As always — or, at least when I'm able — here are three thoughts:
1. Pack Your Hatred: When the Los Angeles Clippers last walked off the FedExForum floor, it was Game 7 of last spring's first-round playoff series, and they'd just handed the Grizzlies the most bitter defeat in franchise history. The teams faced off again on opening night in Los Angeles, with the Clippers winning 101-92.
The showboating dunkbot Blake Griffin. The foot-stomping sideline defender Vinny Del Negro. The sketchy slumlord owner. The beach-chasing celebrity bench. The villainous genius of Chris “Point God” Paul. This, now, more than any other opponent, is the team Grizzlies fans love to loathe. As public address announcer Rick Trotter tweeted over the weekend in good-natured anticipation: “Pack your hatred.”
2. No Rudy Gay: The Clippers are one of two teams — along with the San Antonio Spurs — currently in the top five in both team offense and defense, but they've come down to earth just a little, going 3-3 since their season-best 17-game win streak.
Over the course of an 82-game NBA regular season, most games are pretty good. Sure, some are duds. But I like the run-of-the-mill game in the middle of the season. My standard post-game notebook is built for their incidental pleasures and random occurrences. For the match-ups and great plays and the glimpses of young players developing and colorful bits of in-arena action and other items not necessarily crucial to the course of a season.
But some games overwhelm all that. Some games you don't even want to write about. You just want to wave your arms and point. Or turn into Chris Farley. Do you remember that Rudy Gay dunk? That was awesome. That Tony Parker three at the end of regulation? Oh man. What, you missed it? Your loss pal.
For three quarters and change, this was already at a playoff intensity. But it was controlled enough to savor the usual details.
There was Tony Allen, on his birthday, with his gas turned up. Moving with purpose and rare efficiency on both ends. Getting steals, getting in transition, quick to loose balls.
There was the great moment late in the first half where Allen came in for a defensive possession, immediately forced a turnover, gave his trademark “first down” signal, then went and sat back down. All in the game.
There was Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan, going at each other in a match-up of tough, skilled big men that feels like my own personal basketball heaven. Gasol blocked Duncan at the rim twice in one possession. He hit Duncan's trademark bank shot over the master himself. He faced up on Duncan, drove right, spun left, and kissed the ball off glass yet again. And Duncan gave as good as he got.
The Grizzlies return home for a big game tonight. They're 2.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs in the Southwest division and after getting off to strong 4-1 start in January, will face a tougher test against the Spurs.
Three quick thoughts on tonight's game:
1. Is Tim Duncan Wearing Down?: Duncan went large — 27-15-4 —in the previous meeting this season between the Griz and Spurs, a 99-95 overtime loss in San Antonio on December 1st. But after a brilliant start to the season, Duncan has been trending down a little. His month-by-month production:
November: 18.1 points, 52% shooting, 1.1 turnovers
December: 16.9 points, 49% shooting, 2.0 turnovers
January: 15.2 points, 48% shooting, 2.8 turnovers
Maybe the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer is wearing down. Maybe he's conserving himself for the post-season. Maybe November was a bit of a fluke. Maybe it's just random. Regardless, the Grizzlies will hope the trend continues tonight.
The win gave the Grizzlies a game-and-a-half lead over the Warriors for the fourth seed in the West and, more importantly, secured a tiebreaker over the Warriors on the season, making it a de facto 2.5 game lead.
The sweep was also impressive, even if previous opponents Sacramento and Phoenix aren't very good. That hasn't really mattered much for the Grizzlies. Over the past three-plus seasons, in which the Grizzlies have an overall winning record, they'd gone 15-29 on West Coast road trips (three games or more) only notching a winning records (2-1 each time) twice.
Rudy Trade Chatter: Trade chatter about Rudy Gay continues. I've got a column in this week's paper on the subject, which you can read here. One thing I probably haven't underscored enough in the two pieces I've written recently: I'm not campaigning for the team to trade Gay. I believe it's become inevitable, though, with the only questions being when (this season or this summer) and for what, so I've moved on to those two questions. And while I've made the case that I think it's possible to deal Gay this season and maintain the overall quality of the team — depending on the deal, obviously — I would also be perfectly happy to see the team stand pat and work on their roster/payroll issues this summer.
The Grizzlies beat the Warriors 104-94 in each team's second game of the season, a win that looks more impressive now than it did at the time.
Prior to the season, I thought the Warriors would be a playoff team if they got more than half a season out of center Andrew Bogut, but stopped short of picking them because of doubts about Bogut's health. It turns out I was right to doubt Bogut's availability — he's appeared in only four games so far — but wrong to think the Warrior's couldn't still make a leap without him.
Driven by All-Star caliber seasons from Stephen Curry and David Lee, Sixth Man of the Year-caliber seasons from Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, and shockingly improved all-around team defense, the Warriors have been one of the NBA's most surprising teams, sitting at 22-11 and only a half game behind the Grizzlies in a battle for fourth place in the Western Conference.
How good has Golden State been? They're currently 9th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, 10th in defensive efficiency, and 4th in rebounding rate. The only other team in the top 10 in all three categories is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On and off for the last week, I've been playing with ESPN.com's NBA Trade Machine, looking for potential scenarios that might work in the event the Grizzlies decide to move Rudy Gay this season. I've been banking these ideas for use sometime closer to the trade deadline, waiting to see if there was a stronger indication that a deal was likely.
But, on midday Friday, Zach Lowe at Grantland.com cracked the shell on this topic, confirming what I already half knew and fully assumed — that the team was having at least exploratory talks on the subject of a potential Gay deal — and going through a bunch of possible deals.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of overlap between my scenarios and the ones Lowe put out: Anyone who understands the league and how it works and has a feel for what the Grizzlies want and can reasonably expect in return and then starts looking for potential deals is going to come up with a lot of the same stuff. But there are teams he takes seriously that I don't (Boston) and teams he doesn't include that I take very seriously (Phoenix).
Made-up trades are fun and, to a degree, instructive. But before that trade-machine chaos, let's establish why this is an issue now and what the realistic parameters are:
Why a Deal is Probably Inevitable: There's a good discussion to be had about who the Grizzlies should trade and when they should trade them — a discussion that's almost certainly ongoing inside the Grizzlies' front-office — but it's almost certain that a major deal of some kind will happen in 2013.
Right now, the Grizzlies are about $4 million over the league's luxury tax line, which is $70.3 million. In 2013-2014, with the line unlikely to change much, they'll have $58.5 million just in the core four of Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. Add in guaranteed deals for Quincy Pondexter, Darrell Arthur, and Tony Wroten and it's over $65 million, and that's without dealing with Tony Allen's free agency or potential player options from Jerryd Bayless or Marreese Speights.
While standing pat and paying tax this season is an option, doing so next year — when initial tax rates are set to rise by 50% under the new collective bargaining agreement — has never really been one. And the current payroll trajectory makes it all but impossible to field a team without exceeding the tax.
I'm making this short because, like everyone else, I have phony trades to concoct and most of you would rather read that than get into the weeds of an increasingly familiar loss.
The Lead: Playing without Zach Randolph (“flu-like symptoms”), the Grizzlies were plagued by poor defensive rebounding and turnovers in the first half and a cratering offense in the second half, failing to build a lead on the Blazers — their biggest: 8 — that the team's typically woeful fourth-quarter offensive could withstand.
And oh, those woes: The Grizzlies managed only 12 fourth-quarter points in a two-point loss. Mike Conley had a great chance to take the lead in the final seconds at the end of a chaotic possession: Marc Gasol rumbled to the sideline to track down a Rudy Gay miss and go the ball to Conley at the top of the key, who was guarded by 6'7” small forward Nicholas Batum. Conley drove right, got by Batum, leaned in and bounced out to create space, and got to the rim — but couldn't finish. A Lamarcus Aldridge free-throw and a missed desperation Rudy Gay heave later, and the Grizzlies had their fourth loss in their past six games.
Man of the Match: In Randolph's absence, Marreese Speights got the start and did a darn good Z-Bo impression, scoring 22 points on 7-15 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds — including 7 on the offensive end — in 27 minutes. Speights had 18 and 10 in the second half alone, keeping the team afloat as the perimeter starters were combining to shoot 1-17 (no typo).
The Grizzlies return home tonight to for their first contest this season against the Portland Trailblazers. As always, three thoughts:
2. The Diversity of Darrell Arthur: I'd like to see Darrell Arthur score and especially rebound at a little higher rate, but those are topics for another day. Right now, let's take a moment to appreciate his athleticism and the diversity it allows. Watch Arthur closely and you'll regularly see him make impactful defensive plays that don't register in the box score: Blowing up pick-and-rolls. Switching onto and containing perimeter ballhandlers. Cutting off drives and setting up teammates steals. Racing down in transition to disrupt a fastbreak.
Now, with the recent injury to reserve wing Quincy Pondexter, we've seen Arthur add to his resume by playing a more than passable small forward. When Lionel Hollins made the unexpected switch following Pondexter's injury against the Nuggets, I suspected it might work, in spots, because I think Arthur can guard all but the most dynamic players at the position, but so far it's turned out even better than I expected.
But Conley combined a season-high 23 points (on 8-15 shooting) with nine assists and only one turnover, all while playing 44 minutes due to a first-quarter Jerryd Bayless ankle sprain. The team also got good games from Rudy Gay (19-6-5, though Paul Pierce lit him up early on), Tony Allen (15-5, on 6-8 shooting), and reserve bigs Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur (a combined 20-9 on 8-13 shooting).
Mitigating the good vibes: The Celtics are really struggling right now. They'ed gone 2-7 in their previous nine games, with six of those seven losses in double figures. And, offensively, though the Grizzlies' performance looks good at a glance, there were again problems down the stretch. After scoring 25 points in each of the first three quarters, the Grizzlies managed only 18 in the fourth, with much of that padded by late free-throws. The Grizzlies had more shot-clock violations (2) than made field goals (1) in the game's final nine minutes. They seemed to be playing tight and too conservatively; running down the clock and getting tough, contested, often forced shots as a result.
What went wrong in December? It's pretty easy to narrow down. The defense, led by Tony Allen's shut-down work on the wing and Marc Gasol's more subtle but perhaps more meaningful anchoring in the paint, has remained elite. After allowing only 96.2 points per 100 possessions in November, the team allowed only 96.6 in December, and currently ranks second in the NBA behind Indiana. (All specific stats per NBA.com. Team rankings per ESPN.com.) The rebounding has actually improved at both ends of the floor, with the team leading in the NBA in offensive rebound rate and tied for fifth overall.
Instead, the slide has been almost entirely the result of a massive regression — some might say correction — on the offensive end.
In November, the Grizzlies scored 105.6 points per 100 possessions and, at one point, were among the league's top five offenses, drawing media attention across the league for their suddenly elite offense. In December, they've nose-dived to 96.3 points per 100 possessions and have now fallen to 20th in overall offensive efficiency, matching last season's mediocrity.
Pretty much all the good things I wrote about the team's offense here and here have reversed or declined since November gave way to December, as the offense has gotten slower and grown more stagnant — more reliant on isolation plays from top scorers Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph and on mid-range jumpers from nearly everyone.
The early dynamism — with offensive improvement built on more three-pointers, more free-throws, and a faster pace rather that simply better overall shooting — has mostly disappeared.