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.
None of this bodes well for playoff chances. The Grizzlies are now .500 (20-20) with 40 out of 82 games played. They've got the tie-breaker with Phoenix, but Dallas is ahead of them as well, at the 7th spot. They're 1-1 with Denver. If the Grizzlies—the only team in the entire NBA without a single win over another divisional opponent—can't start picking up some of the divisional games left on the schedule, they're in trouble. It starts Friday and Saturday with a home-and-home back to back against the Houston Rockets.
But last night wasn't a total disaster. The issues the Grizzlies had were mostly fixable, and largely stemmed from two Pelicans: Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans.
Anthony Davis is a freak of nature, and I think he can legitimately be a franchise-changing Hall of Fame type player. His length creates a black hole on defense where no interior passing can happen without being somehow altered, which is Kryptonite to the Grizzlies, especially with Gasol operating from the elbow. He blocks everything. The other Pelicans players on the court weren't too great, but they were long, and that meant everything Davis was able to tip, someone came up with, leading to turnover numbers (13 in the first half, 17 overall) that haven't been seen since the Griz were getting pummeled by the Raptors and, well, Pelicans back in November.
On the other end of the floor, the Grizzlies had no one who could stay in front of Tyreke Evans without putting him on the free throw line. Tayshaun Prince wasn't quick enough to do it (and I'm not sure Prince was strong enough to give him problems even in his prime) and James Johnson had stretches where he did well followed by stretches of All Of The Fouls. As a result, Evans was able to get to the rim at will—not that that was suprising, Tiger fans.
The Grizzlies need to win at least one of the back-to-back games against Houston coming up on Friday and Saturday. If they expend a great deal of energy on Friday at Houston and don't come away with a win, there's a real danger that they'll get run out of their own building on Saturday, deflated, putting Harden on the line 20 times again, not playing as hard as they should for the whole 48 minutes. While fighting for their playoff lives, the return of Marc Gasol has disrupted a machine that was starting to run smoothly for the first time all year. JoergerBall was working. Now let's see something else arise in its place and get the Grizzlies firing on all cylinders again.