Playing without Zach Randolph, who was rested on this second night of a back-to-back, the Grizzlies' traded baskets with an even more under-manned Blazers team (playing without season-long starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, and Raymond Felton) in the first quarter, then finally built a double-digit lead near the end of the first half.
The lead swelled to 15 midway through the third, but the Grizzlies bench couldn't put the Blazers away. When a J.J. Hickson layup brought the Blazers to within six points midway through the fourth, coach Lionel Hollins was forced to bring four of his starters — Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen — back into the game.
Even that didn't end the too-listless play. Holding a seven-point lead with under three minutes to play, the Grizzlies spent consecutive possessions funneling shots to new signee Lester Hudson — making his debut at the 4:41 mark of the fourth quarter — instead of running a focused offense. Hudson missed three straight jumpers and the Grizzlies found themselves clinging to a two-point lead with the shot clock off and the Blazers with the ball. This all gave Rudy Gay the chance for a game-saving block when Blazers guard Wesley Johnson rose up for a potential go-ahead three-pointer with five seconds left. But it really didn't need to be that dramatic.
Everyone I talked to after the game essentially acknowledged the mixed-blessing of the Grizzlies' “easy” closing schedule. It's nice to be able to win without playing your best, but it's harder to get up for these games with the playoffs looming and the odds of seeding mobility getting slimmer.
“We've played a lot of really good teams,” Hollins said, referencing the dramatic stretch that preceded this whimper of a closing run. “We've played Oklahoma City. We've played Dallas twice. We went to Miami and we played the Clippers at home. Those are the kinds of games that these guys get up for. Then, after we had that stretch, all of a sudden we get a stretch of teams that aren't in the playoffs. I can't say we struggled. But we haven't been as focused to go out and dominate them. But we won the game, and that's also important.”
Man of the Match: Rudy Gay's game-saving block capped a bounce-back night. After struggling in Charlotte Friday night (9 points on 4-14 shooting), Gay returned to the groove he's been in for most of the month: Scoring a team-high 21 points on 9-16 shooting, with 6 boards, 3 assists, a block and a steal and only one turnover. His second-best play of the night: A double-clutch reverse transition dunk off a Tony Allen steal near the end of the first half to give the Grizzlies their first double-digit lead.
Nightly Number: How did the Blazers hang around? Outscoring the Grizzlies 25-9 from the line was a big part of it.
In this epic stretch, Thabeet missed two free-throws and a jumper (a jumper!?!) and picked up a foul. Haddadi bested him with two fouls — Haddadi is good at fouling people — and a rebound. And Thabeet was also witness to one of Haddadi's finest moments this season: A glacial drop-step in which Haddadi soared down the middle of the lane for a majestic finger-roll.
In all seriousness: What was sadly apparent when they shared time at the end of the Grizzlies bench remains true. Despite Thabeet's pedigree as a Big East Player of the Year and a #2 overall pick versus Haddadi's as an international-play obscurity and curiosity signing, Haddadi is pretty clearly the better basketball player.
Thabeet did have 8 rebounds in his 20 minutes tonight, but don't let that fool you: He was a dreadful as Grizzlies fans remember.
Elements of Style: Lionel Hollins decided the rest Zach Randolph tonight, but apparently Randolph didn't know that was happening until he got to the arena. Some fans were confused about Randolph's status because he was in uniform on the bench but, as I heard it, Randolph came to the game in jeans and a T-shirt and didn't have appropriate dress clothes to wear on the bench. Sight of the game: During a fourth-quarter time out, Randolph smiling, nodding, and grooving along with the “Grizzlies Grannies and Grandpas” dance team.
Arena Action: Atlanta rap star Gucci Mane was in the house, sitting second-row center, just a few seats down from Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley. Gucci seemed to really enjoy the “kiss cam”
Where They Stand: The win moves the Grizzlies to 39-25. They wrapped up the fifth seed — at worst — with the win in Charlotte and gained a half game on the idle Clippers and Lakers, both of whom play tomorrow.
Looking Ahead: The Lakers are home against the Thunder Sunday afternoon. If they win, the Grizzlies will be eliminated from the third seed. The Clippers play at home against the Hornets later in the night. Since the Grizzlies — provided they win out — need the Clippers to lose two of their final three games, they're still be in the hunt for the #4 seed regardless of outcome. But an unexpected Clippers loss would be a big boost to the Grizzlies' hopes.
The Grizzlies play again Monday night, with the Cleveland Cavaliers coming to FedExForum. Regardless of what happens in Sunday's games, the Grizzlies will still have a chance to move up, which means Lionel Hollins is likely to again try to balance rest with making sure his team can secure the win.
“I definitely don't want to play guys a whole lot of minutes, but what are we going to do? Just shut down and then rev it back up for the playoffs?,” Hollins said after the game. Lately, the team has been able to reduce minutes for the starters that have played and still come out on the right side of the final score. Tonight, Rudy Gay (33 minutes), Marc Gasol (30), and Mike Conley (30) were all well under their season averages despite having to come back in to finish the game.
Announced Attendance: 17,904
Tony Allen continued his offensive struggles since returning from the mouth injury that cost him five games earlier in the month, shooting 3-7 with a couple of missed lay-ups. But tonight was the best I've seen him defensively since before the injury. Allen's two steals under-sell his effort — he took the inbounds tap away from Thabeet to score the game's first basket and looked quicker and more focused moving around screens and tracking his man. He had his gas up; a good sign as the playoffs approach.
Dante Cunningham was again strong off the bench: 12 points on efficient 6-9 shooting, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 19 minutes, to go along with some first-rate defense that doesn't show up in the box score. As the Grizzlies have been eking out these narrow victories against lesser opponents, it's frequently been Cunningham keeping the team's energy up and making winning plays, and tonight was no different. Unsurprisingly, Cunningham's minutes have declined a little bit since Zach Randolph's return, but I'd make the case that he's one of the team's seven best players and needs to have a substantial role in the post-season rotation.
The Grizzlies cycled “fourth” guards through the rotation behind the core trio of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and O.J. Mayo, with the three options — Josh Selby (0-2 with 1 assist in 10 minutes), Gilbert Arenas (0-3 with 1 assist in seven minutes), and Lester Hudson (0-3 in four minutes) — not distinguishing themselves. Jeremy Pargo did not dress. Hollins said after the game that he's undecided on who would get these minutes in the post-season, but if Arenas is healthy enough to be effective — “His hand is fine,” Hollins said — it's hard to imagine him not getting those minutes. Hudson is a wild card, with his recent scoring exploits in Cleveland balanced against his late addition. I could see Pargo showing up for defensive purposes depending on match-ups. I have a hard time seeing Selby getting any playoff run.
Rudy Gay on the Lester Hudson addition: “We'll keep feeding him. He's going to get a chance. He will make a couple or rips at it, plus he's been here before and everybody knows him. We're glad to have him.”
The Grizzlies' home winning streak was extended to nine games. The team can tie the franchise record by winning the remaining two home games. They improve to 13-5 on the second night of back-to-back games.