking their bikes in the lobby. According to Grizzlies game-promotion historian Kevin Cerrito, the Grizzlies are now 4-0 on Tour de Grizz nights.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improve to 32-23. They remain in 5th place in the West, but now have a two-game cushion on Houston, Denver, and Dallas.
Looking Ahead: It's another playoff-quality game, as potential first-round opponent Los Angeles Clippers come to town Monday night. The Grizzlies are only a game-and-a-half back from the Clippers for 4th place, so a win Monday night will really tighten that race. Could the Grizzlies host a playoff series for the first time in franchise history?
“It's a reachable goal for us,” Mike Conley said. “It's in sight.”
Announced Attendance: 18,119, the fourth announced sellout of the season.
The Grizzlies next four games — Clippers, Suns, Spurs, Jazz — will be against Western Conference playoff contenders whom the Grizzlies haven't beaten this season.
The Grizzlies improved to 11-3 on the second night of back-to-back games.