The Jazz had beaten the Grizzlies in the two previous games of the season series. Maybe it's their depth of size. Maybe it's the ghost of Jerry Sloan still gumming things up. Maybe it's that the Jazz might be the only team that chooses to start their road games with their offense on the Grizzlies' bench end of the court. (Okay, maybe that just disorients me.) Whatever it is, the Jazz have been a tough opponent for the Grizzlies this season. And this game was no different.
The Grizzlies trailed 51-50 at the half, with the Jazz's three primary bigs — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors — combining for 28 points on 14-22 shooting, and some careless turnovers negating some of the Grizzlies' own good shooting.
In the third quarter, the Jazz built their largest lead — 72-66 — with a big lineup that shifted starting power forward Millsap over to small forward and put second-year man-child Favors in the middle next to Jefferson. The Jazz trailed by three midway through the quarter when they went to this lineup and reeled off a 9-0 run after going big, with Rudy Gay understandably struggling to check Millsap on the block.
The Grizzlies still trailed by six early in the fourth quarter, but began a 31-20 closing run with the insertion of Dante Cunningham. Cunningham played only seven minutes in the game, but six of those came in the fourth quarter when he was summoned to match-up with Millsap at small forward. And even when the Jazz went back to a conventional lineup a minute later, the Griz stayed with Cunningham against the even bigger Favors.
“Dante did a really nice job with his quickness and activity,” Lionel Hollins said. “We were able to play the pick-and-rolls better.”
Cunningham helped spur better energy defensively, then O.J. Mayo got hot, this symbolic baton handoff made literal in a sequence three minutes into the quarter when Cunningham harassed Favors into consecutive point-blank misses and then fought him for a defensive rebound that was quickly converted into a pull-up transition three from Mayo. Coming out of a subsequent timeout, the Cunningham defensive rebound/Mayo three sequence repeated itself to give the Grizzlies their first lead since early in the third quarter.
With the game tied 86-86 at the 4:27 mark, Mayo kept scoring, but Rudy Gay took the handoff for a series of big plays on both ends of the floor: Blocking Favors at the rim on one end and getting an offensive rebound off a missed Gasol free-throw at the other end that set up a Mayo lay-up. Hitting a straight-away three-pointer to bump the lead from one to four with just over two minutes to go. Stealing the ball on a possession where the Jazz had a chance to tie or take a lead and drawing a foul in transition. Finally hitting two free throws to push the lead from three to five with 11.6 to play and all but seal the game.
Mayo outscored the entire Jazz bench, which totaled 18 on the game. He was 3-4 from beyond the arc and 6-6 from the line in the fourth quarter, and his final three — pushing the Grizzlies lead to 98-94 with under a minute to go — was probably the biggest shot of the game.
“I knew O.J. was hot so we continued to give him the ball,” Hollins said. “On the last play, Marc was either going to get a layup or O.J. was going to get the three.”
Gay's 26 was a game-high, but as that closing flurry of two-way plays indicates, his game was about more than scoring. For starters, it was how he scored, getting his 26 on 8-16 shooting from the floor and 9-10 from the line and getting it mostly in the flow of the game. Gay made a big block and steal in the final minutes, but he was beastly on the boards all game. Gay was rebounding in traffic all night on the way to a game-high 12 boards.
“He has the ability to do a lot of things,” Hollins said about Gay. “I tell him all the time, the points will come for you because you are physically gifted, but with the rest of the stuff, you are also physically gifted but you have to put your mind into doing it and that's exactly what he's been doing.”
Nightly Number: The Grizzlies struggled some with the Jazz's bigs, but did a good job of contesting shots without fouling, which, combined the the Grizzlies' own aggressive drives lead to a 34 to 17 advantage on free-throw attempts. The Grizzlies further capitalized on this disparity by hitting 82 percent from the stripe.
The Match-Up: In the first half, centers Marc Gasol and Al Jefferson were putting on a clinic on the subject of not being able to guard each other. Gasol used his size advantage to shoot over Jefferson in converting his first five shots, hitting the half with 10 points on 5-6 shooting.
As for Jefferson, he's one of the most naturally talented post scorers in the league. The rim has always loved Jefferson's shots, and tonight was no different. Jefferson used his advanced post moves, quickness advantage, and ultra-soft touch to score 14 first-half points on 7-10 shooting, including one ridiculous near-sky-hook from around the free-throw line.
The Grizzlies mostly single-covered Jefferson with Gasol in the first half, but started sending doubles at him in the second, and it helped to cool him off, with Jefferson scoring 6 points on 3-7 shooting after the break.
“We took Al out of the game a little bit in the second half, which was huge,” Hollins said after the game. “We got on him and we really came down on him. They threw the ball out a few times and didn't make shots, so that was big for us.”
Gasol finished with a strong overall line — 17 points on 6-10 shooting, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks — but his play, especially on the defensive end, seems to have tapered off just a little bit in the second half. I worry about fatigue given the enormous minutes load he's had to carry this season and also about the array of minor bumps and bruises that seem to be accumulating. This bears watching during these last couple of weeks going into the playoffs.
With Allen back in action but spending half the game on the bench, we got plenty of Assistant Coach Tony — shadowing Lionel Hollins with sideline instruction — and Cheerleader Tony — exhorting teammates and the crowd from near the baseline and then jetting out past mid-court to greet teammates at one timeout.
At the end of the third quarter, Hamed Haddadi secured a defensive rebound with 29.7 seven seconds on the game clock and Allen seemed to be yelling at Rudy Gay to shoot the ball as he came back down court with it — presumably with the idea of trying to get a two-for-one. Gay pulled up for the transition three and missed it, with the game clock just under 24 seconds. The Jazz held for the final shot and got a Paul Millsap three at the quarter buzzer, doubling their lead from three to six as Lionel Hollins put his face in his hands.
Minutes later, Allen had some more sound sideline instruction, yelling at Hamed Haddadi to put his hands up on the defensive end.
The Jacob Riis Report: The Jazz are in 10th place in the West, two games back of seventh and eighth seeds Houston and Denver. Utah's playoff chances are looking dicey, but there's some good young talent on this team, with second-year swingman Gordon Hayward (17 point, 4 boards, 5 assists) emerging as an impact player and burly young big men Derrick Favors and rookie Enes Kanter forming a potentially powerful frontcourt of the future. If the Jazz can find some more firepower in the backcourt — I'm not sold on rookie guard Alec Burks — this summer, this team can be very interesting going forward.
Tweet O’ the Game: I want to thank whatever or whoever caused the Grizz front office to miss the deadline for the OJ trade. #gogrizz — @tedhor speaking for all of so-called Griz Nation as Mayo was once again making big shots in the fourth quarter.
Arena Action: Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley was a smiling presence in the locker room after the game. He was also, oddly, double-fisting cans of Diet Pepsi. Was this a silent signal of support for embattled Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy? As one Griz employee cracked, good-naturedly, “All we need now is for Zach to come over and put his arm around him to repeat the scene.”
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improved to 35-24, remaining in fifth place and holding their ground with the fourth-seed Los Angeles Clippers, who had beaten the Golden State Warriors earlier in the day.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzles flew to New Orleans after the game and will face the Hornets tomorrow night. Game tips at 6 p.m. The Clippers are off. The third-seeded Lakers host the six-seeded Mavs in the afternoon.
Announced Attendance: 17,190.
Zach Randolph played 17 straight minutes in the first half and then started the second half. He still managed only six field-goal attempts in his 30 minutes. I feel like the Grizzlies need to get him going with more touches before the post-season arrives, but they won this game with the offense going more through O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, and Mike Conley late, which also happens to fit the match-ups against a Jazz team that's strongest up front. Lionel Hollins said after the game that he planned to go back to the same starting lineup as tonight — Mike Conley-Tony Allen-Rudy Gay-Marreese Speights-Marc Gasol — when the team faces New Orleans. I'm moderately surprised that the Randolph insertion isn't carrying over, but Hollins also said, “Everything I do is by feel. We'll start the same lineup and if I feel like we need to make a change, I will make a change when the call is right. Like I say all the time, nothing we do is etched in stone. I'm always looking to find out whether or not we need to make an adjustment.”
Dante Cunningham was a combo forward for Portland and Charlotte in his first two seasons, but with the Grizzlies injury problems up front and good wing depth, he's been almost exclusively a power forward for the Grizzlies this season. With Randolph back in the lineup, that's slowly starting to change, with Cunningham used to match-up with Paul Millsap at the three tonight. “He's played four all year long and he doesn't stretch the floor like Quincy Pondexter,” Hollins said, outlining a couple of the problems with playing Cunningham on the wing. “But he can help up match-up with bigger small forwards.” Hollins indicated a desire to use Cunningham more at the three going forward. Consider this a preview of coming attractions, perhaps in the playoffs depending on the match-ups, but almost certainly heading into next season, when the team would hopefully be able to start the season with a full frontcourt rotation.
If this game was ultimately about the Gay/Mayo duo on the wings, there were a pair of possessions in the second quarter that hinted at the deft post-oriented game we'll hopefully see more of as the Grizzlies ramp up for the post-season. First, Zach Randolph spun through a double-team and found a cutting Rudy Gay for a dunk. Two possessions later, Marc Gasol got the ball on the low block and dropped a no-look pass to Tony Allen on the baseline for a lay-up. I love seeing big men making slick passes from the post.
The Grizzlies have won a season-high seven consecutive home games.
One tricky subplot to the regular season's final seven games: The conflict between the need to win to pursue better seeding and the desire to get key players rest. Tonight, Rudy Gay played 40 minutes and Marc Gasol 39, but the team needed all of it. “We've been wanting to cut down their minutes, but I wasn't going to sacrifice this game to do it,” Lionel Hollins said.
When I predicted a 9-2 finish before last weekend's game with the Clippers, the two losses I projected were at San Antonio and this one. The Grizzlies were likely to be favored in every game left except at San Antonio and I figured they'd slip up in at least one of them. Given the match-up problems, this seemed the most likely. So, I've got the Grizzlies going 7-0 to close out the regular season. Maybe the slip up comes in another game — at pesky New Orleans with shooter Eric Gordon returning wouldn't shock — but you have to feel good about a strong finish.