The Lead: With 12 minutes left to play, the Grizzlies seemed to be in the most precarious position they've faced all season. They were down four to a Denver Nuggets team that was both catching up with them in the playoff standings and on the verge of securing a tiebreaker by winning the regular-season series between the two teams.
They'd just suffered a potentially deflating and — more importantly — potentially serious injury to a key player, when Quincy Pondexter knocked knees with Wayne Ellington near the end of the third quarter and Pondexter had to be carried to the locker room.
And the poor offense that had sent the team tumbling from the ranks of legit contenders seemed to be getting worse still, with only 53 points on 34.8% shooting through three quarters.
Searching for something, Lionel Hollins sent out five players who had never seen the floor together before: Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington, Darrell Arthur, Marreese Speights, and Hamed Haddadi.
“It was about trying to get some energy,” Hollins explained later. And it worked.
This unlikely lineup gave the team a big boost, going on a 15-9 run over the next 6:45 and transforming the energy in the building from low to near-playoff-level. (Big Hamed Haddadi dunks have a history of doing that.)
“We were able to energize the crowd and energize ourselves, because we were just playing in mud,” Hollins said. “We were just moping around.”
It started instantly with a 40-second sequence that tied the game: A Shane Battier Memorial Baseline Jumper from Speights. Arthur, playing the three, stealing the ball from Corey Brewer. And then Bayless finishing in transition with a dunk. After that, Bayless and Speights connected on a baseline alley-oop. Haddadi flushed one over Kenneth Faried. Arthur took advantage of his mismatch by posting Brewer and hitting a short baseline jumper. Ellington spotted up for a three.
It was a reminder that, as poor as the Grizzlies offensive execution has been of late, nearly as troubling has been absence of what has been the team's trademark intensity. Offensive execution remains a big concern, but better and more consistent energy would alleviate at least some of it.
With the energy raised, a closing unit featuring three well-rested starters (Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph) with two holdovers (Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington) peeled off a 10-0 run to put the game away.
The Grizzlies had a two-day break following Wednesday's listless home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and return home tonight to face the Denver Nuggets, who got big performances from Danilo Gallinari (39 points on 14-23 shooting), Andre Iguodala (20-8-4), and Kenneth Faried (19 rebounds) in a strong 106-85 win in Dallas last night.
1. The Brutal, Crowded West: With the Grizzlies muddling around .500 since their 14-3 start (4-5 since) and the Clippers, Thunder, and Spurs streaking (the Clippers and Thunder are a combined 29-2 over their past 31 games; the Spurs have won four in a row after a mid-December hiccup; these teams now have the three best records in the NBA), the Grizzlies seem to have slipped into the second tier in the West. Meanwhile, the Nuggets, despite an ostensibly disappointing 8-9 start, have worked their way into the second tier, sitting at 17-14 despite having played more than twice as many road games (21) as home games (10)
The playoff odds system new Grizzlies VP John Hollinger set up at ESPN currently projects the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Rockets, and Warriors to be within two games of each other in the fight for the #4 seed, with the Nuggets currently projected to get it. (And both the Lakers and Timberwolves, recovering from their early injuries, have a very good chance to get in this mix.) In that regard, this game could be particularly important because the Grizzlies have already lost twice to the Nuggets and another loss here would give the Nuggets a head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams.
It's also an important game for the Grizzlies from a momentum/piece of mind standpoint. The team is coming off two pretty bad losses in a row (with that road drubbing in Houston preceding the Sixers game) and, after tonight, will play five of their next six on the road. There's real danger than the team's recent slide down the conference standings could continue.
Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, who had been lackluster or worse all night, led a 9-2 Griz run, scoring or assisting on every point, while the team defense found the right mix of urgency and cohesion, holding the Sixers without a field goal for more than four minutes in the middle of the quarter.
A three-point play and subsequent steal from Randolph lead to a fastbreak that would have cut the Sixers lead down to 6 with five-and-a-half-minutes to play, but Tony Allen killed the momentum with a familiar but ill-timed missed lay-up, the first of a string of miscues that sapped the Grizzlies' momentum: A forced post feed to Randolph that was picked off. Wayne Ellington missing his first three-point attempt in his 25th minute. Consecutive layup attempts (from Ellington and Randolph) blocked by Sixers center Spencer Hawes. And then a Marc Gasol pass sailing through Allen's hands.
When Sixers swingman Dorell Wright hit a three-pointer with Allen draped over him on the next trip down, the Sixers were back up by 11 with about three minutes left and hope was pretty much lost.
Tony Allen cut off O.J. Mayo's water, holding the Mavs leading scorer to 10 points on 3-11 shooting (with one of those points coming in the few seconds when Mayo was on the court by Allen wasn't), and the Mavs weren't able to make up the lost scoring, especially with 6-21 three-point shooting and 24 turnovers.
Overall, in this 3-0 homestand, the Grizzlies have held opponents to 77.7 points per game.
The Mavericks never led, but they did threaten, cutting an 11-point second quarter Grizzlies lead to only one at halftime when an isolation-happy Grizzlies offense managed only two points in the final three minutes of the half. The Mavs later cut a 17-point Grizzlies lead in the late third quarter to only three with a 21-7 run.
At that point, clinging to a one-possession lead, the Grizzlies brought all five starters back and sealed the game with four of their 17 offensive rebounds and 8 of their 22 second-chance points. The first two possessions out of the timeout — a Tony Allen tap rebound of a missed Mike Conley jumper that Rudy Gay turned into a hoop-and-harm short banker and a classic Zach Randolph and-one putback off a missed Rudy Gay three — pushed the lead back to nine. Later with the lead 88-82 and under two minutes to play, Marc Gasol grabbed consecutive offensive rebounds and hit a 22-footer in one back-breaking 47-second possession.
Man of the Match: Tony Allen has been doing a number on opposing scoring guards all season, but this was a showcase performance. He was matched up with Mayo for all but about 30 seconds of Mayo's 35:21. Mayo only had one made field-goal through three quarters and finished with 10 points on 3-11 shooting. The mere 11 field-goal attempts in more than 35 minutes while the Mavericks offense was otherwise struggling is maybe the most impressive thing of all. Allen allowed Mayo no space. There were stretches on the floor where the Mavs seemed to almost give up on getting Mayo the ball.
Three things on my mind about tonight's game:
1. The Return of O.J. Mayo: The first appearance by Mayo at FedExForum in a different uniform is a storyline that threatens to obscure the rest of the game. Mayo's played at a borderline All-Star level for the Mavericks — leading his new team with 20.2 points per game and leading the NBA with 50% three-point shooting — this season, becoming the latest in a now disturbingly long screen of recent, young ex-Grizzlies to depart the team and play better, following Kyle Lowry, DeMarre Carroll, and Greivis Vasquez and joining Jeremy Pargo, who's also demanding entry in that club this season.
A litany of things went wrong with Mayo in Memphis: Getting cut from Team USA in favor of both teammate Rudy Gay and positional rival Eric Gordon. The move to the bench. (Which made sense based on the roster, but with which Mayo, despite saying the right things, never seemed really comfortable.) The fight with Tony Allen. The suspension. The oft-stated desire to play point guard, which was followed with a dismissive reaction from his coach and an utter failure to play the position when opportunities nonetheless presented themselves. A shifting pecking order based on performance, usage, and order of impending free agency that made it clear that a big contract extension from the Grizzlies would never be forthcoming.
All of this seemed to create a situation where a one-time presumed star morphed into an unhappy if generally professional-about-it role player. Even if the financial picture made retaining Mayo unlikely (and he certainly would never have returned to Memphis for the money Dallas paid), clearly the Grizzlies witnessed a major asset decline in value precipitously
But, in the third quarter, the Grizzlies started converting those fastbreak opportunities with better spacing, better passing, and better finishing, scoring 16 of 23 third-quarter points in transition to build a commanding lead that the Bucks never really challenged.
While the Grizzlies' own offense (41% shooting, 16 turnovers, 3-8 from long range) still doesn't look at the top tier level it was early in the season, the team as a whole seems to have lifted itself from last week's funk with three straight wins against teams (Jazz, Bulls, now Bucks) with winning records.
Man of the Match: In a good overall team effort, I'm giving the nod to Jerryd Bayless. Bayless has been struggling over the past few weeks, but did a nice job leading a bench unit that got extended minutes. (Marc Gasol led starters with only 32 minutes).
Bayless created three straight scores in the early second quarter — assisting on a Marc Gasol lay-up and then making consecutive mid-range jumpers — to give the Grizzlies a lead that they never relinquished, and generally played with more confidence and effectiveness than we've seen in a while. (And, perhaps not coincidentally, with seemingly more latitude from Lionel Hollins.)
Bayless finished with 8 points (4-7 shooting), 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in 19 minutes, with my favorite play a really nice crosscourt pass to Quincy Pondexter for a spot-up corner three. I'm hopeful that we're starting to see Bayless settling into his role as Mike Conley's back-up and occasional sidekick, checking a box that the Grizzlies really shouldn't have to be concerned about.
The Lead: This one fit the pre-game profile: A hard-fought, low-scoring slugfest between two elite defensive teams with middle-of-the-pack offenses.
For the Grizzlies, some of their offensive struggles — 19 turnovers, 38 shooting — were familiar from last week's losing streak, but when asked how much of that was a continuation of recent problems, Lionel Hollins answered “None of it.”
Hollins instead credited the Bulls defense, and I think I agree. So, while recent offense trends are concerning, I'm giving the team a pass on this one.
"I don't know what fans think, but for a coach this was a good basketball game," Hollins said. "A good, hard-fought game from both sides."
The Grizzlies used a much-needed bench boost to overcome a terrible offensive start and take a small lead into the half. In the second half, Mike Conley's playmaking (10 points and 4 assists) and Zach Randolph's rebounding (9 of his game-high 15) helped the Grizzlies maintain control.
Man of the Match: One potentially decisive trend that went the right way for the Grizzlies in this one was the play of Mike Conley, whose turnovers tended to correlate with team success this season. Conley had only 2 turnovers against the Bulls, while scoring a game-high 17 points on 6-12 shooting and quietly dominating his match-up with Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich.
The past week has been a rough one for me in terms of trying to cover the Grizzlies, but with the team back in town and my year-end work in the areas not over but nearing completion, hopefully today can be the start to a return to consistent blogging here.
In that vein, three thoughts on tonight's game, from which I'll be tweeting and blogging tonight.
1. Which Grizzlies Team Will We See?: The Grizzlies got back on track in the second half against Utah Saturday night, outscoring the Jazz 55-32 to snap a three-game losing streak and regain the energy and style of play that had been missing for much of the preceding three-game losing streak.
What went wrong in the losing streak? There were lots of issues, but here are a few indicators of overall breakdown:
Style of play: The Grizzlies were gave up more offensive rebounds than they got in two of the three losses and won the turnover battle only once. Against the Jazz, they won on the offensive boards 18-7 and were -3 on turnover differential. That's Grizzlies basketball.
Mike Conley's funk: In three losses, Conley registered 13 assists to 15 turnovers, which is wildly out of character. There was correction against the Jazz, with 8 assists and 2 turns.
Bad bench shooting: Jerryd Bayless was 2-12 in the losses. Quincy Pondexter and Wayne Ellington were a combined 0-4 against the Suns, with Pondexter not even getting a shot up in 20 minutes in the home loss to Atlanta. Ellington has generally been a little more effective of late, but Bayless' lack of offense (2-7 against the Jazz) continues to be a big concern.
When I spoke to Levien last month about his organizational plans, he indicated a desire to bolster the team's use of statistics and also spoke of seeking out “black belts” to add to the mix.
Along both of those lines, the Grizzlies threw the NBA community into a tizzy with the eye-popping announcement that they'd hired ESPN.com writer and “advanced stats” pioneer John Hollinger to an executive position.
Hollinger achieved NBA-media fame through his work at ESPN, which began in 2005, and is most often associated with his self-invented “total stat” PER (which stands for Player Efficiency Rating), but his work was highly regarded in NBA circles well before his ESPN platform and extends far beyond the oft-misunderstood PER.
Making the hire even more momentous is that Hollinger isn't merely being brought in to run the team's now automatically enhanced analytics component but will apparently, as reported by Hollinger's ESPN colleague Marc Stein, have “a prominent front office voice” beyond merely providing data. Hollinger will take the title of Vice President of Basketball Operations and, per a Grizzlies press release, will work in conjunction with General Manager Chris Wallace.
Posting will be modest the rest of this week, but I hope to have the blog back at full throttle next week when the Grizzlies return to FedExForum for a three-game homestand.
With the Grizzlies facing a Suns team they beat in overtime just last week, I'm not going to do a typical match-ups-oriented preview. Instead, a few bullet-point notes and observations on tonight's game and where the Grizzlies stand at the moment:
*The West is looking as tough as ever. Just a few days ago, the Grizzlies (14-4) had the best record in the NBA. Now they have the third best record in the conference behind the Spurs (18-4 on a five-game winning streak) and Thunder (17-4 on an eight-game winning streak) and just barely ahead of the Clippers (15-6 on a seven-game winning streak) and the surprising Warriors (14-7 on a four-game winning streak). Despite the Grizzlies great start, no-one should assume an ultimate improvement on last season's fourth-place finish. This will likely be a tough, close playoff race all season.
The Grizzlies entered the night as the only team in the NBA without a legitimate “bad” loss, but for most of this one it sure felt like the Suns were going to hand them one.
A disastrous first quarter-and-a-half featuring 12 Grizzlies turnovers put the home team in a 16-point hole, their biggest deficit of the season. But, with Tony Allen missing the game, Quincy Pondexter and Darrell Arthur came off the bench to ignite the Grizzlies defense and pick up the team's energy, spurring a 16-4 run that pulled the Grizzlies to within a couple of buckets.
But every time the Grizzlies would get the boulder near the top of the hill, it would roll back down. On eight different occasions between the late second quarter and late fourth quarter, the Grizzlies cut the Suns lead to four or less only to have the Suns answer with a basket. A Shannon Brown drive. A Markieff Morris three. A Luis Scola jumper. A Goran Dragic bank shot. A Dragic three. A Marcin Gortat jumper. A Jared Dudley three. A Jermaine O'Neal jumper. Answers coming from everywhere.
It's common in NBA games for teams to expend so much energy coming back from a big deficit that they run out of gas before they can cross the finish line, and this one sure felt that way. But a three-foot Zach Randolph runner with 1:30 left in regulation finally pushed the boulder on top of the hill, if only for a minute. And a short Rudy Gay jumper with the shot-clock off and a subsequent defensive stop sent it to overtime. And that's when Zach Randolph — magnificent all night — planted that damn rock.
The Grizzlies host the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at FedExForum, and I'll be back in the courtside saddle for live coverage. Until then, three thoughts in advance of the game:
1. The Suns are bad: I know the Grizzlies played three home games against bad Eastern Conference teams last week, all wins, though all were close for a while. But I'm not sure the Suns are any better than the Cavs, Raptors, or Pistons. (Indeed, the Suns went 1-2 in three straight road games against those very teams last week, including a 40-point loss in Detroit right before the Pistons came to Memphis.)
After a mirage of a 4-4 start, the Suns have gone 3-7 since and arrive in Memphis at the end of a six-game road trip. (They're 2-8 overall on the road.) Blame me for the jinx if the Griz lose this one, but even though I think the Grizzlies are overdue for a bad loss, with a two-day break coming off that frustrating defeat in San Antonio, I can't imagine this would be it.
As a means of catching up, I'm re-purposing the Postgame Notebook format to look back on what happened in Griz World this weekend:
The Lead: The Grizzlies went 1-1 on the weekend while playing without Tony Allen, who was nursing a sore groin.
Friday's home game against the Pistons was a rough repeat of the prior home games against the Cavaliers and Raptors: The Grizzlies played down to competition in the first half and then turned up their defense in the second to secure a double-digit win.
Saturday night, the Grizzlies played a very well rested Spurs team on their own home floor, on the second night of a back to back, and built a 15-point lead in the second half before succumbing to some combination of fatigue, poor execution, and questionable calls.
On the latter: The missed shot-clock violation near the end of overtime was clearly an official's error, but one that was only harmful to the Grizzlies in retrospect. If Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Gay had connected on the subsequent long lead pass for a transition layup, the Grizzlies would have benefited from not having the violation called. As far Manu Ginobili grabbing Gay's arm on his attempted catch of that pass, it was definitely a foul, but not all actual fouls are actually called in NBA games. For the Grizzlies, that was an infuriating non-call, but it wasn't a terribly surprising one.
As it is, after 15 games the Grizzlies stand at 12-3 and still lack a bad loss: Single digits to the Clippers in their home opener. A narrow home loss to a deep, athletic Nuggets team on the final game of a three-in-four-nights set. And nip-and-tuck road overtime loss in San Antonio on the second of a back-to-back. That's it. The Grizzlies are the last team standing this NBA season that has yet to lose a game by double-digits.
If you want to be concerned about something, you could point to the team's 0-2 record in games that have come down to execution in the final couple of minutes. But two games — two! — is a pretty small sample size.