Just some quick notes on last night's victory over the Celtics in Boston while we're all sitting around waiting on stuff to cook this Thanksgiving morning:
• Zach Randolph struggled mightily while matched up with Jared Sullinger. The two were battling on the blocks a great deal early, and it seemed like Randolph just couldn't ever get anything going. He made a couple of his patented 19-foot rainbow jumpers, but overall it didn't seem like he ever really got going. He shot 5-16 from the floor, with an eFG% of .313 for the night. I wasn't expecting Randolph to have as much trouble with Sullinger as he did, but then again I guess we've never really seen a fully healthy Jared Sullinger face off against the Grizzlies, either. He certainly gave Randolph fits.
• Kosta Koufos couldn't get anything to fall, either, but he finished with 13 rebounds. Two things Koufos does better than Marc Gasol: block shots and grab rebounds. Two things Koufos doens't do better than Marc Gasol: shoot from the elbows, yell menacingly after great plays. Also pass, but that's three. And Koufos is a decent passer, it's just hard to expect Gasol-level distribution from anybody else.
• Speaking of passing, Ed Davis had a few great high-low feeds to Koufos last night—and that wasn't the only thing Davis did well. The Grizzlies really picked up the pace with Randolph sitting, and paired with Nick Calathes, Davis did very well in the faster-paced game running the pick and roll. On defense, Davis was able to use his athleticism, partly because Gasol's absence gives Davis more space to hang out and a little more time to react. Davis ended up with 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 24 minutes, which is exactly the kind of stat line he needs to have if he's going to establish himself as a legitimate rotation player for the Grizzlies.
• Jerryd Bayless got back on track a little bit. Joerger seems to have moved him off the ball full-time right now, prefering to play Calathes as the backup PG, and Bayless had another "on" game after a long streak of "off" games Wednesday night, scoring 22 points on 10 shots (how's that for efficiency?) including two free throws that iced the game after a string of improbable Celtics 3-pointers rattled in and made the game closer than it should have been. The Grizzlies are desperately going to need "Good Bayless" production while Gasol is out, and even when he's not.
The Grizzlies have Thanksgiving off, and they return to action Saturday night at FedExForum against the Brooklyn Nets, who are pretty awful right now. We'll see if Jason Kidd has to spill another drink.
Sam Amick of USA Today had a piece on Sunday that caught the attention of some of us who watch the Grizzlies. The piece is an examination of the impact of Marc Gasol's knee injury on the Grizzlies, and how the team is expected to fare until Gasol returns. Amick talked to LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers, who said that Gasol is "the engine behind that team." Then, he talked to three NBA advance scouts—guys who travel around from town to town scouting opponents for NBA teams—what they thought of the situation. Remember, these are presumably actual scouts who work for actual NBA teams.
From Scout #1:
I hate to beat a dead horse but trading (Rudy) Gay (to the Toronto Raptors) last season, then firing (coach Lionel) Hollins this summer, is, and will continue to haunt them.
From Scout #2:
What can't be overlooked is that he knows where every player is suppose to be on the court and many times has to direct Zach where to go. He is also a smart, positional defender. In addition, he is competitive and is a quiet, but respected leader in the locker room. Koufos will give them solid minutes, but now Ed Davis or (third-year forward) Jon Leuer will have to contribute key minutes in relief.
From Scout #3:
It will make them more perimeter-oriented and rely on Koufos, who is a glorified (NBA Development League player). They will find out if Ed Davis is the real deal or not. ... At one time management thought his presence made Randolph expendable, which is laughable. Guys like Jon Leuer will have to play some minutes, and he wouldn't be good in the D-League.
Which one of these three scouts sounds like someone who actually has watched a lot of Grizzlies games? Hint: not Scout #1 or Scout #3.
Remember, these are guys (I assume they're guys) who get paid money by NBA teams to go watch other teams and report back on what they look like and how best to game-plan to beat them. There is a guy who gets paid money by an NBA franchise to report back that Kosta Koufos—81-game starter for the 3rd-seed Denver Nuggets last year—is a "glorified D-League player." What does that even mean? And saying that Jon Leuer "wouldn't be good in the D-League": Jon Leuer has played in the D-League and I think averaging almost 20-10 is "good."
I wasn't feeling well Monday night so I stayed home instead of going down to the Forum to cover the Grizzlies/Rockets game in person. As such, I got a little weird with this one. Herewith, a five-haiku recap of tonight's Grizzlies loss to the Rockets.
Tonight's Grizzlies game against the Houston Rockets is going to be interesting, and not for the reasons anyone was expecting when looking at the schedule prior to Friday night's home loss to the Spurs. With Marc Gasol, this game is an early-season chance to see how this year's Grizzlies match up with the newly-Dwighted Rockets at the Grindhouse—a chance to measure the team against one of the other good teams in the Southwest division.
Without Gasol—who is out "indefinitely" with an MCL sprain suffered in that Friday night game—tonight's game is an opportunity to test out new lineups and rotations that are going to have to be deployed for the next few weeks in Gasol's absence. It's a chance to see who's going to start at center: coach Dave Joerger told the media he's not sure whether it'll be Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos. My money is on Koufos—after all, he started 81 games for the Nuggets last year—but we won't know until Joerger makes that decision. At any rate, Gasol's injury means that Koufos, Davis, and Jon Leuer are all going to have to step up and contribute, or else the Grizzlies' much-feared frontcourt is going to take a serious hit.
This is a team that historically rallies when an important player goes down. In 2011, without Rudy Gay, they went on a tear through the Spurs and to 7 games against the Thunder in the second round. (Whether or not the success was because Gay was absent is a different discussion.) In 2012, Zach Randolph went down with an MCL sprain, and the Grizzlies—with Marreese Speights starting at power forward—managed to get home court advantage for the first time in franchise history. (We will not speak of what happened after that.)
The easy counterargument is that neither of those injuries were to Marc Gasol. Marc Gasol is the essential cog that makes the Grizzlies machine turn, on offense and on defense. He's a distributor and a scorer, and on defense, he not only secures the paint, but also tells everybody else what's happening, where they need to be, who's about to do what. One of my favorite basketball things to watch is Marc Gasol recognizing exactly what play the other team is trying to run, and telling the rest of the Grizzlies on the floor exactly who is going to do what. I can't find the footage to back this up, but I swear he's flat-out shoved Ed Davis into position at least once. In short, he's not just a scorer or a defender: he's the guts of what makes the Grizzlies such a staunch opponent. His absence will be felt. It's more a matter of whether the Grizzlies can hang on until he gets back in a Western Conference that's more loaded than ever. (If the Grizzlies were in the East, Gasol could probably sit until the playoffs and they'd still get home court. But c'est la vie.)
So tonight is going to be the first step in an arduous journey for the Grizzlies: trying to figure out how they're going to manage without Marc Gasol until he gets back.
I tweeted about this a little over the weekend, but: how much better is the Grizzlies' situation with Gasol out now that Kosta Koufos is on the roster in place of Darrell Arthur? Can you imagine how much worse we'd all be feeling about the Grizzlies' prospects for success in Gasol's absence if he were still around? And, as a corollary, can you believe that the Nuggets gave this guy up for Darrell Arthur, who has been so depleted by injury that he doesn't even look like the same player as the guy who jumped all over the Spurs in 2011?
To me, Gasol's injury highlights how good of a move that was for the Grizzlies front office. They may not have been right about everything so far, but that trade on draft night is pretty close to daylight robbery of another franchise.
Whether he gets the start or Davis does, the fact that the Grizzlies were able to add Koufos to the roster this summer means they're in much better shape than they would be otherwise. Obviously his skills as a high-post playmaker and passer are nowhere near what Gasol's are—and neither are anybody else's—but having a legitimate NBA starting center makes me feel much less panicky than I would otherwise right now.
I'm sure when the Grizzlies traded for Koufos, they didn't anticipate having to deploy him as much as they're probably going to have to now, but no matter who gets the start at center, the Grizzlies have some learning to do starting tonight: who are they going to be until Gasol gets back? Will they continue to fight like they did Friday night after Gasol went down? Are they going to still have the pieces they need to hang with the best of the Western Conference until Gasol returns? All questions without answers yet. Tonight, we'll see.
Well, it looks like Zach Randolph might have known what he was talking about last night.
Reports are emerging that Marc Gasol suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his MCL in last night's loss to the San Antonio Spurs, and is out "indefinitely" while he heals. It's a similar situation to Quincy Pondexter's injury last year that sidelined him for several weeks, and also the 2012 injury to Zach Randolph that put him on the bench for 10 weeks during that lockout-shortened season.
It's not good for the Grizzlies in the close Western Conference this year. Gasol could be out for a while. The Grizzlies are equipped to handle the loss of Gasol through the addition of Kosta Koufos in the offseason, but there's no question that Marc Gasol in the high post is the main facilitator of the Grizzlies' offense, and without him, everything is going to get more difficult. Gasol is probably the best passing center in the league, and there's not really a good way to replace a player like that.
It could be worse, though: Gasol's injury doesn't require surgery, which could have put him out until the playoffs—assuming the Grizzlies would get there without him for the rest of the regular season. Gasol's road back to health is going to be a long one, and Grizzlies fans are just going to have to be patient with that recovery.
In the meantime, Grizzlies basketball is going to be interesting for the next six to ten weeks. I had some thoughts on potential outcomes in my postgame piece from last night, and I still think they hold true now that we know the extent of Gasol's injury.
So, don't panic, but do fasten your seatbelts and prepare for turbulence.
Well, the Grizzlies lost to the Spurs 102-86 on Friday night, but the final score of the game isn't what most Grizzlies fans are worried about: in the second quarter, Jeff Ayres bumped into Marc Gasol trying to get post position and Gasol immediately grabbed for his knee and limped away. He left the court immediately and limped back into the locker room, from which he didn't return for the rest of the night.
The official word from the team was that Gasol has a "sprained knee" and he'll undergo an MRI tomorrow to determine the extent of the injury. I overheard Zach Randolph telling Tim Duncan it might be an MCL tear while the two of them were standing at the scorer's table waiting to check into the game, but I don't put too much stock in a quick diagnosis like that. If it is some sort of MCL injury, Gasol could be out a week, or he could be out until the All-Star Break; there's really not much use in speculating.
If Gasol is down for an extended amount of time, the Grizzlies' already-lopsided trade of Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos is only going to look that much better for the Grizzlies, since Koufos (1) started 81 games for the Nuggets last year and (2) is already playing well when paired with Zach Randolph, alongside whom he would presumably be starting. I don't think Ed Davis will start in Gasol's place—Davis and Randolph don't pair together as well as Davis and another center, and Kosta Koufos is nothing if not a true NBA center.
Several scenarios could play out: Gasol misses a short amount of time, and the Grizzlies are able to tread water by beating the teams they're "supposed" to beat and hanging out at or around .500 until he returns, at which point they kick it back into gear and make a great push down the stretch and get a 5th or 6th seed. Gasol could miss a long amount of time—let's say the All Star Break for example—and the team could hover at the .500 mark until that point and then make a push for the playoffs, coming in at a very low seed (7th or 8th) and finding themselves overwhelming underdogs in the first round. The worst case scenario is that the team falls apart completely—so much so that they end up with the first or second pick in the draft and get Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker (remember when David Robinson got hurt and the Spurs ended up with Tim Duncan?) and then win four titles in the next 8 years.
I make that Spurs/Duncan point to say this: even if it's a worst-case scenario, the Grizzlies are probably going to come out okay. Even if for some reason this season's hopes are dashed, they're still a good team. The sky is not falling. Especially not now, when we don't know the extent or severity of the injury.
But the injury certainly casts a dark shadow over a game that wasn't that great to begin with. The Spurs came out and did exactly what they've done to the Grizzlies for the last nine matchups between these two teams: they took away everything the Grizzlies were good at and left them with the scraps, and the Grizzlies took those scraps and somehow still managed to make it into a good basketball game. Down 14 at the half, the Grizzlies came out to start the third quarter making great defensive plays to get stops, the fuel that drives the Grizzlies' offensive engine. They were able to claw all the way back to a tied ball game, and they managed to pull the old "Grit and Grind" routine to keep it close down the stretch.
Eventually, though, the Spurs just stopped missing shots, and once the Spurs stopped missing, they pulled away from the Grizzlies and never looked back. The Grizzlies may be playing well right now, but they're still reliant on getting stops to make things work on offense, and in the absence of stops everything grinds to a halt (no pun intended). It's a function of the roster more than anything else. Mike Conley played out of his mind—28 points on 19 shots, 2-3 from 3, 4 steals—but it wasn't enough to keep the Grizzlies in it in the last three or four minutes; the Spurs were what they always seem to be: Just Too Good.
After the game, coach Dave Joerger wouldn't comment on Gasol's status besides saying "it's a sprained knee and he has an MRI tomorrow," which is really all anyone knows for sure. It makes Yet Another Loss To The Spurs seem entirely unimportant, even though it was a much better matchup than the last time these two teams played, and it makes it hard to write about anything else because the Gasol injury makes any attempt to project how the season it going to go speculation at best and BS at worst. Obviously, whenever that news breaks, there will be an update here detailing what we know.
Until then, sleep tight, and don't panic yet. Marc Gasol will be fine. It's just a question of when he'll be fine that has all of Grizz Nation reaching for the liquor cabinet tonight.
I'm kind of crunched for time this morning, but I didn't want to let tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs pass without mentioning a few things about it. Herewith, five quick thoughts:
1. Tonight is going to tell us a lot about whether the Grizzlies' bench additions are going to be able to space the floor against the Spurs, who essentially wrote the book on how to dismantle this Grizzlies team during the Western Conference Finals last year. We know, despite his exceptional level of play on the West Coast road trip, that Zach Randolph has struggled with the Spurs since the 2011 playoffs. The Spurs defend Randolph exceptionally well, and caused all kinds of problems for the Grizzlies in the paint during the playoffs last year. It's going to be up to the perimeter players—and new addition Mike Miller—to prevent the Spurs from being able to, you know, put five guys all in the lane when Zach Randolph touches the ball. Miller and Quincy Pondexter have been shooting pretty poorly so far, but if they can make a difference tonight, they'll make it much easier for the Grizzlies' dominating big men to breathe.
2. Mike Conley vs. Tony Parker has the potential to be as much fun to watch as Marc Gasol vs. Tim Duncan, and I think Gasol vs. Duncan is close to the pinnacle of basketball. Conley's play this season has been incredible, and Parker is Tony Parker. With any luck we'll get a good show out of those two tonight.
3. He may not do it tonight, since the Grizzlies are playing the Spurs, but some time soon, Dave Joerger is going to need to add a fourth big to the frontcourt rotation. I said in my Warriors recap that it should be Ed Davis, and the comments were flooded with votes in favor of Jon Leuer. I want to say for the record that I don't think that's a bad idea at all. I think Davis plays better when he's in the game for a longer period of time than 5 to 10 minutes, but I also understand the folks who think he's just... not the guy. I get that. Either way, I'd like to see somebody in addition to Gasol, Randolph, and Kosta Koufos to soak up some minutes. It's a long season.
4. I still like Jerryd Bayless better off the ball. Calathes is going to improve, and playing him against good teams is a way to make that happen. I've broken out the #FreeCalathes hashtag on Twitter before, but ideally, for me, Calathes will be the backup point guard by January or February and Bayless can return to his off-the-ball Bayless 'tude. I like Bayless best when he's fearless, and he's not fearless when he's trying to facilitate.
5. Linkbait: I did a Fraternizing with the Enemy Q&A with my friends over at SB Nation's Spurs blog Pounding the Rock. I felt like it was a good conversation, and PtR does excellent work, so check that out.
The Grizzlies are now 30th out of 30 teams in the league in pace, according to Basketball Reference, and as they've plummeted to the bottom of the league's pace-of-play rankings, they've started to solidify into a cohesive team of grind-it-out intensity and a violent offensive mindset spearheaded by two (or three when Kosta Koufos also gets a double double) of the league's best big men. The Grizzlies everyone (including this author) was worried about are gone, and the old Grizzlies have returned in their place.
The Grizzlies defeated the Steph Curry-less Warriors to overtime last night despite (1) playing their fourth game in six nights, all on the West Coast and (2) the Warriors' starting Andre Igoudala at point guard due to injuries, causing the Grizzlies to struggle mightily with their length on the perimeter for most of the first half. They did so by doing what they do best: forcing the Warriors, one of the most potent offensive teams in the league, into what was probably the slowest game they've played all year, with both teams tied at 75 at the end of regulation.
Tony Allen is going to miss tonight's road game against the Golden State Warriors while he serves his suspension for, y'know, kicking Chris Paul in the face Monday night, but he's not the only key player who'll be missing from action: Stephen Curry will also be out with a concussion which he suffered Monday night against the Jazz.
The absence of Allen means Quincy Pondexter will probably start in his place. Pondexter has struggled on and off all season, but has lately picked up his game a little, maybe because of his awesome black facemask.
Other fun fact about tonight's game: the game Curry is missing due to a head injury is his own bobblehead night at Oracle Arena.
Is that ironic that @StephenCurry30 is missing his own bobble head night because of head trauma???
— David Lee (@Dlee042) November 20, 2013
What're the odds?
At any rate, tonight's game gives the Grizzlies a chance to complete a 4-0 sweep of their West Coast road trip that seemed completely impossible a week ago. Four games in six nights, all of them on the road, including a game against the Clippers on the second game of a back to back? Forget about it. The discussion was about whether they'd go 1-3 on the trip or 2-2. About how if they were lucky, they probably wouldn't lose all four games.
This Grizzlies team has come alive on this trip. I still think their success is masking future issues with the rotation—I think eventually Calathes will be the backup point guard, and eventually Ed Davis is going to have to get some playing time to reduce the load being placed on the frontcourt starters. But for now, this group is playing well, and more importantly, they're playing with purpose. No longer are they wandering around like they're underwater watching the other team move the ball around, feet glued to the floor. They're playing like the Grizzlies, and that has everybody feeling better.
Whatever issues this team is going to have going forward—and I can think of a few: poor offensive play at the small forward spot, Ed Davis' continued need to step up and play better, the fact that Bayless is much better off the ball but is still being used as a backup point guard, et cetera—it appears that motivation is no longer one of them. The decision to buy in to the Joerger Era is no longer one of them. Marc Gasol playing like a hefty Byron Mullens is no longer one of them.
So, win or lose, tonight's Grizzlies game will feature a Grizzlies team that has started playing like a Grizzlies team (including a drop to 27th in the league in pace, of course). And this early in the season, I think that's all anybody really wanted to see.
• I expect the Grizzlies' bigs' dominating play to continue tonight, since the Warriors (as we saw previously when the Grizzlies beat them at FedExForum) don't really have anyone who can guard them. David Lee gets eaten alive by Zach Randolph almost every time the two meet each other, and Marreese Speights defended so poorly the last time these two teams met that Mark Jackson had to play the Corpse Formerly Known As Jermaine O'Neal instead. Look for the Randolph/Gasol/Koufos triumvirate (The Triumvirate is a great band name) to do serious work tonight.
• With Curry out, the Warriors' perimeter threats are going to have to work that much harder: Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala (and Harrison Barnes, too) have their work cut out for them. It'll be interesting to see whether the absence of Tony Allen or the absence of Steph Curry plays a bigger part in tonight's game.
• I'd like to see Nick Calathes get some run against the Warriors again; he played a lot of minutes against them last time because Jerryd Bayless was out. He acquitted himself very well, and I think he's much better as a backup ballhandler than Bayless. Bayless proved last year that he was much more effective off the ball—and that was with Keyon Dooling at the point, not Calathes, who is a much more able (if reckless) passer. "Reckless" can be fixed. The stifling effect that playing at the point has on Bayless' game probably can't. I'd like to see Calathes get some run tonight.
If I'm honest, that wasn't the outcome I expected last night: the Grizzlies went into Los Angeles and defeated the much-hated Clippers pretty much from beginning to end, and they did it without Tony Allen for most of the game. The Grizzlies were able to exploit mismatches against the Clippers' frontcourt as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Kosta Koufos—the only bigs who played any time for the Grizzlies—combined for 59 points and 33 rebounds. It was a solid road win for the Grizzlies, who are now 3-0 on their West Coast road trip, with 4-0 very much in play, as they face the Golden State Warriors again on Wednesday at Oracle Arena. Herewith, some thoughts:
Zach Randolph has been great. In all three games on the road trip so far, both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have put up really good numbers—and Gasol has gotten more engaged and more "Marc Gasol-like" as the trip has gone on—but the star of the show, even when there are other players (Gasol and Conley) contributing just as much to the Grizzlies' success, is Z-Bo. He was in top form again Monday night in Los Angeles, putting up 26-15 (along with 2 blocks and 2 steals). Even though the Clippers began the game doubling him every time he touched the ball, he still put up 13 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter.
When Randolph is playing at this level, the rest of the team can breathe a little easier, and everything goes better. Whether this is just some sort of phase or whether this is really the level Z-Bo is going to be operating at this year remains to be seen, but either way, Randolph's play has been a pleasant surprise so far this year. I'm willing to admit publicly that I wasn't sure he had these kinds of numbers in him on a nightly basis this season.
Marc Gasol looks like he's finally starting to get back in the swing of things, after spending much of the opening weeks of the season walking around in a Eurobasket-and-paella induced coma. Gasol's return to form couldn't have come at a better time for the Grizzlies, as his defense has started to round back into form after an abysmal start that saw him (1) out of position all the time and (2) seemingly not worried about it. At the same time, Gasol has started to be more aggressive on offense—especially when it's clear that he has a mismatch, as was the case last night when he was being guarded by Byron Mullens—and his set shot from the elbow, though it hasn't falling at the rate it did last year, has finally started to look right, and will surely start dropping soon if he keeps taking them.
Grizzlies 97, Kings 86
First things first: yesterday afternoon in Sacramento, the Grizzlies got themselves back to .500 with a road win over the Sacramento Kings on the second game of their four-game West Coast swing. Just like their win over the Lakers on Friday night, it wasn't always pretty, but pretty doesn't show up in a box score, and the win itself is certainly more significant than style points.
Just as Zach Randolph led the way against the Lakers, he did so again against the Kings with 22 points and 10 rebounds, but yesterday's game wasn't just about Z-Bo. Marc Gasol, despite still not looking like he knows where he is all the time, had 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists, and Mike Conley also had 19 points and 9 assists. The play of these three guys goes a long way to smooth over any issues the Grizzlies may be having system-wise. The offense in general was much improved against Sacramento, though; the Grizzlies' ball movement was impeccable, and the crisp and smart passing got them some easy baskets that they weren't getting two weeks ago. That was an encouraging development.
The bench didn't really do much. Mike Miller played almost 21 minutes and didn't attempt a shot, according to the box score. I watched the game and I feel like I remember him taking at least one, but... Mike Miller serves almost no purpose if he's not going to attempt a single field goal. Quincy Pondexter's play has improved, but he's still not playing at the level he's capable of. Kosta Koufos was a bright spot, scoring six and grabbing six rebounds in only 13 minutes of play.
The Grizzlies are in Sacramento to play the Kings this afternoon (the game starts at 5pm Memphis time), hot on the heels of their gutty-but-ugly win over the Lakers in L.A. on Friday night, led by Zach Randolph's commanding 28 point, 11 rebound performance. The Grizzlies need to use that game as a springboard for the rest of this 4-game West Coast swing; 3-1 on the trip means the Grizzlies come back home on Friday to play the Spurs at .500. Standing in their way at the moment is a Sacramento team that, while not very good, poses some interesting challenges.
1. Demarcus Cousins is playing well this year, presumably reinvigorated by the fact that his team now has a real owner and a real commitment from the front office to, you know, actually try to have a good basketball team instead of just try not to lose any money. Normally I wouldn't be worried about Cousins, because although he's an excellent player, Marc Gasol typically plays very good defense against him. This afternoon, the way that Marc Gasol has been playing—against the Lakers, he turned in one of the most listless 18-8-3-3 stat lines I've ever seen, if there can be such a thing—I worry that Cousins is going to be hard to contain. The Grizzlies' interior defense has been pretty terrible thus far, and DMC is not the kind of player against whom you want to have a bad interior defense.
2. Speaking of which, the Grizzlies perimeter defense has to be better, too. Mike Conley and Tony Allen have to do a better job of communicating about which one of them is switching onto which guy, and they both need to do a better job of making sure they're staying home on spot-up shooters as much as they can. The Lakers' shooting guards torched the Grizzlies, both because they were open more than they should have been and because point guards were able to drive into the lane at will and kick it out however they wished. The Grizzlies, let's be honest, barely beat the Lakers. If they're going to build momentum out of this West Coast swing, they need to tighten up and take care of business against the Kings, too.
3. Joerger's rotations still need some time to settle. Against the Lakers, 9 guys played: the starting five, Mike Miller, Jerryd Bayless, Kosta Koufos, and an anonymous masked man (Quincy Pondexter sporting a pretty cool black facemask to go with the broken nose he suffered against Indiana). No Ed Davis, no Nick Calathes, no Jamaal Franklin, and no Jon Leuer. Clearly the Grizzlies' depth is nice, but while he can't play 12 guys major minutes, I do think Joerger is going to have to play Davis (but only with Koufos and Gasol and not with Randolph) and Calathes (as a backup point guard while Bayless plays off the ball) for the Grizzlies to be at their best. Those guys have to develop, and they're not going to do it from the bench. I don't think Bayless is a better point guard than Calathes, even considering turnovers. The rotations are going to have to settle, but something tells me we're going to see another couple of "12 guys playing more than ten minutes" performances this week. I'm not sure that's tenable for the whole year.
Today's game is an important one for the Grizzlies. It's a chance to use the momentum from Friday's win to build more momentum, and a chance to get back to .500 and create a little more of an atmosphere of calmness around this team. With any luck, the defense will tighten up through playing together, and the Grizzlies will deal with the Kings without too much difficulty.
It was a Grizzly final score and a Grizzly stat line for Zach Randolph—28 points and 11 rebounds, 11-18 shooting and a perfect 6-6 from the line—but the Grizzlies' Friday night win over the Lakers in Los Angeles was not a pretty one.
Randolph got on a roll early and kept it going all night, taking over the game in the fourth quarter with the Lakers in the lead and threatening to extend it. The Grizzlies have struggled mightily to be able to absorb the other team's run and stay within striking distance this year, but tonight in L.A. it didn't seem to be as much of an issue. Randolph was huge tonight, no two ways about it, and his stepping up had to have been a calming influence on the rest of the Grizzlies team.
The issues tonight, though, were on full display. The defense is still terrible. Tony Allen, maybe the best perimeter defender in the league last year, has been great on offense but not as great on defense, as communication issues on switches often leave the opposing shooting guard uncovered. Lakers guards Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, and Steve Blake all got plenty of wide open looks at the basket tonight by camping out on the weak side and waiting for Tony Allen or Mike Conley to help off of them.
Allen sometimes struggles with spot-up shooters because he wanders off of them toward the ball handler, as was especially evident during last year's Western Conference Finals when Allen would help off Danny Green time after time. Those struggles seem to have carried over to this year. But I'm not willing to claim that Allen is solely responsible for these lapses. At several times tonight, either Conley or Allen would switch off of his man, expecting the other to switch at the same time, but it wouldn't happen, leaving Meeks, Young, or Blake wide open. It happened too much.
Compounding the issue on the perimeter are the Grizzlies' continued struggles guarding the paint. Marc Gasol continues to stumble around on defense like The Dude, blissfully unaware of what's happening around him. This is bad for guarding the other team's big men, but it's also bad for perimeter defense. I lost count of how many times a Laker guard—usually Blake—was able to drive all the way to the restricted area and kick it out to a wide-open Meeks or Young.
In the end, Zach Randolph, like a whirlwind of mean-mugs and flying elbows, was too much for the Lakers to handle, and he returned to "Vintage Z-Bo" mode, getting the ball on almost every trip down the floor, taking it straight to Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol, scoring seemingly at will, and that was enough to put the Grizzlies back on top and keep them there while the Lakers attempted to mount a comeback.
The rest of this road trip, the next game of which is Sunday evening in Sacramento, is going to be informative: is this who the Grizzlies are this year, having to depend on a vintage Z-Bo takeover, a commodity that is probably harder to come by than Griz fans would like to admit, to score enough points to make up for the abysmal defensive play and the horrible (7.7%) shooting from beyond the arc to get past a bad team on the road, or was tonight just a "circle the wagons" and get back to business win that will start the Grizzlies on the path back up to a .500 record and help them form an identity?
We'll know soon. Out on the West Coast, the team is away from the Memphis echo chamber that's sprung up in the last couple of weeks—where everybody blames a different Griz player for the problem, while some blame Dave Joerger and some blame Jason Levien and Robert Pera for the problems on the court—and they've got a perfect opportunity to come together as a team and start to build a foundation for the season going forward. Will they take advantage of the opportunity, or are they really the team that showed up tonight? It remains to be seen.
The Grizzlies are going away for a while, and hopefully while they're off on the West Coast trying to figure themselves out, they can manage to win a basketball game or two.
Honestly, at this point, sitting 3-5 after getting drilled by the Pacers in Indiana and the Toronto Raptors—returning Rudy Gay and all—at FedExForum on Wednesday night, is better than they deserve to be. There have been a lot of games that haven't been very close, and there have been a lot of people booing the Grizzlies as they wrap up another 3rd quarter trailing by 20 (and, honestly, one can see their point), and a lot of crowds streaming out of FedExForum early because the Grizzlies are down big and not going to mount a comeback. The team, meanwhile, has looked good in one game (the win over Golden State) and bad in every other one, whether it's the starting five wandering around listlessly, out of position, bricking jumpers, or it's the all-bench lineups we've seen a little too much of, running down the court and passing the ball to a season ticket holder in the third row. They toughed out an overtime win over the Detroit Pistons, they managed to beat the Boston Celtics after trailing, and they came out, played an 8-man playoff rotation, and put the screws to the Golden State Warriors, who were on a SEGABABA and who are also just plain old bad at beating the Grizzlies because of matchups.
That's a really long paragraph that actually doesn't say much. Truth is, I have no idea why the Grizzlies are playing so poorly, and neither does anyone else, not really. Sure, you can point to specific things—turnovers—and specific players—Marc Gasol—and you can say it's the fault of the coach—and he's certainly not blameless—or the fault of the front office, who messed with the formula for the Grizzlies' success by replacing Lionel Hollins with Dave Joerger. But not of those, in isolation, is the problem.
And so here we are. Watching a 3-5 basketball team that can't hang on to the ball and doesn't look much like they care, with a coach who thinks he can play a 12-man rotation, in a town full of people who just want to know why it can't be the way it was.
Don't ask me to explain what happened Wednesday night at FedExForum, because I don't think I can, not really. The Grizzlies got beaten—badly—by the Toronto Raptors at home, and they did so without putting up much of a fight in the final frame. In so doing, they managed to fall to 3-5 on the year the night before they load up and head out West for a four-game-in-six-night road trip that sees them taking on the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Warriors before returning home to play the Spurs (again) a week from Friday.
This has the potential to go very badly.
Rudy Gay came back for the first time since the trade that sent him northward last January, and even though he was booed by about 35% of the people in the building when the Raptors' starting lineup was announced—which I thought was in pretty poor taste, if I'm honest, even though I guess I understand the motivations behind it—and then he and his Toronto Raptors, who I'd like to point out aren't a very good basketball team once you get past their starting five, and who are typically an incredibly poor jump-shooting team, proceeded to kick the crap out of the Grizzlies for 48 minutes.
The Grizzlies tied the game at 70 in the third quarter on a brilliant run of steals and transition baskets, mostly sparked by Mike Conley (also known as "The Only Grizzly Who Is Playing Well"), but over the last 20 or so minutes, the Grizzlies again got outscored 33-17 and the whole thing went up in flames.
After the game, Dave Joerger didn't say anything that made me feel especially hopeful, and none of the players sounded like they had any clue why they'd just gone out and gotten housed by Tyler Hansbrough and company. And it made me want to, you know, rend my garments and rub ashes on myself Old Testament style.
It's not time to panic yet, but it's creeping in around the edges, the signs and signifiers of what we're all hoping isn't a lost season. I'll have more on this, to be certain, once I'm not completely slammed. But, for now, just try to carry on about your everyday business and keep the howling fantods of lottery picks and empty FedExForums and burning John Hollinger effigies in the streets at the periphery.