Note: I'm still mostly out of commission with a newborn, so I've rounded up some guest posts from some of my Griz writer friends to make sure you still have good stuff to read. Today's post is from Kevin Yeung (@KevinHFY on Twitter) of SB Nation's Grizzly Bear Blues.
This may or may not be a surprise to you, but the Memphis Grizzlies are a good defensive team. They have the 7th-best defensive rating in the NBA (104.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), and their roster is loaded with outstanding defenders including the likes of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. I’ve touched on the quality of their defensive scheme in the past, and it’s one that now-head coach Dave Joerger has implemented to great success since he was made the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator in 2011.
For all of the things they do well defensively, however, the Grizzlies have an obvious weak link. I’m not too fond of the saying “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, but it partially applies to starting power forward Zach Randolph. Surrounded by plus-defenders (or average at worst) in the starting lineup, Z-Bo is the player that defenses will draw out and try to exploit. Randolph has a wingspan around 7’4” or 7’5” (it isn’t in the DraftExpress database, but most sources put him around that range), which can act as a bit of a saving grace. The rest of his measurements illustrate why he struggles so much on defense, however. 6’9” is average at best for a player at his position, and the hefty 260-pound frame he has to lug around makes it incredibly difficult for him to keep up with opposing players—forget trying to get up and block shots at the rim.
In recent games, the Grizzlies have played the Miami Heat (April 9th) and the Philadelphia 76ers (April 11th). These two teams started players opposite Randolph that left him in a mismatch where his defensive deficiencies could be spotlighted for all to see. First, Randolph was tasked with defending Shane Battier, traditionally more of a 3-and-D perimeter player playing for a small-ball Heat team, and then he had to guard walking mismatch Thaddeus Young who had an uncommon combination of speed and bulk.
But no matter how they did it, the Grizzlies beat the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix, 97-91 to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Memphis began the game as though it was going to run, er, pound the Suns out of the gym. Zach Randolph was dominant in the paint and Phoenix seemingly had no answer. The Grizzlies built and maintained a small but double-digit lead for much of the first half. It was 44-31, Memphis, with three minutes left in the half and the Grizzlies on cruise control. Then Phoenix got hot and closed the gap to 46-42 at half.
Phoenix continued to push the ball in the third quarter and took a 53-50 lead. From then on it was a dog-fight, with 15 lead changes in the fourth quarter.
The Suns held a 91-90 lead with 1:27 to play, but the Grizzlies closed the deal with two clutch shots: a Mike Conley three-pointer and a very unlikely steal and one-man "fast" break by Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies closed it out with defensive stops, overcoming some shaky free throw shooting to clinch the victory.
There were lots of heroes for Memphis. Randolph led all scorers with 32 points and was close to unstoppable in the paint most of the night. Mike Miller was on fire, hitting 8 of 11 FG attempts, including some critical threes down the stretch, and finishing with 21. Conley was clutch in the final frame, and Tony Allen had a couple of key steals and a sweet coast-to-coast fast-break to tie the game at the end of the third. Marc Gasol played a solid, if unspectacular game, garnering 18 points and 8 rebounds.
The Grizzlies play their final game of the season Wednesday against the Dallas Mavericks. Win, and they move into seventh place and likely face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. Lose, and they finish eighth and get their recent nemesis, San Antonio.
Note: I'm out this week and probably some of next with a newborn, so I've rounded up some guest posts from some of my Griz writer friends to make sure you still have good stuff to read. Today's post is from Matt Hrdlicka (@TheRealHrdlicka on Twitter) of SB Nation's Grizzly Bear Blues.
Professional sports leagues are inherently plagiaristic. The Have-Not’s are constantly inspecting the Have’s to answer the question: “How did they beat us?” Sometimes, the answer is simple (have Lebron James or Michael Jordan). Sometimes it’s a bit more complex (synergy between scheme and personnel, reliance on analytics, dumb luck, exploitation of matchups, voodoo dolls buried beneath center court, etc).
The Grizzlies Front Office seems to be borrowing the blueprint of success from one of the NBA’s most successful franchises, the team that dispatched them in last year’s playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs. Let’s take a look at how the Grizzlies have borrowed from the Spurs blueprint to attempt to build success for the long-haul.
The main problem with trying to structure your roster based on another team’s roster is that the most successful teams have the rarest players. As such, I’m not suggesting that Marc Gasol “is” Tim Duncan. But taking a look at how great teams blend players, and how they blend the roles on a basketball court, is instructive when searching for a competitive advantage.
And in terms of roles, the Grizzlies and Spurs have a ton of similarities.
Last night was pretty much a worst-case scenario for the Grizzlies and the playoff hopes they're clinging to for dear life. The Spurs reduced the Grizzlies to a smoldering pile of rubble, sure—you're lying if you say you didn't at least predict that as a possible outcome. What hurt the Grizzlies that much worse is that the Phoenix Suns beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to move into the 8th spot, a whole game ahead of the Grizzlies, who would be on the outside looking in (and picking 14th in the draft) if the season ended today.
The Grizzlies—even with the new starting five of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol—still have no answer for the Spurs, and for large stretches of last night's game didn't even look like they were equipped to fight back. They lost by 20 points, and even that felt like a mercy killing, especially after a retina-searing 26-10 first quarter.
It's maddening that the Spurs are able to do this to the Grizzlies at will. I saw a lot of conversation on Twitter about how Popovich & company were still punishing the Grizzlies for the 2011 playoff upset, and that may be partly true, but it misses the overall picture: the Spurs are a basketball killing machine this season, fanatically obsessed with returning to the NBA Finals and winning the title they missed by one Ray Allen 3-pointer last year. There is no quarter given to the NBA's weaker teams, and unfortunately for the Grizzlies, lately they've been playing like one of the NBA's weaker teams.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around what happened during last night's game—one of the ugliest, weirdest, most entertaining (probably for the wrong reasons) games I've seen in a while. The summary reads like a lot of Grizzlies recaps this season: the first half was terrible, the starters were mostly ineffective, and then in the second half the right bench guys came into the game and the Grizzlies started getting stops and winning.
It has to be said right off the bat that Tayshaun Prince was the reason the Grizzlies weren't down by 15 points at halftime. Prince scored 10 in the first quarter, and by the time he left the game with an ankle sprain with a couple minutes left in the second, he had 12 points on 6-8 shooting, almost all of them on postups and driving layups. Tayshaun was really good, and it was a genuine bummer to see him leave the game after a particularly nasty ankle sprain on the first night in a long time that he was putting up those kinds of numbers.
(The flipside of that is that Tayshaun's outburst, rare as it is, was a not-so-subtle reminder of what the Grizzlies would look like if someone who could actually score consistently were playing at the small forward spot.)
In the second half, the Grizzlies—led mostly by Tony Allen and Marc Gasol—started getting stops and turned the tide, while Zach Randolph recovered from his horrendous first three quarters to put up 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks in the final frame. It was enough to get the job done against a Nuggets team that refused to go away, taking advantage of a Kenneth Faried/Darrell Arthur frontcourt to maximize their athletic advantage against the Grizzlies' lumbering bigs while also trying to match the physical intensity of the Griz. Plus Timofey Mozgov made a three—I saw it with my own eyes.
But while the team was able to gut out the home win and put Denver away, the overall picture wasn't that encouraging. Transition defense was still nonexistent, with Denver getting as many open layups as they wanted simply by being willing to run. The lineups were an issue, as ever, because heaven forbid James Johnson see the floor other than when Tayshaun goes down. In the second half, Nick Calathes saw a lot of minutes at the 2 with Conley/Calathes matched up against Ty Lawson and Aaron Brooks, meaning Tony Allen got a good deal of run at the small forward spot (but really, it was pretty positionless—it was three guards against three guards).
But last night, I resigned myself that my main complaint during the Lionel Hollins era—"coaching by feel" and not (1) knowing what your best lineups are and (2) being too stubborn to play them if it makes you look like you changed your mind—is going to be my main complaint during the Joerger era, too. He's just not going to play Johnson. He doesn't think he can play Allen at the 3 in the starting lineup. He's playing the starters too many minutes, and down the stretch of a brutal season, they're running out of gas. For me, the whole upside to bringing in a new coach was that the Grizzlies would have an opportunity to operate at full strength because they'd be playing their best players in the best situations. Yes, I think Joerger's done a good job with the crappy injury hand he was dealt this season... but after years of complaining about Lionel's lineups, I'd hoped this year would be different. It's possible that the Prince injury will prompt a change to the starting lineup that Griz watchers have been begging for all season, but I know better than to count on it at this point.
The Grizzlies have six games left: three home, and three away. Sunday they take on the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, and if this Grizzlies team shows up—the one that can't/won't run, and has to be cajoled into defending in the second half, and basically only has Tony Allen and James Johnson as small forwards, neither of whom the coach actually wants to play at small forward—it's entirely possible that it'll be a bloodbath.
Then on Wednesday it's Miami at the FedExForum, which is a very winnable game—especially given how close the two teams played in Miami two weeks ago. Split the pair against the Spurs and Heat, and then there are two games against the Sixers and Lakers, and then the last two are the ones that matter the most: at Phoenix, and vs. Dallas. It's entirely possible that the last two games of the season will determine whether the Grizzlies make the playoffs, and that they'll have to win them both to get in.
Given the unsteadiness they're showing on a nightly basis right now, all bets are off.
Not much to say about last night's 102-88 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves other than that it probably wouldn't have happened if the Grizzlies' starters had put forth the execution and effort they're capable of.
Watching the game was so frustrating that I was sort of a mess at the end of it, tweeting stuff like this:
My recap: pic.twitter.com/HD7Agpw3Bs
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) April 3, 2014
The truth is that I know why the starters couldn't do much, though: they've played too many minutes on this road trip at each of the five stops along the way. It's been a good month now since Dave Joerger announced he was going to "start to shorten the rotation" down the stretch, and it's been about a month since that seemed like a good idea. Armed with one of the deepest rosters in Griz history—in which players 1-13 can all come in and contribute immediately. If there were ever a time to bring back the Hubie Brown 10-man system (and maybe with a second unit that changes based on matchups), this would be the roster to do it with.
But... no, that's not what's happening. The starters—who are not the Grizzlies' best or most efficient lineup—are being asked to carry a huge workload on a brutal stretch of basketball against West playoff teams and East frontrunners, with a few random sub-.500 teams sprinkled in for good measure.
I said in a piece yesterday that I thought Dave Joerger was doing a good job, but that rotations were his weakness. He apparently read that article and went into last night's game determined to make me look like an idiot. The starters were completely fatigued from the word go, but they never got the hook until it was far too late to do anything. Mike Conley got worked over by Ricky Rubio in his 33 minutes, going 3-15 from the field for 7 points. Zach Randolph was 1-8 from the field and played 26 minutes, most of which were spent standing there pretending to defend. Courtney Lee finally had a good night offensively, but his defense suffered. Only three Grizzlies scored in double figures, and only two of them were starters.
Meanwhile, one of the best benches in the league continued to be just that, at least compared to how the starters looked. On fresher legs because of the minutes load on the starters over the last 4 games, the bench players—mostly Nick Calathes, Mike Miller, Tony Allen, and Ed Davis, with a healthy dose of James Johnson (and kudos to Johnson for not doing the Vulcan Death Grip on Kevin Love after Love elbowed him in the head on what should've been a Flagrant-2)—came in and closed the gap.
After playing the usual "too much of the starters in the third quarter" routine, the Griz were down by 16. The bench lineup came in and got the lead down to ten points with a few minutes left in the game. I tweeted this then, knowing that Joerger falls into the trap of thinking that starters have some sort of mystical power that makes them win at the end of games:
Big test for Joerger: will he actually play the guys who are closing this gap?
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) April 3, 2014
Every time the substitution horn sounds, I’m terrified Z-Bo and Tayshaun are about to come back in.
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) April 3, 2014
Nope, sure enough, here come the veterans.— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) April 3, 2014
They came back in, and the Grizzlies immediately went down 18, at which point the bench guys came back in, at which point it was too late to salvage a game that the Grizzlies really needed to win if they want to do anything other than barely squeak into the 8 seed. And honestly, if that's the Grizzlies team that shows up for the playoffs, I'd rather just not have to watch them. Last night was frustrating and miserable, and these guys look like they're wearing down in a major way.
The Grizzlies have been fighting back furiously from the hole they were in while Marc Gasol was out. Their record over the past three months has been nothing short of ridiculous. It shouldn't be surprising that on the fifth game of a five game road trip against a sub-par team that "should have" been in the playoffs, they'd suffer. But last night was poor game management. Joerger should've just trusted the bench guys to take it home, because the starters didn't have anything left to give. That, or some of them didn't care. But I know better than that. Fatigue is a big deal this time of year.
Dallas, Memphis, and Phoenix are still tied at 44-31 after a Suns loss to the Clippers last night. Thanks to tiebreakers, Dallas is 7th, the Griz are 8th, and Phoenix is on the outside at 9th. It's probably going to come down to the last two games of the season—against Phoenix and Dallas—to determine who gets in and who gets a lottery pick. If these tired, lackluster Grizzlies are the ones we're going to be watching the rest of the way, all bets are off.
Coaching a professional basketball team is hard. The job is to get in a locker room and motivate a bunch of millionaires to play hard on a Tuesday night in February in Minnesota when they're already thinking about the playoffs and they want to be home in bed watching Swamp People reruns or whatever and playing in games that "matter." When things go really well, the players are likely to get all of the credit, and usually that's deserved. The only thing a coach with good players gets noticed for is screwing up; it's hard to tell how much of a given team's success is due to coaching decisions and how much comes from the guys wearing the jerseys.
First things first: my intention is to steer clear of the raging Lionel wars (which are apparently still going strong). I think some of the numbers—especially the fact that the Grizzlies' winning percentage with both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol on the floor is almost identical between last year and this year—justify that decision. (My other intention is to steer clear of any necktie discussions.)
But this year has been crazy, and it's not over yet, but I think we can already start to draw some conclusions about what was undoubtedly the Grizzlies' most controversial offseason move. With all of the personnel changes, injuries, and setbacks, (1) can we tell what effect the coach has had on how the team performs? And (2) has that effect been a good one?
The Grizzlies have played 74 of their 82 games so far this season, amassing a 44-30 record, which currently has them in 7th place in the Western Conference standings thanks to Steph Curry and his game-winner in Dallas last night and owning the tiebreaker with the Phoenix Suns.
They're holding opponents to an average of 94.1 points per game, the third-lowest average in the league. The pace of play this year is 89.7 possessions per game, which is up from last year, but is still the slowest pace in the league. When adjusted for pace of play, the Grizzlies have a defensive rating of 104.4 points allowed per 100 possessions (7th of 30 teams) and on offense, they score 106 points per 100 possessions, 16th out of 30 teams.
These numbers are... pretty much the same as last year. Which makes sense, for the most part, because the major pieces of this year's team are unchanged, even when accounting for the fact that Rudy Gay was swapped for Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince (I mean, I guess Austin Daye, too?) before last season's trade deadline. So there's not much improvement in the offensive and defensive efficiencies this season, but there's not much of a regression, either. The biggest change has been in defensive efficiency—points allowed per 100 possessions—where the Grizzlies were 2nd last year and are currently 7th.
My point here is that according to the metrics, the Grizzlies are pretty much the same team overall, with a slight drop in the defense (something that's been pretty obvious to everyone watching the team this year). So is Dave Joerger doing a good job?
Rather than the frustrated rant I originally had in mind after last night's ill-timed loss in Portland, I decided to express myself through the power of poetry. A haiku for each point by which the Grizzlies lost:
The defense has left—
Soft interior is like
Reese's Easter Egg.
Tonight in Denver
The legs will feel the tired weight
Futile comeback push.
A five man lineup
None have ever seen before—
A grasping at straws.
Clinging to playoffs
Is like clinging to all things:
Harder than it seems.
Z-Bo on defense:
Collapse of a great fortress
Anyone may pass.
Five games on the road
Treacherous places to play
Season on the brink.
Cannot be the March Grizzlies
Or no May Grizzlies.
That one hurts. The Grizzlies went into Friday night's road game against the Golden State Warriors looking to clinch the season tiebreaker with the Warriors and further advance their playoff cause, gaining ground on a potential 5th or 6th seed. Instead, Golden State went on a 14-0 run in the last 4 minutes of the game—the Grizzlies led 93-86 then, and lost 100-93—as the Grizzlies' offense sputtered to a halt and Golden State managed to run high pick and rolls to get Steph Curry guarded by Zach Randolph at the top of the key.
Curry was close to superhuman Friday night, scoring 33 points and making 8 assists, and of his 5 made threes, at least three of them had no business going in whatsoever, long-range bombs that he can make better than anyone else in the business. Curry's excellence down the stretch combined with the Grizzlies' defensive lapses and inability to get anything going on offense spelled doom for the Griz, and they ended up losing a game that they really needed to win.
The loss to Golden State means the Grizzlies don't have the tiebreaker with them, so to move ahead of them in the standings they'll have to have a better record instead of just tying. The loss also comes on a night when Phoenix won, leaving the 8th-place Grizzlies 2 games behind Golden State, a half game behind Phoenix, and only a half game ahead of 9th-place Dallas. Dallas plays the Kings tonight, so it's very possible that the next time the Grizzlies play, they'll be doing so from 9th place.
The loss was particularly frustrating to me because down 93-96, the Grizzlies couldn't get a stop when they absolutely knew they had to have one. With Z-Bo guarding Draymond Green, the Warriors ran a Green/Curry P&R twice in a row and got two buckets out of it (and prior to that, Green himself made a 3-pointer). It was like the Warriors didn't realize they could exploit Zach Randolph's weaknesses on defense until the last three minutes of the game, and once they did, the Grizzlies were powerless to do anything about it.
You can argue that coach Dave Joerger should've taken Randolph out of the game—I'd say that's reasonable, given that you could then try guarding Green with James Johnson or Ed Davis, two guys athletic enough to get out to the three point line and back without blowing what they're supposed to be doing. For whatever reason—presumably offense—that isn't what happened.
Don't read me as laying the blame for the loss squarely on Randolph or Joerger's shoulders, though. It was a team effort, and early on, the puzzling lack of interior defense the Grizzlies showed against the Jazz on Wednesday night reared its head again, as former "Zoo Crew" (let us never speak of it again) member Marreese Speights reminded Griz fans of when we used to look at each other and say "You know, Speights isn't so bad." The lack of David Lee for the Warriors probably put the Grizzlies at a disadvantage, because the Grizzlies are able to exploit Lee so handily when he's on the floor.
It is worth mentioning, though, that this isn't the first time Z-Bo's liability on defense has come up this season, and it probably won't be the last. Whatever there is to say about how Z-Bo's production hasn't fallen off with age, and how he's still an invaluable part of the Grizzlies' success—all of which is 100% true—his defense was never great to begin with, and this year it's been noticeably worse. Derrick Favors on Wednesday night gave him fits, but that's normal—Favors does that to lots of people. However, the Spurs spent an entire playoff series running Tony Parker high pick and rolls directly at the numbers on Randolph's jersey, and it paid off well for them. An athletic power forward who is a good pick and roll defender (hey, is Ed Davis still alive?) may have handled last night's situation more effectively and thus enabled the Grizzlies to hang on for the win.
I'm not in panic mode, despite the potentially dire consequences of last night's loss. Golden State is a good team, and good teams always have a chance against other good teams. It's frustrating, because the Grizzlies usually handle the Warriors and move on, but the fact is the Grizzlies could've done just that last night and they didn't. With any luck, they'll be motivated and not disheartened when they take the floor in Portland Sunday night.
On to the next one. The Grizzlies still have to play at Portland, at Denver, and at Minnesota on this road trip before returning home to play Denver again on April 4. The last two games of the season are against Phoenix and Dallas. This one's not over by a long shot, and it could be glorious or it could get really ugly. The only way to know is to play the games, but last night didn't help.
Somehow, the Grizzlies managed to pull off a come-from-behind win in Utah last night to beat a Jazz team that's given the Griz more trouble than they've had any right to all season long now. After trailing by as much as 16 in the third quarter, the Grizzlies did some Sean Tuohy math ("If they can get it to single digits by the end of the third quarter") and slowly reeled in the Jazz over the next 18 minutes.
The need for a comeback was partly attributable to the slow start: the Griz ended the first quarter trailing 25-17 and shooting 29% from the floor, with ten different guys getting playing time as coach Dave Joerger flailed around to find a set of players who weren't actively opposed to the idea of playing a basketball game in Utah.
The struggle—a lack of interior defense that made Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors look like, well, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Tony Allen's continued struggles to guard Gordon Hayward, Courtney Lee's continued struggles to do much of anything useful, among other maladies—continued for a solid 30 minutes of game time, with the Grizzlies never able to get any closer than 10 points or so.
That changed starting in the third quarter and after Mike Miller tied the game with a huge wide-open 3, the Griz finally got the lead again with 2:17 left in the game. Despite a couple of attempts to turn the ball over and hand the game back to the Jazz, the Grizzlies made it out with the only thing that matters on this road trip: a win.
⇒ James Johnson played more minutes than he has lately (a little over 18) and did... just okay. Joerger put him in no doubt looking for some kind of a spark off the bench to get things going. Johnson did that, to an extent, but whether it was inconsistency due to lack of solid playing time or whether he was infected by the same general lethargy that had the rest of the Grizzlies in the mud (and not in the "good" way), Johnson didn't do much. In fact, according to Basketball Reference his individual offensive rating was 51 and his defensive rating was 107. Those numbers would be great... if they were reversed.
⇒ Derrick Favors was too much for Zach Randolph to handle last night. He gave Z-Bo fits on both ends most of the game, to the tune of 22 point and 10 rebounds. Of course, Enes Kanter got 15 rebounds, too, which is more indicative of the Grizzlies' general lack of effort on the offensive glass, but Favors in particular gave Z-Bo problems. Randolph's inconsistent defense has hurt the Grizzlies at times this season, but it's hard to say how much of what happened last night was due to a genuine mismatch and how much was effort/execution.
⇒ It would appear that the Monstars have stolen Courtney Lee's abilities. That's the only explanation I can think of for his slump as of late. Lee has struggled to even get a shot up, forcing Mike Miller into the role of "primary floor spacer" that doesn't bode well for the Grizzlies' tentative playoff hopes. Lee was shooting well above his career averages for a while there, so this is obviously the "regression to the mean" that we were all waiting for, but man, is it poorly-timed. With any luck Lee will get his groove back and the Grizzlies will be on their merry way.
⇒ However improbably, the Grizzlies are now 1-0 on this 5-game road swing, which is the only point that really matters from last night. Everyone struggles in Salt Lake City to an extent. With any luck, last night's lethargy doesn't carry over to the rest of this trip, or the Griz are going to find themselves in ninth place faster than you can say "unmet expectations." File this one away and move on. Next up are the Golden State Warriors tomorrow night.
Last night was not pretty. The Grizzlies faced the Timberwolves just one night after the 10th-place Wolves blew a late lead against the Suns, a crippling blow to their postseason hopes for the season. One night later, they found themselves in Memphis, a team two spots ahead of them in the standings and firing on all cylinders, with Kevin Love having to match up against Zach Randolph.
Things did not go well for Minnesota from the opening tip. Courtney Lee struggled with foul trouble early, but the rest of the Grizzlies didn't struggle with much of anything in the first quarter. After twelve minutes of basketball, Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph both had 8 points, Mike Conley had 6, Marc Gasol had 9 rebounds—most of which were collected on a single possession that saw him take multiple point blank layups and miss, but still an impressive number—and the Grizzlies were up 30-15.
The Grizzlies' lead never dipped back down into the single digits again. They managed to cruise the rest of the game, going up by as much as 25 at one point.
Of note last night were the lineups used by Dave Joerger to get the job done—especially some of the "medium-ball" lineups in the first and second quarters: Ed Davis (remember him?) subbed in for Gasol in the first quarter, and with Tony Allen at home with a stomach virus, James Johnson came into the game to a huge ovation. The Grizzlies ran with a lineup of Calathes - Miller - Johnson - Davis - Koufos for a good bit of the second quarter, matching up against some of Minnesota's more athletic bigs.
Last night, the Grizzlies had one of the best defensive outings they've had all year, holding the Pacers—the #1 team in the Eastern Conference—to 71 points, a season low for a Griz opponent and a season low for the Pacers as well. Roy Hibbert, Indiana's standout center, collected zero rebounds. Paul George was held to 2-10 from the field, and point guard George Hill shot 2-7. The Grizzlies absolutely terrorized the Pacers. In fact, the only Pacers who made more than two field goals were Lance Stephenson and David West.
I was home on the couch with a migraine last night instead of in the building watching the bloodbath happen, so my notes are a little more scattered than usual, and I'm just going to give them to you:
• Mike Miller, according to some numbers being quoted last night on Twitter, is shooting better than 60% from three after the All Star break. Last night, Miller had 13 points, all of them in the second quarter, and those 13 points comprised the Grizzlies' lead over the Pacers headed into the half. Not too shabby. Miller's floor-spacing ability was in full effect last night, with no Pacer defender able to leave him for any extended amount of time. The ball found him when he was open. It was beautiful to watch.
• Nick Calathes didn't put up a huge numbers night—1-3 from the field, 2 assists, a steal and a block—but the official box score doesn't count deflections and doesn't account for pressure. Calathes seemed to be everywhere on defense last night, getting a hand on the ball at every possible opportunity, frustrating passers, and using his considerable length to make the Pacers' guards uncomfortable. Calathes' defense has been steadily improving over the course of the season—one would expect that to happen to any young player who hangs around this particular group of players for while—and it's been encouraging to see him figuring out how to use his size to his advantage.
• The backup point guard wasn't the only one doing a number on Indiana last night, though: Mike Conley put up a game like we haven't seen him play in a while. In 31 minutes—see how much easier life is when the Grizzlies have a real backup point guard?—Conley went 9-15 from the field, including 1-3 from 3, for 21 points, in addition to 5 rebounds and 4 assists. The first time these two teams played each other, Conley was torched by George Hill, unable to do anything. No so this time, as Conley, who has been in a bit of a funk lately, shook off whatever's been bugging him lately and played like the Mike Conley, Destroyer of Worlds we all took for granted earlier in the season. It was great to see Conley perform that well against such a good team.
• Speaking of that team, the Pacers look completely checked out and ready for the playoffs. If the Griz were in the East, they'd be the 3 seed, so it's not like whoever the Pacers end up playing is going to be any good, but they'd better figure out how to show up for some games between now and then. Backing into the playoffs is never a good idea in the NBA, whether it's because of injury or mental toughness. Just ask the 2011 Spurs.
• James Johnson played 10 minutes in Friday night's loss to the Miami Heat, and even though the Grizzlies lost that game, it was clear that Johnson was contributing during his (limited) minutes. On Saturday night against the Pacers, Johnson didn't play until Pacers coach Frank Vogel declared it garbage time with a minute or two left in the game. That didn't stop fans from chanting for him while the Griz were beating the best team in the East by 15 points. Now, I'm (obviously) no defender of Dave Joerger's rotations, but it was clear that the Grizzlies were firing on all cylinders last night, Johnson or no Johnson. Rather than clamoring for a fan favorite—and this is not a slight to Johnson—that segment of Griz fans is eventually going to have to realize (much like I had to do) that sometimes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" isn't such a bad place to be. I don't like some of Joerger's decisions, but (1) I'm not the one being held accountable for how my decisions affect the team's performance and (2) the team is performing pretty dadgum well.
With Marc Gasol's ankle (apparently) intact, the Griz head into a tough stretch on the road, playing Minnesota at FedExForum Monday night before heading to Utah, Golden State, Portland, Denver, and Minnesota (again). Saturday night's beatdown of Indiana ought to give them a boost of confidence heading out onto the road and carry them back up the standings after Friday night's loss set them back a little. It was a marvelous defensive performance, and with any luck, it set a tone for what the rest of the regular season is going to look like.
Last night, the Grizzlies came out and beat the Utah Jazz from start to finish, from the Courtney Lee layup to go up 2-0 to the Mike Conley free throws that made it a ten-point game.
There were times when the Grizzlies looked like they were already thinking about whatever they were going to be doing after the game—maybe a nice dinner, maybe a hot date, maybe going home and reading a book in bed—anything but the fact that they were still on a basketball court in the middle of an NBA game. Unsurprisingly, the still-building Jazz pounced on those opportunities and made a close game of it, with Trey Burke dueling Mike Conley early on, Alec Burks exercising his smooth shooting stroke, and Gordon Hayward mostly having a bad shooting night but making them when they mattered.
The Grizzlies picked on Enes Kanter most of the night with Marc Gasol, and it worked out: Gasol ended up having himself a 20-10 game, with 3 assists and 4 blocks in addition. Zach Randolph went one louder in both categories with 21-11. It was a good night for the Grizzlies inside, even though the Jazz appear to be trying to build something similar with their Favors/Kanter tandem down low.
Another highlight was the Richard Jefferson/Tayshaun Prince matchup, in which the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals came back to everybody like a bad LSD flashback, with Prince scoring 4 points on 2-7 shooting in 30 minutes and Jefferson finishing up with 9.
Even though the crowd behind the bench was clamoring for James Johnson, there was a different guy who I thought should have been getting those minutes: Tony Allen. The starting lineup I'd like to see—Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol—have only played 24 minutes together this season, starting in February when Allen returned from injury. In those 24 minutes (which is admittedly a very small sample size) they've got an offensive rating of 120.2 and a defensive rating of 73.4 (meaning they outscore their opponents by .468 points per possession—a ludicrous number).
I get that Prince is starting because he's a veteran and it's a respect thing or whatever. I do. But starting him doesn't mean playing him these minutes, and if Joerger isn't willing to play Johnson for whatever reason—and let's be clear: there are certainly valid reasons for doing so, even if I disagree with a lot of them—Allen is clearly the guy who should be getting some run at the small forward spot. What's that? He's too small? Kevin Durant would like to speak with you.
For the Conley/Lee/Allen/Z-Bo/Gasol grouping to have only appeared in five games so far is pretty nuts. I would think that Joerger would want to explore that option more with his shortened rotation, since those are all guys he's already playing major minutes, just not together.
That was my main takeaway from last night. The rest of the game was solid—Nick Calathes played well, and he and Marc Gasol developed some new wrinkles in their ever-evolving chemistry (I'm thinking in particular of a Gasol assist that looked more like he was just dropping the ball on the floor right at the instant Calathes came around the pick he was setting). Jon Leuer had a bit of a rough night, struggling through some bad matchups as the backup 4.
Other than that, pretty uneventful. The Grizzlies played hard and executed well for 30-something of the game's 48 minutes, and against the Jazz, that was enough to create an insurmountable lead. But, no matter how much I may want to accept it and move on, if these are the ten guys Joerger is going to play, I wish he would look at how he's playing them a little differently.
Last week, the Grizzlies played four games in five nights and came away from it with a 3-1 record for the week, good enough to put them up a game and a half on the Phoenix Suns for the 8th and final playoff spot. After three days of rest, the Griz now have three in four nights—four in six if you count Monday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves—and two of them are against the only two teams in the Eastern Conference with a record better than the Grizzlies.
(Yes, folks, for those of you following along at home, the Grizzlies have a better record than the 3rd seed in the East, but they're barely in the West playoffs by a game and a half. By win percentage, Phoenix is better than Toronto, too, meaning the 3rd seed in the East wouldn't even be in the 9th spot in the West.)
Anyway, the Grizzlies are 7-2 in March so far, with eight games left to play before the end of the month. I predicted that they'd need to go 12-5 or 11-6 in order to still be in the playoff race when the month of March was over, and I stand by that prediction. They're well on their way to reaching that mark, but it's not going to get any easier from here on out. The rest of this week is an important stretch—three of the next four games are at home—before the Griz head out on a five game road trip, mostly out West.
Speaking of teams with bad records, tonight the Grizzlies take on the Utah Jazz at FedExForum. The last time these two teams played was on December 23, and the Grizzlies took that matchup 104-94. (Griz starters that game? Mike Conley, Tony Allen, James Johnson, Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos. Jerryd Bayless played 23 minutes.)
Utah is a team that has good young players, and probably should be good in two years, but just isn't built to win right now. That said, the one stat to look at when judging whether the Grizzlies will struggle against an opponent or not is pace, and Utah is 27th in the league in pace. That means watch for the Grizzlies' defense to struggle to prevent penetration from the perimeter, and watch for the offense to struggle to execute smoothly—the same things the Grizzlies have struggled with all season against other teams that play just as slow as they do.
When faced with a difficult situation that seems unlikely to change, sometimes the right thing to do is accept the present circumstances and move on. After a frustrating week or two of rotation-shortening (not to mention an unconscionable and incomprehensible amount of time played by Tayshaun Prince) and my own constant complaining about it, I've decided to accept a few things as given and move on:
I feel like those things—whether I want to accept it or not—have been the meat of most of my complaints about Joerger so far in his rookie season as an NBA head coach. My main criticisms of Lionel Hollins were (1) his offensive system, from an X's and O's standpoint, wasn't good enough and (2) he made substitutions by "feel," but he didn't actually have a good feel for which lineups were good ones and when to employ them. So when Hollins was replaced by Joerger as the head coach, I certainly thought the Grizzlies were taking a risk in getting rid of a coach with such a track record of winning, but I thought that if the new coach was an improvement over Hollins in those two areas, eventually (and that's the key word—I knew it would have to be eventually because any coaching transition takes time to be fully realized) the Grizzlies would be better for it.