Tonight, we get what we've been waiting for so impatiently all these many months since the Grizzlies played their last home game on May 27th: real NBA basketball, played between real NBA teams. I would say "in a real NBA arena" but tonight's game is a little bit out of the ordinary: the Grizzlies are taking on the Chicago Bulls in St. Louis, Missouri, in a game that's technically a home game for the Bulls.
The Grizzlies spent a good portion of the offseason trying to grow their regional fan base, sending Quincy Pondexter out on tour all across the Mid-South and then holding training camp last week in Nashville (where they apparently packed the house for an open practice on a Saturday afternoon during college football season). Playing an exhibition game in St. Louis is certainly in keeping with that strategy—I've always thought it was a little puzzling that St. Louis didn't have an NBA team anyway. Maybe someday the Grizzlies can have a fierce rivalry with the reborn Spirits of St. Louis.
At any rate, the location of the game fits into the Grizzlies' overall plan to grow the Grizzlies "territory" beyond the boundaries of the Memphis area and out to the whole region. But. That's not why tonight's game is exciting, not by a long shot. What's exciting about tonight is that we can finally stop speculating and talk about actual basketball that has been played. If that doesn't get you excited, I don't think I can help you.
Herewith, some things to watch out for tonight as the Grizzlies and Bulls face off.
Things to Watch
• The Bulls are coming off an 82-76 win over the Pacers Saturday that saw Derrick Rose return to action for the first time after missing a whole season while recovering from an ACL injury. This isn't just the Tigers fan in me talking: the basketball world is a better place with Derrick Rose in it, and I hope this season proves he made the right decision in sitting out a whole year. That said, I expect him to play pretty limited minutes against the Grizzlies tonight, especially by Tom Thibodeau standards. Rose played 20 minutes against Indiana. I'd expect to see the same sorts of numbers tonight.
• More importantly for the Grizzlies universe, tonight gives us our first look at what we've been talking about for months: we get to see what a Dave Joerger-coached Grizzlies team looks like in a game. We've heard all of the talk about uptempo play, about getting into sets quicker, about living with turnovers as a price of faster play, so on and so forth, but tonight the rubber meets the road for the first time. I expect to see a team that is familiar—there are too many of the same players on the roster for it not to be recognizable as the Grit & Grind Grizzlies—but changed, like your friend in high school that came back from summer vacation a foot taller than when you left. I, for one, welcome our new up-tempo overlords.
• The Grizzlies made the surprising move of waiving Josh Akognon yesterday. (They also waived Derrick Byars, but that wasn't surprising given that the team hasn't been buzzing about Byars all summer long). He was expected to make the roster as a shooting specialist, someone who could come in and heat up at a moment's notice. All summer long, the Grizzlies were supposedly making moves to clear roster space for Akognon, and now he's gone. To me, this means one of two things (or maybe both): (1) Akognon had a terrible training camp and obviously wasn't going to be a good fit and/or (2) the Grizzlies feel like they've got their outside shooting situation handled—at least enough so that it wasn't possible to justify keeping Akognon around. At any rate, it was a curious decision, but probably the right one.
• I'm not normally one to put much stock into preseason performances, opting to treat them more like scrimmages than a thermometer to tell me how good the team will be this year. That said, I think we're going to be able to see the chemistry of this year's Griz squad on the court; this is a veteran group, a core that has been together for a long time, and the new faces this year are (with the exception of Jamaal Franklin, alias "The Grindson") guys who have been around the block and know what it takes to win basketball games. (Yes, I know Calathes hasn't been proven in the NBA, but he's got a sterling track record in Euro ball—he's a proven winner at that level.) That should translate to a high basketball IQ, and a team that is able to feel its way out of tight spots by falling back on instinct. If it doesn't, my guess is that we're in for a little turbulence while the team adjusts to the new offense and the new mindset. But. Even if there's a period of adjustment, I think this group of players is too smart—and too talented—not to gel just like last year's model.
• All sorts of player combinations are potentially going to be visible for the first time tonight: the Kosta Koufos/Ed Davis frontcourt, Jamaal Franklin against real NBA competition, the Nick Calathes Experiment at backup point... we might see if Joerger really plans on playing Mike Miller at the 4, how much Zach Randolph is going to run, whether Marc Gasol is really turning himself into a more aggressive scorer... I'm excited for the chance to see every one of those things happen, and ten or fifteen more that you probably don't want me to ramble on about.
Can we all just agree that it's good to be back here, that we've missed NBA basketball and we've missed our Grizzlies, and that we're excited to see what they look like, even if it's "just" a preseason game? And that we've been irrationally excited about this day for months: the return of basketball to our lives, months and months of game after game after game, the punishing grind of the NBA season captivating as ever, and destined to be interesting no matter what the actual outcomes of the games?
Good. I like it when we all agree.