The Lead: After seeing their normally elite defense slide some in the immediate aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade, the Grizzlies have come out of the All-Star break in ferocious form. In all five games since the break, there's been a quarter where they've held the opposition to 15 or fewer points: Twelve in the second against the Pistons. Fourteen in the first against the Raptors. Fifteen in the third against the Magic. Thirteen in the third against the Nets.
Tonight? How about five points in the third quarter for the Mavericks?
But it was even more than that. From the mid-second quarter until late in the third, the Grizzlies' team defense reached beyond the normal threshold, morphing into some kind of wild, seething, pulsating beast. Flying out at shooters, darting to defensive boards, handcuffing ballhandlers, snatching and pestering all over the floor.
The second-quarter ended on a 16-4 run in the final five minutes that included six Dallas turnovers, five of those caused by Griz steals and the other an out of bounds violation spurred by defensive pressure.
Coming out for the third, the Grizzlies held the Mavericks completely scoreless for more than eight minutes and without a field-goal for nearly nine minutes. The Mavericks scored only two baskets in the entire quarter and only one was against a set defense. Spanning the quarters was a 24-0 run, a franchise record. As was the five-point quarter allowed.
The catch tonight was that the Grizzlies had to have that kind of mind-boggling defensive spurt, because it was preceded by a narcoleptic first quarter in which they gave up 38 points before falling behind by 25 points early in the second.
“I don't know what their mindset was coming in,” Lionel Hollins said of his team after the game.
As usual, three thoughts in advance of the tilt:
1. The Twisty, Troubling Post-Trade Trajectory: The Grizzlies have gone 8-2 against a weak schedule with their post-trade roster, but, despite the record, this stretch as been one of sharp turns in terms of style and effectiveness. I'd break it down like this:
Off Eff Def Eff Pace Ast Ratio
WAS 91.9 81.4 92.9 17.4
PHO 97.3 102.5 93.1 12.3
ATL 102.2 113.0 90.6 22.0
These were the Post-Trade Malaise games. They squeaked by against an undermanned and offensively inept Wizards team and then lost two straight, plagued by turnover-riddled offense against the Suns and “no mas” first-half defense against the Hawks. The whole team was in a funk.
GS 105.2 100.2 93.5 20.3
MIN 118.4 97.8 89.3 22.8
SAC 108.5 102.5 99.1 16.5
The Rally the Troops Winning Streak heading into the break, seemingly prompted by the team and its coach simply deciding to stop pouting and get down to business. The offense exploded and the defensive tightened up a bit, but was still short of the team's established norm.
DET 113.1 93.4 95.1 21.7
TOR 102.4 94.9 86.2 15.9
The Rudy Trade Road-Trip out of the break. Against the Pistons, the Grizzlies seemed to put it all together, combining their pre-break offense with a return to the ferocious defense that had been their hallmark for much of the past few seasons. The defense was just as spectacular against Toronto, but the paced slowed and the offense bogged down. A result of pressing too much in an unusually physical, second-of-a-back-to-back roadie or a start of something?
ORL 99.1 92.2 88.9 18.9
BKN 92.4 86.0 83.0 15.2
My fear is that this pair could become Regression to the Mean Weekend. The defense kept getting better, the offense fell apart, and the pace slowed to a crawl, with the danger that the Grizzlies could be coming out of their trade turbulence and settling into what they were for the two months before the deal: A great defensive team and a bad offensive team. Since the trade, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are both shooting under 45% from the floor while the team's three-point attempts, already lowest in the league, have been trending down even more.
The Lead: If the Grizzlies were doing an experiment in how listlessly they could play and still win, they probably cut it pretty close against an Orlando Magic team reduced — by the trade, injury, and suspension — to a seven-man, near-Summer-League assemblage.
Six of the Magic's seven active players were rookies or sophomores and with a little under five minutes to go in the game two of them — starters Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson — had fouled out, leaving the Magic with every active player on the floor.
Was it hard to tell your team this Magic squad could beat them?, Lionel Hollins was asked to begin his post-game press conference. Hollins took the question literally and delivered a dry response: “It wasn't hard to tell them that,” Hollins said, “But it is hard for them to believe this team has a chance to beat them.”
Hollins credited Orlando with playing hard from beginning to end and judged that his own team “did enough to win, and it wasn't pretty.”
1. A Mismatch, On Paper: The Magic were the most active team in yesterday's relatively quiet trade deadline, moving four players out — including sharpshooter J.J. Redick — and bringing four players in in two different deals. But, because of the timing of the trades relative to tonight's game, it seems unlikely that any of the new players will be in uniform. Given that the Magic were already missing players to injury (Glen Davis) and suspension (Hedo Turkoglu), it seems like the Magic might only have eight players active tonight, with the majority of them first- and second-year players.
That's bad news for a team that was already competing for the league's worst record, going 3-26 (!) since a 12-13 start. The Magic have only one road win since mid-December and just lost by double-digits at home to the Bobcats. They're bad — and now getting worse.
So, this should be a mismatch, but while the Grizzlies are one of only eight teams that currently have a winning road record, they've been vulnerable at home lately. Since Christmas, the Grizzlies have suffered home losses to the Sixers, Blazers, Hornets, and Suns, all teams with losing records.
The best shooting guard with whom Rudy Gay has ever played, DeMar DeRozan, was held to 7 points on 1-9 shooting as Tony Allen turned off his tap. But DeRozan wasn't alone in his struggles. Try on these shooting numbers from relied-upon scorers: Zach Randolph (4-17), Marc Gasol (2-12), Jerryd Bayless (3-9), Kyle Lowry (3-10).
And then there was Rudy Gay, who scored his 13 points on 5-15 shooting, with two of his five makes banked three-pointers and with 1-5 shooting and two turnovers in a hotly contested fourth quarter. Gay has gotten his wish in Toronto. He's gotten the green light to be a ball-dominant, high-volume shooter in an open system. On the whole, you could say both he and, especially, his team, have been better since the deal. But Gay has always been a little miscast in this role, and he's now shooting under 38% in Toronto.
Fourteen steals and seven blocks helping foster 24 fastbreak points was vintage Grizzlies basketball. Twenty-nine assists on 45 made field goals and balanced shooting (10 players with between five and 11 field-goal attempts) is new-look Grizzlies basketball. Put opportunistic defense and sharp, share-the-ball offense together and you get a blowout road win. (Extended garbage time made the final score look more reasonable.)
The best takeaways from the win, though, were the performances of Quincy Pondexter and Ed Davis. Pondexter got a few minutes in the penultimate game before the break, but didn't look good. With a little more rehab/recovery time, Pondexter came back last night in true game shape. He knocked down a corner three, notched three steals, and was probably as effective on both ends as any Grizzlies player on the way to 10 points on 4-6 shooting in 22 minutes. Pondexter is both a better corner-three threat and a more physical, aggressive defender than either Tayshaun Prince or Austin Daye. His return will be very helpful for the Grizzlies and if he plays well, I think he could become a frequent fixture in closing lineups.
As for Davis, he got his longest run since joining the team — something abetted by the blowout — and was very productive, with 14 points on 6-7 shooting, four rebounds, and four blocks in 21 minutes. Davis showed his stronger-than-he-looks physicality with the blocks and power dunks and hit two of three on short jumpers that are more effective than fluid. He brings a different dimension to the team's frontcourt rotation and hopefully this performance can help ease him into a larger role.
If the team, projected to finish fifth in the Western Conference even before the trade of longtime would-be star Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors, slides further than that, then jettisoning Gay will obviously be seen — fairly or not, given the preexisting downward trajectory — as a turning point. But if the Grizzlies maintain their ground or better, the correction will have begun not so much with the deal itself but with the delayed acceptance of it.
The Grizzlies, from the head coach down through the locker room, wasted a few days pouting in the wake of the Gay trade, despite the fact that the team's slide since November had coincided with Gay's worst season since his rookie year.
The trade itself was a reminder of something we learned with the Pau Gasol deal: that, in a lot of quarters, any deal made by the Grizzlies that includes financial motivation will be seen entirely through that prism.
Make no mistake, with new controlling owner Robert Pera acknowledging some initial cash-flow issues in the immediate wake of his purchase agreement with Michael Heisley, there are legitimate questions about the wherewithal of the new ownership group. But those questions can't begin to be answered until we see how they conduct the coming off-season. The problem with drawing such conclusions from the Gay deal, of course, is that “financial reasons” and “basketball reasons” are becoming increasingly inseparable in the NBA. Gay is set to make north of $19 million at the conclusion of his current contract without having ever made an All-Star team. In a league with strict rules that tie player payroll to methods of player acquisition, that's a poor allocation of resources, no matter your market.
Nevertheless, the deal was disruptive, and the team seemed very fragile in its aftermath, with head coach Lionel Hollins seemingly incapable of making public statements without generating controversy and the team's defensive effort looking near non-existent in the first half of a road loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
But the team rallied to play a competitive second half in Atlanta, and, afterward, team leaders such as Marc Gasol and Tony Allen responded with tough-minded comments that went beyond the usual locker-room platitudes. A day and a half later, Hollins used his pre-game press availability to finally end the mourning. He didn't pretend to approve of the deal, but he did re-engage the season's challenge.
Making this quick because, like the Grizzlies, I'm ready for the All-Star break too.
The Lead: After a sharp performance against a bad team Sunday, the Grizzlies gave an erratic, clock-watching kind of performance against the Kings Tuesday night in the final game before the All-Star break. Combatting erratic energy and execution all night, the Grizzlies committed 21 turnovers and were more the doubled-up in steals (12-5) and fastbreak points (28-13) — all very much inter-related numbers — en route to giving up 100 points on the FedExForum floor for the first time all season.
But, ultimately, the better team with the most determined player (one Tony Allen) was able to pull away in the fourth quarter, and go into the break on a three-game win streak.
Man of the Match: Tony Allen struggled with Tyreke Evans both early and late, but was the best player on the floor for much of the game, giving the Grizzlies an energy boost early when they desperately needed it and continuing his sharp play into the second quarter.
Allen's wonky knee must be feeling pretty good lately, because he's going up high on rebounds and finishing strong at the rim in addition to his usual fast-twitch defense and underrated off-ball cuts. Allen scored a season-high 19 points on 8-12 shooting, to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
Pera and Levien wore matching Grizzlies warm-up gear, evoking visions of Ben Stiller and his sons in The Royal Tennenbaums. There was no topping that, but they did have some interesting comments on a variety of topics.
Here are some highlights, all comments from Pera unless otherwise indicated:
On his overall impressions of team:
The thing I like most about the Grizzlies is that when you look at basketball, it's different from other sports. In baseball, you can put together a team of all-stars and the sum kind of equals the total of the parts. But in basketball, it's a team sport and there's a lot of chemistry. And certain players, depending on how they come together, the sum of the parts could be much greater. And that's what I really like about Grizzlies' basketball. With the latest trades and the way the team's constructed, I think it has the potential to be the best Grizzlies team yet.
I really like the way the parts fit, with the traditional inside-out game. I think if they gel, hopefully it could be the best playoff run yet.
On the timing of the trades:
I think the most unfortunate thing about the trades was the timing. I really wish we could have gotten a deal [to purchase the team] closed before the beginning of the season and made all the personnel moves before the season started, to give these guys a full year to play together.
But I think if you look at the year before last, when they upset the Spurs as the 8th seed, the [main] pieces from that run are still here now and I think the supporting pieces we've picked up are even stronger. So, like I said, if the team comes together and gels in the second half of the season, it's going to be really interesting.
But it did display two hopeful new facts of life for Grizzlies basketball following the Rudy Gay trade: Ball movement and depth.
The Grizzlies assisted on 30 of 41 baskets, with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley sharing the team lead with 8 each and Tony Allen, Jerryd Bayless, and Tony Wroten chipping in three each. The 30 assists was a season high.
The beneficiaries of much of the his passing largess were the team's two new small forwards, Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye, who combined to score 34 points on 14-17 shooting. (Prince was a perfect 8-8.) Don't expect production quite like that ever again, but the contrast between Prince and Daye and the departed Rudy Gay is pretty stark. Some nights the Grizzlies' will miss Gay's isolation scoring. But with Prince cutting well off the ball and spotting up in the corner and Daye finding space for a potentially deadly catch-and-shoot game, they can help supply points without stopping the ball. In this one, nine of their 14 buckets were assisted. Two of the other five were tip-ins.
The Grizzlies' assist rate shot up immediately after the trade. Improved scoring has lagged behind, but we've seen that this weekend. Hopefully it's a trend and not a blip.
“The ball movement is getting contagious,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “Everybody is moving the ball. It's nice; giving goals to Zach, guys cutting. The whole team is just looking to make the extra pass and the extra play. When you make shots, the assists do pile up, but I think the willingness to pass is important, and we are doing that.”
The Lead: With his team standing at a crossroads in the aftermath of last week's Rudy Gay trade and its attendant controversies, Lionel Hollins used his pre-game media availability for a “calming-the-waters” address that was at once emotional, positive, and tinged with defiance. An hour later, his team took the floor and replicated that tone.
The first half was thrilling if out of character: A team that has, at times, struggled to top 85 points in a game blasted out 63 in the half, with more than 30 in each quarter. And how those points were generated was even more unlikely than the score itself: On 7-15 three-point shooting, with Tony Allen (13 points on 5-5 shooting) and Austin Daye (12 on 4-5, including 3-4 from deep) leading the way.
That was never going to be sustainable, and the third quarter, in which the Grizzlies scored only 14 points and allowed the Warriors, for the first time, to gain a lead, was all too familiar.
But the fourth quarter was vintage “grit and grind” Grizzlies. Marc Gasol made plays from the post. Zach Randolph battled on the block. Tony Allen moved onto the Warriors' top scorer, Stephen Curry, and chased him ragged, with Mike Conley fighting through screens to stick to 6'7” shooter Klay Thompson and make it possible.
The best all-around performance since the trade?
“Definitely,” said Hollins after the game. “And against a very good opponent. I thought our team played really well. It was a baby step in terms of coming back and being a good team, which we haven't been, and playing with passion and energy. I'm proud of the effort tonight.
The Grizzlies return home for a big one tonight against the Golden State Warriors, a team only half a game back of the Grizzlies in the Western Conference playoff standings.
As always, when time permits, three thoughts:
For the Grizzlies, the great early start was driven by an unexpectedly and perhaps unsustainably explosive offense that garnered lots of national attention. That offense has now slid — and had plummeted well before the recent trades — from the Top 5 to 23rd in points per 100 possessions. For the Warriors, long a defensive sieve, it was a surprisingly — and perhaps unsustainably — stingy defense, even in the absence of center Andrew Bogut, that drove their rise up the standings. That defense has now tumbled from the Top 10 down to 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions.
2. Defending the Three: For the Grizzlies however, defense has actually been a bigger problem than offense of late. They gave up 10-24 three-point shooting to Atlanta in Wednesday night's loss, much of that in transition. If that doesn't tighten up tonight it could get ugly against a Warriors team that leads the NBA in three-point percentage at 39% (Atlanta is fourth at 38%).
Zach Randolph had 20 points and 7 rebounds on 10-18 shooting, completing a 20-10 back-to-back set that eased concerns about this ability to produce at an All-Star level.
Jerryd Bayless went 15-4-5 on 6-9 shooting off the bench. This is his eighth straight game in double-digits, giving more confidence that he can be counted on as a legitimate sixth man and can make up some of the scoring lost with the Rudy Gay deal.
Tony Wroten and Ed Davis — the team's two most athletic and high-upside young players, both of whom Lionel Hollins seems reluctant to give consistent rotation minutes — got in the game and both produced in their limited time. Davis took — and made — only one shot in his nine minutes, but also snatched 6 rebounds and had a block. Wroten, as has typically been the case, came into the game and made plays. He hit a three (!). He moved off the ball for a lay-up. He dropped three dimes and added a block of his own in nine minutes. Davis and Wroten were the only players to garner multiple minutes and have a positive plus/minus.
But that was outweighed by the bad:
It's said that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat's an orphan. Not here. Zach Randolph, in the midst of an encouraging 21-13 bounce-back game, getting only one fourth quarter shot?
“I'll take the blame for that,” Lionel Hollins said.
Marc Gasol fouling out in only 23 minutes and probably playing his worst two-way game of the season?
“It sucks, but it happens. This one's on me,” Gasol said, dismissing the notion that the roster changes were to blame,
The fourth quarter, in which the Suns outscored the Grizzlies 31-19 to complete a come-from-behind victory, was a perfect storm of things going wrong for the Grizzlies:
Randolph didn't get the ball, and wasn't happy about it after the game.
The Grizzlies had more turnovers (7) than made field goals (5), and some of those turnovers were inexplicable, entirely unforced errors.
Phoenix point guard Goran Dragic, who's often proved a tricky match-up for Mike Conley, got rolling, scoring 15 points on 5-6 shooting in the quarter, including a deja vu spinning lay-up when it seemed like the Suns were on the verge of a shot-clock violation.
And the Grizzlies had a head-scratcher of a late possession. Down four with the ball and 32 seconds to play, the Grizzlies came out of a timeout and, when they failed to get a good shot in the first few seconds after the in-bounds, settled for a rushed Darrell Arthur three-point attempt. An early shot would have been preferable given the shot-clock/game-clock margin, but a good shot was necessary.
A new era of Memphis Grizzlies basketball dawned last weekend when the team played its first home game without Rudy Gay on the roster since spring of 2006. Gay leaves having played more games in a Grizzlies uniform than anyone in franchise history and while there are many angles — both short- and long-term — to the trade that sent Gay out of Memphis, the simple starting-lineup swap of Gay for veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince will have the most immediate impact.
The contrast, at least stylistically, could be dramatic, on both ends of the floor.
Gay, at 26, is one of the NBA's great athletes. But, while he's always been productive, Gay's combination of dribble-blindness, on-and-off motor, and erratic outside shooting and defensive focus has — to this point, at least — prevented him from reaching the all-star level for which he's long seemed destined.
Prince, who will turn 33 later this month, is a 10-year vet on the back end of what's been a fairly illustrious career for lifetime role player.
Physically, Prince is both longer and lighter, a slender 6'9” with one of the NBA's most eye-popping wingspans. Where Gay's game is predicated on leveraging his athletic advantages, Prince's game is all about the combination of length and savvy.
Prince's wingspan allows him to play well off shooters to deny drives and yet still contest jump shots. It allows him to handle the ball on the block while keeping it away from the prying hands of post defenders. It allows him to shoot over opponents, especially in the paint, even without Gay's ability to jump over them.