Herewith, some reasons the Grizzlies lost to the Cavaliers in overtime, 91-83:
The lack of Mike Conley has been killing the Grizzlies, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Lost in the shuffle of Conley's insanely high level of play this season is the fact that he's kept the Grizzlies' heads above water on that end of the floor by getting to the rim at will and knowing when to distribute.
In five games without Conley, the Grizzlies have scored 99, 77, 96, 79, and now 83 (but the 83 came after an overtime wherein the Grizzlies scored 5 points). The defense has played pretty well, but not that well, especially against Dallas and Milwaukee, and so the offensive shortcomings have proven to be fatal. I haven't watched the game back closely enough to know how many trips down the floor came up empty for the Griz last night, but I know it was more than it should have been.
And that's not to slight Nick Calathes; Calathes was solid last night, with 17 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. But, as we've seen from time to time this year, Conley can put up 28 or 30 seemingly at will, and last night he probably would've done that in the process of refusing to let his team lose to the Cavs. Without him, no such luck.
We need to stop pretending Marc Gasol is healthy. I'm not sure what happened, but the last three or four games, he's not trusting the knee anymore, and it's severely limiting what he can do out on the court. He has stretches of play where he looks fine, making spin moves in the post, playing great defense, and then he has other stretches where he looks tentative, scared to push off of his braced leg.
Maybe Gasol came back at just the right time to help the Grizzlies, or maybe he rushed back too soon and now he's paying the price for it. Either way, the approaching All Star break should be a good opportunity for him to rest up the knee and get the treatment he so obviously needs. Until then, 70-75% of Marc Gasol and 0% of Mike Conley—meaning 35% of your two best players—is going to continue to be a struggle for this Grizzlies squad.
The small forward position for the Grizzlies this season is a dumpster fire on top of a toxic waste pit somewhere near the engine room of the Titanic. Last night was a microcosm of the bigger picture: Tayshaun Prince wasn't terrible but he wasn't good, scoring 7 points on 6 shots, but (and this is especially true with Conley out and the offense starved for scoring) "not terrible" isn't really enough to keep the Grizzlies afloat for long stretches.
Meanwhile Mike Miller played 20 minutes, took 4 shots, and made none of them. Miller's struggles have been somewhat under-reported this season, I think, but he's been quietly having an abominable stretch of play lately, being used in weird lineups and/or just not playing very well, not taking outside jumpers and instead driving into the lane trying to make plays—something which worked for Miller the last time he was in a Griz uniform, but that was what, seven years ago?
On top of that, James Johnson lifted the Grizzlies back into the game in the fourth quarter by scoring 13 straight points—as in, he was the only Grizzly scoring for so long that he single-handedly willed himself to 13 straight points — and then he seemingly ran out of whatever good mojo had propelled him to the 13 straight and played crappy defense and tried to do too much on offense. That continues to be my main gripe with Johnson: he's brilliant for stretches and those stretches inspire him to keep trying to take over the game.
My favorite example of this was the time (I think it was the OKC game in which Gasol returned) that Johnson tried to wave off a Z-Bo who had position on his man (might've been Perkins, might've been Collison, I don't remember) so that he, James Johnson, could iso on that side of the floor. Z-Bo just raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and called for the ball again, and Johnson made the entry pass, but we've seen what happens when somebody isn't out there to say "Hey JJ, maybe not this time." It's something that Johnson just has to figure out: how to play all-out for 15 minutes while still recognizing when to play within himself and not try to make every single possible play on the court. It's the only reason I don't think he's ready to be a starter yet: he's too much of a liability once he gets going for a while. His decision-making is inversely proportional to his performance over time.
All of that is to say, if the Grizzlies do anything at the trade deadline, it'd better be for a good, young small forward. I don't know who that would be. The rumor going around last week was that talks of an Ed Davis/Harrison Barnes swap had happened. I guess I'd be fine with that, although I'm not sure how the Warriors would make that work. It's got to be a major off-season goal, though. Do whatever it takes to acquire a small forward, a high level 3s-and-D guy, probably.
Still not sure what's up with the lineups. How long into the third quarter did the starters play last night? 9 minutes? It felt like it. And so of course, down the stretch while Johnson was going off for his 13 straight, Gasol, Randolph, and Lee were all gassed, walking up and down the court begging for a breather. Joerger has to get better at managing who is in the game when, and realizing when he has to rest guys even though he may not be comfortable taking them out of the game quite yet.
It seems like poor form to criticize the rotations of a coach who has almost never had the same players available to him from night to night. The Grizzlies' roster has been something of a Mad Lib all year long, with random guys going down for a few games at a time all over the place. But he's got to be better than this with managing minutes and managing rest. It's no wonder the Cavs got back into the game last night and forced overtime, and it's no wonder once they got there, the Grizzlies were too tired to do anything: they were on the second night of a back to back, and they'd all played 15 minutes in in a row. It's the one thing I think Joerger has been bad at all year long.
I think last night's loss was bad, but given Conley's absence, and given the fact that they beat Atlanta — a much better team than Cleveland—the night before, I'm willing to let this one slide to an extent. Last night's loss showed weaknesses this team has had for a while now, of course, but I'm not willing to ascribe to it any bigger trend than no Conley, hurt Gasol, and a road SEGABABA. It'll get better, especially if Conley returns Tuesday against the Wizards as is hoped. His return will be the biggest improvement the Griz can make to correct the problems shown on Sunday night, which is why I'm not in panic mode.