I, for one, didn't really enjoy watching last night's game for much of it—I tweeted at one point that watching the game closely felt like reading a tax document: tedious, without feeling. It looked like the Grizzlies were playing that way at first, too, with a cold shooting start reminiscent of the first quarter against Houston on Saturday night. The problem for Memphis was that Sacramento wasn't also on the second night of a back to back, and ran out to an early lead.
There were also moments when it felt like former Grizzly Rudy Gay was in the midst of having one of "those games" where he banked in threes and got to the rim at will, looking liberated (and with his usage rate way up) in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins. As the game wore on, though, the fears of a Big Rudy Gay Game disspated much the same way Gay's scoring did, and he finished the night with 23 where early it looked like he might drop 35.
For the next 36 minutes of basketball, it felt like the Grizzlies were perpetually 3 points ahead of the Kings, barely doing enough on defense to stay ahead while scoring just enough for the Kings to stay behind. The bench was mostly quiet, and it was just... nothing. Nothing really happened.
By the end of the third quarter, the Grizzlies had accrued a six point lead, and finally something clicked and the Griz—particularly Mike Conley and Tayshaun Prince (!)—went off for a thirty point quarter, sealing the ten-point victory. It was a good showing from a team that hadn't really "turned it on" yet all game, and it was good enough to get the Grizzlies headed to Minnesota with a 2-0 start to the current four-game-in-five-night stretch.
• Mike Conley continues to amaze and astound me with the level of his play. Against Sacramento, he displayed the same killer instinct he showed against Portland—a willingness to be the guy to hit the big shot with the game on the line, without remorse, without worrying about what anyone else is doing. A basket needed to be made, and so Mike Conley made it. That's something Conley has shown this year that has been slow to develop in him, but this season, it finally seems to have blossomed, allowing him to be the "I'll take the last shot" player that Griz-watchers have long hoped he would be. It's a welcome development, and it's a big reason the Grizzlies are where they are this season, rather than on a month-long Tank Quest kicked off by Gasol's injury.
• Tayshaun Prince made some great plays in the fourth quarter—a steal followed by a dunk in transition on Rudy Gay, and another one trailing a Mike Conley fast break, along with some solid contributions on both ends of the floor. Prince has struggled mightily this season overall, but last night he showed some flashes of "Oh yeah, he's Tayshaun Prince" that probably reminded Griz fans who weren't watching the championship-era Pistons exactly what that means. I'm not sure what the ultimate answer is to the Prince Conundrum, but for now, at least in fourth quarters against certain matchups, the answer is to play him. He certainly came up big last night.
• Courtney Lee had his quietest game as a Grizzly so far, scoring only 4 points on 2 of 4 shooting and attempting no 3-pointers in 24 minutes. Not sure what the reasoning for that was, beyond the Grizzlies' general offensive woes translating into a lack of open shots for Lee, or a lack of opportunities to hit the pull-up shots he's been nailing with abandon as of late, but no matter the cause, his off night was either part of the reason (or part of the collateral damage) the Grizzlies' spacing on offense was less than stellar last night, overloading the strong side on offense the same way they do on defense which, well, isn't usually a good thing. With any luck it was just an off game, and Lee will bounce back in Minnesota on Friday night.
• Mike Miller was finally starting to string together some good games, playing within himself and hitting some shots (5-11 for 11 points last night, though only 1-6 from long range) and then he sprained his thumb last night towards the end of the game, and is now listed as day-to-day. It was inevitable that Miller would get hurt at some point this year; his history recently proves it would be foolish to expect him to stay completely healthy. But it's frustrating to see him get injured just as he was starting to pull out of the slump he's been in, a slump that's seen Dave Joerger play him too many minutes while his offense production has been zero or close to it. Hopefully the injury is just a blip and won't keep him out of the rotation for an extended amount of time. It'd probably also be a good idea to get Jonny Basketball out on the floor to take some threes in his absence.
Last night's road win over the Portland Trail Blazers is the signature win of the season so far. The Grizzlies put on a clinic on both sides of the ball in Portland on Monday night, and the Blazers—the third place team in the West, looking to bounce back against a poor showing on the road at Golden State—were helpless to do anything but stand in and take the body blows the Grizzlies were dishing out.
Portland has the highest-ranked offense in the league, in both points per game and offensive efficiency. Last night, the Grizzlies held them below 90 points at home for the first time all year. It was only the 10th time the Blazers had even been held below 100, and the second time below 90 (the first being that aforementioned Golden State loss).
But last night wasn't just about the Grizzlies' defense clamping down in a way that it hasn't often done this season—it was also about the offense, coming close to 100 points for the second time in two games after spending the first five games after Gasol's return hovering around 90. The Grizzlies' offensive efficiency last night was 107.4. The Grizzlies shot 51.8% from the floor and 46.2% from beyond the arc. Zach Randolph had 23 points (and 10 rebounds, which topped Pau Gasol's Grizzlies franchise record for most double doubles with 190).
And everyone who played (sorry Jamaal Franklin and Jon Leuer) contributed to the cause (except Ed Davis, who did an OK job on defense but overall struggled mightily on both ends against the much bigger and supremely gifted LaMarcus Aldridge). Nick Calathes played 13:24 and while he only made one bucket, he had 4 rebounds and 4 assists to go along with it. Mike Miller was 3-3 from long range. Tayshaun Prince took too many midrange jumpers. James Johnson's numbers don't reflect his defensive contributions (or how quickly he racked up those 4 fouls).
This is what we were promised when the Joerger Era began, though, isn't it? The same suffocating defense, augmented by an offense with the ability to go on big scoring runs when the conditions were right, bolstered by outside shooting and driven by ball movement run through Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?
(Speaking of Marc Gasol ball movement, he's got to stop hitting the wide open Tayshaun Prince with the ball instead of going to someone else. It's the same thing he did hitting Tony Allen in the corner for a wide open three. Yes, Marc, they're wide open. Let's consider why that might be the case before we pass, hmm?)
At any rate, the Grizzlies are now 6-1 since the return of Marc Gasol, and he's not even all the way healthy yet—or even particularly close. I'd say he's playing at about 70%-80%. Four of those wins have come over Oklahoma City, Houston, and Portland, teams the Spurs haven't been able to beat yet. The Griz are now 1½ games back of Dallas for the 8th playoff spot, but it doesn't stop there—now they're 2½ games out of the 6th and 7th spots. Only 5 games out of the 5th spot. The Western Conference playoff race is starting to tighten up at the bottom, and it's only going to get tighter as the season races toward its conclusion.
For comparison, the Grizzlies, currently 9th in the West, are closer to the top-seeded Thunder (11.5 games back) than the 3rd-seeded Raptors are to the Pacers in the East (12 games back). If they keep winning games like this one over the West's best opponents, the Grizzlies are going to make some noise, both in the regular season, and potentially in a first-round playoff matchup. They've beaten all of the top teams in the West except for San Antonio now. The only two teams above them in the standings whom the Grizzlies have yet to beat are the Spurs and the Mavericks, and they still have to play both teams at least one more time.
The Grizzlies appear to be starting to round into shape, coming together to make a serious run at the right time. Between now and the All Star break, the Griz have an excellent chance to stockpile wins and move up the standings and then take a week off to rest. Last night's win over Portland is further proof that this Griz squad can hang with the West's elite, and that the Grizzlies' opponents should all be wary of running into this particularly burly, non-bluffing buzzsaw.
While the Grizzlies have been re-finding their grove since regaining Marc Gasol from injury, there's been one important player sidelined by an injury with no return timetable: Defensive mastermind and Lord of Basketball Chaos Tony Allen.
When Allen first went down, the word was that he suffered a "ligament injury" in his hand—one in which the ligament pulled away from the bone and pulled a bone fragment away with it. The timetable given then was "two to three weeks." That was January 7, and three weeks from the 7th is... today.
One thing is for certain: when Allen comes back, he comes back to a team that has flourished with Courtney Lee starting in his spot. Since coming to the Grizzlies from the Celtics in exchange for Jerryd Bayless, Lee has proven himself to be an excellent shooter and a solid defender, and while he's not the world class stopper that Allen is, the truth is that Allen hasn't really played up to his normal standard for much of this year, presumably because he's been fighting through so many injuries (you may remember that he missed several games in an earlier stretch due to a thigh contusion suffered in a December win over the Phoenix Suns).
The Grizzlies have an awful lot of wing players now, and they all seem to have overlapping skill sets: Lee, Allen, Jamaal Franklin, Quincy Pondexter, James Johnson, and Tayshaun Prince. They don't all do the same things, but each of them has something in common with the others. It's a bit of a logjam at the 2 and 3 spots when everyone is healthy.
Going into the weekend, I thought it was possible that the Grizzlies could win both games against the Rockets—one home and one away—but that doesn't mean I thought it was likely.
When the Grizzlies won the first game in a close one (88-87) that came down to a couple of last-second possessions and some stifling defense (remember that?) from the Griz to end the game, no thanks to Chandler Parsons hitting ten three pointers in a row, my prediction for the second game was that it would be even uglier, even slower, and even closer. I was right... for one quarter.
Ultimately the Grizzlies won 99-81 after several minutes of garbage time. At one point with six minutes left, the Grizzlies led 90-63. The Rockets have been prone to shooting droughts as of late—I'm thinking specifically of this game against Oklahoma City in which they scored 73 points in the first half and 19 in the second—but that's not really what happened on Saturday night.
What happened is that the Grizzlies bludgeoned the Rockets into submission and ran away with the game. Zach Randolph, matched up on Dwight Howard for a good bit of the time and Terrence Jones for the rest of it, had 15 points and 17 rebounds. Kosta Koufos, who's been playing mostly spot minutes as of late, played 24 minutes and had 14 and 7. Marc Gasol only had 6 points, but his continuous frustration of Dwight Howard on both ends of the floor—something that's happened for years—made for delightful entertainment. According to the advanced stats, Howard had an offensive rating (ORtg) of 68 and a defensive rating of 95. Which is, umm, less than stellar.
Last night the Grizzlies played the Houston Rockets.
Tonight, the Grizzlies play the Houston Rockets.
It's only happened one other time since the Grizzlies moved to Memphis (a 2006 home-and-home against the Dallas Mavericks) but the Griz find themselves in the midst of a divisional home-and-home matchup, and it came at a point where the Grizzlies were 0-10 against Southwest Division opponents, including a fart-worthy performance on MLK Day against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Grizzlies are now 1-10 (21-20 overall), with an opportunity to improve to 2-10 and 2 games over .500 tonight, after defeating the Rockets in Houston last night 88-87.
Here are some things the Grizzlies will have to do tonight if they want to beat the Rockets twice in a row:
• Defend the three point shot better. The Rockets attempted 34 threes last night, and the Grizzlies were fortunate that they couldn't hit the broad side of Jake Tsakalidis in the first half. In the second half, Chandler Parsons heated up (like, really heated up) and made ten threes in a row—almost enough for Houston to steal the game away. If they'd connected on more wide open threes in the first half, the Grizzlies would've been playing from behind instead of from ahead. They have to do a better job of not helping off three-point shooters. (Haven't I been saying that since last year's Conference Finals?)
• Play solid basketball for 48 minutes. The Grizzlies had some stretches last night—especially the beginning of the third quarter, and a couple of spots in the early fourth where everyone forgot what the plays were—where they just weren't executing. It's the same thing we've said all year, but last night, in a critical spot, it almost cost them the game—several possessions ended in shot clock violations or other turnovers, and others ended in jacked-up threes with a second or two on the clock. Not smart basketball, and something they're going to have to watch out for tonight.
• I know Dave Joerger is trying to figure out the rotations still, but... I think I'm done with the "James Johnson and Tayshaun Prince as the 2 and 3" lineups. Last night saw Calathes-Prince-Johnson-Davis-Gasol together in the first quarter, and... needless to say, they didn't know what to do with each other. They haven't played much together this season, which explains the unfamiliarity, but maybe there's a reason they haven't played together (beyond the Gasol injury). I get that Johnson and Prince are tall. That doesn't mean they're secret weapons to be deployed in bizarre anti-smallball lineups when those lineups cause what little offensive flow the Grizzlies have to evaporate like spilled lighter fluid.
• Keep taking the ball inside. Late in last night's game, Zach Randolph got going and got Dwight Howard into foul trouble. That worked. When the Grizzlies got away from that attack down the stretch, the Rockets started closing the gap (and Brevin Knight got really frustrated on the broadcast). When the inside game is working late in a game like that, it has to remain the Grizzlies' first option. Why go away from something that's clearly working with such an important game on the line?
Bottom line is this: it's going to be hard for the Grizzlies to beat the Rockets two nights in a row. The Rockets are a good team. The upside is that tonight, both teams are on the second night of a back to back and the Grizzlies are at home. I expect tonight to be another close one, but if the Grizzlies can contain the Rockets' outside shooting (and keep James Harden from shooting 25 free throws) I think they can pull off the home-and-home sweep.
When the regular season was about to start, I wrote a preview for the print edition of the Flyer in which I put forth the ten big questions that would be facing the Grizzlies as a team and a franchise over the course of the 2013-14 season. Yesterday, I looked at the first five questions to see if they'd been answered yet. Today, I'm going to look at the other five questions from that preview piece and take stock of where the Grizzlies are with the halfway point of the season coming up between tonight's game in Houston and tomorrow's game in Memphis.
6. If the Grizzlies struggle this year, what will that do to their burgeoning fan base?
This is an interesting one. In the preview piece, here's what I said:
To be clear, I don’t think the team will trend downward this year, but the Western Conference Finals are a high bar that not many teams are able to reach—much less reach two years in a row. If the team’s newly-won fans expect the same level of performance this year, and things start to go south, it could create some interesting tension around the team.
Interesting tensions, indeed. Maybe I spend too much time on the Internet, but it seems to me like a small segment of Grizzlies fans are completely enraged by everything that has happened with the team since the last buzzer of WCF Game 4 sounded back in May. People are still talking about "If Lionel Hollins was still the coach..." The same group of fans used Ed Davis' early-season struggles as proof that he was never going to be any good. I'm surprised they haven't started calling for the head of Nick Calathes on a platter.
To be clear: there are legitimate issues and complaints to be made about this year's team, especially as it pertains to the struggles experienced by a first-year head coach and a team that has only looked "right" for two or three heartbreakingly short stretches this season. I stand by what I said back in November, though: "Make it back to the Western Conference Finals or the year is a failure" was a standard that probably wasn't going to be met even if everything had gone perfectly for the Grizzlies so far.
With any luck, the Grizzlies will be engaged in a thrilling playoff race and clinch the 8th seed and make it into the postseason, and that'll be the end of the... what did Calipari call them? Miserables? But we'll see. On the Internet, anyway, there's clearly a division among Griz fans between "Keep it the way it was" and "The new guys know what they're doing". Hopefully that's just an outgrowth of the turmoil the team has been going through this season. Winning covers a multitude of sins.
7. What will be the first in-season roster move the Grizzlies make?
I speculated that the Grizzlies would try to move Tayshaun Prince and/or Jerryd Bayless. Prince because of his contract, and Bayless because the front office wasn't expecting him to pick up his player option and return to the Grizzlies this season—but as soon as it was apparent that Lionel Hollins wasn't returning, Bayless did just that.
When the Grizzlies finish playing the Rockets in Houston on Friday night, and get on a plane to head back to Memphis and play the Rockets again Saturday night, they'll be at the halfway point of the season: 41 games played, 41 games to go.
Of course, they're on one of the longer breaks of the season right now, having last played Monday evening against the Pelicans, so this is a better time to stop and take stock of what a crazy season this has been so far.
If you'd told me in September that the Grizzlies would be 20-20 right now, with Tony Allen having played in 27 games, Marc Gasol in 17—Kosta Koufos and Mike Miller are the only guys who have played in all 40 games—with Jerryd Bayless replaced with Courtney Lee and James Johnson as a major piece of the rotation, I would've asked you what you were on, and maybe where I could get some. When we started talking about what the Grizzlies were going to look like this year, I think Memphis fans and media were a little blinded by what happened last year when trying to formulate what this year would look like—especially given the coaching change and the time that would be (and was) needed to adjust to that transition.
When I previewed the season all the way back in November, I asked ten questions about how the Grizzlies' season would go. So. Why not go through them and see if we have answers yet? I'll do the first five today, and the other five tomorrow, and it'll give us a good framework for taking stock of this season at its halfway mark.
On a day when the NBA makes it a point to honor the legacy and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the holiday to commemorate his birthday1, the Grizzlies took the extra share of national attention given to them and laid an egg for the national audience to see. Even though this year's MLK Day matchup seemed to be less of a marquee game than others—the Grizzlies/Pelicans game was at 4 PM on NBA TV instead of being the first game and featured on ESPN as is usual—it was still an important one: a chance for the Grizzlies to finally get a win over a divisional opponent and put away the Pelicans, who came into Monday's game missing Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Jason Smith to injury.
Since the return of Marc Gasol, we've been witness to the demise of JoergerBall: the Grizzlies were averaging well over 100 points per 100 possessions, they were pushing the pace, Mike Conley had all the space in the world to operate, allowing him to have a streak of games the likes of which he's never had in his career—all of it without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and high-post offensive savant who seemingly made everything happen last year. That's not to say the Grizzlies didn't miss Gasol. Especially on the defensive end, where the "grit and grind" thing died a horrible death months ago.
But, one has to admit, that with the additions of James Johnson and Courtney Lee, and the ascendance of Ed Davis, a streak of great games from Jon Leuer (who has since gone cold) and Mike Conley attacking every game like it was the Kobayashi Maru, things were going pretty well. The Griz clawed back up to one game under .500 just in time for Gasol to come back from his eight weeks off against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Right away things were off. The pace fell back through the floor. Gasol hasn't played in eight weeks, hasn't practiced with Johnson and Lee at all, and left the Grizzlies when they were playing the same way they played last year—and returned to a team with a much different look on offense, with Zach Randolph turning in some of the best post passing of his career, and hyper athletic 4's playing off Mike Miller and Courtney Lee putting up huge scoring runs. The adjustment was never going to be easy—and it's not like the Grizzlies have been getting beaten by 20 points regularly the way they were early in the season—but it does feel like since Gasol has yet to integrate with what the team is trying to do, the Grizzlies are driving with the parking brake on.
It felt like the Grizzlies were never going to get into a rhythm, and at times in the fourth quarter, it felt like the Kings had established a lead that would be hard for the Grizzlies to overcome. In the end, though, the Grizzlies were able to fend off a last-second Rudy Gay attempt at a game winner by forcing him to bobble the ball, which referee Marc Davis somehow decided was a jump ball.
The Grizzlies won the jump ball and thus the game. A win is a win, but this one felt uglier than it needed to be. Inserting Marc Gasol back into the picture has taken the Grizzlies from a fast-paced, high scoring offense back into, well, Grizzly territory. Gasol and Courtney Lee have never played together before. When asked about it last night in the locker room, Gasol said that when he was going through his light workouts last week, he wasn't even with the first team—he was with the second team so the starters could practice together.
Re-integrating Gasol into the Grizzlies' overall scheme is going to be a challenge for Dave Joerger, especially since the way the team plays shifted so much in his absence with the addition of James Johnson and Courtney Lee to the roster. So far, having Gasol on the floor has greatly slowed the Grizzlies down, both because he's never been much of a runner and also because, as Joerger pointed out in his post game comments, the rest of the Grizzlies got used to playing without him and now aren't always sure where everyone is going to be on the floor at any given point.
Last night, though, the Grizzlies were able to contain DeMarcus Cousins (except not without fouling him) and keep Rudy Gay to 19 points on 18 shots (a more "Bad Rudy"-like stat line than he's been putting up lately) and at the same time got 25 points and 6 assists out of Mike Conley, which was enough to get it done.
• The Grizzlies lost the rebounding battle in a big way, especially on the offensive boards where they only managed 2 OREBS per half for a total of 4. The Kings ended up with 10, and overall out-rebounded the Grizzlies by six. That's not normal, but it does point to the skill of DeMarcus Cousins. There were also times when the Kings had huge lineups on the floor, using so much size that Rudy Gay or Derrick Williams were the nominal shooting guard.
• Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol both thought last night was a block party, each blocking 4 shots. Two of Gasol's blocks came against Rudy Gay, and I have to admit: they were fun to watch.
• Nick Calathes had a great run in the first half. Legitimately good. He made some plays, hit a 3-pointer, kept the ship afloat with Conley on the bench, and then spent some time on the floor together with Conley while the Grizzlies tried to maintain a lead going into halftime. The crowd went crazy every time he did something good—almost a little too crazy, "sorry we booed you" crazy. Talking to Marc Gasol after the game, he said the cheers for Calathes made him really happy because "fans don't know how bad it hurts to get booed by your own side. I can't tell people not to do it, but I wish they wouldn't."
• Speaking of booing, fans had something worth booing last night: Marc Davis' officiating was pretty circumspect, especially the jump ball call that ended the game. Tom Ziller of SB Nation has a really good breakdown of what happened, including footage of the play. After the game I asked Tayshaun Prince how Davis explained the jump ball call, and Prince said he just said something about returning to the floor with the ball (which Gay did because he lost his handle on it, not because any Griz player's hand was on it) and told him to drop it. Not a good call, and not a way to end a close-fought game. No matter how the game ended last night, the losing coach would've had every right to blame the officiating. It wasn't good.
• Now the Grizzlies have a break before they take on the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Game. The halftime entertainer this year is Charley Pride, and I have to say, that fills me with an unreasonable amount of excitement. The Pelicans have been decimated by injuries this year, with Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson both out for extended periods and Tyreke Evans currently nursing a bone bruise in his left ankle, but Anthony Davis gave Gasol absolute fits the first time these teams faced off. It'll be an interesting game, and a chance for the Grizzlies to win their first division game of the year—they're currently the only team in the league without a single division win.
With last night's win over the Bucks (I've only watched the first half so far—the rest is still waiting for me on my DVR, so I won't really comment on that game until I've watched it all the way through) the Grizzlies are back up to .500 for the first time since December 9th. It seems like this is a good moment to pause for a second, look at the Western Conference playoff standings, and look at what has to happen for the Grizzlies to sneak into the playoffs as a 7 or 8 seed—an outcome that few would have believed even two weeks ago.
First things first: here are the standings as of this morning:
Last night's Grizzlies win and Timberwolves loss moved the Grizzlies to 10th and the Wolves to 11th, where they were previously tied. The Grizzlies and Wolves play each other three more times, once at home and twice in Minnesota, and every one of those games will be crucial to creating separation between the two in the standings. The Grizzlies lost the first matchup in Memphis in December, so winning out the season series and grabbing the tie-breaker could be a difference maker.
But that only gets the Grizzlies from 11th to 10th. What about the other teams in this "third tier" of West teams, the Nuggets, Mavericks, and Suns?
Some of this was covered expertly by Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili yesterday in a post about how good Mike Conley has been this season. You should stop reading this post, go read that one, and then come back enlightened and uplifted. You did that? Okay. To summarize: the Grizzlies played a really tough schedule to open the season, and they're going to reap the rewards of that by having a February and March wherein they play lots of Eastern Conference teams. They'll be playing more road games and more back-to-backs, but generally the competition is a little bit lighter through this stretch of the season.
Last night was a good night to be a Grizzlies fan. Marc Gasol made his triumphant return to game action against the Oklahoma City Thunder and helped power the Grizzlies to a 90-87 win in front of an energized home crowd.
Zach Randolph got 23-13, a pretty big stat line for him coming against Z-Bo Killer Nick Collison and Steven "Slightly Shorter and Stockier Nick Collison" Adams. Kendrick Perkins got worked by Gasol even though Gasol hadn't played in an NBA game since late November.
The Grizzlies came out of the gate strong, clearly feeding off the energy and excitement of Gasol's return. New addition Courtney Lee had 14 points just in the first quarter (and finished with 24). They struggled in the second quarter, giving up 31 points to the Thunder and thus the lead, but after halftime they got back on track, reasserting control over the game until it came down to a Serge Ibaka corner 3 to tie, which missed.
Marc Gasol makes everything about the Memphis Grizzlies better, and not just because he's one of the best centers in the NBA. Gasol makes everything about the Grizzlies better because he so clearly enjoys every second that he's on the court.
I can't find a good GIF of the bounce assist where Gasol caught a pass from Conley and in one swift motion whipped it back to him in a bounce pass that Conley took all the way to the rim for a layup. But that was my "Oh yeah, Marc Gasol is back" moment. Griz fans were also treated to such classics as the "Marc Gasol embarrasses Kendrick Perkins with a spin move in the post" and the timeless "Marc Gasol catches a pass he didn't know was coming to him and still sinks a 20-foot set shot." It was glorious, and the crowd loved it, and Gasol loved it right back.
He even had occasion to pull out the seldom-seen Marc Gasol self-buttslap:
In the locker room after the game, Gasol said the ovation he got from fans when he was announced in the starting lineup gave him goosebumps that lasted a minute or two, and that he felt like a rookie all over again. He went out and played like a little kid on Christmas. Griz fans felt the same way watching him out there.
Head coach Dave Joerger said after the game that his original intention was not for Gasol to play 24 minutes, but that Gasol got competitive (and presumably Joerger did, too) and that's just kind of the way it ended up. Certainly, no Griz fans were complaining about how much time Gasol spent on the court.
Now the rotation changes that I've discussed here before are going to start to happen. Last night, the primary effect was that Kosta Koufos and Jon Leuer both only played 3 minutes. How quickly Gasol is able to integrate back into the lineups will determine how quickly the Grizzlies are able to make a push to catch and pass 8th place Phoenix in the Western Conference standings—which I think is very possible, especially given the injury to Eric Bledsoe—so these next couple of weeks are critical.
But worrying about minutes is for another time and place. For now: Marc Gasol is back.
Nick Calathes came in in the first half and played pretty poorly. The Thunder did a really good job of forcing him into the corner, where they were able to trap him and force him to make some tough passes—it really was pretty poor decision-making on Calathes' part. In fact, the Grizzlies are almost certainly going to make another roster move soon to add a backup point guard. They're going to have to if Calathes can't get his game going in the next couple of weeks.
So, when Calathes—the only backup point guard on the Grizzlies' roster at the moment, mind you—checked into the game in the third quarter, what happened? A bunch of Griz fans booed him.
Now, I know that Memphis has a long NBA tradition of excellence and all, but what's with the boos? I understand being upset that Conley is leaving the game and Calathes is coming in, but what's booing going to accomplish? Further rattle an already-rattled player instead of, you know, showing a little support for the guy who ostensibly plays for the team you're a fan of?
The Calathes booing incident isn't isolated, either. Against Phoenix, amidst an incredibly long run of missed free throws, Tayshaun Prince got booed for missing a pair. Tayshaun Prince, who has played through more injuries than any of us know about just to be on the floor trying to win games for this team. You know, the team Grizzlies fans are fans of.
Maybe my mistake was expecting fans not to be mean. Certainly fans have the right to do whatever they want. But I'm not sure when Memphis turned into Philadelphia. I guess three straight trips to the playoffs has Grizzlies fans expecting perfection. Griz fans are in a weird place this season—it seems like a lot of them are mad about literally everything the organization does. Let's not take this out on the players. These guys represent your city in everything they do. And that's the thing: when you're in the crowd at a Grizzlies game, you're representing your city, too.
Look: You don't have to like Nick Calathes. His play certainly hasn't been good enough to earn your support. But that's the thing: he plays for the Grizzlies, and you're a Grizzlies fan, and when has sports fandom ever been about earning support? Would you boo a Tigers player for missing a pair of free throws? I don't remember hearing any the year they totally didn't go to that Final Four because there's no record of it. I just don't get it. Whatever. But maybe ease up on the boo-birds for the home team. It serves no purpose other than to make Memphis look bad.
The Imminent Return of Marc Gasol
Reports are emerging from all over (especially from Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal) that Marc Gasol has returned to practice, and that while there still isn't a timetable attached to his return from a Grade 2 MCL sprain, he would seem to be very close to making some kind of a comeback within the next little bit—two weeks or so. Gasol returned to light workouts last week and has now returned to "full contact" basketball activities, and by all accounts feels very good about where he's at.
What the return of Gasol means to this Grizzlies team is hard to pin down until it actually happens; the team has finally started to play well without him in the last eight or nine games, but his presence is still clearly missed in the middle of the lane (especially on defense).
As discussed previously, Gasol's return will put the squeeze on a frontcourt rotation that is already pressed for minutes, with Kosta Koufos, Zach Randolph, Jon Leuer, Ed Davis, and now James Johnson, Occasional Power Forward soaking up time at the big man spots. With Gasol back and able to play, coach Dave Joerger has some interesting choices to make about who plays and who sits—here's hoping he doesn't return to his early-season option of "just play everybody whether they need to be played or not"—and the choices he makes have implications for the future of the Grizzlies.
One thing I'm interested to see is how well Gasol can play with the much-improved Ed Davis, and how well he functions in the small-ball lineup we saw Joerger go to at the end of the Atlanta game with Courtney Lee, Mike Miller, and James Johnson. Those shooters-and-athletic-4 lineups seem to be the most effective offensive weapons the Grizzlies have right now—and they seem to run "the system" that Joerger wanted to run all along, back in the "lose to the Raptors by 20 points" days of November.
How Gasol does with one of these hyper-athletic 4's at his side—especially Ed Davis—is going to set the tone for the season to come in terms of personnel moves yet to be made. It may have a bearing on how much the Grizzlies are willing to spend this summer to keep Davis, who'll be a restricted free agent after the year.
At any rate, the return of one of the best centers in the league to the lineup can only be a good thing, no matter how well the team is playing together. Gasol's basketball brilliance will allow him to improve whatever group he's playing with (so long as he doesn't play like the early-season fatigued Gasol about whom there was much blogosphere consternation), and when was "too many good frontcourt players" ever a bad problem to have?
In the last three games, Mike Conley has made a pretty solid case for himself as an All-Star: back to back 30-point outings against San Antonio and Phoenix followed up by 21 points on 7-15 shooting and 13 assists in Sunday evening's win over the Atlanta Hawks. People are starting to talk about how good he has been all year long, and he seems to be improving and getting better every time he's asked to step up.
Conley has been nothing short of a revelation this season. He's carrying the offense as usual, keeping the ball moving and threatening to blow by his man and get to the rim at the drop of a hat, but he's scoring more than he's ever scored before, he's developed a near-elite ability to finish at the rim, and he's getting to the foul line more than ever (even though he still gets clobbered for no call on a regular basis—the perils of being Mike Conley, I guess).
If you'd asked me before the Marc Gasol injury whether the Grizzlies would survive better without Gasol or Conley, I would've said Gasol, but I would've had to think about it for a minute before I answered. Now, it's clear that Mike Conley (in Gasol's absence, especially) is what makes this Grizzlies team work. Take him away, and the whole thing grinds (no pun intended) to a halt.
Zach Randolph has had some monster games recently, as well, but his play (along with the added spark of new addition Courtney Lee and the continued growth of Ed Davis, among other things) has been lost in the white-hot heat of whatever is happening with Conley at the moment.
Conley has kept the Grizzlies in the hunt for the West's last playoff spot. If he weren't playing this well, I would argue you'd see a Grizzlies team thinking about tanking, making future-oriented roster moves and saying "let's wait for next year." But they're not. And #11 has a great deal to do with that.
• Mike Conley, as I just spent 300 words explaining.
• The small lineup that coach Dave Joerger went to in the fourth quarter last night against Atlanta ended up pulling away from the Hawks and sealing the game for the Grizzlies: Conley, Courtney Lee, Mike Miller, James Johnson as power forward, and Zach Randolph. Johnson's athleticism allowed him to make defensive plays against Paul Millsap that Randolph wasn't able to make, and overall the outside shooting from Lee and Miller—they took a lot of shots from long range, and made an unusually high percentage thereof—spread Atlanta thin on defense. We're starting to see the offense that Joerger wants to run now that he has personnel capable of running it.
I tweeted this thought during the Grizzlies' big comeback run:
Makes me feel kind of weird that a lot of the Grizzlies’ best runs lately have come with a really athletic guy at the 4...
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) January 13, 2014
But several Twitter followers told me to be quiet and not to bring that up. So I'm just going to leave that thought there, to be revisited at a later date.
• This is something I talked about on MemphiSport Live on Saturday morning: Joerger has got to be more consistent with his rotations. I've been harping on this for a while now, I guess, but that doesn't make it any less true: on any NBA team, guys perform better if they're comfortable with (1) when they'll be playing and (2) how much they'll be playing. The lineups being used have to be more consistent. A group of five guys who have made it all the way to January without playing more than five minutes together is not a group of five guys you'd want to leave on the floor for significant stretches, especially if they're giving up ground to the other team while they're out there. I think the Grizzlies pretty much know what they have now, and to me, that means guys' minutes should start to stabilize. Otherwise they'll never be able to get into a rhythm.
• Jon "Jonny Basketball" "Jonny Badger" Leuer's shooting numbers have fallen off a cliff the last two games. Leuer was 1-6 against Atlanta, 1-5 against Phoenix, both after having a 10 points, 9 rebound night against the Spurs last week. Not sure what's prompting the struggle from Leuer, but he's been an important part of the Grizzlies bench's recent resurgence and the sooner he can get his jumper working again, the better. The Grizzlies need his long-range abilities (and his play around the rim ain't bad either), especially when he's on the floor with Ed Davis and James Johnson.
Over the weekend, the Grizzlies completed a deal with the Boston Celtics (which also somehow involved Oklahoma City) to swap Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee and a 2nd-round pick. The deal replaces Bayless, whose contract expires after this season and whose production appeared to have expired earlier this year before starting to improve slightly just before he was traded, with Lee, a proven commodity rotation player on a mid-level contract for the next two years after this one.
Given that the deal leaves Nick Calathes (whose struggles have been discussed in these pages recently) as the only point guard on the team not named Mike Conley, it would appear that even if—and it's certainly still a big if—Calathes is the solution at point guard, the Grizzlies will be signing a third ballhandler. No team can afford to only have two point guards on the roster, and given that we've now entered the Peak Calathes period, wherein he's the only backup, the front office should have some idea whether he's their man relatively soon.
There's also the issue of the imminent return of Marc Gasol from injury. Two weeks ago, we heard rumblings that he'd be back in two weeks. As it stands, he's been participating in light workouts but not in full-on practices yet, and the team still hasn't given any sort of concrete timetable for his return. My gut tells me the return is largely up to him and how he feels; if he feels ready to participate in practice then he will. If he feels ready to play, they'll probably have a hard time keeping him from doing so.
When Gasol does return, he's going to create quite a logjam in the Grizzlies' frontcourt (which, honestly, is the best bench problem the Grizzlies have had in years). In Gasol's absence, Kosta Koufos, Ed Davis, and Jon Leuer have all stepped up and increased their roles, and Davis and Leuer have seen marked improvement in the way they play basketball. Davis, especially, is improving at a very rapid rate, seemingly adding a new skill to his game every other night. When Gasol comes back and starts soaking up frontcourt minutes, there are going to be too many guys playing well and not enough minutes to play them all.
We also know that the Grizzlies would love to get out from under Tayshaun Prince's $7 million contract this year and next. Prince is clearly on the downslope of his game, playing through injuries, and even in the last three games when we started seeing "Tayshaun is finally healthy!" articles and he was able to score in the double digits for the first time this year, he's still not helping the offense as much as he needs to for the starting lineup not to be a smoldering black hole on offense for large stretches.
So what's next for the Grizzlies? What's the next move?
Yes, it was a loss. The Grizzlies did not get a victory at home Tuesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. There were stretches in the game—especially through the fourth quarter—where the Grizzlies looked completely overmatched and outclassed by San Antonio on both ends of the floor, and Tim Duncan was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted on either end of the floor. There were times when the lineups on the floor didn't work well, and times when the players in the lineups weren't making smart decisions.
The Grizzlies, and their fans, have to feel pretty good after last night's overtime loss. Results aside, last night's game finally gave Grizzlies fans something to cheer for, something to be excited about, something that melted away (even if only for the last ten minutes) all the injuries, all the talk about tanking, the lingering bitterness and factionalism about personnel and coaching changes. During last night's game, it was the same as it ever was, with the Grizzlies going out and fighting, scratching, and clawing their way into overtime, and then dueling the Spurs to the very last possession in overtime, coming up short by one missed Mike Conley three from that much too far out.
Coming back from down 12 with 1:30 left in the game to tie it and send it to overtime was mostly carried out by a lineup of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, James Johnson, Ed Davis, and Zach Randolph, and they made it happen. The whole thing hinged on an improbable James Johnson steal-in-to-pull-up-three that went in, and a Mike Conley layup that bounced around on the rim for what felt like ten minutes after the buzzer. Meanwhile, on the Spurs' bench, Gregg Popovich sat in his chair staring holes in the opposite wall of FedExForum, the remaining crowd—the fans who hadn't left when the Grizzlies were down 12+ points with a few minutes to go—going crazy around him.