(Phil took better notes than I did and has a much more in-depth summary over on his site, which you should check out anyway.)
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Last night, the Grizzlies defeated the Indiana Pacers 95-83 in the final game of the regular season, and they finally gained some clarity regarding who their opponent will be in the first round of the playoffs. At the beginning of the game, the Grizzlies had four possible matchups—the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Rockets, and Spurs—but as the night wore on, one by one, other games eliminated those possiblities until finally, as the Griz sealed their win down the stretch, they were locked in to a 4/5 series against Portland in which the Griz are the 5 seed but have home court advantage.
The game itself, played (yet again) without Mike Conley and Tony Allen, and surrounded by questions of how healthy Marc Gasol's ankle was, played out in November Grizzlies fashion: Gasol, who set a new career high of 32 points in the season opener at home, topped his own mark and scored 33 in the final home game. Along with a brilliant performance from Gasol, a few other Grizzlies stepped up, and while the game wasn't quite the kind of total domination we saw from this team back in November, it was a close enough approximation to put Griz fans a little more at ease as their banged-up home team now readies itself to face a equally banged-up (if not more so) Portland team starting Sunday night.
The Pacers, for their part, were just not able to pull off the win they needed to grab the 8 seed from Brooklyn and complete their unlikely run for the playoffs on the heels of Paul George's lost season. George actually left the game late with a left calf injury; he reportedly told the Pacers bench he "heard a pop" and he was carried off the floor by his teammates to applause from a sympathetic FedExForum crowd. George is a great player, and though he's got his work cut out for him this summer, I have no doubt that he'll be back, and with him, the Pacers' current run of success as one of the East's toughest teams.
➭ Marc Gasol looked unstoppable last night, pulling out the stops and putting to bed most of the concerns about whether his ankle had healed. Gasol scored 33 points on 13-of-19 shooting, along with 13 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block, and was positively dominant on both ends of the floor. This is the version of Gasol for whom the Grizzlies have been waiting patiently (well, somtimes patiently) since the All-Star Break. The Pacers' frontcourt was unable to do a thing to slow him down, and when they did, he just kicked the ball to Zach Randolph, who racked up 18 and 9 essentially by trying to run directly through whichever Pacer was in front of him, be it David West, Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola, or some other unfortunate large man in a navy uniform.
When Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combine for 51 points on 20-31 from the floor and 22 rebounds, the Grizzlies are very, very hard to beat. Gasol's play last night was a revelation, proof that maybe those November and December nights weren't some kind of fever dream we all had together, that maybe he really can play like this whenever he wants to and/or feels like he absolutely has to. Given the uncertainty surrounding the status of Tony Allen and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies really need this Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to show up on Sunday night to kick off the first round.
I'll have more (including a full recap and Next Day Notes) on tonight's 95-83 win over the Pacers on the blog in the morning, but for now, here's the schedule for the Grizzlies' first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers:
Should be a great series. It's the first time since 2006 that the Grizzlies have played a team other than the Thunder, Clippers, or Spurs in the playoffs, and the first time they've ever played Portland in the playoffs at all.
More on tonight's game in the morning.
The Grizzlies lost on the road to the Golden State Warriors, 111-107, and if you just see that final score, you might assume that the shorthanded Grizzlies fought as hard and as valiantly as they could and still just barely came up short against the best team in the league, which would be an encouraging result that showed that the Grizzlies, even missing two of their best players and with a third hobbled by a bum ankle, can hang with anybody.
Problem is this: that's not what happened.
The Grizzlies rolled into Oracle Arena needing a win to keep their hopes for the 2 seed alive, but missing Mike Conley and Tony Allen again and with Marc Gasol hampered by an ankle injury he suffered early in Saturday night's game against the Clippers. They faced difficult odds—especially since the Warriors needed a win to ensure they wouldn't face the Spurs until the Western Conference Finals—and many (present company included) wondered whether they should even try to win or instead focus on resting who they can rest until the playoffs start this weekend.
It didn't go well. Gasol clearly couldn't move very well, and without Mike Conley and Tony Allen's defense, the Grizzlies struggled to contain the Warriors from outside in the first quarter...
...and then in the second quarter, Klay Thompson turned into a white hot ball of burning hydrogen and helium and scored 26 points on 10-13 shooting, including 6-7 from 3 point range. The Grizzlies by that point were trying to guard him with Jordan Adams, and even though Adams is a credible defender for a rookie, guarding the second-best shooter in the league (second only to his teammate Steph Curry) doesn't go well for the best of the best, so it really went poorly for Adams.
Part of it, of course, was the same terrible 3-point defense we've seen from the Grizzlies all year long. Over-helping, getting punished on the weak side. The problem was exacerbated by Adams' inexperience and also (mostly) by the fact that Thompson only needs about two feet of space to get a shot off. Even when he's guarded by a guy like Tony Allen, Thompson can take and make a 3 in the time his man looks away and looks back. Add that to what has already been a lackluster off-ball perimeter defense for most of the season, and you have a quarter like that.
By halftime, the Grizzlies were down 68-46. At the end of the third quarter—a quarter in which Steve Kerr played Warriors starters for 10-ish minutes, and played Curry for 12 minutes because how could he possibly get injured two games before the playoffs?—they were down 93-66.
Of course, Dave Joerger decided a 30-point deficit was no reason to sit his injured All-Star Center, and played Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph together for 7:31 pointless, stupid minutes in the quarter, even though both of them were playing at something close to a 20% effort level, knowing ("knowing") the game was out of reach and deciding to rest themselves by not boxing out and not running the floor since the coach didn't seem to think it was a good idea to take them out. While the Grizzlies continued to sink farther and farther into the blowout, Randolph was 0-2 in the third and Gasol was 0-1. Good thing Gasol had to run around on a bad ankle for those 7:31; it really closed the gap.
They weren't the only ones not playing well, but most of the other Grizzlies at least looked like they were trying. Vince Carter continues to look like dead meat, shooting poorly and taking poor shots for the most part even when they go in. Beno Udrih was 3-12 from the floor and could barely slow Curry, much less contain him. Jeff Green—another Grizzly playing through injuries, this time back spasms—was 2-6 in 21 minutes and didn't attempt a free throw.
Every single normal Griz rotation player who played in this game got absolutely demolished. It was not close; there was not ever a suggestion that it might become close. This was a team who wasn't sure they'd win coming in, who decided at about the five minute mark that they didn't have a chance, completely shutting it down while the other team continued to play at a high level of intensity and kicked them repeatedly while they were down.
The Fourth Quarter
The fourth quarter was when Steve Kerr finally sat out his starters, and Joerger did the same. Koufos, Carter, and Calathes all logged minutes in the 4th (Koufos played 8 minutes) but the real stars of the show were the rookies (and Jon Leuer, who's mostly been squeezed out of the rotation since Vince Carter returned from injury): Russ Smith, Jordan Adams, Leuer, JaMychal Green, and Jarnell Stokes.
Instead of coming out in garbage time and throwing the ball around trying not to lose by more than they already were (which was almost 30 at the start of the quarter), the rookies came in and played solid basketball against the Warriors third-string guys. Neither team was planning on putting the starters back in, and there wasn't anything they could possibly to do make the game worse, and in that moment, something incredible happened: they went on a monumental run.
Russ Smith had 16 points on 5-8 shooting, made all 5 of his free throws, and logged 4 assists and a steal. Jordan Adams didn't shoot as well (5-16 for the game, but 4-7 in the 4th) but finished with 19 points, 2-5 from 3, 5-7 at the line, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Jarnell Stokes had 7, but he also played tough defense and stole an inbounds pass. JaMychal Green didn't score much but played a solid game, showing promise as a future backup big man. All told, the Grizzlies' scrubs, the guys who can't get off the bench, hung 41 points on their Golden State counterparts, and once the game got into the last minute intentional foul portion, had a real chance to win it if the ball took a lucky Grizzlies bounce or two. If they'd had another 60-90 seconds to play, they almost undoubtedly would've closed the gap.
They didn't, and they were playing against the guys who never get off the Warriors bench, either, but it was still an encouraging sign for the Grizzlies' future: rookies! More than one! Who can actually play basketball!
I can only assume that these guys—especially Adams, Stokes, and Smith, but also Green—are going to figure much more prominently in the Grizzlies' second unit next year, as they develop and as the team starts to feel them out to see who will be the rotation guys for the next 3-5 years. Last night, they took a bleak game and turned it into an entertaining one, reminding us all how much fun it is to watch a team of guys learning on the fly (remember the early Lionel years?) and surprising themselves by what they accomplished.
I'm not ready to crown these guys The Future Of The Franchise based on one performance against the Warriors' scrubs, but I did think it showed real heart to do what they did last night after being thrown into a pretty rough situation. They kept last night from being almost unbearably bleak, a continuation of the intermittent misery of the last few days (weeks) (months) of Grizzlies basketball. So that was all right by me.
Tweet of the Night
True to form, Griz Twitter rolled out the gallows humor last night. Some samples:
BREAKING: State of Tennessee has declared that all those Grizzlies license plates issued today can be redeemed for Purple Heart plates.— Brad Carson (@BradCarson) April 14, 2015
@FlyerGrizBlog Shouldn't have ever cut Josh Akognon— Jonathan Lindsey (@Stumpbuster9) April 14, 2015
The Pacers, and only the Pacers, and Lord, do the starters ever need a rest.
I think I'm doing this playoff math correctly, but it's maybe the most confusing seeding picture I remember seeing: A win Wednesday night and a loss by the Rockets and/or Spurs means the Grizzlies are the 5 seed and play Portland in the first round with home court advantage. A Grizzlies loss to the Pacers means they're the 6 seed.
If the Grizzlies lose and fall to 6th, they're more than likely play the Clippers in the first round (and LA will have home court advantage), which is just what I need to have a nervous breakdown just in time for summer. If the Clippers win while the Rockets and Spurs both lose, though, the Spurs fall to 3rd and the Grizzlies have to play them in the first round (in which case the nervous breakdown will come much more quickly).
There are a couple of scenarios in which the 6th-seeded Grizzlies play the Rockets in the first round: a Clippers loss coupled with San Antonio and Houston both winning means the 3/6 first round series will be Houston/Memphis regardless of whether the Grizzlies win Wednesday night or not.
(Big hat tip to Matt Moore's "Western Conference Bloodbath of Death" chart for making those explanations possible.)
Like I said yesterday: we still don't know anything. Grizzlies/Clippers III, much like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, is a sequel that nobody wants and nobody will enjoy, but that's the most likely outcome at this point (ESPN's latest projections put the odds of that outcome at 40% or so). The next most likely outcome is Grizzlies/Trail Blazers as the 4/5 series. Grizzlies/Spurs and Grizzlies/Rockets are both fairly unlikely but also both still on the table, and who knows what will happen on Wednesday.
If there is good news, it's that the Grizzlies are the late national game and should have a good idea of what's happening by the time that game starts, so if it's a meaningless game, they can just play the rookies the whole time while everybody else goes back to the locker room and has a beer and puts ice on whatever is injured. But until the end of Wednesday night, we still have no idea where the Grizzlies will be seeded or who they're playing.
We've entered the final three days of the 2014-15 regular season, and frustrating as it is, we still don't know anything. Tonight, the Grizzlies play the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, and the Warriors have every incentive to beat the Grizzlies and prevent them from getting the 2 seed, because if the Griz get the 2 seed, the Spurs likely fall to 5, to the same side of the West playoff bracket as the Warriors, who they would then potentially play in the second round. Beating the Grizzlies tonight ensures the Warriors that they won't see the Spurs until the Western Conference Finals.
I still believe the Grizzlies match up well with the Warriors, blowout home loss in March aside. I believe the inside-out way the Grizzlies play, along with the tenacious on-ball defense, means that they have just as good of a shot as anyone else at beating Golden State on any given night. But given the Warriors' historic domination of each and every challenger this season, it's hard to feel good about going in to Oracle Arena in a must-win situation.
That said, if anybody's going to pull this off, it's the Grizzlies. With their backs against the wall, and no alternative but to win, they usually pull off some sort of miracle through sheer force of will and the utter violence of restriced area basketball.
But then you have the injuries. Tony Allen is probably out for the rest of the regular season. Mike Conley should be out for the rest of the regular season so he doesn't aggravate whatever plantar fasciitis problems he has1. Marc Gasol sprained his ankle early in Saturday night's loss to the L.A. Clippers, and is "questionable" for tonight, and honestly, at this rate, he probably shouldn't play either.
Update: After some careful reading, I'm pretty sure the CA piece that talked about the Conley injury meant to say "plantar fascia" instead of "plantar fasciitis." That's a huge difference contained in a small uncaught typo: the plantar fascia is the muscle on the bottom of your foot. Plantar fasciitis is a nasty slow-healing injury to that muscle. The CA article says that "There is inflammation and swelling above the plantar fasciitis", which should probably read "plantar fascia" instead. We (I) regret the error (in not catching an error).
Faced with that prospect—entering the toughest arena in the league against the toughest team in the league in one of the rare late-season games that actually matters to them whether they win or not—it's hard to be hopeful about the outcome of tonight's game. And when it's hard to be hopeful about tonight's game, it's hard to be hopeful about the Grizzlies' playoff seeding, about their matchups and their path to the Finals, and thus about their hopes of achieving the preseason goal of making the NBA Finals and winning the championship.
I'm not going to try to talk you back into being hopeful about those things. Frankly I don't have that in me at this point in the season, after weeks and weeks of each and every one of us tearing our hair out about what's wrong with the Grizzlies. If they'd won some of those games they dropped—the Boston game, the Detroit game, the March Pelicans game where they blew a double-digit lead—we'd probably be having a different conversation. Just like I said at the time, the West is so tight this year that it turned out all those "meaningless" games in February and March actually mattered immensely in the difference between homecourt against the Mavericks and a series as the 6 seed against San Antonio or Houston.
But even that isn't really the point right now. The main point right now is health, and the Grizzlies' lack thereof. I would much rather the Griz end up with the 5th seed and home court against Portland than the 6th seed against the Clippers or Spurs, but if Allen, Conley, and Gasol aren't healthy, it probably won't matter much who they play in the first round, it'll be the same brutal shorthanded slog. Everything comes down to whether or not those guys will be able to perform at their best. For the most part, the Grizzlies aren't a team that can just plug bench guys into the system and hope for the best; the system is built around the very specific skills of the starting five, and then the bench guys come in and play more improvisationally. That's not a slight against the bench, but it is the way the team is constructed, and so when one (or two) (or three) of those guys can't play at a high level, everything gets thrown out of whack.
That's what we saw in LA on Saturday. The turnovers, the stagnation, the confusion about who was doing what with the ball when—these are people we're talking about, skilled basketball players who all approach the game in their own way. They are not directly interchangeable with each other like some Popovichian Borg Collective.
It's hard not to feel a little apprehensive about how the next two or three weeks of Grizzlies basketball will go. Things are barely hanging together, limping down the stretch before being thrown into a Western Conference playoff gauntlet of historic and unprecedented difficulty. Only time will tell whether these Grizzlies, for all their might and for all their flaws, will be able to win these last two games despite everything stacked against them, despite every weakness with which they've been saddled, despite every broken body and worn-down mind they're bringing to the fight. By Thursday morning, we will know where they stand. Everything between now and then is chaos.
In my previous life as a distance runner, I've had plantar fasciitis. It's terrible, and it doesn't go away unless you quit running on it for a while, and even then sometimes it just lingers for months, waiting for the right moment to fill your foot with stabbing pain right when you're not expecting it. A bad case of plantar fasciitis is miserable.↩
I'm not sure there's really much to say about last night's 94-86 road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers—the facts and numbers speak for themselves. The Grizzlies were without Tony Allen and Mike Conley from the opening tip, as they will likely be for the rest of the regular season. Eight minutes or so into the first quarter, Marc Gasol came down on DeAndre Jordan's foot and rolled his ankle and left the game.
With 6:08 left in the game, the score was tied at 79. The Clippers bench is atrocious, and every time Doc Rivers had to rest his starters, the Grizzlies made up whatever ground they'd lost and usually grabbed the lead, as well. But those last six minutes are where everything unraveled. Because they were missing two of their three best players and three of their best five, the effort being expended on the second night of a back-to-back after a really tough game against Utah the night before was too much. Guys had no legs. They were fighting—they always fight (except those moments this spring when they don't)—but there just wasn't enough left in the tank for them to execute.
Turnovers were a problem. Lots of bad passes, lots of gambles with the ball, lots of poor decision-making, but it's easy to understand why there were so many: last night some of the five-man lineups that played long stretches had never been on the floor together in a game before.
JaMychal Green played 17 minutes and performed better than your standard "D-League end of the bench big" had any right to. Jordan Adams only played 6:30; turns out maybe he should've been playing spot minutes all year long so he'd be ready for this sort of situation. Alas, he wasn't. I don't hate to say "I told you so," either. I told you so. Clearly having somebody else to play at the 2 spot last night would've helped the Grizzlies get over the hump, but instead, Adams had 3 rebounds and a foul in his 6:30.
Last night in Utah, the Grizzlies took care of business on the road (no thanks to some unfortunate free throws) against a Jazz team with the same record (19-13) as the Grizzlies since February 1st. Without Mike Conley and Tony Allen, it certainly wasn't pretty, but pretty isn't reflected in the playoff standings, and last night was extremely important to the Grizzlies' hopes of hanging on to the 2-seed and finishing ahead of the Spurs and Rockets to win the Southwest division.
The game was pretty much exactly like the other three Grizzlies/Jazz games this season: at times the Grizzlies looked like they should be ahead by 15 points, but they never made it that far ahead (the largest lead by either team was 9) and the Jazz actually spent most of the second half with the lead. The Grizzlies were playing hard, but because of the excellent Jazz defense (especially on the interior, anchored by the very, very tall and very, very athletic Rudy "The Stifle Tower" Gobert), they never really looked like they were playing well, having to fight for every basket.
Down the stretch, though, when it seemed like they might actually lose the game, the Grizzlies did exactly what they needed to do: they got consecutive stops and turned them into hard-fought baskets on possessions extended by multiple offensive rebounds. It was the same thing we've seen them do in countless other games this year that they "should" win: put the clamps on a team in a five minute stretch and come out with a win.
No thanks to the referrees, it almost didn't happen that way. Up 89-86 with 1 second left (thanks to an inbounds play that was the result of a hilariously mismatched Zach Randolph/Rudy Gobert jump ball), the Jazz had time to run one play, for a Gordon Hayward corner 3 which Marc Gasol blocked out of bounds as time expired...
...except the referee called a foul on what the replay showed was a perfectly clean block. Referees reviewed the play to determine how much time was left on the clock, but whether or not the foul actually happened couldn't be reviewed, so I'm sure they stood around saying "well, we can't take that back" and proceeded with the free throws. Hayward went to the line to take 3 shots with .1 second on the clock, and if he made them all, the game went to overtime tied at 89.
He missed the last one, and the game ended with a Grizzlies win.
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One can never be sure what one will get when he or she turns up at the Grindhouse for a game these days: sometimes it's the Grizzlies who can beat anyone in the league at any time and place, and sometimes it's the Grizzlies who can't score more than 80 points and can't keep their opponent from scoring more than 95. It's almost like someone wrote about that yesterday.
Last night, the Grizzlies were out for blood against a Pelicans team that had just beaten the Golden State Warriors the night before, and they got it, to the tune of a 36-point home win over a divisional rival (and the current 8th seed in the Western Conference). At one point the Grizzlies were up by 40, only the second time in franchise history that the Grizzlies have led a game by 40 or more points. It was an absolute beatdown of a tired-but-good New Orleans team that just couldn't get any traction at any point to make a run.
In the opening minutes, it looked like The Quincy Pondexter Revenge Game was a real possibility—last night was Pondexter's first game played in Memphis since being traded to the Pelicans—when Pondexter scored 8 points in the first 5 minutes of the game. (His made 3's included some kind of new 3-point celebration I haven't seen before that vaguely resembled starting a lawnmower.) After a Grizzlies timeout, though, the World Famous Memphis Grizzlies Defense kicked in—and stayed in for the rest of the night. Pondexter, having scored those 8 points in the first 5 minutes, finished with 11.
The rest of the Pelicans didn't fare much better. As a team they were only able to score 12 points in the second quarter, and 19 in the final two. The first quarter was the only one in which the Griz gave up 20 or more points. It looked for a bit like Zach Randolph might get himself a triple-double, but he ended up sitting the entire fourth quarter (along with Marc Gasol and Courtney Lee) and finished with "just" 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists. Randolph was in vintage form, taking the ball right at Anthony Davis' chest and forcing him to try to use strength to defend Randolph—which is probably the only way he can't effectively guard Z-Bo—and playing the brand of bully ball that has made him the rock of this franchise since 2009. Mean mugs were mugged. Three pointers were attempted. Randolph even borrowed Marc Gasol's self-butt-slap after one particularly tough basket. (Though, to be fair, he said after the game, "Marc got that from me.")
I was working on something else for today, until I read Chris Herrington's Pick and Pop for this week, and scrapped what I was doing to expound upon some of the things Chris said in his piece. It's behind the CA paywall, so caveat emptor, but it's (as always) well worth a read.
The relevant quote:
Beyond that, we’re reaching a limit on analysis with this team. Strategy? Health? Individual performance? General correction relative to the league? All factors, but the biggest one is the least tangible, especially from the outside looking in: Mentality, focus, energy. The gestalt of a team. Why is this lacking so much right now, close to the moment when it’s needed most? I couldn’t pretend to tell you.
That, right there—that 67-word block quote—is the most succinct summary of where the Grizzlies are at headed in to the playoffs that I've read.
It's been really difficult to talk about this team for the last two months. Outwardly, nothing is wrong with them. There aren't any major injuries save Tony Allen's ailing hamstring, which needs to be rested for the postseason. Courtney Lee is (very) slowly starting to return to his role as a scorer after a couple months of wandering in the wilderness after the Jeff Green trade.
And speaking of that trade, after a long period of struggle with the starting unit that saw him voluntarily go to the bench, Green—starting in the place of the injured Tony Allen—has been effective as of late, like he's finally starting to get into a rhythm on the team. He's getting to the rim, playing (mostly) more efficiently, and starting to figure out where he needs to be on the floor most of the time.
So what gives? What is/was causing Marc Gasol so much mental anguish that he tore his jersey during a game? How is it possible that the Grizzlies played a full 48-minute game agsint Washington in which Zach Randolph attempted 5 field goals? Why are the Grizzlies so frequently shifting between "serious playoff threat" and "gentlemens' sweep bait"1 without any sort of indicator of what does and doesn't matter to them?
Last night, the FedExForum started to feel like the Grindhouse again. It was tentative, fleeting, contingent on whether the Grizzlies could actually hold on to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder, contingent on whether the team could snap out of the amnesiac stumble that's marked their last eight weeks of play.
Of course, these Grizzlies always (only?) play at their best with their backs against the wall, and with San Antonio and Houston both eyeing better playoff seeding—the Grizzlies remain in 2nd in the West, but could theoretically finish anywhere between 2nd and 6th—last night was pretty close to a must-win for them. They came out and played like the Memphis Grizzlies, against a team they've seen more times than any other since the 2010-11 season.
The biggest thing to take away from last night is that for whatever reason, the Grizzlies are starting to look like themselves. Whether it's because the playoffs are finally visible on the horizon, or because the seeding battle is tightening and they can finally tell that every game matters (as if it didn't before, when they were losing to Detroit and Utah and whoever else), or because they had three days off to practice and hang out at home and eat meals with their families, it's happening. I'm not going to say that they've turned a corner—this team is far too unpredictable of late for me to make any kind of pronouncement like that—but they're showing signs of life, and that's the best thing that's happened down at 191 Beale in weeks.
➭ Marc Gasol looked like a different person than the jersey-ripping emotional maniac who played against Sacramento on Monday night. Even before the game, he just looked different, like he wanted to play basketball. The game followed from the attitude: Gasol finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, and he looked comfortable.
Gasol is such an emotional player. His mental state is readily apparent on the court, from the way he carries himself to the way he fights for rebounds to the way he talks to himself after plays while he gets ready to shoot free throws. The comments about Gasol's stress level around the Sacramento game—what probably came off as jokes about the fact that he was in some kind of mental distress—weren't jokes. Something was wrong with this dude.
It's been a long year for Gasol. He played (hard) in the FIBA World Cup this summer, he and his wife had a baby (who is about the age to be undergoing some kind of sleep regression—since my own daughter is almost a year old, I have recent experience with that ghastly phenomenon), he's got free agency in the back of his mind looming after the end of the year... Gasol has a lot on his plate, and has since this summer. As the Grizzlies' play stagnated and things started to go pear-shaped, it was only another stressor on top of the pile he'd already acquired, and no wonder it made him a little crazy.
At any rate, just like the overall team, I'm not going to say "Gasol is back" just because he's had one good game. This season has been far too inconsistent to make statements like that. But last night was the first time in a while that he (1) played at a very high level and (2) looked like he was enjoying himself, and did both at the same time. Which is a good sign as the regular season winds down.
➭ If you're going to sit down and map out what the ideal Jeff Green game looks like, you'd probably draw up something like Green's performance last night: 22 points on only 12 shots, 2 of 5 from 3, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks, and playing inspired, tough defense on Russell Westbrook. (He wasn't so good defending other folks, but on Westbrook, he did a number on the white-hot force of nature.)
Lately, Green is looking a lot more comfortable in the flow of the Grizzlies' offense, both with the starting unit (Green returned to starting last night with Tony Allen still out nursing his hamstring injury) and with the second unit. His defensive positioning is still mostly subpar, but he's gotten "okay" enough that it's not always the problem that it was early in his Griz tenure.
His athleticism and ability to get to the rim completely change the nature of what the Griz are able to do offensively. Instead of having to shoot a last-second long jumper to bail them out when an offensive possession goes badly, they can swing the ball to Green and have him run at the basket, where he'll probably either get a layup or go to the foul line. Not having to rely on jump shooting as a relief mechanism is a big deal for these Grizzlies, who mostly still can't hit the broad side of a barn.
➭ Courtney Lee aggressively looked to score last night, even though his 3-pointer wasn't really falling. Lee was 1-4 from long range, but that was only a small part of his game. He still had a rough night accuracy-wise (5 of 13 for 13 points isn't exactly the most efficient performance) but his determination to get a layup or something on a pull-up from midrange was much different than he's been as of late, opting to just not shoot at all. A Lee who is scoring, even if it's not from 3, is much more valuable than one who isn't. If he can keep his scoring aggression up—and he's clearly still somewhat hampered by the hand injury he suffered, whether physically or mentally, so one can probably assume it comes and goes depending on how he's feeling—the Grizzlies have a much higher ceiling.
➭ The Grizzlies should always be attempting 20-ish 3-pointers in a game. If they're taking the shots, eventually they'll fall. The Griz were 4 of 21 from long range last night, and the shots were almost always open looks. Everyone knows they can't shoot—if they were even slightly below average at hitting 3's instead of abysmal, last night's game would've been a 20-point victory—but the more they take, the more they make. If they're only going to make 20% of the 3's they take, they need to take a lot more of them so they're still hitting 5 or 6. On the nights that they actually make 35% or 40% of them, they'll be unstoppable.
Tweet of the Night
Jeff Green kneed both Enes Kanter and Russell Westbrook in the face last night. He was going up for a rebound when he did it to Kanter—Kanter fell down under the basket and Green landed on him knee-first. He got Westbrook while jumping to block a shot—yes, he jumped so high his knee was even with Westbrook's face—and he clocked Westbrook on the chin. Westbrook, of course, has been playing with a mask due to a broken cheekbone, so he was down for a while recovering from the accidental blow.
Either way, it was just another moment in the Grizzlies-as-wrestling narrative:
Jeff Green has the best high knee I've seen since the heyday of Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) April 4, 2015
As you may have seen yesterday, Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger took to the airwaves on The Chris Vernon Show to talk about what's been going on with the Grizzlies lately, and what's coming up for them. Joe Mullinax had an excellent summary and analysis of his comments for Grizzly Bear Blues, but I did want to comment one particular thing that was discussed.
Joerger is known for his candor, especially in one-on-one situations. He calls it like he sees it, though usually not without consideration for how his words are going to be received. (The shining example of this was earlier in the season when he told a postgame press conference that slow and through the inside was how the Grizzlies needed to play and then admitted to Chris Herrington that during the Grizzlies' hot streak of December they were playing at a much faster pace than in the past.)
So given that he says what he means—except when he doesn't—I'm not sure whether to take this particular comment at face value or try to parse it and figure out who, exactly, he's targeting by saying it:
Dave Joerger thinks the starting five of Conley-Lee-Green-Randolph-Gasol gives the Grizzlies a higher ceiling than replacing Green w/TA.— Chris Faulkner (@FaulknerMemphis) April 1, 2015
I'm not sure whether he really means that, but if he does, well, I'm not sure what to think about it.
It's clear that Green has struggled to fit in with the starters since coming to the Grizzlies in a January trade; that's to be expected. The Grizzlies' starting unit runs pretty controlled sets and is very dependent on guys being in the right place at the right time. If you don't know the plays and don't know the system, things are probably going to go badly—and let's be honest: especially if you're not the type of player who is known for being in the right place at the right time. With a full training camp under his belt, and a Tony Allen who actually buys in to coming off the bench (which, from all indications, has gone much better this year than it did last year), it's possible that Conley/Lee/Green/Randolph/Gasol could be a better lineup.
It took Marc Gasol taking out his frustrations on his jersey, ripping the front of it wide open à la Hulk Hogan (and also Grizzly legend Darko Milicic), but the Grizzlies got a win, and a good one, over the Sacramento Kings last night at home, 97-83.
For all the talk we've been doing—"we" being myself and everybody else who covers this team night in and night out—I don't think we'd considered that the answer to "What's wrong with Marc Gasol?" was "He's actually been slowly going insane for eight weeks" until last night. He started out missing shots again—similar to the San Antonio game Sunday night in which he was getting good looks at the basket and they were just rimming out—and in the first quarter he missed a 16-footer and had had enough:
The most "Marc Gasol" moment of the whole incident is when he rips the front of the jersey open, and then immediately realizes what he did and tries to stick the two sides of the tear back together. Not how it works, but a nice thought. He continued to play on with his jersey flapping in the breeze until the next timeout, when Kosta Koufos entered the game for him.
Ever since Gasol's meltdown in the Detroit game, where he fouled out and just sat on the floor for a while, his mental state has been called into question. Last night was decidedly not evidence that everything is fine, but it was evidence that Gasol's lack of intensity—his "checked-out-ness"—seems to be slowly subsiding and what's coming in its place is an overwhelming frustration with himself and his lackluster play.
This is good and bad. It's good because it means he cares. It's bad because it means he's playing with a lot of frustration, fouling sometimes after failing to make a play (in the style of Tony Allen), replacing the exuberant self-butt-slap with something more sinister—the rending of garments and a thousand-yard stare.
Someone asked Gasol about the jersey destruction in the postgame presser. Gasol just smiled, clearly sheepish, and said "That was my Darko moment. He was my man, and I miss him. I miss him a lot."
➭ Kosta Koufos had the most rebounds he's ever had coming off the bench for the Grizzlies (12) and played an all-around excellent game while backing up a Marc Gasol on the edge of some sort of mental break. He was everywhere last night, banging bodies with Grizzly Nemesis Reggie Evans and keeping him from accomplishing much, scoring as the roll man, setting picks, doing Kosta Koufos things. He may not be as good as Gasol (clearly he isn't) but when he's got a big chunk of minutes (and/or he is maybe halfway auditioning for his former coach George Karl) Koufos is such an excellent piece to have on this basketball team.
➭ Jeff Green had a really good night, even as he was inserted back into the starting lineup in place of the still-injured Tony Allen. Green played 33 minutes, was 6-11 from the floor (including 2-5 from 3pt. range) for 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. Jeff Green may not have good games as often as it seems like he should—something that has been the case throughout his NBA career, of course, and something Griz fans should've known they were getting—but he does genuinely look like he's starting to learn where he's supposed to be when he's on the floor with the first unit, and I don't doubt that his knowledge is going a long way towards reducing some of those guys' frustrations.
Also, he had another ridiculous dunk in transition. He's good at those.
Green is still a very important piece of the Grizzlies' postseason puzzle. If he can continue to show this sort of growth over the last seven games of the season and into the first round, they're in a lot better shape (even if he's part of the second unit) than otherwise.
➭ Jokes about insanity aside (although I'm no longer convinced they're jokes; the jersey tear was deeply uncomfortable even though it was funny), Gasol had a decent game: his shot wasn't falling (4-11 from the floor), so instead he switched into "facilitator" mode, and did a good job with it, to the tune of 11 rebounds and 6 assists in 27 minutes. With the game Koufos was having, Gasol wasn't really necessary, even when Joerger put him back in to finish out the game. I probably would rather have seen him sit the rest of the 4th quarter out and chillax, given the circumstances, but Joerger loves putting the starters in at the end of the game, so that's what happened.
I do think we should be keeping an eye on Gasol from here on out. Jokes aside, he seems to be playing basketball from kind of a dark place right now. Who knows if his baby daughter stopped sleeping, or what. (You want to know what'll make a grown man tear his own clothes in anger? A tiny human experiencing a sleep regression.) But it's been a while since Gasol had this kind of an edge, and was playing kind of poorly at the same time.
➭ In the standings, last night was a good night. The Toronto Raptors beat the Rockets, and the Grizzlies won, so the Griz reclaimed 2nd place in the West and the lead in the Southwest division. Given the two teams' remaining schedules, I think the Grizzlies should hold on to win the division, but they'll probably have to go 6-1 or 5-2 over the last seven to do it. I think they can, but given their seeming instability as of late, I've been wrong before.
Tweet of the Night
No explanation necessary.
@StevieDanziger) March 31, 2015
Three days of glorious rest, followed by a rare home-and-home back to back that sees the Grizzlies taking on the Thunder Friday night and the Wizards Saturday night, both at FedExForum. Then three more days off and a home game against the
Grizzlies Kryptonite All-Stars New Orleans Pelicans with divisional implications. Road games at the Jazz, Clippers, and Warriors follow, before the Grizzlies play their last game of the regular season at home against the Pacers on 4/15.
A Loss to the Spurs
It was a loss, and it was a loss that saw the Grizzlies lose their lead over the Southwest division and fall from the 2nd seed to 3rd behind the Houston Rockets, so it's hard to reconcile why Sunday night's 103-89 road loss to the San Antonio Spurs felt like it was more silver lining than cloud itself. (Insert "Touch of Grey" joke here.)
The Grizzlies lost to the Spurs, sure, but they did it while playing more or less like the Grizzlies. They weren't close to being the early season Griz, to be sure, but they showed signs of life that had been severely lacking in the last two outings against the Cavaliers and Warriors. They played with more aggression even though the shots weren't falling (especially for Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Courtney Lee—stop me if you've heard that one before). The defense was good for stretches, even with Tony Allen out with the hamstring injury he suffered towards the end of the Golden State game. They looked halfway decent again... but the outcome was ultimately the same, record-wise and standings-wise.
The Spurs kept running out to double-digit leads—13 points at one point during the third quarter—and the Grizzlies kept reeling them back in. All night long, until the Griz finally won the third quarter and cut the San Antonio lead to 4. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Joerger outsmarted himself a little bit and played a three point guard "super smallball" lineup of Beno Udrih, Mike Conley, Nick Calathes, Vince Carter, and Jeff Green.
The Grizzlies lost to the league-leading Golden State Warriors on Friday night, 107-84, in their second consecutive blowout loss to a championship-contending team. I don't think I have to run down how the game went: the Grizzlies came out playing tough but not executing well, and not making great decisions. Mike Conley was on fire early and did a number on Stephen Curry defensively, but without the play from Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to back it up and establish the Grizzlies' presence on the interior, the Grizzlies were quickly overmatched and outgunned.
The Warriors' incomparable backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 66 points on 22 of 39 shooting, and the Warriors as a team went 16 of 31 from three-point range. The Grizzlies' defense, good though it may be, just couldn't keep up with that kind of barrage, not when their own offense was sorely lacking in outside shooting and the open shots they were able to create for themselves—mostly on the interior, where they count for one fewer point—weren't falling.
The Warriors, the way they're playing right now, are one of the best basketball teams I've seen play in person. Everything they do, whether it's passing, shooting, defending, running sets, everything, they do at an elite level. They're clearly the best team in the West and probably the best team in the league.
And that's the whole problem that the Grizzlies have against these teams like the Cavaliers and Warriors right now: they're just better. They're playing their best basketball, and the Grizzlies are still stumbling around trying to find their way, or maybe coasting, or who even knows what the problem is anymore? There are tiers of teams right now. The first tier is Golden State, Cleveland, Atlanta, and probably San Antonio. The Grizzlies—despite having the third-best record in the league—don't belong in that group by virtue of their uneven play.
That's not to say that the Grizzlies are hopeless. They could very conceivably get to the playoffs, where every game matters again, and flip a switch and return to form, with the offense and defense both firing on all cylinders the way they were at the beginning of the year. It's not hard to imagine that happening; we know they're capable of playing like that, or at least they were. It's entirely possible that they end up in a first round matchup with, well, anybody but San Antonio, and take care of business in five or six games while rounding into form to pummel whoever the second-round opponent is.
The problem is that there are only three weeks and nine games between here and there. They've been sleepwalking since before the All-Star break. There's just no way to know what they're going to look like—what type of intensity they'll play with, how well they'll execute—until the playoffs start. If last night is an indication of anything, it's just proof that the Grizzlies have a long way to go before they're in "playoff shape."
But let's talk specifics. Here are two things that are going wrong for the Grizzlies right now that are actually worth being concerned about, long-term.
Zach Randolph is not playing like Zach Randolph, and he hasn't for a while. Last night against Golden State, Z-Bo had 3 rebounds and 10 points on 4-10 shooting in 27 minutes. This is the same Randolph who ripped off a string of 20-out-of-21 games worth of double doubles barely more than two months ago. He's just not playing like himself right now; he's not the physical interior threat he normally is, he's not fighting for rebounding position, the Grizzlies are settling for the same old isolation sets for him that they always have... it's just not good. I don't know why that's happening, and neither does anybody else. But Randolph's decline, when paired with Gasol's, is a huge reason the Grizzlies can't beat anybody right now: it's pretty much the only way they had to score anyway, and with Randolph a non-factor they really can't keep up with jump shooting.
I'd like to assume that Randolph is just coasting to the playoffs, whether intentionally or not, and that he'll be fine by the end of the year. Veteran guys have that habit. But if that's not what it is, and there are some kind of issues, physical or otherwise, that are keeping him from playing his best, that's a huge problem.
The second thing: Courtney Lee is a shooter/scorer who neither shoots nor scores. Lee started the season on a hot streak, and since then he hasn't just returned to earth, but rather has fallen through the floor, through the bottom of the basement, and is now searchin for his shot somewhere deep within the mantle of the earth, on a mission somewhat like the movie The Core.
Without Lee hitting threes—because, let's face it, nobody else is hitting any either, with the exception of Mike Conley, and Mike can't do everything all the time—the Grizzlies are right back where they've always been every other year: pack the paint and shut down Gasol and Randolph, and there's nowhere for them to go. Teams have been doing just that all spring now, and Lee, for his part, doesn't appear to be shaking off the slump any time soon.
The worst part about Lee's slump is that he's progressed beyond taking shots and missing them, and now he's got a hand injury of some kind and he isn't even taking them anymore. Against Cleveland, he played fourteen full minutes before even attempting a field goal. Against Golden State, he was 1-6 in 22 minutes, which is better, but (obviously) still not good.
And it's bad for chemistry. The players know the fact that Lee won't shoot the ball is a problem—one or two off-the-record locker room grumbles confirmed that. Front office folks know it's a problem, too. There doesn't appear to be anything that anybody can do about it, short of hoping that Vince Carter somehow completes his return to his form from last season's Mavericks team that almost knocked off the eventual-champion Spurs. And, much as I hate to say it, that doesn't seem likely.
So, it's not just me worrying about what's going to happen—those two issues, Randolph and Lee, are concerning trends as the Grizzlies get ready for the postseason. If there's no shooting to space the floor—and honestly, I'm just so, so tired of wondering when the Griz will finally acquire "a shooter" so they can make something approaching the league average number of threes—and if Zach Randolph isn't able to fill that "garbage man" role because of some real reason, beyond "I don't care until April", they'll be even farther away from that top tier of NBA teams.
Let's be honest: Sunday night's game in San Antonio against the surging Spurs is probably not going to go well, either, given the way the Grizzlies are playing right now. It's more important that they look like they want to be there and that they play like they actually want to win than whatever the result ends up being. Lee has to take shots. Randolph has to get rebounds. Gasol has to be a little more assertive, or at least look less confused. Someone besides Mike Conley has to play like they're worried about the outcome.
Without those things, this team just isn't very good. Whether or not they're really the 2nd best team in the West, as their record would indicate, they're far better than they've been playing lately, and I, for one, would just like for them to put together a good game and prove that they're still capable of hanging with these top-tier teams. Is that too much to ask?