After a tight early stretch in which the Rockets' high-octane offense was breaking through the Grizzlies perimeter defense and routinely finding open three-point shooters, the Grizzlies defense settled in, allowing the team to build a nice lead in the late second (up 8 at the half) and into the third quarter (a high of 17 about eight minutes into the third).
A mismatch of bench units in the second half kept the Grizzlies from pulling away, with a feisty Rockets group using five Grizzlies turnovers in a roughly three-minute span to peel off a 10-2 run that cut the Grizzlies lead back to single digits and prompted Lionel Hollins to come back earlier than desired with his starters.
With the starters back, the Grizzlies used tighter defense and back-to-back Mike Conley steals to regain control of the game.
Overall, it was a return to the balance and execution that has typified the Grizzlies at their best this season, with the team's top six players all taking between nine and 12 field-goal attempts and all scoring in double digits. But the Grizzlies achieved this balance in the context of exploiting their interior game, with both Randolph (6-12 from the floor and 9-10 from the line) and Marc Gasol (21 points on 8-12 shooting) topping 20 points for only the third time this season.
Five quick-ish and related observations on where the Grizzlies stand today:
1. The Race for #3: With the Dallas Mavericks beating the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime last night, the race for the third seed remains very tight with the Grizzlies, Clippers, and Nuggets all tied in the loss column at 23. Here's how the schedules for all three teams set up the rest of the way:
at Wolves (back to back)
Notes: 5/7 home/road split with two back-to-backs and 9/12 against teams currently in the playoff race. Grizzlies are difficult to project based on how they've played without Marc Gasol and the uncertainty of his return. If the team gets back on track, 8-4 seems like a reasonable finish, which would get them to 55-27, but it could easily be a little worse if their defense continues to flounder without Gasol. The “Hollinger Playoff Odds” on ESPN.com has them projected at 54-28.
at Rockets (b2b)
at Grizzlies (b2b)
Notes: 5/6 home/road split with two back to backs and 6/11 against teams currently in the playoff race. But not included among those playoff-caliber opponents are the Hornets, whom the Clippers still play on the road twice. The Hornets have beaten both the Grizzlies and Nuggets in the past week, so the Griz will hope they can continue to play sleeper. I'm feeling a 7-4 finish against this schedule, which would also land the Clippers at 55-27, which is where ESPN also has them projected.
Notes: 6/4 home/road split with one back to back and 8/10 against teams currently in playoff race. Denver has to play better teams on average but with more rest and more games on their near-insurmountable home floor. Like the Grizzlies, there's mystery here about the availability of their most important player, point guard Ty Lawson. I'm saying 7-3 the rest of the way, which would put the Nuggets at 56-26. ESPN has them at 55-27.
With Gasol as its hub, the Grizzlies have had the second-best defense in the NBA this season. But, on Saturday night against the Celtics, with Gasol sitting out his first game with an aggravated abdominal tear, the Grizzlies gave up 106 points on 51% shooting to the Boston Celtics, a team with a 22nd-ranked offense playing without three rotation players (Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, and Courtney Lee).
Last night in Washington, the Grizzlies gave up 107 points on 50% shooting to a 28th-ranked offensive team playing without four — count 'em! — four of its top six scorers (Bradley Beal, Nene, Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza).
But the other two did enough. John Wall went supernova, scoring 47 points on 13-22 shooting (including 19-24 from the line) in probably the most dynamic performance from an opposing player this season. He scored on Mike Conley, on Tony Allen, on Jerryd Bayless. But, as good as Wall was, the X-factor for the Wizards may have been center Emeka Okafor, who scored 21 points on 9-15 shooting in Gasol's absence. Twice in the final two minutes the Grizzlies cut the Wizards lead to four and both times it was Okafor who answered, first by overpowering Ed Davis on the left block to draw a foul and then by hitting an open free-throw line jumper.
It was a listless loss, the team's fourth in a row on the road, and it kept the Grizzlies from capitalizing on a rare loss by the Denver Nuggets, whose winning streak was snapped in New Orleans. (The Nuggets were also playing without their best player, Ty Lawson.)
The Lead: The lead story of this game is not the game itself, it's the news that came prior to tip, that Marc Gasol would not play. This news was followed by a one-liner press release from the team:
The Memphis Grizzlies today announced that center Marc Gasol re-aggravated an abdominal tear on March 22 at New Orleans and will be out indefinitely.
That may sound bad, and it's certainly not optimal, but I'd caution against freakouts. As the release implies, Gasol's been playing hurt the last couple of weeks, and still playing well. There had already been signs and adjustments. Gasol was not jumping the tip in recent games to save wear and tear. And he would wince some after physical plays (such as the two charges he took against the Thunder). I wondered if the Randolph-heavy offensive game plan against the Thunder was related to that the injury.
As for sitting him now, my sense is there's a cause/benefit aspect: How important is the remaining playoff positioning and how do you weigh that against the value of rest and treatment for an injury that won't be going away before playoff time?
Both before and after the game, coach Lionel Hollins suggested it was a day-to-day thing. Others I talked with suggested Gasol would likely miss multiple games. But no one seems to think this endangers his availability for the postseason.
With Gasol out and Zach Randolph coming off the bench after being late to shootaround, the Grizzlies started Ed Davis and Darrell Arthur up front. The Celtics were also shifting lineups, with Kevin Garnett and Courtney Lee both out with ankle sprains.
The result was an out-of-character contest for this particular match-up. On the season, both Memphis and Boston are elite defensive teams (second and fifth, respectively) who play at a slow pace (28th and 19th) and are mediocre offensively (20th and 22nd).
The Lead: With fewer than four minutes left in the third quarter, the Grizzlies had never trailed and had held the league's top-ranked offense to a paltry 44 points on something like 35% shooting. But the Grizzlies offense was sputtering — they were working on a 14-point quarter and shooting in the 30s themselves — and you got the sense that if the Grizzlies didn't find a better offensive flow then Kevin Durant was going to manufacture enough points to win it.
And that's what it started to look like. In scoring 17 straight points for the Thunder from the mid-third into the early fourth, Durant brought his team from nine down at one point to taking their first lead. When the Thunder later pulled up by six with 1:26 to play in regulation on a three-pointer from sixth man Kevin Martin, it looked like they were on the verge of completing the comeback.
Instead it became of battle of big plays, and the Grizzlies made more. Mike Conley — as he had for most of the night — manufactured some points of his own to get it down to a single-possession game and 15 seconds to play. With Russell Westbrook splitting a pair of free throws, the Grizzlies, down three, ran a familiar play that almost never works: An in-bounds lob to the rim. But this time Jerryd Bayless caught the pass and drew contact, just missing a three-point play. A possession later, Bayless was fouled on a baseline drive. With Bayless and Westbrook alternating four straight perfect trips to the line, the game remained a three and the Grizzlies were forced to take a long-range shot. A chaotic possession resulted in a Bayless pump-fake and straightaway dagger to force overtime. Amid all the madness, credit Lionel Hollins for superb late-game management at the end of regulation.
In the final period, Marc Gasol, who had been quiet for much of the night, made decisive plays. His running hook over Kendrick Perkins gave the team a three-point lead. Then the Thunder's stars answered: Durant with a floater and Russell Westbrook with a circus finish in front of the rim. With the Grizzlies down one and the shot-clock off, the Grizzlies went — as they had for much of the game — to Zach Randolph on the right block, even though Nick Collison was guarding him and well and Randolph wasn't getting calls. Randolph missed a seven-footer, but Gasol reached up to tap it home with under a second to play and ran down the floor raising his fist and howling as time expired.
“Shit,” what can you say?
The Lead: After getting poor combined play from three young frontcourt players elevated by the absence of Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur, seeing his team look sluggish and out of sync on both ends of the floor, and falling down by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, Lionel Hollins went small, bringing Tayshaun Prince back into the game for Ed Davis late in the third quarter.
At that point, the Grizzlies were down 11 points and Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were playing well but couldn't find anyone to join them. Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter had just missed consecutive wide-open jumpers that would have cut the deficit to single digits. Nothing was working. But against the Blazers reserves, with combo forward Victor Claver at power forward, going small generated energy in the form of a furious 10-1 closing run.
Hollins stayed small throughout the fourth, even when the Blazers brought their starters back in, and the Grizzlies ended up closing the game on a 36-19 run over the final 15 minutes with Prince joining Marc Gasol up front, Mike Conley and Bayless manning the backcourt, and Pondexter and Tony Allen splitting up small forward minutes.
Prince put on a clinic for much of the game in the art of missing wide-open mid-range jumpers — when one finally dropped, he raised his endless arms to the sky in relief — but his ability to hold his own defensively and on the boards even after the Blazers brought back burly starter J.J. Hickson was a quiet key that allowed Gasol, Bayless, and Conley to make a series of game-saving plays.
The Grizzlies return home tonight to face the Portland Trailblazers in only the second meeting so far this season between these teams. The Grizzlies lost the first meeting, 86-84, in Memphis back on January 4th. Zach Randolph missed that game, as he's likely to miss this one. Mike Conley scored only 6 points on 2-8 shooting and was outplayed by looming Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, something of which the Grizzlies don't need a repeat. But the biggest difference in the game was at the three-point line, where the Grizzlies actually shot a slightly higher percentage but the Blazers had 22 (!) more attempts.
I'm eschewing the usually three-part preview for this one, partly due to time constraints and partly because there's one thing in particular I'm most interested in tonight:
Opportunity for Ed Davis?: With Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur both looking doubtful, this means many more minutes and a likely start for Ed Davis, who's coming off a double-double against Orlando.
Davis' playing time has been pretty erratic since coming over as the primary long-term asset in the Rudy Gay trade. Though he'd been averaging more than 30 minutes a game for the Raptors over the prior month, Davis landed on a team with a deep, talented frontcourt rotation already in place, has seemed to struggle at times getting acclimated to the new system, and has had to earn the confidence of a coach more persuaded by his practice showing (and, apparently, his size) than his Toronto production.
The results, so far, have been mixed. Averaging only 11 minutes a game for the Grizzlies, Davis has shot 65% from the floor with a block rate that would rank third in the NBA over the full season. His free-throw shooting has been an unspeakable 39%. (He's north of 60% on his career.) As a team, the Grizzlies have been a little better offensively with Davis on the floor and a little worse defensively. And you can put a “small sample size” caveat on all of it.
The Heat were winners of 12 in a row coming into Friday's game, but the Grizzlies played them tight — neither team led by more than seven points — in their building, despite Zach Randolph turning an ankle on the opening play and being less than full strength the remainder of the game. It was a one-point game with 24 seconds to play when Lebron James hit a straightaway three to put the Heat up four and force the Grizzlies to foul. James' free throws extended the final scoring margin. Up until that point, James had scored only 10 points on 3-13 shooting, Tayshaun Prince and the Grizzlies' stellar team defense perhaps more effective against James than any team has been this season.
On the other end, the Grizzlies were able to rebound from their troubling recent offensive slide — it was their first game over 100 points per 100 possessions since before the All-Star break, per NBA.com — despite not generating many points off turnovers. The Heat's lack of quality size had something to do with that, as Marc Gasol had one of his best all-around games of the season, going for 24-9-4 on 8-13 shooting. One wonders if the outcome might have been a little different if Gasol and Mike Conley had made it back into the game a little earlier in the fourth. (They each checked in at the 5:01 mark.) But it's easy to second-guess and Gasol and Conley did play 36 and 34 minutes on the game.