1. The Suddenly Frisky Pistons: After an 0-8 start, the Pistons have rebounded to go 5-3 over their past eight. This run began with an 18-point road win over the Sixers and also includes a 20-point win over Boston and, most recently, a 40-point win — no typo! — over the Suns. So as the third “bad” Eastern Conference team the Grizzlies will have faced at FedExForum this week, the Pistons come in tonight in better shape than the Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors did.
2. Present and Future in the Paint: With Pau Gasol's recent struggles in Laker Land, the Grizzlies can reasonably claim to have the best frontcourt tandem in the NBA with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But the Pistons might be able to lay legitimate claim to having the most promising young frontcourt tandem in the league in 22-year-old Greg Monroe and 19-year-old rookie Andre Drummond.
But, this time, the Grizzlies didn't wait until the fourth quarter to amp up their team defense and put the game away. After a 48-47 first half, the Grizzlies overwhelmed the Raptors with a 33-14 third quarter in which it took the Raptors more than eight minutes to notch their second made field goal of the period. This 22-6 Grizzlies run included four steals and two blocks from Grizzlies perimeter players, and was spurred by Tony Allen, who has been rounding into better all-around form after a rough start offensively. But this was the first time this season that Allen seemed to be in full “Ante Up” form. One steal from Kyle Lowry became a breakaway bucket. Then Allen kidnapped DeMar DeRozan, taking the ball away on an attempted jumper and finishing on the other end with a rare one-hand dunk that capped the 22-6 run and effectively ended the game.
Man of the Match: If Allen's eruption was the most memorable aspect of the game, Zach Randolph was again the team's best all-around player. On the day that I wrote about Marc Gasol's passing exploits, with was Randolph tonight who was dropping dimes, doubling his previous season high with 6 assists. Randolph added 17 points on 7-10 shooting and 13 rebounds. With floor-stretching Raptor power forward Andrea Bargnani banged-up and not active, the entire frontcourt was a mismatch in the Grizzlies favor in this one, with the Grizzlies' big-man rotation combining for 54 points and 30 rebounds while their Toronto counterparts mustered only 16 points and 14 rebounds. Marreese Speights, struggling with his shot for most of the season, contributed 18 and 12 of that, on 7-11 shooting. Speights needed one of those, and Lionel Hollins attributed his improved play to a strong practice the day before.
Last Friday, after Marc Gasol dished out 8 assists in a 106-98 home win over the Los Angeles Lakers — the eighth time in 11 games this season in which he'd had at least 5 assists; last season he did this 14 times in 65 games — I asked head coach Lionel Hollins about Gasol's playmaking this season.
The Grizzlies offense this season has improved dramatically, from 21st in points scored per possession up to 5th, per ESPN.com, but it isn't because they're simply making more shots. The team's overall shooting percentage has actually declined slightly, from .447 to .446. Instead of making more shots, the team has improved offensively by taking better shots:
Grizzlies Shot Distribution, 2011-2012
Grizzlies Shot Distribution, 2012-2013
Essentially the Grizzlies have cut down on mid-ranger jumpers — the game's lowest-efficiency shot, on average — while replacing them with more interior attempts and more three-pointers. (The team actually is shooting better from long-range, but percentages are actually down a little in the paint.) The increase in interior attempts also seems to be reflected in an increase in free-throw attempts, up from 22.8 a game last season to 24.3 a game so far this season. On a related note, after being among the league's worst assist teams for the past five seasons, the Grizzlies have inched toward league average (currently 19th in assist ratio).
The causal relationships among all of these offensive factors are unclear, but Marc Gasol's emergence as an elite playmaker at the center position seems to have a lot to do with this.
This has to be one of the most disappointing teams in the league this season (at least to me), and it's hard to blame the loss of Kyle Lowry for six games, as the team has been even worse when he has been in the lineup.
But issues abound elsewhere. Ostensible top scoring option Andrea Bargnani is a seven-footer and former top overall draft pick shooting 40% from the floor. Swingman DeMar DeRozan is still generally the same low-efficiency scorer he was before his big contract extension. Rookie center Jonas Valanciunas is a very promising prospect but is still pretty raw. But the biggest issue is a team defense that has slipped from 12th to 22nd despite ostensible upgrades at point guard and center.
Three quicks thoughts in advance of tonight's game, with a mid-week column hopefully following later this afternoon.
1. The Return of Kyle Lowry: Former Griz guard Lowry, in his first season was Toronto, got off to a gangbusters start to the season before a bone bruise in his foot knocked him out for a couple of weeks. Upon return, he's still be dynamic, but hasn't been shooting well (36% post-injury). But Lowry has had some pretty good games in FedExForum since the team jettisoned him in favor of dedicating the job to Mike Conley (a decision I supported then and now, even if I didn't much like the return for Lowry). Conley should be back after missing Monday's game with the flu, so these two will go at it again.
For most of the game, the Grizzlies' out-of-sorts O wasn't much worse than their curiously flat-footed D, allowing a Cavs team playing without their own starting point guard — emerging star Kyrie Irving — to shoot 48% and take a 69-62 lead into the fourth quarter. It was the first time this season the Grizzlies had trailed after three quarters.
But the Grizzlies clamped down defensively in fourth quarter, finally bringing full grit-and-grind intensity to an otherwise sleepy Monday-night game against a low-profile opponent.
The Grizzles began the fourth with six consecutive stops and ended the game with a series of big defensive plays in the last three minutes: A forced shot-clock violation while clinging to a two-point lead. Marc Gasol picking up a charge to stop a Cleveland fastbreak. And two Tony Allen steals in the final 1:18, the second off Varejao along the sideline. The second came with the shot-clock off and Cleveland down four, forcing a foul and essentially sealing the game. Allen swaggered along the sideline, slapping hands with the front-row fans.
That second part is about to change. The Grizzlies 11 opponents so far have owned a .596 winning percentage. The three Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers that will come to FedExForum this week have a combined .220 winning percentage. And this starts tonight with the 3-10 Cleveland Cavaliers, who will be without their budding superstar point guard Kyrie Irving, who is out with a broken finger.
The Cavs have played the fifth-fastest pace in the league with a 29th-ranked defense. If that holds up tonight, and the Grizzlies are in good form, not only will the home team notch its 10th win, but will have a big scoring night doing so.
Three things on my mind about tonight's game:
1. The Return of Jeremy Pargo: Who knew this would actually be an interesting storyline? After a failed rookie season as the Grizzlies' back-up point guard, the Griz paid the Cavaliers to take Pargo this summer, thus reducing the team's potential luxury tax penalty. Pargo wasn't playing much before Irving's injury, but in his first game as a starter in Irving's stead, Pargo erupted for 28 points on 11-19 shooting in a (rare) win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Lead: The Grizzlies overcame erratic bench play and prolific Lakers three-point shooting for an impressive victory that put the team back atop league-wide standings at 9-2.
After taking a 9-8 lead about three-and-a-half minutes into the game with a step-back three-pointer from Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies never again trailed. Memphis took a 16-point lead into the second quarter, but the Lakers went on a 15-2 run, led by three-pointers from Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, and Metta World Peace. The Lakers cut another 16-point Grizzlies lead down to 5 midway through the fourth quarter off back-to-back Kobe Bryant three-pointers, but with Bryant trying to take over the game, Tony Allen tightened up his defense and forced Bryant into bad long-range misses on the next two possessions to hold the lead. In the final two minutes, Mike Conley calmly sunk a step-back 16 footer and then a pull-up 20-footer to seal it.
To a man, the Grizzlies' starters played about as well as a unit as we've seen, with Allen and Quincy Pondexter tag-teaming to keep a quality defender on Bryant for most of the game.
In roughly 27 minutes of game time in which the Grizzlies paired their “core four” — Conley, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol — with either Allen or Pondexter, the Grizzlies outscored the Lakers 65-45. In the 21 minutes in which one of the other reserves was on the floor, the Lakers outscored the Grizzlies 53-41.
Three things I'm thinking about in advance of Grizzlies-Lakers:
1. Doppelganger Lineups: In a league going smaller, the Grizzlies and the Lakers are the two contenders most reliant on traditional, post-oriented lineups. But the similarity in the starting lineup construction of these two teams is even more profound than that:
Pure Point Guard — Steve Nash vs. Mike Conley
Big, Dynamic Wing Scorer — Kobe Bryant vs. Rudy Gay
Crazy, Colorful Wing Defender — Metta World Peace vs. Tony Allen
Rebounding Machine — Dwight Howard vs. Zach Randolph
Post Playmaking Seven-Footer Named Gasol — Pau Gasol vs. Marc Gasol
The match-ups in this one will be fascinating. Marc Gasol trying to neutralize Howard in the battle of the league's two best true centers. Or Marc matching up with big brother Pau, which we might see some, especially if Howard is out of the game. Randolph and Pau, who have very different games but are, arguably, the Two Greatest Grizzlies. The cross matches on the wing, where Tony Allen guarding Kobe Bryant is reason enough to be in the building and Rudy Gay responding to the brute physicality of World Peace (these jokes will never get old) could be a key to the game.
The Lead: Let's be honest, both of these teams were due for this. The Grizzlies hadn't lost a regular-season home game since March. The Nuggets are a good team who got off to a rougher than expected start. Regression to the mean collided at FedExForum tonight.
With the Grizzlies playing their third game in four nights, the Nuggets younger legs and superior depth made this a game. For the first time all season for the Grizzlies, the outcome came down in final-minutes execution, which did not go well for the Grizzlies.
For starters, after having big vs. small match-ups go their way in multiple games last week, lineup imbalance worked against the Grizzlies tonight. The Nuggets played starting small forward Danilo Gallinari as a stretch four for most of the fourth quarters while the Grizzlies played small and Gallinari was able to drive and shoot his way to 9 points in the quarter. After the game, Lionel Hollins second-guessed the decision to stay big.
And the Grizzlies twice committed turnovers coming out of timeouts in the last minute. The most galling of these came with the Grizzlies down 93-92 and 46 seconds left in the game. Despite having a size mismatch on the post — and, admittedly, Marc Gasol had turned the ball over on an offensive foul on the previous possession — the Grizzlies chose to isolate Rudy Gay, who was being covered by Andre Iguodala, one of the two or three best perimeter defenders in the league. Gay was bottled up, picked up his dribble, and lost it trying to pass out.
This was a classic “trap” game: The second night of a back-to-back set, on the road, coming off a high-profile and very late win over the Knicks, against a younger team laying in wait. And you could see the effects on the Grizzlies: Tony Allen and Marc Gasol each missed multiple lay-ups in the opening minutes, jumpers were short all night, and the Bobcats had fresher legs in the fourth quarter, pushing tempo to outscore the Grizzlies 27-19 in the final period.
But, even limited with shots not falling, the Grizzlies were still focused enough to built a big enough lead to withstand that late run. They ran their offense to get good shots, they defended, they wreaked havoc in passing lanes, they were solid on the boards. It was a thoroughly professional win.
And it brings the Grizzlies back to Memphis at 8-1 for a season-long five-game homestand. It's almost unimaginable that they'd sweep all five to push this start to 13-1. The odds are there will be a slip up or two over the next couple of weeks and tonight, with their third game in four days against a deep Denver squad, seems like a good candidate.
The Nuggets were a bit of a bandwagon favorite in the pre-season, but they've gotten off the a rough start. They've lost three in a row, most, most recently a 26-point demolition at San Antonio Saturday night, and all of their perimeter starters — Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, and Andre Iguodala — have played well below their norm. But the Nuggets' current 4-6 record comes after playing seven of their first 10 on the road (and it'll be nine of 12 overall). Better days are likely ahead.
Three quick things I'll be looking for tonight, when the Grizzlies host the Nuggets at 7 p.m. at FedExForum:
Three games against elite NBA teams. Three chances for the Grizzlies' traditional post-oriented style to submit to trendier small-ball alignments. Three double-digit wins, the last two on national television. And after a weird, wooly, entertaining, and commanding win over the Knicks, the Grizzlies left the floor tonight with, for the first time in franchise history, the best record in the entire NBA.
What does it mean to be atop league-wide standings?
“Now what,” Lionel Hollins asked after the game. “Can we hold onto it tomorrow night? We're going to get in [to Charlotte] at four in the morning. Can we rev it up … and get a win tomorrow night?”
The win over the previously unbeaten Knicks completed what has to be the best three-game regular-season stretch in franchise history.
“If we don't win tomorrow, the game tonight doesn't mean anything,” Marc Gasol said.
But don't tell that to fans. The ones that showed up with homemade “I Don't Bluff” T-shirts in honor of Randolph's post-game comments about his skirmish with Thunder center Kendrick Perkins Wednesday night. Or the ones with who showed up adorned with Randolph's less considered retort to Perkins: “I'll Beat Yo Ass.”
Big-man corner in the locker room — Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Marreese Speights — was laughing about the shirts after the game, but Gasol latched onto the more family friendly variation. “'We Don't Bluff City,' that's good,” Gasol said, blessing as slogan-worthy a rallying cry that might become the new “Grit and Grind.”
After dispatching the then Western Conference-leading San Antonio Spurs 104-102 last night in Texas, the Knicks remained the NBA's lone remaining unbeaten team at 6-0, and they face a Grizzlies team that now leads the West at 6-1. In addition to the league's two best records, the Knicks and Grizzlies also boast the league's two best point differentials. No-one knows what the future holds, but, for the moment, this is a match-up of the two best teams in the NBA.
And it'll be showcased for the nation, with a late 8:30 tipoff on ESPN. Wednesday's game against the Thunder drew the biggest local rating ever for a regular-season NBA game on ESPN. Given that it's a Friday night and 18,000 potential viewers will be in the building instead, this one is unlikely to match that, but it should be a near-playoff-level event anyway.
I'll be on the scene tonight and will be tweeting from by perch on media row and filing a postgame notebook afterward. But first, here are four things on my mind about Knicks-Grizzlies, because a game of this magnitude deserves a bonus
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You could put a mild asterisk on the Heat win if you really wanted, based on Wayne Ellington's career night. But there was nothing extraordinary about this one, unless you count Rudy Gay going head-to-head against one of the NBA's two best players and coming away with something close to a draw. But Gay's done that before. He did it on Sunday too.
Instead, this victory felt encouragingly ho-hum. Unlike most of the Thunder's opponents so far this season, the Grizzlies got off to a slow start, struggling to get their new-and-improved offense in gear and escorting the Thunder to the foul line at the other end. But, as the game wore on, the Grizzlies' — get this — superior overall talent wore the Thunder down, and the Grizzlies maintained a decent lead the whole second half.
With Sunday's decisive victory over the defending NBA champion Miami Heat in the rear-view and a home national TV match-up with the undefeated New York Knicks looming next, this is shaping up to be one of the most compelling regular-season weeks in franchise history.
Both the Grizzlies and Thunder are among the current Top 10 in offense, defense, and rebounding and each sits one game behind the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference standings. But look a little deeper into their respective resumes and the Grizzlies' start looks a little more impressive.
The Thunder are 6-2, but those six wins have come against teams with a combined 11-28 (they've played 0-8 Detroit twice). The Grizzlies are 5-1, with those five wins coming against teams with a combined 20-16 record.
Yet, despite playing a tougher schedule (the Grizzlies lost to the 5-2 Clippers, the Thunder to the 6-1 Spurs and 3-3 Hawks), the Grizzlies not only have a slightly better record but also a slightly higher point differential (+9.0 to OKC's +7.1).
So that means the Grizzlies are winning this one, right? Probably not. A little shine might be off the Thunder since the Harden deal, but they're still an elite team and are still playing at home.
Three thoughts in advance of tonight's game: