Rather than the frustrated rant I originally had in mind after last night's ill-timed loss in Portland, I decided to express myself through the power of poetry. A haiku for each point by which the Grizzlies lost:
The defense has left—
Soft interior is like
Reese's Easter Egg.
Tonight in Denver
The legs will feel the tired weight
Futile comeback push.
A five man lineup
None have ever seen before—
A grasping at straws.
Clinging to playoffs
Is like clinging to all things:
Harder than it seems.
Z-Bo on defense:
Collapse of a great fortress
Anyone may pass.
Five games on the road
Treacherous places to play
Season on the brink.
Cannot be the March Grizzlies
Or no May Grizzlies.
That one hurts. The Grizzlies went into Friday night's road game against the Golden State Warriors looking to clinch the season tiebreaker with the Warriors and further advance their playoff cause, gaining ground on a potential 5th or 6th seed. Instead, Golden State went on a 14-0 run in the last 4 minutes of the game—the Grizzlies led 93-86 then, and lost 100-93—as the Grizzlies' offense sputtered to a halt and Golden State managed to run high pick and rolls to get Steph Curry guarded by Zach Randolph at the top of the key.
Curry was close to superhuman Friday night, scoring 33 points and making 8 assists, and of his 5 made threes, at least three of them had no business going in whatsoever, long-range bombs that he can make better than anyone else in the business. Curry's excellence down the stretch combined with the Grizzlies' defensive lapses and inability to get anything going on offense spelled doom for the Griz, and they ended up losing a game that they really needed to win.
The loss to Golden State means the Grizzlies don't have the tiebreaker with them, so to move ahead of them in the standings they'll have to have a better record instead of just tying. The loss also comes on a night when Phoenix won, leaving the 8th-place Grizzlies 2 games behind Golden State, a half game behind Phoenix, and only a half game ahead of 9th-place Dallas. Dallas plays the Kings tonight, so it's very possible that the next time the Grizzlies play, they'll be doing so from 9th place.
The loss was particularly frustrating to me because down 93-96, the Grizzlies couldn't get a stop when they absolutely knew they had to have one. With Z-Bo guarding Draymond Green, the Warriors ran a Green/Curry P&R twice in a row and got two buckets out of it (and prior to that, Green himself made a 3-pointer). It was like the Warriors didn't realize they could exploit Zach Randolph's weaknesses on defense until the last three minutes of the game, and once they did, the Grizzlies were powerless to do anything about it.
You can argue that coach Dave Joerger should've taken Randolph out of the game—I'd say that's reasonable, given that you could then try guarding Green with James Johnson or Ed Davis, two guys athletic enough to get out to the three point line and back without blowing what they're supposed to be doing. For whatever reason—presumably offense—that isn't what happened.
Don't read me as laying the blame for the loss squarely on Randolph or Joerger's shoulders, though. It was a team effort, and early on, the puzzling lack of interior defense the Grizzlies showed against the Jazz on Wednesday night reared its head again, as former "Zoo Crew" (let us never speak of it again) member Marreese Speights reminded Griz fans of when we used to look at each other and say "You know, Speights isn't so bad." The lack of David Lee for the Warriors probably put the Grizzlies at a disadvantage, because the Grizzlies are able to exploit Lee so handily when he's on the floor.
It is worth mentioning, though, that this isn't the first time Z-Bo's liability on defense has come up this season, and it probably won't be the last. Whatever there is to say about how Z-Bo's production hasn't fallen off with age, and how he's still an invaluable part of the Grizzlies' success—all of which is 100% true—his defense was never great to begin with, and this year it's been noticeably worse. Derrick Favors on Wednesday night gave him fits, but that's normal—Favors does that to lots of people. However, the Spurs spent an entire playoff series running Tony Parker high pick and rolls directly at the numbers on Randolph's jersey, and it paid off well for them. An athletic power forward who is a good pick and roll defender (hey, is Ed Davis still alive?) may have handled last night's situation more effectively and thus enabled the Grizzlies to hang on for the win.
I'm not in panic mode, despite the potentially dire consequences of last night's loss. Golden State is a good team, and good teams always have a chance against other good teams. It's frustrating, because the Grizzlies usually handle the Warriors and move on, but the fact is the Grizzlies could've done just that last night and they didn't. With any luck, they'll be motivated and not disheartened when they take the floor in Portland Sunday night.
On to the next one. The Grizzlies still have to play at Portland, at Denver, and at Minnesota on this road trip before returning home to play Denver again on April 4. The last two games of the season are against Phoenix and Dallas. This one's not over by a long shot, and it could be glorious or it could get really ugly. The only way to know is to play the games, but last night didn't help.
Somehow, the Grizzlies managed to pull off a come-from-behind win in Utah last night to beat a Jazz team that's given the Griz more trouble than they've had any right to all season long now. After trailing by as much as 16 in the third quarter, the Grizzlies did some Sean Tuohy math ("If they can get it to single digits by the end of the third quarter") and slowly reeled in the Jazz over the next 18 minutes.
The need for a comeback was partly attributable to the slow start: the Griz ended the first quarter trailing 25-17 and shooting 29% from the floor, with ten different guys getting playing time as coach Dave Joerger flailed around to find a set of players who weren't actively opposed to the idea of playing a basketball game in Utah.
The struggle—a lack of interior defense that made Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors look like, well, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Tony Allen's continued struggles to guard Gordon Hayward, Courtney Lee's continued struggles to do much of anything useful, among other maladies—continued for a solid 30 minutes of game time, with the Grizzlies never able to get any closer than 10 points or so.
That changed starting in the third quarter and after Mike Miller tied the game with a huge wide-open 3, the Griz finally got the lead again with 2:17 left in the game. Despite a couple of attempts to turn the ball over and hand the game back to the Jazz, the Grizzlies made it out with the only thing that matters on this road trip: a win.
⇒ James Johnson played more minutes than he has lately (a little over 18) and did... just okay. Joerger put him in no doubt looking for some kind of a spark off the bench to get things going. Johnson did that, to an extent, but whether it was inconsistency due to lack of solid playing time or whether he was infected by the same general lethargy that had the rest of the Grizzlies in the mud (and not in the "good" way), Johnson didn't do much. In fact, according to Basketball Reference his individual offensive rating was 51 and his defensive rating was 107. Those numbers would be great... if they were reversed.
⇒ Derrick Favors was too much for Zach Randolph to handle last night. He gave Z-Bo fits on both ends most of the game, to the tune of 22 point and 10 rebounds. Of course, Enes Kanter got 15 rebounds, too, which is more indicative of the Grizzlies' general lack of effort on the offensive glass, but Favors in particular gave Z-Bo problems. Randolph's inconsistent defense has hurt the Grizzlies at times this season, but it's hard to say how much of what happened last night was due to a genuine mismatch and how much was effort/execution.
⇒ It would appear that the Monstars have stolen Courtney Lee's abilities. That's the only explanation I can think of for his slump as of late. Lee has struggled to even get a shot up, forcing Mike Miller into the role of "primary floor spacer" that doesn't bode well for the Grizzlies' tentative playoff hopes. Lee was shooting well above his career averages for a while there, so this is obviously the "regression to the mean" that we were all waiting for, but man, is it poorly-timed. With any luck Lee will get his groove back and the Grizzlies will be on their merry way.
⇒ However improbably, the Grizzlies are now 1-0 on this 5-game road swing, which is the only point that really matters from last night. Everyone struggles in Salt Lake City to an extent. With any luck, last night's lethargy doesn't carry over to the rest of this trip, or the Griz are going to find themselves in ninth place faster than you can say "unmet expectations." File this one away and move on. Next up are the Golden State Warriors tomorrow night.
Last night was not pretty. The Grizzlies faced the Timberwolves just one night after the 10th-place Wolves blew a late lead against the Suns, a crippling blow to their postseason hopes for the season. One night later, they found themselves in Memphis, a team two spots ahead of them in the standings and firing on all cylinders, with Kevin Love having to match up against Zach Randolph.
Things did not go well for Minnesota from the opening tip. Courtney Lee struggled with foul trouble early, but the rest of the Grizzlies didn't struggle with much of anything in the first quarter. After twelve minutes of basketball, Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph both had 8 points, Mike Conley had 6, Marc Gasol had 9 rebounds—most of which were collected on a single possession that saw him take multiple point blank layups and miss, but still an impressive number—and the Grizzlies were up 30-15.
The Grizzlies' lead never dipped back down into the single digits again. They managed to cruise the rest of the game, going up by as much as 25 at one point.
Of note last night were the lineups used by Dave Joerger to get the job done—especially some of the "medium-ball" lineups in the first and second quarters: Ed Davis (remember him?) subbed in for Gasol in the first quarter, and with Tony Allen at home with a stomach virus, James Johnson came into the game to a huge ovation. The Grizzlies ran with a lineup of Calathes - Miller - Johnson - Davis - Koufos for a good bit of the second quarter, matching up against some of Minnesota's more athletic bigs.
Last night, the Grizzlies had one of the best defensive outings they've had all year, holding the Pacers—the #1 team in the Eastern Conference—to 71 points, a season low for a Griz opponent and a season low for the Pacers as well. Roy Hibbert, Indiana's standout center, collected zero rebounds. Paul George was held to 2-10 from the field, and point guard George Hill shot 2-7. The Grizzlies absolutely terrorized the Pacers. In fact, the only Pacers who made more than two field goals were Lance Stephenson and David West.
I was home on the couch with a migraine last night instead of in the building watching the bloodbath happen, so my notes are a little more scattered than usual, and I'm just going to give them to you:
• Mike Miller, according to some numbers being quoted last night on Twitter, is shooting better than 60% from three after the All Star break. Last night, Miller had 13 points, all of them in the second quarter, and those 13 points comprised the Grizzlies' lead over the Pacers headed into the half. Not too shabby. Miller's floor-spacing ability was in full effect last night, with no Pacer defender able to leave him for any extended amount of time. The ball found him when he was open. It was beautiful to watch.
• Nick Calathes didn't put up a huge numbers night—1-3 from the field, 2 assists, a steal and a block—but the official box score doesn't count deflections and doesn't account for pressure. Calathes seemed to be everywhere on defense last night, getting a hand on the ball at every possible opportunity, frustrating passers, and using his considerable length to make the Pacers' guards uncomfortable. Calathes' defense has been steadily improving over the course of the season—one would expect that to happen to any young player who hangs around this particular group of players for while—and it's been encouraging to see him figuring out how to use his size to his advantage.
• The backup point guard wasn't the only one doing a number on Indiana last night, though: Mike Conley put up a game like we haven't seen him play in a while. In 31 minutes—see how much easier life is when the Grizzlies have a real backup point guard?—Conley went 9-15 from the field, including 1-3 from 3, for 21 points, in addition to 5 rebounds and 4 assists. The first time these two teams played each other, Conley was torched by George Hill, unable to do anything. No so this time, as Conley, who has been in a bit of a funk lately, shook off whatever's been bugging him lately and played like the Mike Conley, Destroyer of Worlds we all took for granted earlier in the season. It was great to see Conley perform that well against such a good team.
• Speaking of that team, the Pacers look completely checked out and ready for the playoffs. If the Griz were in the East, they'd be the 3 seed, so it's not like whoever the Pacers end up playing is going to be any good, but they'd better figure out how to show up for some games between now and then. Backing into the playoffs is never a good idea in the NBA, whether it's because of injury or mental toughness. Just ask the 2011 Spurs.
• James Johnson played 10 minutes in Friday night's loss to the Miami Heat, and even though the Grizzlies lost that game, it was clear that Johnson was contributing during his (limited) minutes. On Saturday night against the Pacers, Johnson didn't play until Pacers coach Frank Vogel declared it garbage time with a minute or two left in the game. That didn't stop fans from chanting for him while the Griz were beating the best team in the East by 15 points. Now, I'm (obviously) no defender of Dave Joerger's rotations, but it was clear that the Grizzlies were firing on all cylinders last night, Johnson or no Johnson. Rather than clamoring for a fan favorite—and this is not a slight to Johnson—that segment of Griz fans is eventually going to have to realize (much like I had to do) that sometimes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" isn't such a bad place to be. I don't like some of Joerger's decisions, but (1) I'm not the one being held accountable for how my decisions affect the team's performance and (2) the team is performing pretty dadgum well.
With Marc Gasol's ankle (apparently) intact, the Griz head into a tough stretch on the road, playing Minnesota at FedExForum Monday night before heading to Utah, Golden State, Portland, Denver, and Minnesota (again). Saturday night's beatdown of Indiana ought to give them a boost of confidence heading out onto the road and carry them back up the standings after Friday night's loss set them back a little. It was a marvelous defensive performance, and with any luck, it set a tone for what the rest of the regular season is going to look like.
Last night, the Grizzlies came out and beat the Utah Jazz from start to finish, from the Courtney Lee layup to go up 2-0 to the Mike Conley free throws that made it a ten-point game.
There were times when the Grizzlies looked like they were already thinking about whatever they were going to be doing after the game—maybe a nice dinner, maybe a hot date, maybe going home and reading a book in bed—anything but the fact that they were still on a basketball court in the middle of an NBA game. Unsurprisingly, the still-building Jazz pounced on those opportunities and made a close game of it, with Trey Burke dueling Mike Conley early on, Alec Burks exercising his smooth shooting stroke, and Gordon Hayward mostly having a bad shooting night but making them when they mattered.
The Grizzlies picked on Enes Kanter most of the night with Marc Gasol, and it worked out: Gasol ended up having himself a 20-10 game, with 3 assists and 4 blocks in addition. Zach Randolph went one louder in both categories with 21-11. It was a good night for the Grizzlies inside, even though the Jazz appear to be trying to build something similar with their Favors/Kanter tandem down low.
Another highlight was the Richard Jefferson/Tayshaun Prince matchup, in which the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals came back to everybody like a bad LSD flashback, with Prince scoring 4 points on 2-7 shooting in 30 minutes and Jefferson finishing up with 9.
Even though the crowd behind the bench was clamoring for James Johnson, there was a different guy who I thought should have been getting those minutes: Tony Allen. The starting lineup I'd like to see—Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol—have only played 24 minutes together this season, starting in February when Allen returned from injury. In those 24 minutes (which is admittedly a very small sample size) they've got an offensive rating of 120.2 and a defensive rating of 73.4 (meaning they outscore their opponents by .468 points per possession—a ludicrous number).
I get that Prince is starting because he's a veteran and it's a respect thing or whatever. I do. But starting him doesn't mean playing him these minutes, and if Joerger isn't willing to play Johnson for whatever reason—and let's be clear: there are certainly valid reasons for doing so, even if I disagree with a lot of them—Allen is clearly the guy who should be getting some run at the small forward spot. What's that? He's too small? Kevin Durant would like to speak with you.
For the Conley/Lee/Allen/Z-Bo/Gasol grouping to have only appeared in five games so far is pretty nuts. I would think that Joerger would want to explore that option more with his shortened rotation, since those are all guys he's already playing major minutes, just not together.
That was my main takeaway from last night. The rest of the game was solid—Nick Calathes played well, and he and Marc Gasol developed some new wrinkles in their ever-evolving chemistry (I'm thinking in particular of a Gasol assist that looked more like he was just dropping the ball on the floor right at the instant Calathes came around the pick he was setting). Jon Leuer had a bit of a rough night, struggling through some bad matchups as the backup 4.
Other than that, pretty uneventful. The Grizzlies played hard and executed well for 30-something of the game's 48 minutes, and against the Jazz, that was enough to create an insurmountable lead. But, no matter how much I may want to accept it and move on, if these are the ten guys Joerger is going to play, I wish he would look at how he's playing them a little differently.
Last week, the Grizzlies played four games in five nights and came away from it with a 3-1 record for the week, good enough to put them up a game and a half on the Phoenix Suns for the 8th and final playoff spot. After three days of rest, the Griz now have three in four nights—four in six if you count Monday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves—and two of them are against the only two teams in the Eastern Conference with a record better than the Grizzlies.
(Yes, folks, for those of you following along at home, the Grizzlies have a better record than the 3rd seed in the East, but they're barely in the West playoffs by a game and a half. By win percentage, Phoenix is better than Toronto, too, meaning the 3rd seed in the East wouldn't even be in the 9th spot in the West.)
Anyway, the Grizzlies are 7-2 in March so far, with eight games left to play before the end of the month. I predicted that they'd need to go 12-5 or 11-6 in order to still be in the playoff race when the month of March was over, and I stand by that prediction. They're well on their way to reaching that mark, but it's not going to get any easier from here on out. The rest of this week is an important stretch—three of the next four games are at home—before the Griz head out on a five game road trip, mostly out West.
Speaking of teams with bad records, tonight the Grizzlies take on the Utah Jazz at FedExForum. The last time these two teams played was on December 23, and the Grizzlies took that matchup 104-94. (Griz starters that game? Mike Conley, Tony Allen, James Johnson, Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos. Jerryd Bayless played 23 minutes.)
Utah is a team that has good young players, and probably should be good in two years, but just isn't built to win right now. That said, the one stat to look at when judging whether the Grizzlies will struggle against an opponent or not is pace, and Utah is 27th in the league in pace. That means watch for the Grizzlies' defense to struggle to prevent penetration from the perimeter, and watch for the offense to struggle to execute smoothly—the same things the Grizzlies have struggled with all season against other teams that play just as slow as they do.
When faced with a difficult situation that seems unlikely to change, sometimes the right thing to do is accept the present circumstances and move on. After a frustrating week or two of rotation-shortening (not to mention an unconscionable and incomprehensible amount of time played by Tayshaun Prince) and my own constant complaining about it, I've decided to accept a few things as given and move on:
I feel like those things—whether I want to accept it or not—have been the meat of most of my complaints about Joerger so far in his rookie season as an NBA head coach. My main criticisms of Lionel Hollins were (1) his offensive system, from an X's and O's standpoint, wasn't good enough and (2) he made substitutions by "feel," but he didn't actually have a good feel for which lineups were good ones and when to employ them. So when Hollins was replaced by Joerger as the head coach, I certainly thought the Grizzlies were taking a risk in getting rid of a coach with such a track record of winning, but I thought that if the new coach was an improvement over Hollins in those two areas, eventually (and that's the key word—I knew it would have to be eventually because any coaching transition takes time to be fully realized) the Grizzlies would be better for it.
About that Pelicans Game
I'm not going to belabor this point, because I feel like I've been screaming and yelling about it for months now, but Wednesday night's game against the Pelicans was much closer than it needed to be, and the lineups being played (especially during the second and third quarters) had a lot to do with that.
I get that head coach Dave Joerger is trying to trim down the rotations of a way-deep team as the season winds down and the team makes its final playoff push. This is a team capable of going 12-deep from time to time, and a Hubie Brown-style 10-man rotation wouldn't be out of the question. Beyond the (current) starting five, Nick Calathes, Mike Miller, Tony Allen, James Johnson, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer have all earned playing time (and you could make the case for Ed Davis, too, although he needs more minutes to get going than the others, which greatly limits his effectiveness as the "spot minutes" guy Joerger & Co. apparently feel he is).
But that third quarter? You know, where almost the entire quarter was played out by the starting lineup of Conley-Lee-Prince-Randolph-Gasol, save for the Miller-for-Gasol swap that happened at the 4:27 mark?
I still don't get it.
I've never seen a rulebook that says the exact same guys who started the game have to (1) start the second half too, no matter what the matchups are and (2) have to play in the third quarter until they're so tired they can't do anything but walk up and down the court. I especially don't understand why you would make your best guys so worn out on the second game of a back to back, when they're not really closing the gap between the Grizzlies and their opponent. The Griz entered the third quarter down 9 and entered the fourth down 7.
For right now, the sub pattern for Joerger seems to be to (roughly) alternate quarters between bench and starters. But the third quarters are a problem, and they're a problem because the Grizzlies' starting lineup (1) isn't the team's best lineup and (2) is clearly gassed by the 5-minute mark and some of them still get left out there another three or four minutes.
I'm going to chalk this up to "annoying rookie coach" trait, but I feel like the third quarter rotation (or lack thereof, since hardly anyone actually, y'know, rotates in and out of the game) has been an issue for a while now. Clearly, the team is mostly winning, so there haven't been Save Lionel Hollins-style fan rallies to get Joerger to do something different with third quarters, but why play a lineup that's clearly not your best for so long? Why?
Not to mention, it's related to the second item:
The Tayshaun Thing, Redux
In the last ten games, Tayshaun Prince has averaged 22.6 minutes. He's had some good games—particularly a 21-point outburst against the Wizards—and he's had some bad ones, going 0-0 from the field in 17 minutes against Brooklyn and 1-8 in thirty-three minutes against Cleveland.
It's far too much burn for a guy who has an 8.5 PER and whose defense—except against certain matchups—hasn't been as good this year to make up for the bad spots. The bigger issue is that this year, the "bad spots" can sometimes run to stretches of three or four games.
I already wrote about this in a previous piece, but I think it's been made even clearer since that piece was written: I don't think a lineup that includes Tayshaun Prince is the Grizzlies' best. The lineup with the most minutes together this season is the starting lineup: Conley/Lee/Prince/Randolph/Gasol. That lineup has a net rating of 5.2, meaning they average 5.2 points more than their opponents per 100 possessions. The lineup numbers are skewed this season because of all of the missed games earlier on—most groups of guys haven't played more than 15 minutes together all year.
But. Conley/Lee/Tony Allen/Randolph/Gasol, the lineup which many have postulated to replace Prince with Allen as a starter? In 24 minutes together so far, that lineup is scoring 120.2 points per 100 possessions, while only allowing 73.4 per 100. If you're following along at home, that's a net rating of 46.8. In the business, that's what we call ridiculous. And—"Tony brings energy off the bench" arguments aside, because those arguments can be countered by bringing James Johnson off the bench as the backup 3 behind Allen—that makes the case that Joerger should at least try starting Allen instead of Prince, just to see how it goes.
Dude needs to have his minutes curtailed. Period. End of story.
And I know it probably won't happen, because Joerger has shown us all season long that he defers to veteran players, even when it's not the right basketball decision. And also because the Grizzlies are winning games with things the way they are. But let me tell you this: things are not going to get better with that lineup. They just aren't. Prince is playing well lately, but we've reached the point where having him on the court takes away so much athleticism and explosiveness that it's hard not to wonder what it would look like with Allen and Johnson—who I've been calling the "Lords of Basketball Chaos" for a reason—out there soaking up those 22.6 minutes a game.
The world may never know.
Last night was a good one at the Grindhouse, as the Grizzlies took on the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers and beat them pretty resoundingly. Once the Grizzlies took control of the game early on, it seemed like the Blazers were never able to get any closer than eight or nine points, but never let the Griz lead get past 15 or so. It made for a game that was easy to lose focus on as it played out, but lost in the (pretty much) wire-to-wire win were some good things worth talking about:
1. The rotation of big men last night was pretty straightforward: Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Kosta Koufos played all of the minutes (except :55 for Leuer after Portland threw in the towel). All three of them were able to have effective nights (though Koufos didn't contribute much offensively) but especially the two starters: Gasol had 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists and shot 57% from the floor, while Randolph had 18 and 12 (and 4 assists) on slightly worse shooting. When asked in the postgame whether Gasol/Randolph/Koufos was going to be the three man big rotation from here on out, coach Dave Joerger gave an emphatic "no," saying he just didn't see a good matchup for Leuer. (Ed Davis' name didn't come up, so draw whatever conclusion you will from that.)
Conspicuously absent was James Johnson, who has been battling an ankle injury as of late, but has also apparently been squeezed out by Leuer at the 4 and Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen at the 3. Prince continues to play big minutes and has actually started to increase his production as of late, and Joerger is no doubt concerned that playing Johnson and Allen together isn't much different from playing Prince and Allen together: it allows defenses to collapse into the paint with far too much ease. I get that. But it is hard to see the Grizzlies missing energy and athleticism from time to time and know that Johnson is just sitting over there ready to go. It would appear that the solution to The Tayshaun Problem has been punted to the summer.
2. Marc Gasol is back, folks. Last night, he did work against Robin Lopez and the unfortunately-named Meyers Leonard, and it was very encouraging to see him slowly working all of his post moves back in after a month or so of settling for fadeaways and/or passing out of obvious scoring opportunities. Gasol's return to form has coincided with the Grizzlies' surge as of late, but I don't think that's surprising to anyone.
One wonders how much farther Gasol has to go in his recover before he's 100%—something Joerger and others have said all along wouldn't happen until the start of next season. He certainly seems to be recovering more quickly than Zach Randolph did from his similar MCL injury, though Randolph also returned later in the year and thus had less time to recover. At any rate, his progress has been a blessing for the Grizzlies as they claw their way back into the playoffs (where they're currently in the seventh spot after Dallas and Golden State's results last night).
3. Nick Calathes finished last night's game with 7 points and 9 assists. That number becomes all the more impressive when you realize that he had 7 assists in under 10 minutes in the first half—a frankly ridiculous assist rate, especially given that he only turned the ball over once. Couple that with the defense he played last night, and Calathes is quickly asserting himself as more than a "non-terrible" backup point guard: he's a contributor, capable of stepping up and running the game at any given moment. As a result of Calathes' play last night, Mike Conley only had to play 28 minutes, and as a result, Conley was very fresh down the stretch—he still had his legs under him in the last three minutes or so when Portland tried to make one last run.
For everything that's gone well and gone poorly for Calathes this season, it seems like he's coming into his own now that he knows what his role is and the team is getting used to playing with him. And that's only going to help the Grizzlies down the stretch. There's not a whole lot of basketball left, so the fact that the Grizzlies are finally starting to gel is nothing short of a miracle for Griz fans.
4. This is a minor point, but when Courtney Lee and Mike Miller are both on the floor and hitting shots, this Grizzlies team becomes a completely different, much more threatening beast. It's the thing we've been promised for so long: Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, surrounded by three shooters (including Conley) who can't be ignored. When that is clicking, this Griz team becomes much harder to guard, especially by a team like Portland with a middling defense anyway. Last night, Griz fans saw that in full effect, and it was glorious.
The Grizzlies have an interesting week ahead of them: a four-game-in-five-night voyage (or, you know, a FOGAFINI) through two playoff teams and two lottery teams with some interesting implications. The post-All Star schedule for the Grizzlies is loaded with back-to-backs and road games, and this week is no exception.
Now that they've managed to land in the West's #8 spot for the time being (with an identical record to Phoenix but holding the tiebreaker) a game behind Dallas for the #7 spot, this week's slate of games becomes an opportunity to solidify that position while Phoenix has to play the Clippers. (Also the Cavs and Celtics, but I'm going to assume they'll win those two.)
Tomorrow night, the Portland Trail Blazers are in town. Since starting out with the best record in the West, the Blazers have come back to Earth a little bit, including a loss to the Grizzlies in Portland that at 98-81 felt like even more of a blowout than it really was.
Fact of the matter that Portland is a dangerous team, but the Grizzlies match up well with them. They lack the interior defense to keep Gasol and Randolph from destroying everything in their respective paths, and Gasol is returning to a form which will enable him to play better defense on LaMarcus Aldridge than in the teams' previous meeting.
Overall, the Grizzlies absolutely killed Portland the last time these two teams played, and I'd argue that the current Grizzlies are an even better team. It's not a definite win—nothing ever is, not in the NBA (see also the Nets game)—but one has to feel good about the Grizzlies' chances at home against a team they've beaten convincingly before.
I asked Z-Bo about this game, and this is what he said:
at New Orleans
This one is going to be tougher. The Grizzlies haven't beaten the Pelicans yet this year, and there's one very large prominently-eyebrowed reason for that: Anthony Davis is only one guy, but he's exactly the guy you'd draft for your team if your goal was to blow up everything that the Memphis Grizzlies attempt to do on offense. The Pelicans have handed the Grizzlies three losses this year.
Tony Allen might be able to contain Tyreke Evans better than Tayshaun Prince could—that is, he might be able to do something besides stand there while Evans drives past him to the rim—but that's not going to keep Anthony Davis from swatting everything that comes his way, preventing the interior high-low game from ever getting off the ground, hitting shots he doesn't look like he should hit, somehow tricking Marc Gasol into thinking Gasol can make a pass over Davis' head (Spoiler Alert: he's tried this a dozen times this year. He can't.) or a myriad other problems.
By the same token, other than the teams' first meeting in November (the Dark Ages of this season when everything was falling apart even though nobody was hurt) this is the first time they've played the Pelicans when they're at full strength. I like the Grizzlies' chances, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the Grizzlies drop this game and the Pelicans sweep the season series. As much as that would be problematic, it wouldn't surprise me. I'm not sure what that says; it could be that the Grizzlies have underperformed against divisional teams to the extent that I temper my expectations, or it could be that I like to prepare for the worst so I'm pleasantly surprised when good things.
Either way, this is an important game that has the potential to go badly.
The We Traded Rudy Gay Grudge Match of the Century.
Seriously, though, Toronto has been playing really well as of late—and you best believe Tony Allen still remembers that Rudy Gay called DeMar DeRozan "the best 2-guard I ever played with" and is determined to make DeRozan look bad.
This is another one of those "this should be pretty straightforward" games that it's hard to write about because the Raptors are a good team. They've certainly improved since GM Masai Ujiri relieved himself of his Black Hole Small Forward problem (which turned out to be the best outcome for both parties involved) and Kyle "He (Lionel) Hate Me" Lowry is a confirmed Griz Killer. Also, prepare for some sweet Vasquez-on-Calathes action.
Teams always seem to have weird games in Toronto, too. Like Canada has some sort of weird force field that causes road teams to play badly, basketball affected by currency exchange or something. If they can overcome that, and the dead legs of a third game in four nights, this is a game that the Grizzlies should win.
In the Grizzlies' favor: Sixers fans are buying tanking-related t-shirts that look like this (found here):
In the Sixers' favor: If anyone has the potential to go All Time Griz Killer and score four thousand points doing ridiculous things while sprinting down the court turning every possession into a fast break, isn't it our dearly departed Tony Wroten?
All in all, this has the potential to be a 3-1 week. Really, it could be a 4-0 week, but my guess is that fatigue will come into play for one of these games—it could even be the Sixers game, as the Sixers play with the league's fastest pace and the Grizzlies will be on the last game of the FOGAFINI by that point and longing to go home and sleep. It's a week in which the Grizzlies can do a lot for their own playoff positioning.
I expected the Grizzlies to win Saturday night's game against the Charlotte Bobcats. I wasn't expecting a 21-point demolition, but that's what happened: after a close second quarter that saw the Griz take an eight-point lead into the break—a half that was one of the most exciting, well-executed first halves we've seen out of the Grizzlies in a while, featuring an actual lead after the first quarter—
the Grizzlies came out for the third quarter, gave up a couple of quick buckets to Charlotte, and then flipped some sort of kill switch and mashed the Bobcats to a fine pulp.
As always, there was a lot going on in this one:
• Al Jefferson has been on a hot streak as of late, scoring fewer than twenty points only twice in his last ten games, both of which were against the Grizzlies. A lot of that has to do with Marc Gasol, who looked like he was moving with more fluidity than we've seen from him since he went down with his knee injury in November. Gasol is steadily returning to form after a stiff start, no longer passing up dunks and drives that he passed out of a month ago. As his confidence in his knee returns, so are his post moves and a little bit of his offensive aggressiveness. This is A Very Good Thing for the Grizzlies if they want to assert themselves down the stretch.
• After becoming so important to the team that he had a neck tattoo giveaway night in his honor, James Johnson didn't play last night until garbage time. Johnson's minutes had steadily shifted over time from backup blood-crazed small forward to backup ninja maniac smallball power forward, and it was a good look for him, allowing him to use his athleticism and strength to do a number on Blake Griffin (!) defensively. Last night against the Bobcats, he played 5:13, all of which came in garbage time, with Jon Leuer getting 17 minutes as the fourth big off the bench.
Now, a lot of that was matchup related; Leuer spent a lot of time guarding his long-lost evil twin Josh McRoberts, but Leuer was pretty clearly the right guy for the job last night, playing good defense and getting himself to the rim whenever possible, bringing on more than one "JONNY BASKETBALL"-like tweet from me. Those surprised that Leuer would get minutes over Johnson and Ed Davis on a given night haven't been paying attention; Leuer has established himself as a guy who belongs right in that same category. All three of them are very good players, and depending on matchups, any could be the right guy on any given night.
In the interview, Conley talks about whether he's a righty or a lefty, how much the offense and defense have changed under Dave Joerger, and the increased scoring burden he's felt this year.
Be sure to check that out, if only for a story about TA hitting a lady with a towel.
When Dave Joerger took over as head coach of the Grizzlies, one of the things he said early on (I can't remember exactly when) was that he didn't want the Grizzlies to play "vomit basketball."
Last night in Brooklyn, the Grizzlies didn't play vomit basketball so much as they played like vomit personified. If I hadn't already used up all my Oregon Trail references a week ago, I'd be making them again, this time in reference to the Grizzlies' field goal percentage:
I don't even know how to intelligently comment on this game. And it's not because it was something new that happened—something I hadn't already watched twenty times this season. The Grizzlies have been doing this since the preseason: digging themselves a massive hole and then trying to climb back out of it. They go cold shooting (starting 2 of 15 in this one, and going down by as much as 22 points in the first quarter, which is pretty impressively terrible) and then for long stretches it looks like they're inside Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," hands like two balloons, getting stomped on by a team they should've been beating.
That's what's so frustrating about the Nets/Grizzlies game to me. It's not the specifics of how it happened, all though those are frustrating too. It's that it happened again.
Last night, the Grizzlies beat the Wizards 110-104 in a game that saw the Grizzlies use their advantages to dominate most of the first three quarters... and then give up 40 in the fourth as Washington made a furious attempt at a comeback. In case anyone had any doubts that these aren't Your Father's Washington Wizards (or, more accurately, your slightly older sibling's Wizards, since your father's Wizards were probably the title-winning Bullets), the fact that without Nene the Wiz were still able to play the Grizzlies as tough as they did should put that to rest. The Wizards are a pretty good team this year.
There are a lot of interesting things about last night's game—not least of which is the fact that in James Johnson's absence, Tayshaun Prince somehow turned back the clock and racked up 21 points on 8-11 shooting, including 2-3 from beyond the arc. I think I speak for a lot of Griz fans when I say I wasn't sure Tayshaun still had that kind of a performance in him, especially not against a team that actually has a good defense (9th out of 30 in defensive rating according to B-Ref). That I doubted that Prince could still score 20 points in a game even though he averaged 14 a game as recently as the 2010-2011 season says something about his struggles this year.
I come not to bury Tayshaun Prince, but to praise him.
He's always been one of my favorite players. I can say that honestly. I remember those title-winning Pistons, and I remember thinking Prince was awesome. The Grizzlies were swept out of the first round, taking a lot of the excitement of that first playoff appearance with it, and so I watched the Pistons, and I watched Tayshaun Prince.
This Tayshaun Prince is still that Tayshaun Prince, in some sense. In others, he's not. I'm not going to argue that he shouldn't be playing. The guy is an absolute warrior: before the season even started, he was so sick he lost a ton of weight and couldn't travel with the team. He played through it. He's been fighting who knows how many nagging injuries this year. He's played through all of those. When he finally got healthy around late December, his production picked up. He's not afraid to get taken out at the rim, like he did last night, when he hit the floor so hard it sounded sickening through crappy TV speakers.