With Suns center Marcin Gortat carving up the Grizzlies early — he scored or set up his team's first 14 points — then getting help from a bevy of cutters and drivers (especially Josh Childress, who hit all five first-half shots, all at the rim), the Suns scored 32 of their first 36 points in the paint on the way to a total of 42 first-half paint points (21-26 interior shooting), staying within six points (59-53) of a hot-shooting Griz team at the break.
The Grizzlies tightened up their defense in the second half, allowing only 14 paint points, but other problems emerged.
In the third quarter, the Grizzlies built, lost, and rebuilt a double-digit lead, going on an explosive 8-0 run out of a late-quarter timeout that was bracketed by a pretty left elbow bank shot from Rudy Gay and then a prettier right-to-left baseline reverse off a Marc Gasol feed.
But when it looked like the Grizzlies had finally seized control, a series of fouls and better bench play helped Phoenix get back in the game: A fifth foul on Gasol that kept him on the bench most of the final quarter, then the Grizzlies picked up five team fouls in a minute-and-a-half span early in the quarter. And while the Grizzlies were in the penalty early, the Suns were hitting shots, including a three-pointer from back-up point guard Sebastian Telfair to bring the Suns to within one and then a mid-range shot from Telfair to take a lead, 83-81.
But the Grizzlies got it back together and closed with a 17-6 run in the final six minutes that featured some terrific offensive execution, with five of seven baskets assisted and many possessions milking the shot-clock while also getting good shots, goals that are often in opposition.
But, in this scoreboard-watching portion of the season, while the Grizzlies were putting in work, they weren't getting the help they needed. With Chris Paul hitting a game-winning lay-up in the final minute in Oklahoma City and Andrew Bynum snatching 30 rebounds in San Antonio, both Los Angeles teams pulled off road upsets, staying a half game and two games, respectively, above the Grizzlies in the standings.
But Gay's most impressive basket was the capper: After Dante Cunningham missed a transition dunk attempt off a Gay feed, Gay rebounded the miss and backed to ball out to run down clock. He then directed Cunningham across the lane and O.J. Mayo to the corner, creating a driving lane that he took to the rim, pushing his point total to 32 and the Grizzlies lead to 104-93 with under a minute to play.
Gay was sharp all game in performance that was both efficient and dynamic, scoring 9 points on 4-4 shooting in the first quarter on the way to 32 points on 13-20, including 7 rebounds and, probably most impressive of all considering how often he had the ball: Zero turnovers.
Nightly Number: On the first possession of the game, Suns center Marcin Gortat rebounded his own miss, setting up an open three-pointer for Shannon Brown, and the Grizzlies had to think, “Oh no, here we go again.”
In two previous losses this season in Phoenix, the Suns had killed the Grizzlies on the offensive boards, grabbing 34 offensive boards to the Grizzlies' 19, with the trio of Gortat, Jared Dudley, and Robin Lopez averaging 10 offensive boards among them in the two games.
But back in FedExForum it went the other way, the Grizzlies out-doing the Suns on the offensive boards 16-12, with Rudy Gay (4) getting almost as many as the Gortat/Dudley/Lopez trio (4).
The Match-Up: Mike Conley (12 points, 7 assists, 0 turnovers) quietly outplayed the magician Steve Nash (11 points, 10 assists, 7 turnovers), but tonight was probably the rare game where the Grizzlies lost the match-up at center.
Marcin Gortat carved up Marc Gasol in the first quarter and finished with a team-high 19 points on 9-12 shooting. Gasol (8-7-4) was limited to 25 minutes with second-half foul trouble and one sign that he didn't quite have it came when he bullied the entire Suns frontline to create a point-blank shot … then missed it. Gasol did have the best moment of the two centers in the fourth quarter, when he got inside position on Gortat on a Grizzlies in-bounds play and then rumbling past rookie Markieff Morris for a baseline dunk so powerful that Gasol seemed to foul himself. He landed hard on his hip, and favored it for a moment, but seemed to be okay.
Elements of Style: Gilbert Arenas (0-3 in 10 minutes) and the Suns' Michael Redd (0-2 in 15 minutes) had rough games, but it was sort of fun for a minute there to watch these two not-so-old-guards with old legs — former All-Star gunners on the comeback trail with new teams — go at each other, a theoretically satisfying but actually uneventful match-up that did feature Arenas using the pull-the-chair trick with the desired outcome.
Not sure why I never noticed this before, but Suns forward Josh Childress looks an awful lot like Bubbles from The Wire. The younger, taller, pre-junk version:
The Jacob Riis Report: Despite their fine recent play, the Suns' playoff hopes are teetering. They lost ground tonight with the Jazz and Nuggets both winning and now sit two games back of the eight seed with a road back-to-back against the Rockets and Spurs looming this weekend.
Arena Action: The Red Hot Chili Peppers play FedExForum Thursday night and the band's stars — singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea — took in the game with a couple of lower-bowl (but not courtside) seats. At halftime, I ended up walking right behind them on the way to the tunnel, but, oddly, no-one was leaning over the railing to high-five or fist-bump me. At the end of the half, Kiedis tripped in front of me and almost fell onto my laptop. Stop stalking me, dude.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improved to 32-23 and remain a half game behind the Clippers in the fight for the fourth seed.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies boarded a plane for San Antonio after the game and will play the Spurs Thursday night. The Spurs have tended to rest their stars occasionally on back-to-backs, but playing at home and coming off consecutive losses, I wouldn't count on that in this one. This is the roughest game left on the Grizzlies schedule and should be a good test for a Grizzlies team recently looking like a legitimate contender.
Announced Attendance: 15,239, a little below the season average. Despite growing excitement over the looming playoff run, you sense the fan base was a little spent from a Saturday-Monday combo that was about a thousand shy of a double-sellout. Hopefully we can rebound with a stronger crowd Saturday night against the Jazz.
Zach Randolph continued his progress. He looked like vintage Z-Bo in the first half, scoring 13 points in 13 minutes on 5-8 shooting, with 5 rebounds. His first basket was perhaps the best, when he missed a shot in the paint but out-quicked the Suns' frontline to the rebound and then again back up for the putback. Randolph's game is built on stuff like that, and we weren't seeing those kind of quick reactions his first couple of weeks back. Randolph was quieter in the second half, but did go at Robin Lopez on consecutive possessions, first driving around him and then shooting over him. More and more, I'm getting encouraged that Randolph can be somewhat close to his real self by playoff time and if I'm Lionel Hollins I would probably accelerate the inevitable and move him back into the starting lineup sometime in the next few games, giving the team a handful of games before the playoffs to get acclimated to a new rotation.
According to his Twitter feed, Tony Allen got his stitches out today. I would expect to see him back in the lineup by this weekend. It will be nice to not see “NWT – Facial Laceration” in the box score any more.