1. Homecourt vs. Trendlines: The central mystery of Game 5 is whether what we've seen so far is simply about homecourt advantage or whether the series is evolving in a more linear way. The Clipper optimist would say both teams have merely held serve on their home floor. That these two teams are fairly evenly matched, that homecourt has been the tipping point, and that now the Clippers have a 2-to-1 homecourt advantage in a best 2-of-3 series. Could be.
But the Grizzlies optimist would counter that what we've really seen is a solid, direct trend, with the Grizzlies growing stronger each game. Consider these trendlines:
Game 1 — Clippers +21
Game 2 — Clippers +2
Game 3 — Grizzlies +12
Game 4 — Grizzlies +21
Rebound Differential/Second-Chance Points:
Game 1 — Clippers +24/+20
Game 2 — Clippers +2/Grizzlies +4
Game 3 — Grizzlies +12/+18
Game 4 — Grizzlies +17/+20
Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph Production:
Game 1 — 29-6-8
Game 2 — 30-15-2
Game 3 — 43-19-4
Game 4 — 48-22-6
2. First Game Fluke?: An extra bit of evidence to the “trendline” theory of this series: Game 1, increasingly, looks like an outlier, not in terms of performance, which is impossible to predict, but in terms of roster usage on the Grizzlies part.
“Foul trouble” — which is not predictable — played a role in the Grizzlies' rotations, but impacted the two teams equally in the Zach Randolph/Blake Griffin match-up, where each played 25 minutes. Elsewhere, the Grizzlies did things in that game that weren't totally explained by fouls and that haven't and almost certainly won't be repeated: Austin Daye getting first-quarter minutes. Keyon Dooling playing more minutes (18) than Tony Allen (17). Jerryd Bayless' good shooting prompting 30 minutes of court-time even though his defense was problematic and the team was a -11 when he was on the floor.
Quite literally, the Grizzlies team that played in Game 1 is not the same team that's played since or will play in Game 5. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, that game counted.
The big trains from Memphis kept rumbling along Saturday afternoon at FedExForum, as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 48 points and 22 rebounds on 61 percent shooting to lead the Grizzlies to a 104-83 victory over the Clippers that sends this series back to Los Angles tied at two games apiece.
Fitting their city's pro wrestling heritage, this was a classic tag-team affair.
Randolph got it going early — in more ways than one. Randolph's 16 points on 8-11 shooting in the first half came with 10 attempts at the rim. How has Randolph's game transformed since his middling production in Los Angeles? Randolph credits the home-court eruption to “getting the ball in the right spots, being aggressive, going a little faster instead of waiting for the double team.”
Gasol echoed this, saying the team had to get Randolph the ball in the right spots instead of getting it to him in isolation situations and asking Randolph to simply go get shots.
In the second half, the team made a clear choice to emphasize Gasol, and he responded with 18 points and 6 rebounds on 7-9 shooting in the half, all of his second-half shots, in contrast to Randolph, coming on short or mid-range jumpers. Gasol's three quick makes early in the third quarter helped keep the Clippers from building any kind of lead, and Gasol hit a couple of back-breakers later in the quarter: A 23-foot catch-and-shoot make off a Tayshaun Prince in-bounds pass, with .6 seconds on the shot clock, to tie the game at 60, and then a 13-foot baseline jumper off a Tony Wroten feed with .2 seconds on the clock to end the quarter and give the Grizzlies a two-possession lead going into the fourth. What does Gasol present to opposing defenders?, Randolph was asked later. “Trouble,” he responded.
And it wasn't just Randolph and Gasol's scoring. They combined for more offensive rebounds (seven) than the Clippers' entire team (five). The most important sequence in the game might have come midway through the fourth, when Gasol contested Blake Griffin at the rim, forcing a miss, securing the defensive rebound, and starting a fastbreak that ended with a drop-down assist from Randolph to Tony Allen, who finished at the basket despite a Griffin foul and hit again from the line. The Grizzlies were up 10 at the time and the sequence made it a 13-point game with 7:14 to play instead of the 8-point game it might have been if Griffin had converted over Gasol. From that moment, the Grizzlies blew the game open.
The Grizzlies have now outscored the Clippers 380-370 through four games, but the series is tied and the Clippers maintain a homecourt advantage. For the Grizzlies, this may be a painful reminder of last spring, when the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers across seven games but were sent packing because of the failure to close out the close ones. Though Chris Paul's fourth-quarter magic from Game 2 still has the series even, the Clippers have to be concerned about their downward trend. From their perspective, here's how the series has gone: +21, +2, -12, -21.
“We haven't accomplished anything yet,” Gasol said after the game. “But we've gotten a little bit better every game, and we have to continue to do that.”
The Grizzlies saved Saturday.
Needing three victories over the final four games, winning this series against the Los Angeles Clippers is still a heavy lift. But, for now, the Grizzlies have ensured that playoff weekend in Memphis, for a while at least, can be a festive one.
Around water coolers Friday morning. At bars Friday night. At the farmer's market on Saturday and at lunch spots up and down Beale and Main ahead of Saturday's 3:30 tip: Now the mood will be more anticipation than anxiety. The buzz you'll hear for the next day-and-a-half around the city will be one of excitement instead of dread. Whatever else happens in the series, the Grizzlies performed a civic mitzvah Thursday night.
How did it happen, this 94-82 victory? In a classic Grizzlies grind-it-out game. With perimeter defense and offensive rebounding and two hefty All-Stars scoring in the post, high and low.
Zach Randolph had a flashback game. You could see it in the first quarter, when he pinned seven-foot Clippers center DeAndre Jordan early in the shot clock, right under the rim, and finished over him. You could see it in the third quarter, when he rose — was it a foot? — off the ground to corral an offensive rebound with one big mitt and flipped the ball back in. It was 27 points and 11 rebounds on 9-18 shooting, and if Randolph got a couple of attempts swatted, it was still the kind of performance some fans were surely doubting they'd ever see again.
Randolph's back line buddy, Marc Gasol, was there with him. Rather than running so many plays through Gasol on the low block against Jordan, as had been the case in Los Angeles, the Grizzlies reasserted Gasol (16 and 8) in the high post, where he abused Jordan with jumpers — 4-7 from mid-range — and restored the vertical balance to the Grizzlies' post-based offense. (Randolph was 8-14 at the rim.)
They shared the podium afterward, in victory, a moment for fans to savor given the uncertain future. “This is our game,” Randolph said.
From the Clippers' side, coach Vinny Del Negro repeated the word “rebounding” like a mantra in his post-game presser. After destroying the Grizzlies on the boards in Game 1, the pendulum swung here, the Grizzlies besting the Clippers 17-5 on the offensive boards despite both teams shooting 39% from the floor. Randolph, with six, out-rebounded the entire Clippers team on the offensive glass.
Fourth Quarter Contrast and the Unremarkable Bench Disparity: I don't have much in the way of expectation in terms of performance or outcome tonight, but I do in terms of strategy. Based on adjustments between Games 1 and 2 and his subsequent public statements, it seems like Lionel Hollins has come around to a notion that, frankly, I wrote and talked about in the run-up to the series: That, against the Clippers, the Grizzlies likely need to tighten their rotation, lean more on the starters, and be careful with early fourth-quarter lineups.
While the details are different between Games 1 and 2 in terms of foul issues and player performance, both games ended up only one bucket apart through three quarters. In Game 1, the Clippers lead 75-69 to start the fourth. In Game 2, the Clippers lead 75-71. After that, things went very differently, with the Clippers running over the Grizzlies 37-22 in Game 1, and the Grizzlies battling to a 20-18 advantage in Game 2.
What was different? Let's start with who was on the floor. In both games, the Clippers started with the same full bench unit, which happens to include what might arguably be three of their five best players this season — Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes.
In Game 1, the Grizzlies countered with a “throwing-stuff-against-the-wall” small-ball lineup, with Tayshaun Prince sliding to the four and three bench players on the perimeter. Marc Gasol was the only starter playing his regular position. This lineup made a couple of shots early to cut the deficit to one, but couldn't handle the Clippers on the boards or Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt and by the time the Grizzlies started coming back with more starters the game was already beginning to slip away.
In Game 2, by contrast, The Grizzlies began the quarter with a more conventional two-starter lineup (Mike Conley and Zach Randolph) but came in more quickly with other starters when signs of trouble emerged.
On the whole, the biggest difference between the two fourth quarters for the Grizzlies came in the backcourt, where starters Conley and Tony Allen combined for roughly five minutes in Game 1 but played 23 of 24 minutes in Game 2. Perhaps this had something to do with the enormous defensive disparity between the two games.
On the Clippers end, the biggest disparity was the odd gift from Clippers' coach Vinny Del Negro, who had played proven fourth-quarter Griz killer Eric Bledsoe for the full-fourth quarter in Game 1 and but then yanked him after five minutes in Game 2.
The good news for the Grizzlies is you can probably expect their Game 2 adjustments to carry over. The bad news is that Del Negro may not be so reliable.
In general, I shrug off worry about the bench disparity between the two teams, with the Clippers' bench outscoring their Grizzlies' counterparts 79-51 through two games. It is what it is at this point. The Clippers are built like this. Their strong bench isn't just a luxury. Reserve guards Bledsoe and Crawford are more dynamic than veteran starter Billups. Starting center DeAndre Jordan is such a deplorable foul shooter that he can't be trusted in the fourth quarter. All season, reserve small forward Barnes has outplayed starter Caron Butler. The Clippers best lineups, on the season, have tended to be bench-heavy lineups. While the Grizzlies would love to get better, more consistent production from the likes of Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Darrell Arthur, or Ed Davis, they don't need to play the Clippers even bench vs. bench. Basketball isn't played that way. The only match-up that matters is roster vs. roster.
The question for the Grizzlies is if the starters can play heavy minutes — and have their rest staggered effectively — without wearing down. Conley and Gasol played 44 minutes each in Game 2. That's probably a bit much to expect. But with the season on the line and no back-to-backs in the playoffs, there's no reason — beyond poor play or extreme foul problems — starters can't play 38-40 a game.
I didn't fully believe Marc Gasol was going to win this year's Defensive Player of the Year Award until it happened. But the Grizzlies appear set to make this announcement official with a public press conference at 2:30 p.m. today.
Gasol fits the profile of the award only in that he's a frontcourt player: Since Michael Jordan took it in 1988, 23 of 25 winners have been big men, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest.
But the big-man winners have tended to be overwhelming rebounders and shot-blockers. Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, and Dwight Howard are multi-time winners. “Athletic” shot-blockers — quick off the floor and quick to send shot attempts into the stands — are the norm.
Gasol, by contrast, will become the first big man in more than 20 years — ever? — to win the award without finishing among the league's Top Ten in blocks or rebounds per game. (He's 12th and 23rd, respectively, in those categories.)
How has Gasol, with such an atypical profile, broken through? It's tempting to compare Gasol's victory here to Felix Hernandez winning the 2010 American League Cy Young award with a 13-12 record: It's a triumph of “advanced” stats over more conventional — and often more limited or even misleading — measures.
The Grizzlies now return home for Games 3 and 4 with a sense of missed opportunity but also with a renewed sense — and, perhaps just as importantly, a renewed sense among restless fans — that they can battle this Clippers team: That they can win a fourth quarter (20-18). That their league-best three-point defense, post-trade, can put the squeeze on the Clippers' deep array of shooters (2-15). That Mike Conley's tentative, out-of-his-depth play from Game 1 was not a terminal condition (a bravura 28 points and 9 assists in 44 minutes). That maybe Clippers' coach Vinny Del Negro doesn't have it all figured out (Eric Bledsoe played fewer than 14 minutes). And that maybe Lionel Hollins has figured out a few things (No Austin Daye, more Tony Allen, a tighter rotation that relied more on starters).
In a loss like this, frustrations are many, starting at the foul line: The Grizzlies missed 11 free throws (23-34) in a two-point loss, and then let Matt Barnes and Bledsoe have multiple uncontested fourth-quarter dunks where hard fouls were called for. Jamal Crawford scored 10 quick in the second quarter as Tony Allen first watched from the bench and then from the scorer's table, waiting to check in. “Foul trouble” limited Zach Randolph's second-half minutes just as he was finally heating up. Randolph had 7 points and 7 rebounds in 14 second-half minutes. In retrospect, it's hard to fault Lionel Hollins for pulling Randolph after he got his fifth foul — down six with 4:34 to go. Darrell Arthur made two big plays in Randolph's stead down the stretch, helping the Grizzlies tie it up, though Arthur's recent history certainly didn't suggest this could have been expected. Might Ed Davis — a superior shot-blocker who was benched after a couple of first-half miscues — have contested the final shot better than Arthur? Perhaps, but that's nitpicking.
Coming into the series, the Clippers already owned discernible advantages in terms of athleticism, depth, and shooting, and they pressed all three last night in Los Angeles until the Grizzlies finally broke, yielding a 112-91 defeat to a Clippers team that has now beaten them in five of the past six meetings between the two teams.
In theory, the Grizzlies should be able to mitigate the Clippers' roster advantages with the league's best perimeter defense, the league's second-best rebounding team, and, arguably, the front-court tandem that boasts the league's best mix of skill and brawn.
Instead, Clippers guards and small forwards shot 62%, including 39% from three-point range. The Grizzlies got demolished on the boards, where the Grizzlies were doubled-up (47-23) and allowed the Clippers to corral 42% of their own misses. The Grizzlies offensive rebound rate of 31.0 was second best in the NBA in the regular season. In Game 1, they secured barely more than 10 percent of their misses. As for the third component, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph weren't terrible offensively — 29 points on 10-22 shooting, with 8 assists — but it wasn't nearly enough. And they combined for a shocking six rebounds in 45 minutes of play.
The 21-point final deficit is in some ways misleading and in other ways a more honest expression of the game than the tighter differential that separated these teams for most of the contest.
After a cover package in this week's Flyer and a first installment of this series-specific preview yesterday, I wrap it up today with this second installment. The series begins at 9:30 tomorrow night in Los Angeles. Until then …
6. TP3: The Clippers are associated with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The less starry Grizzlies with the trio of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. But if Eric Bledsoe is the secondary player I see as most crucial for the Clippers' hopes in this series, I think Tayshaun Prince could be the Grizzlies' wild card.
Prince has been a very modest scorer for the Grizzlies since coming over at midseason, averaging only 8.8 points a game on 43/37 shooting, with his 9.1 field-goal attempts per game including only 1.1 three-points attempts.
But Prince has been a bigger factor against the Clippers. In three games this season, including one when he still played for Detroit, Prince has averaged 15.3 points on 54/57 shooting, his minutes (31.7 average for Griz, 36.3 vs. Clips), shot attempts (12.3), and three-point attempts (2.3) all up.
Though the sample size is obviously tiny, Prince's shot selection has been less mid-range dependent against the Clippers than it's been this season overall. And it's easy to see why that might be the case. None of the Clippers' small forwards — Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, and Grant Hill — are a deterrent to Prince's post game. Meanwhile, the Clippers have proven susceptible to both wing scoring and three-point shooting overall, so if Prince spaces the floor out more than is typical for the Grizzlies — and this was happening in last week's meeting between these teams — there will be open long-range looks.
Prince has hit the 15-point plateau only twice in 37 games with the Grizzlies, one of those against the Clippers. But with favorable match-ups, an expected bump in minutes, and so much defensive pressure on the Grizzlies' backcourt, the bet here is that Prince does it a couple of times here if the series goes long and averages double-digits.
Prince's ball-handling ability can also be a crucial release valve for the Grizzlies offense, giving the team a viable option outside the backcourt to advance the ball downcourt and initiate offensive sets, an adjustment the team made in the second half of the last meeting between these teams, after Eric Bledsoe had manhandled Griz guards in the first half.
The lanky Prince could also be the catalyst in another potentially key element of the series: Three-point shooting. Last spring that was — unsurprisingly — a big advantage for the Clippers, who made six a game on 38% shooting while the Grizzlies made three a game on 29% shooting. There's good reason to think this disparity might even out this time.
The Grizzlies were an average team in terms of defending against three-point shooting before the Rudy Gay trade, but have been the NBA's best in that department since. A more attentive Prince is less likely to surrender the kind of long-range barrage that helped the Clippers steal Game 1 last spring. Meanwhile, the Clippers have struggled to defend the three this season. In the two games between these teams since the trade, the Clippers and Grizzlies have each made 12 three-point field goals, but the Grizzlies have done so on 48% shooting to the Clippers' 29%.
The key to threes in this series could be at the three, where the Clippers' Butler and Barnes averaged three makes a game between them in the regular season while the Grizzlies' Prince and Quincy Pondexter — who combined to shoot 8-15 from three against the Clippers this season — averaged a combined 1.5 a game. Winning the small forward match-up — overall but especially from three-point range — could be a quiet tipping point in the series.
Rematch. The Grizzlies and the Clippers open their first-round series Saturday night in Los Angeles, with the Grizzlies looking to avenge last spring's seven-game loss against a team that seems to have their number. Here's the first half of a two-part series breakdown. Look for the rest tomorrow morning:
1. The State of the Clippers: For much of this season, the Clippers were right there with the Heat, Thunder, and Spurs among the NBA's elite. They went undefeated in December as part of a 17-game win streak and stood at 32-9 in mid-January, a pace that would have garnered them the top seed in the West. At that 32-9 peak, the Clippers boasted the league's fourth best offense and third best defense. The Spurs were the only other team in the top five on both sides of the ball, and they were right behind the Clippers in both measures. At that time, the Clippers could rightfully claim to be the NBA's best team and seemed on the short list of legitimate title contenders.
But then the Clippers went on a four-game losing streak and played .500 ball — 17-17 — for more than two months. During the 17-17 streak, the team's offense fell off some (8th in that span), but the real story was on the other side of the ball, where the team plummeted to 20th.
This wobbly defense had the Clippers looking more like a potential first-round casualty than a championship hopeful, but, unfortunately for the Grizzlies, April has been a period of rebirth in Los Angeles. The Clippers have ended the season on a seven-game win streak. There are caveats aplenty: Beyond the microscopic sample size, five of the team's seven opponents in this closing stretch have been lottery participants. But for whatever it's worth, the Clippers have ended the season with their offense absolutely humming and their defense back to the high level displayed earlier in the season.
On the season, this Clippers team has been a little bit better on both sides of the ball than a year ago. They're a little more turnover prone, but have also done a better job capitalizing on their athleticism with a sharp uptick in both fastbreak points and points in the paint.
They've turned over most of the bench that gave the Grizzlies so many problems last spring, but still own an edge — on paper at least — over the Grizzlies there, with two Sixth Man-caliber candidates in Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes. Perhaps most importantly, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have had another year to hone their two-man-game chemistry and, after being banged up last April, will enter this postseason in what seems to be good health.
For a deeper look into how the Clippers look on the eve of the playoffs, check out this report from ESPN's Clipperologist Kevin Arnovitz.
Game 1 — Saturday, April 20th — Los Angeles — 9:30 p.m.
Game 2 — Monday, April 22nd — Los Angeles — 9:30 p.m.
Game 3 — Thursday, April 25th — Memphis — 8:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Saturday, April 27th — Memphis — 3:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Tuesday, April 30th — Los Angeles — TBD
Game 6 — Friday, May 3rd — Memphis — TBD
Game 7 — Sunday, May 5th — Los Angeles — TBD
Game Recap: After trading baskets with the Jazz in the first half, the Grizzlies brought down the hammer defensively in the third quarter — something we've seen quite a bit this season — holding the Jazz to 13 points in the quarter and building a lead that was never seriously threatened. The best news came up front, where Zach Randolph had his best game in months, with 25 points on 10-20 shooting and 19 rebounds in only 32 minutes. Randolph didn't face the most stout defenders in Utah's Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, but his energy and relentlessness were encouraging nonetheless. It was a nice, confidence-boosting performance to enter the playoffs on. Off the bench, both Ed Davis (nine rebounds and four blocks in 22 minutes) and Darrell Arthur (5-9 shooting in 16 minutes on a flurry of mid-range jumpers) did what they do best well, and both at the same time. We haven't seen that occurrence enough in the regular season, but a repeat might win a playoff game.
Jazz vs. Grizzlies (7 p.m.)
Suns at Nuggets (7 p.m.)
Clippers at Kings (9:30 p.m.)
Here — because, why not? — is every possible three-game outcome and what it would mean:
Playoffs: Grizzlies at Clippers (this is the most likely outcome)
Playoffs: Clippers at Grizzlies
Playoffs: Grizzlies at Nuggets
Playoffs: Clippers at Grizzlies
Playoffs: Grizzlies at Clippers
Playoffs: Grizzlies at Clippers
Playoffs: Grizzlies at Nuggets
Playoffs: Grizzlies at Clippers
By the time the Clippers game starts, these scenarios will be down to two. If the Nuggets win, as is heavily expected, it will lock the Grizzlies into a match-up with the Clippers. A Nuggets win paired with a Grizzlies loss, which is a very possible outcome, renders the late game irrelevant. If Grizzlies and Nuggets both win the early game — the most likely scenario — then fans will be waiting it out to see where a Grizzles-Clippers series would start.
The question of the night: How much fight will the Kings muster in what could be — yet again — the final Kings game in Sacramento.
As for the Grizzlies' game, the Jazz come to FedExForum on a 9-2 closing run and need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive — though even that would need to be paired with a Lakers loss in their late game with the Houston Rockets.
I won't be doing a full Postgame Notebook for tonight's game, but will be tweeting from the game and will offer a shorter recap and updates on the playoff picture as things are settled.
Some of the faces had changed since last spring, but many of the sights were familiar. There was Eric Bledsoe, gumming up the Grizzlies' offense with his intense fullcourt pressure. There were Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin, turning basketball into a wrestling match. There was the Clippers' bench, thoroughly outplaying their Grizzlies counterparts. There was Tony Allen, playing fierce fourth-quarter defense on Chris Paul and Paul still finding a way to make plays. There was the Grizzlies' offense, falling apart down the stretch. And there were the Clippers pulling out a close win on the Grizzlies floor.
“They earned the game,” Lionel Hollins said afterward. “They played better than us. They had [fewer] lulls than us.”
Tony Allen attributed the difference to “effort” and called the loss “an eye-opener.”
The Grizzlies had their chances. After building a game-high five-point lead, the Grizzlies watched the Clippers go on a 14-point run in the fourth quarter, spurred by reserves Grant Hill (five points, a board, and a block, including a run-starting corner three) and Bledsoe (five points, an assist, three boards). This happened with Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Tayshaun Prince all on the bench — something the Griz may want to avoid in the playoffs — and the Grizzlies clawed back when the full starting five returned, getting back to within a single point when Conley hit a technical free-throw on a Clippers defensive violation.
But the Grizzlies couldn't close. Randolph missed a step-back jumper over Griffin. Conley got into the paint only for Allen and Randolph to both miss point-blank attempts. Allen missed two free throws. Conley got a switch onto Griffin and missed a jumper.
Finally, a rare sight: Randolph, calling for the ball, getting it, spinning and hitting, cutting the deficit to one with the shot-clock off. A foul on Paul and a miss gave the Grizzlies the ball back, down two, with 18.3 on the clock. But it wasn't to be.
A Conley floater was swatted by Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. A Conley post feed to Randolph was poked away and stolen. And that was pretty much it.
Marc Gasol, who finished with 18 points (7-14 shooting), 15 rebounds, and 7 assists — team highs all — had one fourth-quarter attempt as the Grizzlies' offense produced only 14 points. There's something else that was familiar.
There's plenty to learn from this one, but something tells me I'm going to be writing quite a bit about the Grizzlies-Clippers match-up in the next couple of week. So, to use one of Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace's favored clichés, I'll keep my powder dry for now.
The playoff standings for the 3-4-5 seeds after tonight:
For the Grizzlies to finish third (in the most likely scenario), they'd need to win their final two games, have the Clippers lose one, and the Nuggets lose two.
For the Grizzlies to have homecourt advantage in a 4-5 match-up, they'd need to win their final two games and have one of the other two outcomes happen.
I've been holding back on this issue for a while, but with next week subsumed by playoff preview, and the coaching question highlighted by the Commercial Appeal this morning, this seems like the right time to weigh the issue. So ...
The Case for Lionel Hollins
On some level, fans might wonder why this is even a topic of discussion.
Hollins is — by far — the most successful coach in franchise history. His 10 playoff wins in two postseasons is 10 more than Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello managed in three postseasons. This season he's added a franchise-record regular season to his Grizzlies' resume. Hollins is also, to the degree it matters, a strong positive presence in the local community.
And this success hasn't come without complication. Hollins inherited a mismanaged mess of a team in 2009 when he was brought in mid-season to replace Marc Iavaroni, and he quickly molded it into a unit that played with purpose. In subsequent seasons, Hollins has navigated through upheaval each and every time. First it was the misguided, ownership-imposed disruption of Allen Iverson. Hollins' response to this — standing steadfast for team over individual — burnished his leadership credentials, and his ability to pull his team — which started 1-8 and had an all-time bad bench — into the playoff race before a couple of debilitating late injuries underscored his coaching acumen.
The next season, Hollins lost Rudy Gay to season-ending injury at a moment when his team seemed to be cresting and still went from the 8th seed to within a game of the conference finals. Last season, it was the twin early losses of Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph that decimated the team's frontcourt and spurred more roster upheaval, with Hollins still guiding the team to a highest-ever playoff seed.
This season, it began with an ownership change that had to be unsettling for Hollins, who had a close relationship with previous owner Michael Heisley. Next came the Rudy Gay trade, which Hollins had publicly campaigned against. (More on this in a bit.) And, still, here the Grizzlies are, with a franchise-record 53 wins and counting and again on the cusp of a top-four seed.
The Lead: As a home game against the league's worst team that was bridging both a three-game West Coast road trip and a high-wattage weekend ahead, this was likely to be a pretty subdued game. And for three quarters it was.
The Grizzlies seemed to be playing at about 80 percent intensity but building a solid lead anyway, pushing their lead to nine at the end of the first quarter off a show-off Marc Gasol baseline bucket and a power transition hoop-and-harm from Ed Davis.
Still leading by nine at the half, the team got especially listless, letting the Bobcats whittle the lead completely away. This sent Lionel Hollins looking to his bench for energy and execution and this time he found it in a big, big way.
With Mike Conley opening the fourth quarter surrounded by four reserves — Quincy Pondexter, Austin Daye, Jon Leuer, and Ed Davis — the Grizzlies went on a 15-0 run, pushing a three-point lead early in the quarter to an 18-point lead with with under eight minutes to play. A minute later, Conley's driving lay-up gave him another 20-point scoring night, bringing the lead to 19 and Conley to the bench for good. He was the only starter to play in the fourth.
It was a particularly good night for Daye (10 points on 4-7 shooting and 7 rebounds in 17 minutes) and Leuer (11 points on 4-4 shooting and 5 rebounds in 13 minutes).
One sequence — the play of the night — symbolized the fourth-quarter explosion: A Davis block into a Daye defensive rebound, which he dribbled toward mid-court before firing a no-look pass to Leuer, on the move in the middle of the lane. Leuer caught the pass and finished a twisting lay-up for the hoop-and-harm.
In his best performance of the season, Leuer showed everything he's got. In addition to the transition bucket, he scored on two long pick-and-pops off Conley, got a dunk off a Davis feed, was solid on the defensive boards, and forced turnovers. After all that, he even decided to drop some dimes, setting up three-point buckets on back-to-back possessions.
“I kept looking for people to have energy,” Hollins said about going deep into his bench. “We weren't running and had lost our pizzazz. I rolled the dice a little keeping Mike [Conley] in, but I thought he could lead that group and would be able to get into the lane with the floor more open.”
Each game was marked by a semi-controversial non-call at the rim and near the end of the game. In the Lakers game, it was Mike Conley driving in to tie and being smothered up by Dwight Howard. In the Kings game, it was Marc Gasol blocking DeMarcus Cousins' drive. Did Howard get Conley with the body? Did Gasol get Cousins on the wrist instead of the hand? Even after a few in-game replays both non-calls looked inconclusive to me. So much of basketball officiating is about judgement calls and I thought both of those non-calls were, at minimum, defensible.
Of wider note, Mike Conley continued his recent scoring trend, notching 46 points on 18-33 shooting, leading the team in both games. As for his being featured late, we'll get to that in just a minute.
On the other side of the ball, Marc Gasol continued to bolster his Defensive Player of the Year case. Against the Lakers, Gasol had eight defensive rebounds, three steals, and two blocks while helping hold Dwight Howard to 9 points on 3-7 shooting. In the second half, as the Grizzlies were overcoming poor early shooting to get back into the game, Gasol strung together a series of terrific defensive plays. Against the Kings, Gasol notched five blocks, with two coming in the final 20 seconds to seal the game: The first was on Cousins. On the second, Gasol swallowed up Marcus Thornton and snatched away his attempted game-winner at the buzzer.
On the downside, Zach Randolph struggled over the weekend, shooting 11-30 over two games and often struggling to finish shots over defenders in the paint. Randolph is averaging 13 points on 43% shooting over his past 10 games and seems to be creeping into the playoffs in distressingly similar form to his limited post-injury performance last spring.