Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Grizzlies 109, Blazers 99: Winning Inside Out

Posted By on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 10:02 AM

Marc Gasol drives past a guy with two last names.

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.

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