Last April, when the team clinched in a home win over the Sacramento Kings, Tony Allen was on all fours at center court as the clock ticked down, and he was soon joined by a whole team sporting weeks-old “playoff beards.” The post-game celebration was jubilant. The drought was over.
This time there was another team huddle at center court after the final horn sounded, but the mood was more subdued.
“We didn't want to be a one-and-done kind of group. We had a lot of success last year and we just wanted to make sure we got back,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We were up-and-coming last season, so there was more enthusiasm. This year, we're more professional about it, but we also had to endure more, especially with those early injures. We had to dig in.”
There was a Dickensian aspect to this clinching game. In the first half, the Grizzlies played down to their competition's level, as they've tended to do this season, trailing 48-47 after two quarters. But in the span of the 15-minute break, the Grizzlies transformed from looking like an “out in five” to a “deep run,” picking up their defensive energy to blow open the game with a 20-4 run to start second half, en route to a 37-12 quarter and a 24-point-lead in the fourth before extended “garbage time” made the final score look more mundane.
The Bigs Question: On the whole, this year's Grizzlies team seems to have more perimeter firepower and more frontcourt depth than the squad that entered last year's playoffs. But the biggest question — the one that may determine whether they can make another run — is about the physical readiness of the team's frontcourt foundation.
Playing his second game since his knee injury at the end of Sunday's game in New Orleans, Marc Gasol ditched the long brace he'd worn last night for knee pads. And though he was more effective tonight — hitting all three field-goal attempts, dropping four assists to zero turnovers, getting scrappy defensively during that big third-quarter run — he sure didn't look like his best self. Gasol didn't seem hobbled, but did seem to be laboring, with less lift and more trouble sealing his man in the paint. His mere three rebounds in 23 minutes felt like a partial result of this limited mobility.
As for Zach Randolph, things are looking up again. Randolph followed his bounce-back game Tuesday night in Minnesota with another strong outing, one better than his modest numbers — 10 points on 5-9 shooting, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists in 24 minutes — indicate.
Jab-step into rainbow baseline jumper: Check. Tip-in amid scrum: Check. Useless three-pointer with time on clock: check. Hey, Z-Bo's back! Or something close to it. It would be nice to see Randolph assert his physicality more consistently as the playoffs approach, but he was good tonight, with a couple of those second-half jumpers having a bit of a “Game 6” vibe.
“The last two games he's been a lot more aggressive,” Hollins said. “We had a conversation before the Minnesota game about my expectations for him. He told me what he was trying to do and I told him what I wanted from him. We need him to score when we go to him. Pass when he's double-teamed, but look to be a scorer. I think from a health perspective, he's 100 percent. Is he 100 percent in rhythm and all of that? It's getting better. Each game it gets better.”
As with the Utah game last weekend, Hollins brought Randolph off the bench initially but started him in the second half. At this point, I've given up trying to determine what the roles are going to be when the playoffs come. And the roles don't matter as much as the players buying into them. If Randolph and Hollins reached some kind of understanding before the Wolves game, as Hollins indicated, so be it.
Man of the Match: Rudy Gay is playing as well right now as he ever has. Gay's game-high 26 points came on 9-14 shooting (including 3-5 from long-range and 5-5 from the line), with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, a steal, and only 1 turnover.
Since his three-game nightmare at the beginning of the month, Gay's single-game low has been 16 points, and he has scored at least 24 in five of his past six games.
And Gay's play has been more impressive than the numbers. Against the Hornets, as in most games in this stretch, Gay rebounded in traffic (three offensive boards), made attentive plays defensively, and used his dribble more decisively. Lately, instead of hovering with his dribble, which too often leads to turnovers, he's been more likely to make a strong one-or-two-dribble move into the lane and rise up to shoot over defenders.
Gay's also been a better orchestrator of offense lately, especially in concert with Randolph. Four assists in three of his past five games suggests this, but it goes deeper. A couple of plays that stood out tonight: When Jeremy Pargo passively swung the ball over to Gay at the precise moment when Zach Randolph had sealed his defender on the low block, Gay recognized this, passed immediately back to Pargo, and pointed out where the ball really needed to go. Randolph scored on the play. Later, Gay got a hockey assist by igniting a nifty sequence of interior passing where he fed Gasol on the block, who moved the ball quickly to a cutting Randolph for a layup.
Gay will be the only significant player on the Grizzlies roster making his playoff debut next week and seems to be peaking at the right time.
“We expected it this year,” Gay said of clinching the spot. “I think I'm the only one that's really excited or a little emotional because honestly I didn't get to play at all last year. It was good to be there and experience it, but I might as well have bought a ticket”
Nightly Number: The Grizzlies' flat first-half play was largely the result of a lack of defensive intensity. This was suggested by the team's mere two steals (both of which came late in the second quarter) in the half. In the second half, the Grizzlies registered 10 steals, which helped provoke 15 second-half turnovers for the Hornets.
The Match-Up: Greivis Vasquez had an up-and-down game in his second return to FedExForum since his trade on the eve of the season. He was dynamic in the first half, with 9 points and 7 assists, but disappeared in the face of the Grizzlies' third-quarter tsunami. Still, it was a substantially better performance than the player who allegedly made Vasquez expendable in Memphis. With Gilbert Arenas out with a finger injury, once-but-probably-not-future back-up point guard Jeremy Pargo was put into the role and continued his season-long ratio of one spectacular play — a twisting reverse layup — for every three or four frustrating ones. Pargo scored 4 points on 2-7 shooting.
Elements of Style Random moments from a happy locker room: Zach Randolph sporting a throwback Vancouver Grizzlies cap. Tony Allen walking in late, having gone to the practice court to work on his shot. O.J. Mayo talking about Westerns. (He repped for Young Guns. I suggested some John Wayne.)
Tweet O’ the Game: “Unbelievably blessed to make the playoffs the first 2yrs of my career. Thanks Grizz fans!!!” – @QuincyPondexter
Arena Action: The Grizzlies tried out a new in-game promotion — or at least new to me — called “Two on Cue,” in which two fans played a quick halfcourt game against three defenders dressed as ribs. Against all odds: Awesome.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improved to 37-25, strengthening their hold on the #5 seed, but hopes of moving up are swiftly fading with the Los Angeles Clippers 104-98 road win in Denver. To move up, the Grizzlies need to win out and the Clippers now need to finish 1-3. If the Clippers win at Phoenix Thursday night, the Grizzlies won't be mathematically eliminated in their bid for the #4 seed, but it'll be close enough.
Looking Ahead:The Grizzlies head to Charlotte for a Friday night road game with the historically awful Bobcats, followed by a return home Saturday night to face the Portland Trailblazers.
Announced Attendance: 14,507
Hamed Haddadi got a good 16-minute run tonight. And though he fouled out — including a couple of really unnecessary fouls — Haddadi was also productive in a manner that is more the norm than the exception: He hit one of his two field-goal attempts, hit both free-throws, grabbed three rebounds, blocked a career-high four shots, and had one nice assist in the lane for a Dante Cunningham lay-up. I've long maintained that Haddadi can and should be a more regular figure at the back-end of team's rotation and that he should be taken more seriously as a solid spot-minutes reserve center. Could it be that Lionel Hollins is starting to come around to this? Haddadi played 28 minutes over the past two games and in his post-game press conference, Hollins offered, unprovoked, “Hamed has improved tremendously.”
Expect the Grizzlies' potential for mobility to govern when and how much Lionel Hollins rests key players in these final five games. “Last year, it didn't matter if we were eight or seven,” Hollins said. “This year, we have a possibility to get all the way to three. We'll just play until we see [what the situation is]. I'm not going to try to kill our guys, but we want to at least stay where we are, at five.” Hollins cited a desire to get Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol, in particular, more rest in the final week if possible. “Can we get enough rest so that they'll be fresh when we do start the playoffs?,” Hollins asked.
The Grizzlies extended their home winning streak to eight games.
The team's 22 three-point attempts were a season high, but their made eight of them for a solid 36%. Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Quincy Pondexter combined to shoot 7-13 from three.