Tonight's game marks the third time the Grizzlies have played the Golden State Warriors this season, and the second time the two teams have played in Memphis. Without question, Golden State is a good matchup for the Grizzlies—when the Grizzlies are healthy. The matchup of Andrew Bogut and Marc Gasol at center can be fun to watch, but Gasol has an undeniable edge on Bogut, and Zach Randolph loves nothing more than embarrassing David Lee at every opportunity.
Without Gasol—and potentially without Ed Davis, who sprained his left ankle in Thursday night's loss to the Clippers and at time of this writing was still classified as "day to day" (and aren't we all?)—the matchup changes a little. The Warriors haven't beaten the Grizzlies since 2010, but if Zach Randolph is still a little rusty returning from his toe injury, and Randolph, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer are the only three bigs that the Grizzlies have to work with, even the Warriors' subpar bench bigs (led by the abominable Marreese Speights, having a monumentally bad season) might be enough to make a difference simply because they're not going to have to play so much.
Tony Allen also missed Thursday's Clippers game with a hip contusion he suffered Tuesday against the Suns. If for some reason Allen can't go again tonight (I don't expect him to miss another game) look for the Grizzlies to play Nick Calathes more than usual. Calathes' length made him a tricky defensive matchup for Steph Curry the first time these two teams played (Jerryd Bayless missed that game with a tweaked knee) when the Grizzlies stomped the Warriors using a tightened rotation mainly featuring Koufos, Miller, and Calathes off the bench.
It's still too early in the season to call any game a "must win," but this is an important game. The Warriors, with a record of 11-9, are eight in the Western Conference standings, and the 9-9 Grizzlies are eleventh. These are the sorts of games that add up as the season goes on and the playoff standings start to shake out, and the Grizzlies have to be careful not to give up too much ground while Marc Gasol is still on the mend. In this year's West, .500 is not likely to be good enough to get a team into the playoffs, and the Grizzlies are there right now, treading water. These games at home against an opponent on a road SEGABABA are key games the Grizzlies need to win to keep their heads above water.
The matchups tonight aren't as favorable for the Grizzlies as they usually are, but if the Grizzlies can replicate what they've done to the Warriors in previous encounters—drag the pace down to glacial through defensive execution, creating stops and forcing the Warriors to run halfcourt sets—they should be able to make it a close game, and that's all they need to be able to get the win: to not get down 15 and have to fight back. They've done that a lot this year, and it has rarely worked in their favor.
But either way, we shall see.
The Grizzlies went into tonight gaining Zach Randolph back from missing two games with an ingrown toenail, but they lost Tony Allen, who missed tonight's game with a contusion to his hip suffered during Tuesday night's rout of the Phoenix Suns. Without Allen and without Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies were already starting at a disadvantage to the Clippers.
The lack of Gasol, in particular, immediately creates a match-up problem for the Grizzlies, because DeAndre Jordan can then be used to guard Zach Randolph full time. Jordan's length and his athleticism make him the basketball equivalent of Kryptonite for Z-Bo, because (especially this year with his improvements on the defensive end of the floor) Jordan is able to put a lid over the top of Z-Bo's already floor-bound game and keep him from doing much other than shooting midrange jumpers all night. When Gasol is in the game, Jordan has to guard Gasol, leaving Blake Griffin as Randolph's primary defender, and we all know how that usually goes.
The antidote to that tonight—in the first half, anyway—was Ed Davis. Davis is the Grizzlies' most purely athletic player, and his speed and his smart play in the pick and roll made him able to counteract the "in the mud" nature of Randolph, who was playing with a little more rust and a little less crispness than normal. In seven minutes spread across the first quarter, Davis played well on both ends of the floor...
...and then he went down with a left ankle sprain and didn't come back, leaving Kosta Koufos, 80% of Zach Randolph, and Jon Leuer as the Grizzlies' only big men for about thirty minutes of basketball. Without the element of athleticism and speed to the rim (especially as a roll man) the Grizzlies settled into isolation, midrange basketball for the rest of the game, and it worked about as well as you would expect it to for a team shooting 35%: about as well as a drunk guy can walk up a down escalator.
In the end it was fatigue and this general In-The-Mud-nosity (I should trademark that) that did the Grizzlies in, in part because of the injuries and in part because they just weren't playing alertly once the Clippers were able to start stringing baskets together. The whole thing just kind of collapsed, and then it was 101-81 and the game was over.
— Ed Davis left the game in the second quarter with a sprained left ankle and didn't come back. He's day-to-day with it, and Griz folks told me he'd be coming in for treatment Friday but that's assuming he knows how to drive on the sheet of ice that's supposedly going to be covering everything today. (Side note: two Grizzlies I talked to who wasn't worried about ice? Jon Leuer, who went to Wisconsin, and Kosta Koufos, who came to Memphis from Denver.) The Grizzlies, who looked like they had a loaded frontcourt at the beginning of the season, are now down to two healthy bigs (Koufos and Leuer) and a Zach Randolph who looked to me like he was still struggling with his toe injury a little. One wonders whether picking up a free agent big for the minimum wouldn't be a bad idea just as insurance.
— Nick Calathes struggled against the Clippers, for what I see as two reasons: First, the Clippers' backup point guard is Darren Collison, who is a fairly good defender, but second, the personnel groups he was on the floor with. Calathes struggles when he's not surrounded by fast-moving roll men and shooters, so when he's on the floor with bigs who are waiting for an entry pass instead of setting a pick, he's not quite sure what to do, and dribbles a lot. It's something I assume he'll get better at with practice; the Grizzlies have been moving away from iso-heavy sets as of late (enabled by Davis, who has excelled in the pick and roll in Marc Gasol's absence) and if Calathes wants to succeed at the NBA level he's going to have to figure out how to play with personnel groups that don't necessarily fit his style.
— In hindsight, the Grizzlies are pretty fortunate to have staved off the injury bug having an effect on how well they perform. In 2011, Rudy Gay went down for the rest of the season, but the team still had Randolph, Gasol, Allen, and Conley to rally around, and turning Hasheem Thabeet into a Shane Battier rental meant the Grizzlies essentially replaced Gay with a 3's-and-D small forward perfect for their style of play. In 2012, Zach Randolph went down, and the Grizzlies were able to insert Marreese Speights into the starting lineup, who played surprisingly well in Randolph's absence. Last year was mostly injury-free (except for Randolph's nagging ankle injury from March onward). This year, this is clearly not the case. Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph have all missed games with injuries, and now Ed Davis is banged up. It feels like half the Grizzlies' team is hurt. And, as discussed in my column earlier this week, that doesn't bode well for the Grizzlies' playoff hopes. We'll see. With any luck, Gasol will return sooner than hoped for, but when has luck been on the Grizzlies' side this year?
Well, it wasn't the Tuesday night game against the Phoenix Suns that we were expecting, but it was the one that we got—and what a game it was. The Grizzlies, without Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol for the second straight game, came out and punished the Suns' bigs all night long, with Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos both racking up double doubles (Jon Leuer was only one rebound short) and Davis and Leuer both scoring over 20 points.
It wasn't an end-to-end win, either. The Grizzlies were ahead after one, but found themselves trailing by 8 at halftime after being outscored 35-23 in the second quarter—partially because the Suns started hitting lots of jumpers, but also because the Grizzlies didn't have good defensive lineups on the floor. If they had come out and played a flat third quarter, which they've done on occasion this season, the game would've been over then, except there wouldn't have been any bench players to play in garbage time because they were all playing. Instead, the Grizzlies came out and scored 36 in the third while holding Phoenix to 20, and maintained a lead of their own through the rest of the game.
One obviously wishes for Randolph and Gasol to return to the lineup soon, because the matchups won't always be this favorable, but it was great to see Koufos, Davis, and Leuer—and especially Leuer, who has struggled to get minutes in this frontcourt—come out and play big minutes and play them well. All told, the three of them racked up 58 points, 33 rebounds, and 7 blocks. The inside game also led to a double double for Conley, who had 18 points and 14 assists. Seven Grizzlies players (the starting five of Conley, Allen, Prince, Davis, and Koufos plus Leuer and Bayless) scored in double digits. An all around team win, against a team that was supposed to be terrible but has been playing above .500 so far, while missing two of the team's three best players.
— Ed Davis was great. He was great on offense, where he hit jumpers I wasn't convinced he could hit, and fought and scratched for every rebound, and drew contact as often as he could, eventually breaking out his own variant of the Z-Bo mean mug. He was great on defense, where his athleticism led him to make some plays (and yes, Dave Joerger might have been telling him where to be on defense from the bench, but with Marc Gasol not there, I figure that's OK). It was the game that Ed Davis' supporters have been wanting him to play all along, and yes, it was against Phoenix, but that's exactly the type of game Ed Davis should have against Phoenix.
— Equally great was Jon Leuer. He's known as a stretch big, somebody who can shoot from way out to keep defenses honest, but when given a great deal of run like he was Tuesday night, Leuer proved he can do more than that. He had three or four monster dunks. He blocked shots. He was using post moves and hitting hook shots. He also shot 1-2 from three point range. Leuer was everywhere on both ends of the floor Tuesday night, and as a result he had career highs in scoring and rebounds. I'm not going to say I wasn't surprised by Leuer's big game, but I wasn't shocked. The guy is a good basketball player. The Grizzlies' heavily pick-and-roll oriented sets Tuesday night really opened he and Davis up for scoring opportunities against Phoenix's bigs. Leuer is a capable player, and when Randolph gets back, it's going to go back to being hard for him to find the minutes he deserves, and that sucks, but that's the way basketball is sometimes. Looks like the preseason Jon Leuer might not have been a fluke.
— Tony Allen scored eleven points on eleven shots, which is more efficient that he's been as of late. Several times Tony Allen took a pull up jumper and it went in, something that hasn't happened much in the past, if we're honest. I don't want Allen's newfound offensive prowess to come at the expense of his defense, but if his shooting can stay at this level—that is, passable—maybe he can provide just the tiniest bit of space that the Grizzlies' lumbering bigs (Gasol and Randolph, not Davis and Leuer, who do no lumbering) need to operate. Maybe. Not if he gets carried away with it.
— Ed Malloy was Mr. Technical Foul on Tuesday night. Tony Allen got one for complaining, and then Eric Bledsoe got one for complaining, and then Goran Dragic got one, presumably for saying something to Jerryd Bayless that made Bayless want to fight him. I'm not sure it takes much to make Jerryd Bayless want to fight somebody, though.
— Nick Calathes was terrible, especially against Dragic and Bledsoe. He dribbled out two straight shot clocks looking for a pass that never came, and when he made the pass, it was too low and the bigs had to pick it up off the floor before they could do anything with it. I'm not overly worried about it, though. Calathes is a rookie, and Dragic/Bledsoe is a good frontcourt. Even if it weren't, you have to be okay with a few bad nights for a young guy like that if you want him to develop into the player he can be. So, yes, he was awful. But I don't think it was a referendum on his qualifications for NBA play.
— Quincy Pondexter sat on the bench again, this time for showing up his coach during the Grizzlies' loss to the Nets on Saturday. Pondexter went on a hot streak and then returned to the bench staring down Joerger, who hadn't been playing Pondexter due to his crappy start to the season. Turns out that was a bad idea, and several have said that Pondexter was rebuked for that behavior by coaches and teammates alike, and he sat out Tuesday night's game as a result. Pondexter's a good guy, so with any luck this was just an isolated incident of a guy letting his emotions get away from him. Quincy has had a pretty miserable 2013-14 season so far, from the poor play to the broken nose, and now it's all this. Hopefully things turn around for him, and soon.
I think it's time to have a little chat about the Grizzlies, this season, and expectations. There are four possible outcomes for this season for Grizzlies—four potential ways for the season to end. I'd like to take you through them and then talk about what we're watching and what we're likely to see when it's all said and done for 2013-14.
Outcome #1: The Grizzlies have home court in the playoffs, return to the Western Conference Finals.
To my mind, this is the expectation of most Grizzlies fans going into training camp and preseason, even given the change from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger as head coach and the
shuffling of deck chairs small roster moves made in the offseason. The Grizzlies seemed like a team that was one or two shooters and a less-tired Gasol/Randolph tandem away from making a serious run at an NBA title.
If I'm honest, though, I'm not sure this is ever a reasonable expectation. The Western Conference is even tougher this year than it was last year. There are 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and 15 teams in the West. As of right now, the West has 12 teams at or above .500 (and one more, Minnesota, at .474) and the East has 3. Yes, three. Rudy Gay's Toronto Raptors are currently leading the Atlantic Division, and they have a 6-10 record.
My point is this: when the whole Western Conference is as good as it is, and all of these teams are competing at this high level, every single game counts. Rightly or wrongly—and believe me, I do not want to get into that debate here, regardless of how I feel about it, because it's a done deal—the Grizzlies were coming into this season with a new head coach, and with a new head coach, it's reasonable to expect an adjustment period. "Adjustment period" is a euphemism for "losing games." Losing games means a worse seed, and in this year's West, matching last year's 56-win total was going to be a hard challenge even without changes at the top.
Saturday night at the FedExForum was the first Grizzlies game since the arrival of Zach Randolph in 2009 that neither Randolph or Marc Gasol have played in. It was also an ugly game in which the Grizzlies began at a disadvantage personnel-wise and ended that way, too. Yes, the Nets have injuries, too, but they've been dealing with those injuries much longer—and regardless, the absence of two of the Grizzlies' three best players proved to be too much to overcome.
Randolph was declared out on Saturday as the result of an ingrown toenail that had to be cut out. (My grandfather told me one time that he cut an ingrown toenail out with a pocketknife. I'd like to see Z-Bo try that.) With Gasol out, the loss of Randolph dealt the Grizzlies' whole game—but especially the offense—a crippling blow, and it showed on the court: poor shooting, poor ball movement, a general lack of togetherness and an inability to stop the Nets' recently-returned Brook Lopez, one of the better centers in the league when healthy. The absence of Gasol meant the Grizzlies were essentially helpless against Lopez inside, especially with Ed Davis in a bit of foul trouble.
Overall, it was a pretty miserable game to watch, as the Grizzlies got down big, made it a close game in the third, and proceeded to go down big again. We've seen some games that were ugly because the Grizzlies made them that way, and the ugliness was what was essentially "Grizzlies" about the game—almost an identity thing. This was not one of those games; it was just ugly.
• Quincy Pondexter appeared to have returned from
the dead being sentenced to a lifetime of sitting on the end of the bench, scoring 22 points in 21 minutes. Pondexter was 3-5 from 3. At the end of the third quarter, it looked like Pondexter was staring down coach Dave Joerger, and it was clear while watching that Pondexter was playing with a chip on his shoulder. He got into a little bit of trouble once he'd scored fifteen or so of this points when he then tried to take over the game down the stretch, doing too much. Pondexter is at his most valuable to this team when he plays within himself and doesn't try to take his man off the dribble every time he gets the ball. But it was certainly a welcome sight to see Pondexter contributing again.
• All things considered, the Grizzlies' "bench" (which, for this game, consisted of guys who don't always play) made some good contributions. Ed Davis had 10-8 in his 30 minutes, and Kosta Koufos had 10 points and 11 rebounds in his third Grizzlies start. Koufos' rebounding has been a bright spot of his first stretch of games as a starter. Jon Leuer struggled to space the floor, but both he and Pondexter, who have been sitting a lot lately, were able to make positive contributions. Those guys are going to come in handy again at some point this season, so it's good to see them have the ability to play well when they're called upon.
• Honestly? There's not really a third thing I liked about this game. It was ugly—hard to watch. The Grizzlies were out of sync, moving the ball poorly, struggling to create anything resembling a good look at the basket, and just barely functioning on defense.
• Another game where Tony Allen (1) struggles to shut down his man—in this case, the bigger Joe Johnson, who ended up scoring 26 points on 15 shots—and does a poor job of knowing when to help and when not to help and (2) is tied for most field goal attempts (12). For all of Allen's great cuts to the basket and willingness to attempt a layup in traffic to draw contact, it seems like he's taking a lot of open jumpers this year, and there is a reason he's open for those jumpers. More concerning than the poor shot selection are the struggles on defense. Allen's help defense has been poor since the Spurs series last year, and he continues not to respect spot-up shooters the way he does a "big name" ball-handler. Which is natural, I guess, but it allows the Grizzlies to get torched by spot-up shooters. The gaps in Allen's defense this year are a concerning long-term trend—one that I hope gets reversed as the season rolls on.
• Jerryd Bayless apparently only shoots well against the Boston Celtics. Those are the two "Jerryd Bayless" games so far this year. The rest of the time, he's had stat lines like the one he put up against Brooklyn: 1 for six shooting, one assist, 0 for 3 from long range. The Grizzlies need Bayless to contribute a scoring punch off the bench, and so far he hasn't been able to find that rhythm this season.
• I know this is hard-hitting basketball journalism, but the Grizzlies just aren't that good when you take away two of their top three players. The Griz were already missing Marc Gasol's distribution and playmaking on offense and on defense, they've been missing his presence inside, guarding the lane and telling everyone else where they need to be. Taking away Randolph in addition to Gasol just means their primary post scoring threat is also gone, and so the offense is just as hobbled as the defense. It's not a situation I'd like to see the Grizzlies have to deal with for any significant stretch of time, so with any luck, Saturday night was an aberration.
Just some quick notes on last night's victory over the Celtics in Boston while we're all sitting around waiting on stuff to cook this Thanksgiving morning:
• Zach Randolph struggled mightily while matched up with Jared Sullinger. The two were battling on the blocks a great deal early, and it seemed like Randolph just couldn't ever get anything going. He made a couple of his patented 19-foot rainbow jumpers, but overall it didn't seem like he ever really got going. He shot 5-16 from the floor, with an eFG% of .313 for the night. I wasn't expecting Randolph to have as much trouble with Sullinger as he did, but then again I guess we've never really seen a fully healthy Jared Sullinger face off against the Grizzlies, either. He certainly gave Randolph fits.
• Kosta Koufos couldn't get anything to fall, either, but he finished with 13 rebounds. Two things Koufos does better than Marc Gasol: block shots and grab rebounds. Two things Koufos doens't do better than Marc Gasol: shoot from the elbows, yell menacingly after great plays. Also pass, but that's three. And Koufos is a decent passer, it's just hard to expect Gasol-level distribution from anybody else.
• Speaking of passing, Ed Davis had a few great high-low feeds to Koufos last night—and that wasn't the only thing Davis did well. The Grizzlies really picked up the pace with Randolph sitting, and paired with Nick Calathes, Davis did very well in the faster-paced game running the pick and roll. On defense, Davis was able to use his athleticism, partly because Gasol's absence gives Davis more space to hang out and a little more time to react. Davis ended up with 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 24 minutes, which is exactly the kind of stat line he needs to have if he's going to establish himself as a legitimate rotation player for the Grizzlies.
• Jerryd Bayless got back on track a little bit. Joerger seems to have moved him off the ball full-time right now, prefering to play Calathes as the backup PG, and Bayless had another "on" game after a long streak of "off" games Wednesday night, scoring 22 points on 10 shots (how's that for efficiency?) including two free throws that iced the game after a string of improbable Celtics 3-pointers rattled in and made the game closer than it should have been. The Grizzlies are desperately going to need "Good Bayless" production while Gasol is out, and even when he's not.
The Grizzlies have Thanksgiving off, and they return to action Saturday night at FedExForum against the Brooklyn Nets, who are pretty awful right now. We'll see if Jason Kidd has to spill another drink.
Sam Amick of USA Today had a piece on Sunday that caught the attention of some of us who watch the Grizzlies. The piece is an examination of the impact of Marc Gasol's knee injury on the Grizzlies, and how the team is expected to fare until Gasol returns. Amick talked to LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers, who said that Gasol is "the engine behind that team." Then, he talked to three NBA advance scouts—guys who travel around from town to town scouting opponents for NBA teams—what they thought of the situation. Remember, these are presumably actual scouts who work for actual NBA teams.
From Scout #1:
I hate to beat a dead horse but trading (Rudy) Gay (to the Toronto Raptors) last season, then firing (coach Lionel) Hollins this summer, is, and will continue to haunt them.
From Scout #2:
What can't be overlooked is that he knows where every player is suppose to be on the court and many times has to direct Zach where to go. He is also a smart, positional defender. In addition, he is competitive and is a quiet, but respected leader in the locker room. Koufos will give them solid minutes, but now Ed Davis or (third-year forward) Jon Leuer will have to contribute key minutes in relief.
From Scout #3:
It will make them more perimeter-oriented and rely on Koufos, who is a glorified (NBA Development League player). They will find out if Ed Davis is the real deal or not. ... At one time management thought his presence made Randolph expendable, which is laughable. Guys like Jon Leuer will have to play some minutes, and he wouldn't be good in the D-League.
Which one of these three scouts sounds like someone who actually has watched a lot of Grizzlies games? Hint: not Scout #1 or Scout #3.
Remember, these are guys (I assume they're guys) who get paid money by NBA teams to go watch other teams and report back on what they look like and how best to game-plan to beat them. There is a guy who gets paid money by an NBA franchise to report back that Kosta Koufos—81-game starter for the 3rd-seed Denver Nuggets last year—is a "glorified D-League player." What does that even mean? And saying that Jon Leuer "wouldn't be good in the D-League": Jon Leuer has played in the D-League and I think averaging almost 20-10 is "good."
I wasn't feeling well Monday night so I stayed home instead of going down to the Forum to cover the Grizzlies/Rockets game in person. As such, I got a little weird with this one. Herewith, a five-haiku recap of tonight's Grizzlies loss to the Rockets.
Tonight's Grizzlies game against the Houston Rockets is going to be interesting, and not for the reasons anyone was expecting when looking at the schedule prior to Friday night's home loss to the Spurs. With Marc Gasol, this game is an early-season chance to see how this year's Grizzlies match up with the newly-Dwighted Rockets at the Grindhouse—a chance to measure the team against one of the other good teams in the Southwest division.
Without Gasol—who is out "indefinitely" with an MCL sprain suffered in that Friday night game—tonight's game is an opportunity to test out new lineups and rotations that are going to have to be deployed for the next few weeks in Gasol's absence. It's a chance to see who's going to start at center: coach Dave Joerger told the media he's not sure whether it'll be Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos. My money is on Koufos—after all, he started 81 games for the Nuggets last year—but we won't know until Joerger makes that decision. At any rate, Gasol's injury means that Koufos, Davis, and Jon Leuer are all going to have to step up and contribute, or else the Grizzlies' much-feared frontcourt is going to take a serious hit.
This is a team that historically rallies when an important player goes down. In 2011, without Rudy Gay, they went on a tear through the Spurs and to 7 games against the Thunder in the second round. (Whether or not the success was because Gay was absent is a different discussion.) In 2012, Zach Randolph went down with an MCL sprain, and the Grizzlies—with Marreese Speights starting at power forward—managed to get home court advantage for the first time in franchise history. (We will not speak of what happened after that.)
The easy counterargument is that neither of those injuries were to Marc Gasol. Marc Gasol is the essential cog that makes the Grizzlies machine turn, on offense and on defense. He's a distributor and a scorer, and on defense, he not only secures the paint, but also tells everybody else what's happening, where they need to be, who's about to do what. One of my favorite basketball things to watch is Marc Gasol recognizing exactly what play the other team is trying to run, and telling the rest of the Grizzlies on the floor exactly who is going to do what. I can't find the footage to back this up, but I swear he's flat-out shoved Ed Davis into position at least once. In short, he's not just a scorer or a defender: he's the guts of what makes the Grizzlies such a staunch opponent. His absence will be felt. It's more a matter of whether the Grizzlies can hang on until he gets back in a Western Conference that's more loaded than ever. (If the Grizzlies were in the East, Gasol could probably sit until the playoffs and they'd still get home court. But c'est la vie.)
So tonight is going to be the first step in an arduous journey for the Grizzlies: trying to figure out how they're going to manage without Marc Gasol until he gets back.
I tweeted about this a little over the weekend, but: how much better is the Grizzlies' situation with Gasol out now that Kosta Koufos is on the roster in place of Darrell Arthur? Can you imagine how much worse we'd all be feeling about the Grizzlies' prospects for success in Gasol's absence if he were still around? And, as a corollary, can you believe that the Nuggets gave this guy up for Darrell Arthur, who has been so depleted by injury that he doesn't even look like the same player as the guy who jumped all over the Spurs in 2011?
To me, Gasol's injury highlights how good of a move that was for the Grizzlies front office. They may not have been right about everything so far, but that trade on draft night is pretty close to daylight robbery of another franchise.
Whether he gets the start or Davis does, the fact that the Grizzlies were able to add Koufos to the roster this summer means they're in much better shape than they would be otherwise. Obviously his skills as a high-post playmaker and passer are nowhere near what Gasol's are—and neither are anybody else's—but having a legitimate NBA starting center makes me feel much less panicky than I would otherwise right now.
I'm sure when the Grizzlies traded for Koufos, they didn't anticipate having to deploy him as much as they're probably going to have to now, but no matter who gets the start at center, the Grizzlies have some learning to do starting tonight: who are they going to be until Gasol gets back? Will they continue to fight like they did Friday night after Gasol went down? Are they going to still have the pieces they need to hang with the best of the Western Conference until Gasol returns? All questions without answers yet. Tonight, we'll see.
Well, it looks like Zach Randolph might have known what he was talking about last night.
Reports are emerging that Marc Gasol suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his MCL in last night's loss to the San Antonio Spurs, and is out "indefinitely" while he heals. It's a similar situation to Quincy Pondexter's injury last year that sidelined him for several weeks, and also the 2012 injury to Zach Randolph that put him on the bench for 10 weeks during that lockout-shortened season.
It's not good for the Grizzlies in the close Western Conference this year. Gasol could be out for a while. The Grizzlies are equipped to handle the loss of Gasol through the addition of Kosta Koufos in the offseason, but there's no question that Marc Gasol in the high post is the main facilitator of the Grizzlies' offense, and without him, everything is going to get more difficult. Gasol is probably the best passing center in the league, and there's not really a good way to replace a player like that.
It could be worse, though: Gasol's injury doesn't require surgery, which could have put him out until the playoffs—assuming the Grizzlies would get there without him for the rest of the regular season. Gasol's road back to health is going to be a long one, and Grizzlies fans are just going to have to be patient with that recovery.
In the meantime, Grizzlies basketball is going to be interesting for the next six to ten weeks. I had some thoughts on potential outcomes in my postgame piece from last night, and I still think they hold true now that we know the extent of Gasol's injury.
So, don't panic, but do fasten your seatbelts and prepare for turbulence.
Well, the Grizzlies lost to the Spurs 102-86 on Friday night, but the final score of the game isn't what most Grizzlies fans are worried about: in the second quarter, Jeff Ayres bumped into Marc Gasol trying to get post position and Gasol immediately grabbed for his knee and limped away. He left the court immediately and limped back into the locker room, from which he didn't return for the rest of the night.
The official word from the team was that Gasol has a "sprained knee" and he'll undergo an MRI tomorrow to determine the extent of the injury. I overheard Zach Randolph telling Tim Duncan it might be an MCL tear while the two of them were standing at the scorer's table waiting to check into the game, but I don't put too much stock in a quick diagnosis like that. If it is some sort of MCL injury, Gasol could be out a week, or he could be out until the All-Star Break; there's really not much use in speculating.
If Gasol is down for an extended amount of time, the Grizzlies' already-lopsided trade of Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos is only going to look that much better for the Grizzlies, since Koufos (1) started 81 games for the Nuggets last year and (2) is already playing well when paired with Zach Randolph, alongside whom he would presumably be starting. I don't think Ed Davis will start in Gasol's place—Davis and Randolph don't pair together as well as Davis and another center, and Kosta Koufos is nothing if not a true NBA center.
Several scenarios could play out: Gasol misses a short amount of time, and the Grizzlies are able to tread water by beating the teams they're "supposed" to beat and hanging out at or around .500 until he returns, at which point they kick it back into gear and make a great push down the stretch and get a 5th or 6th seed. Gasol could miss a long amount of time—let's say the All Star Break for example—and the team could hover at the .500 mark until that point and then make a push for the playoffs, coming in at a very low seed (7th or 8th) and finding themselves overwhelming underdogs in the first round. The worst case scenario is that the team falls apart completely—so much so that they end up with the first or second pick in the draft and get Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker (remember when David Robinson got hurt and the Spurs ended up with Tim Duncan?) and then win four titles in the next 8 years.
I make that Spurs/Duncan point to say this: even if it's a worst-case scenario, the Grizzlies are probably going to come out okay. Even if for some reason this season's hopes are dashed, they're still a good team. The sky is not falling. Especially not now, when we don't know the extent or severity of the injury.
But the injury certainly casts a dark shadow over a game that wasn't that great to begin with. The Spurs came out and did exactly what they've done to the Grizzlies for the last nine matchups between these two teams: they took away everything the Grizzlies were good at and left them with the scraps, and the Grizzlies took those scraps and somehow still managed to make it into a good basketball game. Down 14 at the half, the Grizzlies came out to start the third quarter making great defensive plays to get stops, the fuel that drives the Grizzlies' offensive engine. They were able to claw all the way back to a tied ball game, and they managed to pull the old "Grit and Grind" routine to keep it close down the stretch.
Eventually, though, the Spurs just stopped missing shots, and once the Spurs stopped missing, they pulled away from the Grizzlies and never looked back. The Grizzlies may be playing well right now, but they're still reliant on getting stops to make things work on offense, and in the absence of stops everything grinds to a halt (no pun intended). It's a function of the roster more than anything else. Mike Conley played out of his mind—28 points on 19 shots, 2-3 from 3, 4 steals—but it wasn't enough to keep the Grizzlies in it in the last three or four minutes; the Spurs were what they always seem to be: Just Too Good.
After the game, coach Dave Joerger wouldn't comment on Gasol's status besides saying "it's a sprained knee and he has an MRI tomorrow," which is really all anyone knows for sure. It makes Yet Another Loss To The Spurs seem entirely unimportant, even though it was a much better matchup than the last time these two teams played, and it makes it hard to write about anything else because the Gasol injury makes any attempt to project how the season it going to go speculation at best and BS at worst. Obviously, whenever that news breaks, there will be an update here detailing what we know.
Until then, sleep tight, and don't panic yet. Marc Gasol will be fine. It's just a question of when he'll be fine that has all of Grizz Nation reaching for the liquor cabinet tonight.
I'm kind of crunched for time this morning, but I didn't want to let tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs pass without mentioning a few things about it. Herewith, five quick thoughts:
1. Tonight is going to tell us a lot about whether the Grizzlies' bench additions are going to be able to space the floor against the Spurs, who essentially wrote the book on how to dismantle this Grizzlies team during the Western Conference Finals last year. We know, despite his exceptional level of play on the West Coast road trip, that Zach Randolph has struggled with the Spurs since the 2011 playoffs. The Spurs defend Randolph exceptionally well, and caused all kinds of problems for the Grizzlies in the paint during the playoffs last year. It's going to be up to the perimeter players—and new addition Mike Miller—to prevent the Spurs from being able to, you know, put five guys all in the lane when Zach Randolph touches the ball. Miller and Quincy Pondexter have been shooting pretty poorly so far, but if they can make a difference tonight, they'll make it much easier for the Grizzlies' dominating big men to breathe.
2. Mike Conley vs. Tony Parker has the potential to be as much fun to watch as Marc Gasol vs. Tim Duncan, and I think Gasol vs. Duncan is close to the pinnacle of basketball. Conley's play this season has been incredible, and Parker is Tony Parker. With any luck we'll get a good show out of those two tonight.
3. He may not do it tonight, since the Grizzlies are playing the Spurs, but some time soon, Dave Joerger is going to need to add a fourth big to the frontcourt rotation. I said in my Warriors recap that it should be Ed Davis, and the comments were flooded with votes in favor of Jon Leuer. I want to say for the record that I don't think that's a bad idea at all. I think Davis plays better when he's in the game for a longer period of time than 5 to 10 minutes, but I also understand the folks who think he's just... not the guy. I get that. Either way, I'd like to see somebody in addition to Gasol, Randolph, and Kosta Koufos to soak up some minutes. It's a long season.
4. I still like Jerryd Bayless better off the ball. Calathes is going to improve, and playing him against good teams is a way to make that happen. I've broken out the #FreeCalathes hashtag on Twitter before, but ideally, for me, Calathes will be the backup point guard by January or February and Bayless can return to his off-the-ball Bayless 'tude. I like Bayless best when he's fearless, and he's not fearless when he's trying to facilitate.
5. Linkbait: I did a Fraternizing with the Enemy Q&A with my friends over at SB Nation's Spurs blog Pounding the Rock. I felt like it was a good conversation, and PtR does excellent work, so check that out.
The Grizzlies are now 30th out of 30 teams in the league in pace, according to Basketball Reference, and as they've plummeted to the bottom of the league's pace-of-play rankings, they've started to solidify into a cohesive team of grind-it-out intensity and a violent offensive mindset spearheaded by two (or three when Kosta Koufos also gets a double double) of the league's best big men. The Grizzlies everyone (including this author) was worried about are gone, and the old Grizzlies have returned in their place.
The Grizzlies defeated the Steph Curry-less Warriors to overtime last night despite (1) playing their fourth game in six nights, all on the West Coast and (2) the Warriors' starting Andre Igoudala at point guard due to injuries, causing the Grizzlies to struggle mightily with their length on the perimeter for most of the first half. They did so by doing what they do best: forcing the Warriors, one of the most potent offensive teams in the league, into what was probably the slowest game they've played all year, with both teams tied at 75 at the end of regulation.
Tony Allen is going to miss tonight's road game against the Golden State Warriors while he serves his suspension for, y'know, kicking Chris Paul in the face Monday night, but he's not the only key player who'll be missing from action: Stephen Curry will also be out with a concussion which he suffered Monday night against the Jazz.
The absence of Allen means Quincy Pondexter will probably start in his place. Pondexter has struggled on and off all season, but has lately picked up his game a little, maybe because of his awesome black facemask.
Other fun fact about tonight's game: the game Curry is missing due to a head injury is his own bobblehead night at Oracle Arena.
Is that ironic that @StephenCurry30 is missing his own bobble head night because of head trauma???
— David Lee (@Dlee042) November 20, 2013
What're the odds?
At any rate, tonight's game gives the Grizzlies a chance to complete a 4-0 sweep of their West Coast road trip that seemed completely impossible a week ago. Four games in six nights, all of them on the road, including a game against the Clippers on the second game of a back to back? Forget about it. The discussion was about whether they'd go 1-3 on the trip or 2-2. About how if they were lucky, they probably wouldn't lose all four games.
This Grizzlies team has come alive on this trip. I still think their success is masking future issues with the rotation—I think eventually Calathes will be the backup point guard, and eventually Ed Davis is going to have to get some playing time to reduce the load being placed on the frontcourt starters. But for now, this group is playing well, and more importantly, they're playing with purpose. No longer are they wandering around like they're underwater watching the other team move the ball around, feet glued to the floor. They're playing like the Grizzlies, and that has everybody feeling better.
Whatever issues this team is going to have going forward—and I can think of a few: poor offensive play at the small forward spot, Ed Davis' continued need to step up and play better, the fact that Bayless is much better off the ball but is still being used as a backup point guard, et cetera—it appears that motivation is no longer one of them. The decision to buy in to the Joerger Era is no longer one of them. Marc Gasol playing like a hefty Byron Mullens is no longer one of them.
So, win or lose, tonight's Grizzlies game will feature a Grizzlies team that has started playing like a Grizzlies team (including a drop to 27th in the league in pace, of course). And this early in the season, I think that's all anybody really wanted to see.
• I expect the Grizzlies' bigs' dominating play to continue tonight, since the Warriors (as we saw previously when the Grizzlies beat them at FedExForum) don't really have anyone who can guard them. David Lee gets eaten alive by Zach Randolph almost every time the two meet each other, and Marreese Speights defended so poorly the last time these two teams met that Mark Jackson had to play the Corpse Formerly Known As Jermaine O'Neal instead. Look for the Randolph/Gasol/Koufos triumvirate (The Triumvirate is a great band name) to do serious work tonight.
• With Curry out, the Warriors' perimeter threats are going to have to work that much harder: Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala (and Harrison Barnes, too) have their work cut out for them. It'll be interesting to see whether the absence of Tony Allen or the absence of Steph Curry plays a bigger part in tonight's game.
• I'd like to see Nick Calathes get some run against the Warriors again; he played a lot of minutes against them last time because Jerryd Bayless was out. He acquitted himself very well, and I think he's much better as a backup ballhandler than Bayless. Bayless proved last year that he was much more effective off the ball—and that was with Keyon Dooling at the point, not Calathes, who is a much more able (if reckless) passer. "Reckless" can be fixed. The stifling effect that playing at the point has on Bayless' game probably can't. I'd like to see Calathes get some run tonight.
If I'm honest, that wasn't the outcome I expected last night: the Grizzlies went into Los Angeles and defeated the much-hated Clippers pretty much from beginning to end, and they did it without Tony Allen for most of the game. The Grizzlies were able to exploit mismatches against the Clippers' frontcourt as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Kosta Koufos—the only bigs who played any time for the Grizzlies—combined for 59 points and 33 rebounds. It was a solid road win for the Grizzlies, who are now 3-0 on their West Coast road trip, with 4-0 very much in play, as they face the Golden State Warriors again on Wednesday at Oracle Arena. Herewith, some thoughts:
Zach Randolph has been great. In all three games on the road trip so far, both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have put up really good numbers—and Gasol has gotten more engaged and more "Marc Gasol-like" as the trip has gone on—but the star of the show, even when there are other players (Gasol and Conley) contributing just as much to the Grizzlies' success, is Z-Bo. He was in top form again Monday night in Los Angeles, putting up 26-15 (along with 2 blocks and 2 steals). Even though the Clippers began the game doubling him every time he touched the ball, he still put up 13 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter.
When Randolph is playing at this level, the rest of the team can breathe a little easier, and everything goes better. Whether this is just some sort of phase or whether this is really the level Z-Bo is going to be operating at this year remains to be seen, but either way, Randolph's play has been a pleasant surprise so far this year. I'm willing to admit publicly that I wasn't sure he had these kinds of numbers in him on a nightly basis this season.
Marc Gasol looks like he's finally starting to get back in the swing of things, after spending much of the opening weeks of the season walking around in a Eurobasket-and-paella induced coma. Gasol's return to form couldn't have come at a better time for the Grizzlies, as his defense has started to round back into form after an abysmal start that saw him (1) out of position all the time and (2) seemingly not worried about it. At the same time, Gasol has started to be more aggressive on offense—especially when it's clear that he has a mismatch, as was the case last night when he was being guarded by Byron Mullens—and his set shot from the elbow, though it hasn't falling at the rate it did last year, has finally started to look right, and will surely start dropping soon if he keeps taking them.