Anyone who says they expected last night’s game between the Grizzlies and Rockets to be a blowout is probably lying. Coming into yesterday, the Griz and Rockets were the two best teams in the Western Conference, with the Rockets having the league’s best defense and an offense built around James Harden and Dwight Howard—and they were also a team on the verge of embracing their own hateability, with an ugly 69–65 win over the depleted Oklahoma City Thunder highlighting some of their more heel-turn qualities.
It was supposed to be a close one, gut-it-out game against a tough opponent. Some folks—even including some in the organization—wondered if the Grizzlies’ lackluster performances in wins thus far meant that they’d be exposed against a superior team. At any rate, it wasn’t expected to be like this, with rookies playing and a Memphis-area basketball player reunion happening on the floor in garbage time. The Grizzlies don’t blow people out, remember?
It started early, but it started with a problem: Tony Allen had two quick fouls in the first two or three minutes, and followed that up by getting a technical foul from the bench. (This technical foul happened while the Rockets were out on a fast break, which marked the first of many times Kevin McHale would become infuriated during Monday night’s game).
At that point, the Grizzlies were trailing Houston 7–11 and it looked like Houston’s usual plan (that is, Dwight dunking stuff, wings and guards shooting 3’s, and James Harden shooting free throws) was working. Quincy Pondexter subbed in for Allen at the 9:12 mark, making the Grizzlies’ lineup on the floor Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Pondexter, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol.
From there, it was on. The Grizzlies got on a run, and by the end of the first quarter they were up 34–18, the crowd was into it, the Rockets were already looking tired (they were, after all, on the second night of a back-to-back) and you could see the confidence in every move the Griz players made, the sureness, the self-awareness. With Lee and Pondexter both hitting shots, Houston’s defense—which has been legitimately good this season so far—couldn’t cope, leaving Dwight Howard alone under the basket to guard Gasol or Randolph (Donatas Motiejunas gets a little trophy for participation) in the absence of Terrence Jones, who was out with a peroneal nerve contusion. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds bad, and the Griz were fortunate that Jones, who always gives Z-Bo fits, wasn’t on the court.
The last seven minutes of last night’s buzzer-beater win over the resurgent Sacramento Kings almost erase everything that came before them. A Vince Carter 3-pointer from 26 feet out started to tip the momentum in the Grizzlies’ favor, and the Kings, who gave up a similar big come-from-behind win to the Mavericks on Tuesday night, started to tighten up and play nervous.
Up until that three, with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter, there wasn’t much that happened in last night’s game that is even worth talking about. Dave Joerger started Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince at the wing spots, presumably so Prince could “guard” Rudy Gay, and while Prince was letting Gay get runouts for easy dunks, Allen was helping off Ben McLemore, who hit two threes as a result. The team came out looking disinterested and the Kings punished them for it, going on an absolute tear in what ended up being a 38–16 first quarter. Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins combined for 25—9 more than the 10 Grizzlies who played in the first.
After the disastrous start, things tightened up considerably. The Grizzlies outscored the Kings in each of the next three quarters, slowly reeling them back in. At times in the third, it seemed like Sacramento’s 20-point lead was insurmountable, with the two teams going bucket-for-bucket and the starters (the real starters, meaning Courtney Lee too) not gaining much ground. Joerger seemed determined to let the starters win or lose the second half, even though Kosta Koufos played some great minutes in the second quarter, including some defense that probably kept the game from getting out of reach.
When momentum shifts in a basketball game, sometimes it’s more of an avalanche, and that’s what happened to the Kings down the stretch of last night’s game. The Grizzlies got big buckets from Vince Carter (who basically schooled Rudy Gay on both ends of the court and also actually did some running, which was a nice change), Mike Conley got called for the first technical foul he’s ever gotten in his life (or at least that’s what his dad told Rob Fischer), and Dave Joerger started to show Grizzlies fans some of the tricks up his sleeves. The Griz ran a Spurs-ish play to get a wide-open 3 from Carter. They ran the “elevator doors” screen play to get Conley open for a 3. And, most importantly, they ran a brilliant play to get Courtney Lee wide open directly next to the rim with .3 seconds on the clock after some missed free throws from the Kings.
The play started out with Courtney Lee screening for Marc Gasol like Gasol was the intended target of Vince Carter’s lob inbounds pass, but then Gasol started screening for Lee, the Kings got a little confused, and Lee ended up this open:
(That image is from Mike Prada’s excellent breakdown of the final play of the game over at SB Nation, which you should go read immediately.)
And, once Lee was that open, this is what happened, thanks to Vince Carter's perfectly-placed inbounds pass:
Lee missed an almost identical shot during the 2009 Finals between the Magic and Lakers. He didn’t miss this one.
I’m going to ditch the usual “three things I liked” stuff because there wasn’t much to like in this game until the latter part of the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies were well on their way to getting run out of their own building by a hungry young team looking to make their mark. It took an unnerving combination of great play and playcalling from the Grizzlies and lapses by the Kings to get them to 8–1. Marc Gasol continued to look like last year’s model, getting eaten alive down low by DeMarcus Cousins. Tayshaun Prince can’t guard Rudy Gay anymore and Dave Joerger just had to learn that the hard way. Allen and Carter both did a much better job on Gay. Courtney Lee should never not start again, as far as I’m concerned. He’s been the Grizzlies’ best offensive player (with the exception of maybe Conley) for almost the whole season to this point, and his defense of Ben McLemore after Allen wouldn’t stay home on him was excellent last night.
I don’t know what it is about this group of Grizzlies that they always have games like this. In any stretch of ten games, there are one or two where they just don’t have it together, where the effort is flat (especially defensively) and where execution lags. Maybe that’s just how it is when there are 82 games. In the past, though, the Griz haven’t always been able to kick it into gear at the right time to win the game. They get down 20 and they stay down, or never get past ten. Or they start their furious run just too late to make a difference.
For whatever it’s worth, this year’s team seems to be able to make up that ground in a way that last year’s couldn’t. One hopes they won’t have to use that ability too often going forward, but in games like the one they played last night, knowing how to win goes a long way.
Tweet of the Night
Two winners, one from the Bad Quarters:
Vintage Tony Allen. https://t.co/xbUk0Fw3ma— Matt Hrdlicka (@theRealHrdlicka) November 14, 2014
And one from the Good Quarter:
"Why are you just standing there holding the ball, Marc?" "I'm waiting for Zach to throw these two guys out of the way."— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) November 14, 2014
And an honorable mention for Dan Devine because “Tennessee Dirk” is maybe the best thing I’ve ever heard.
No worries, Grizz. Just go to Jon Leuer, a.k.a. “Tennessee Dirk,” and you’ll be right back in this thing.— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 14, 2014
Saturday night: the Pistons, and who knows how that’s going to go, and then Monday night another home game against the Houston Rockets.
Udrih had sixteen,
A new dawning of the bench,
Koufos had fourteen.
A brilliant hot fire,
The heat of a thousand suns—
Courtney Lee this year.
What is usage rate?
Vince Carter cares not for it;
Vince Carter still will shoot.
Weep for young Adams,
Weep for Jarnell, for Tayshaun:
Q played two minutes,
Did not talk to media.
Jon Leuer played some,
But nothing really happened,
This is a haiku.
Kobe has missed more
Than anyone else has missed
Because he is old.
The Grizzlies hung on to close out the Lakers last night 107–102 in a game that ended up being much closer than anyone thought it should have been. The Grizzlies’ starting guards (Mike Conley, who had 23, and Courtney Lee, who had 15) continued their run of good play, but the big men struggled to get anything done against the Lakers’ frontcourt of Jordan Hill and Carlos “Bigger Jerryd Bayless” Boozer.
The best thing that happened last night was with the Grizzlies’ reserves, who have been the topic of much consternation as of late. Beno Udrih had sixteen points, and for the first time really looked comfortable running the offense (and by running the offense I mostly mean shooting the ball—his usage rate was 33.7%, meaning he “used” a little over a third of the Grizzlies’ possessions while he was on the floor. He was scoring, so that’s not that big of a deal, but it does highlight Udrih’s emphasis on scoring over, say, passing and/or defense.) He really struggled in the first four or five games, but he’s coming along, and I think that when Nick Calathes returns, Udrih will still get some play in two-point-guard lineups. (Dave Joerger said as much in the postgame presser when I asked him about whether he’s going to start experimenting with the bench rotations.)
Overall, it was a win despite how the Grizzlies played, but that’s still a win.
Tweet of the Night
Something something Vince Carter (who was 2–4 last night, but hit some big shots at important moments, momentum-wise):
Vince Carter, closely guarded: "Need somebody to shoot? I will! Can I shoot yet? Hey, guys I'll shoot it if you need me to. Hey, I'm open!"— Blues City Joe (@BluesCityJoe) November 12, 2014
The opponents get tougher ahead: the resurgent Kings are in town Thursday night, and (skipping over a game against the Pistons on Saturday, because who knows what that will be) the Houston Rockets are in town on Monday. Next Wednesday is a road game in Toronto. The struggles that the Grizzlies have faced may make these games tougher than they need to be. Hopefully the home cooking and the time to actually practice will help iron out some of the kinks we’ve seen so far.
The Grizzlies had a pair of road games over the weekend (a back-to-back at Oklahoma City and Milwaukee) that didn’t exactly go according to script. After a blazing hot 5-game win to start the season, these two road games were essentially the culmination of all the flaws that shone through the wins that piled up at the season’s start. Every silver lining has a touch of grey—somebody said that, right?—and that touch of grey happened to be the reserves. The Grizzlies’ offensive issues showed up in force Friday and Saturday, and it ended up costing them their perfect record.
First things first: Marc Gasol was not good in either game. In OKC he looked out of sorts, committing turnovers and being uncharacteristically flummoxed by Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison (who, unlike the rest of the Thunder’s good players, aren’t injured). Zach Randolph also struggled, especially against the Thunder. He put up 16 points and 7 rebounds but was only 6 of 16 from the floor. Against the Bucks he had better luck, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the weaknesses of the rest of the team.
The bench has been an issue all season long so far. Seven games in, they’ve yet to string together a good performance as a second unit. Of course, this raises the question of whether there should even be a second unit, or whether there should always be a starter on the floor (hint: there should always be a starter on the floor), but assuming there’s going to be a true second unit that plays with no starters, they’ve got to be better than they’ve been.
After struggling early, Beno Udrih has picked up his game a bit. He’s still not shooting well, but the offense runs just a bit more smoothly with him in, and he’s able to do some good pick and roll things with Koufos and Gasol. The real struggles off the bench—from the two guys who were supposed to step up into increased roles this year—are from Jon Leuer and Quincy Pondexter.
Pondexter hasn’t been shooting well, and his year away from playing pro basketball is showing through in his decision making. Pondexter is still overthinking what he’s doing on the floor, much like he was in the precious few games he played last season, hesitating and driving to the basket instead of shooting open jumpers, missing a lot of said open jumpers when he decides to take them. His defense has been okay, but his offense is what the Grizzlies really need, and that’s what has yet to start working. With Vince Carter still unable to run (more on that later) and a bench that desperately needs scoring, Pondexter needs to get into some sort of a rhythm sooner rather than later.
The other guy who has yet to play up to the role he’s been given is Jon Leuer. It’s strange, because if you watch Leuer when he’s not trying to shoot, he’s playing well—his defense is okay, he’s making smart passes, he’s putting himself in the right places at the right times. But he cannot hit a shot to save his life. All season long so far Leuer has been generating good looks at the basket and failing to convert them into Grizzlies points. Seven games in, I’m not going to say it’s time to explore other options at the backup power forward spot. If the shots he’s getting start falling, this conversation isn’t happening. Unlike Pondexter, it’s not Leuer’s decision-making that’s troublesome; he’s just not hitting open shots. Even though that’s the case, he’s still got to get it going if this second unit is going to be able to help the team instead of hurting it.
Another factor in the second unit that’s not turning out the way the team planned (so far) is Vince Carter. His recovery from offseason ankle surgery appears to be progressing slowly, and he runs around the court (well, “runs”) like a robot with some sort of gait malfunction. Supposedly Chris Wallace told somebody who asked about it that he’s always had a funny hitch in his running motion, but if you believe that’s all that’s going on, I’d love to sell you a barely-used Hernando DeSoto Bridge. Carter is clearly not 100%, and he’s just chucking shots at the rim as a result. His usage rate against OKC (according to Basketball Reference) was 28.3%, and he was 3 of 9 from the floor. His eFG% was slightly better (38.9%) but it’s still not great in terms of effeciency. If Carter’s issues linger and he doesn’t reach the form he was in for Dallas the past few seasons, his signing won’t be as big of a positive as it looked this summer. I don’t think it’s time to panic about his health yet, but 8.5% of the way through the season, it’s something worth keeping an eye on.
My last issue with the second unit isn’t really an issue with the second unit per se, so much as it’s an issue with the Grizzlies’ entire organizational philosophy about player development. On the second night of a back-to-back against Milwaukee, the Grizzlies’ two promising rookies, Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes, were in Memphis playing for the Iowa Energy. Now, given the way the game turned out, it seems unlikely that they would’ve played actual minutes, but sending them to the D-League to keep the rust off instead of carving out five minutes a piece for them to play, given that reserve wing play and reserve power forward play are both issues for this team right now, seems like a poor decision. Everything I’ve heard from folks with the team suggests that they think Adams and Stokes can contribute and can contribute this year. When does that start? At what point do they put their money where their mouths are and start actually playing them?
Sure, inexperience is a factor. Rookies make mistakes, sometimes dumb ones. Playing them enough for them to actually learn the game means letting them play through dumb mistakes instead of yanking them to the bench for a week every time they mess up. (Remember how much Nick Calathes improved last year when there was no one else to sub in for him when he turned the ball over?) If the Grizzlies make it another 7 games and Pondexter and Leuer are still not contributing much of anything, it’s time for these guys to get a serious look. Both of them were very highly regarded coming into last year’s draft—one of the more loaded drafts in recent history, remember? We’re not talking the Jamaal Franklin draft, or even the Tony Wroten draft—and if they’re going to capitalize on that potential, they have to play.
Now, I’m not sure why I just wasted effort writing those two paragraphs. The Grizzlies don’t play rookies much, unless they’re Xavier Henry (still trying to figure that one out). It’s more likely that Adams and Stokes spend all year bouncing between Memphis and Des Moines, playing two minutes at a time in NBA games and sitting on the bench every time they make a mistake. That seems to be the way things go for the Grizzlies. But I think it’s a mistake not to let these guys develop, especially since bench play is becoming an issue. I’d hate to see both of these guys sit on the bench and then end up as trade bait (or, worse, given to the 76ers for almost nothing).
The good news in all of this is that it’s only 7 games in, and the team is 6–1. There are no unbeaten teams in the league anymore, so now that there’s one L in the record, the pressure to remain unbeaten is off. The bad news is that in all six of those wins, the bench didn’t do well. The starters (Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol) can’t carry this team all 82 nights this season. The bench, and especially Pondexter and Leuer, need to figure out what they’re doing and get it going, or else this team is going to struggle to reach their full potential. It’s not time to start making drastic changes to the rotation yet, but that time is probably closer than Dave Joerger and the Grizzlies would like to admit.
Tweet(s) of the Night
From Friday’s OKC game, the Flyer’s own Bruce VanWyngarden on the Thunder’s acquisition of Ish Smith:
Ish never starts because everyone knows if you don’t want no Ish, you don't start no Ish.— Bruce VanWyngarden (@sylamore1) November 8, 2014
From Saturday against Milwaukee, presaging most of what you just read (unless you skipped all the wordy words up there):
I'd say let the bench play even if you take the L but the guys we need to learn something about aren't present.— Chase Lucas (@deepfriedcouch) November 9, 2014
Odds and Ends
The Grizzlies are 5–0 for the first time in franchise history, and they’re one of only three undefeated teams left in the league (Memphis, Houston, and Golden State). Tonight, they’re in Oklahoma City to take on an injury-decimated Thunder in their only ESPN game of the regular season. Last weekend in my appearance on MemphiSport Live Kevin Cerrito and I took a look at the Grizzlies’ schedule through the rest of this month and early December to figure out how long the Griz could remain undefeated. I’m a big believer in jinxes, so I’m not going to do that here, but I do think the schedule is heavily in the Grizzlies’ favor in this first six weeks of the season.
The Grizzlies are in OKC tonight, and the Thunder are supposedly going to be there too, but without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (and a few other players), the Thunder are struggling mightily to even have enough guys dressed out. Reggie Jackson is the only hope here; Serge Ibaka can’t score 80 points every night. With that said, this Grizzlies team historically has a nasty habit of playing at the opponent’s level, especially in road games against “bad” teams.
If they’re rolling into town assuming they’re going to get an easy win, they may head to Milwaukee for tomorrow night’s game with a 5–1 record. Given what we’ve seen from this year’s Griz tema so far, I think it’s safe to assume they’re probably out for revenge against the Thunder and don’t care who isn’t playing. It should be a win. It needs to be a win. Every win over the Thunder while they’re down is a win between the Thunder and Griz in the standings later.
At Milwaukee. I mean, the Bucks are sort of fun because they have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, and Larry “I Love Getting Technical Fouls” Sanders, and Brandon Knight who is playing well this year, and even the new slimmer O.J. Mayo. But “fun” doesn’t and shouldn’t equate to “hard for the Grizzlies to beat,” even on the second game of a back-to-back (a SEGABABA for those of you in the know).
Next week is a three-game home stand against the Lakers on Tuesday, the Kings on Thursday, and the Pistons on Saturday. The Lakers are laughably horrible—and I mean that literally; they’re so bad it makes me laugh, because I don’t like the Lakers. The Kings are showing signs of life this year, however. DeMarcus Cousins is playing at a high level and so is Rudy Gay, and they’ve notched some unexpected wins against good teams. They may not make the playoffs, but they’re definitely improving. That said, the Grizzlies are at home, and they’ll be catching the Kings on the last game of a four game road trip, so they should take care of business.
The Pistons are a train wreck—or, more accurately, Josh Smith is jump-shooting the Pistons into a train wreck almost single-handedly. The Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe frontcourt pairing is formidable, and it seems like the Pistons are trying to build around the Grizzlies’ roster as a model in some ways, but until they figure out how to have the right guys taking the shots, they’re not going to win.
So next week should be a 3–0 week, assuming the Griz don’t let one get away from them. All three teams they’re playing are “should win” games. So, after next week, the Griz could be 10–0. Even if they drop of of these games due to fatigue or poor execution or planets out of alignment or whatever, they’d still be 9–1 at the end of next week.
Two Weeks from Now
The week after that, the 16th through the 22nd, is tougher. On Monday night, the Griz have a home game against the Rockets, the other undefeated team in the Southwest division. The Grizzlies had success against the Rockets last year, and that was with 65% of Marc Gasol, but the Rockets look to have improved this summer the same way the Grizzlies did. They’re a tough team, and this early in the season, I think it’s probably a coin flip. If they win, 11–0 or 10–1. If they lose, 10–1 or 9–2.
On Wednesday of that week, a road game against the Raptors is the first “the streak probably ends here” game on the calendar. The Grizzlies have historically not played well in Toronto as of late (the fact that the Raps have all-time Griz Killer Kyle Lowry at the point doens’t help much), and I don’t expect that to change against a Raptors team that’s fighting to be recognized as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. I’m pencilling this one in as a schedule loss, even though it’s a very winnable game. If the Grizzlies pull off this win in Toronto, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. So, the record could be anything from 11–1 to 9–3.
Friday is a home game against the young-but-fiesty Boston Celtics. Another “should win” game against a rebuilding (but very well-coached) East team would put the record between 12–1 and 10–3. A loss here would not be great, and would put the Griz somewhere from 11–2 to 9–4.
And then. Sunday, November 23rd, at 5PM, the first Grizzlies/Clippers game of the new year. The best rivalry in the league right now—it’s like Grizzlies/Thunder but taking place in the WWE universe. The Grizzlies will be amped up for this one, and I think the Clippers low-key got worse over the offseason, with a bigger smoldering crater at small forward than the Grizzlies ever thought about having last season. I love CDR as much as the next guy, but you don’t want CDR and Matt Barnes to be all you have. With a healthy Gasol, Griz/Clips becomes the same old Griz/Clips we’re used to: DeAndre Jordan on Gasol, Blake Griffin on Randolph, lots of serious hard fouls, both real and imagined. Tony Allen hopefully not getting suspended for kicking Chris Paul in the face. I’m going to pencil this one in as a Griz win, so… somewhere between 13–1 and 10–4. With a loss, they’d be somewhere between 12–2 and 9–5.
After the game against the Clippers on the 23rd, the Grizzlies have games at the Lakers, at the Blazers, at the Kings, at the Rockets, and at the Spurs, all in a row. Only a crazy person would expect them to win all five games of a West Coast road trip with Rockets and Spurs tacked onto the end of it, but I don’t think they’ll lose more than 2 (probably the Rockets and Spurs games, but it could also be at Sacramento or at Portland. Those are historically very tough places for the Grizzlies to play). If they’re undefeated headed into the trip and, like last year, they sweep the road trip, they could make it all the way to 19–0, but that’s about as realistic as Zach Randolph making more 3’s than Steph Curry this year.
That said, there’s a very real chance that the Grizzlies head into the Spurs game on December 5th with a record somewhere in the neighborhood of 16–3 or 15–4. If they play their cards right, the cushion they build up now, in the early part of the season, will go a long way towards making the rest of the year a matter of taking care of business instead of scratching and clawing from behind just to make the playoffs.
With any luck (and I’m knocking on wood here, y’know, jinxes and all) the Grizzlies can capitalize on the window that’s been opened by the Thunder’s injuries and win the games they need to win to get on the other side of the West bracket from the Spurs and have a good shot at a return to the Western Conference Finals… or beyond. The stars have aligned for them to get off to the hot start they so desperately needed. Here’s hoping.
I’m still shocked either team made it out of the 70’s, but the Grizzlies somehow turned a second consecutive game of low-percentage shooting (36% in Charlotte on Saturday, and now 41% last night) into a grind-it-out win against a tough opponent.
The Pelicans, featuring shot blocking, high-scoring prodigy Anthony Davis, had the Grizzlies’ number last year (the Griz only beat them once, even though the Pelicans were never the better team), and they improved greatly this offseason with the addition of former Rockets big Omer Asik, whose defense at the rim was already formidable enough without having to deal with he and Davis at the same time. Throw 3-point shooting power forward Ryan Anderson into the mix, and you’ve got one of the toughest frontcourt combos in the league to deal with.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, were still missing Courtney Lee to a concussion suffered in Indiana over the weekend, and started Tayshaun Prince in his place, which may have been done for defensive reasons (who else was going to guard Tyreke Evans?) but was not a good omen for the flow of the offense.
Both of those things turned out not to be issues—the Pelicans pose some issues on defense, but offensively, they’re still a train wreck, and Prince went 6–12 for 14 points in 33 minutes—and the Grizzlies were able to overcome their own continuing shooting drought to get the win.
Also, since the Grizzlies won, I’m free to post this and remark on how insane it was to see a real human being actually do this in person:
Anthony Davis is not one of us. Struggles last night or no, he remains one of the most fascinating NBA players to watch, especially live.
The Grizzlies are now 4–0 for the first time in franchise history, and they’ve mostly done it in games where they looked out of sync, struggling to find a rhythm. Assuming those early-season hitches are just that—getting up to speed—this team will be a force to be reckoned with come December and January. If the poor shooting (whether that’s from Mike Conley or from the bench duo of Quincy Pondexter and Jon Leuer) continues, though, they Grizzlies are going to be right back in the same boat they’ve always been on, with no floor spacing and no outside threats. It’s worth keeping an eye on, no matter the team’s record. Either way, it’s time for some notes:
Last night after the Grizzlies’ 71–69 road win over the Charlotte Hornets—and yes, that was a real NBA final score—rookie Jordan Adams (who hasn’t played a minute yet this season) turned his thoughts towards leftover Halloween candy. Robert Pera chimed in. Twitter is the best.
Hope someone saved me some candy— Jordan Adams (@jordanadams1231) November 2, 2014
@jordanadams1231 don't mess with that 7.8% body fat Jordan!— Robert J Pera (@RobertPera) November 2, 2014
Guess no candy for me 😒 lol— Jordan Adams (@jordanadams1231) November 2, 2014
I can sneak you some leftover Skittles, Jordan. We’ve got a whole bowl on our dining room table.
Last night, the improbable happened: the Grizzlies won their season opener for the first time since the franchise moved to Memphis. No one with the team who wasn’t in Vancouver has ever seen them win on the first night of the season. That unlikeliest of streaks was broken last night.
And, of course, it was broken in true Grizzlies fashion: behind a huge night from Marc Gasol (32 points and 9 rebounds) and a dominant performance from Zach Randolph (25 points and 13 rebounds). Gasol shot 70% from the floor, and Randolph shot 75%. No one on the Wolves (with the exception of maybe Gorgui Dieng) could do anything to stop either one of the Grizzlies’ bigs, not even this:
Want to see respect? Check out the Wolves quadruple-teaming Zach Randolph last night. pic.twitter.com/Va8wPcjhIP— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) October 30, 2014
The dominance of Gasol and Randolph overshadowed some negative things (which, of course, I’ll get into below) but overall, a win is a win, and this one set a tone. In the locker room after the game, the players seemed to know they were lucky to close out the game, given how poorly the bench unit played and how badly they were out-rebounded. One got a sense that they were more relieved they didn’t lose than happy that they won, and that’s as it should be—there was a lot to work on. I’m sure the next film session will involve some curse words.
Tonight, it begins. Or, really, it returns.
Memphis has a love affair going with these Grizzlies, a heart-and-soul connection to these basketball players. It’s everywhere, all over town. It’s in the media coverage of the team, which can’t help but mention the connection between the city and the team. Which can’t go a day without seeing the words “grit” and “grind” somewhere. Who think, “Marc Gasol isn’t going anywhere because he’s one of us.”
It’s an extraordinary, fragile thing, this love. And for 41 nights together now we can all sit together inside the arena and play basketball by proxy, because those guys down there on the floor, they’re Memphis. That’s how it feels.
The first thing you figure out when you transition from “I am a fan” to “I am a basketball writer” is that the home team is not we, it’s they. When that happens, when that shift takes place inside your head, everything is different. You transition from screaming, yelling maniac at a triple-overtime home game to the guy who sits there and takes notes while 18,000 people collectively lose it, Gap Band or not. Part of this is good—it’s impossible to do good work writing about the team if you don’t have any distance from it—and part of this makes you feel dead inside, like you lost something along the way.
But, fan or no, something about this season feels vital. Marc Gasol is in the last year of his current contract and looks like he’s out for blood. Mike Conley has gotten better every year, was almost an All-Star last year, and has grown into a leadership role despite his quiet demeanor. Zach Randolph, staring down the inexorable slide towards the end of his career, locked in to a deal that will keep him here three more years, trying to duplicate what he did last season, if not improve on it. Tony Allen, shaman/spirit animal/avatar of the Grit & Grind Era, potential epicenter of instability, but also the crazed defender who makes this team so exciting, so unpredictable even as its style is best defined as “workmanlike.” This may be the best chance this Grizzlies group—this Grizzlies group, the building of which is a direct result of the Pau Gasol trade, let us not forget—has to win an NBA Championship. If the stars align correctly, this could be The Year that Memphis, our city, ourselves, does something no one thinks is possible.
It starts tonight, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, with an unbroken streak of Game 1 losses since the franchise moved to Memphis. And as a lover of basketball, a lover of the city of Memphis, a lover of its people, its flawed, giving, exuberant, chip-on-our-shoulder, rough hewn people, I want this season to be The Year. As someone who gets paid to be objective about it, I just hope the stories I have to tell are stories that don’t hurt my heart too much, really all anyone in my position can ask for.
It’s basketball season, the season in which our city is Hoop City, the season in which we are the best, brightest, Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee-est version of ourselves.
Tonight, it begins.
As soon as the season ended last year (and really earlier than that) the most popular topic of conversation among writers who cover the Grizzlies, message boards and Twitter, and even random Griz fans talking to each other standing in line at the grocery store was “Who’s Joerger going to start next year?”.
Most people seemed content to say “anybody but Tayshaun Prince,” but since everything we’ve seen so far would seem to suggest that Dave Joerger is a fairly traditional head coach who believes that being “A Starter” carries a great deal of weight (and a great deal of the minutes workload) it’s not just something inconsequential.
So who’s starting? We may know the answer to that question—at least for now—but that doesn’t mean the debate should be closed. I’ve put together a list of five potential Grizzlies starting units that are worth talking about, and that we may see as the season rolls on:
1. Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
As announced by Dave Joerger last week, this is the actual Grizzlies starting lineup headed into the 2014–15 season. And, well, it could be worse.
Having Courtney Lee resume the starting spot he jumped into last year while Tony Allen was injured is only right; Lee played very well in the regular season, hitting big shots on offense and making plays on defense, and even making some people say crazy things like “Do they even need Allen to come back?” before disappearing like D.B. Cooper in the playoffs.
Allen, for his part, did an incredible job as the first Grizzly off the bench after returning from a lengthy (and ill-defined) hand/wrist injury (an injury that saw him parked on the bench much longer than anyone, including the Grizzlies, expected) and played a major part in the Grizzlies’ success in the stretch run towards that fateful first-round showdown with the Thunder. And Allen’s offense, while mostly still a garbage fire, is still better than what Tayshaun Prince was able to contribute in the starting 3 spot. Allen’s cuts to the basket are his saving grace on that end of the court, where he’s able to use his athleticism and smart timing to get baskets that no one—including the 18,000 folks in FedExForum—expects him to get.
LeBron James may not have been in the building last night, but ESPN was, and the Grizzlies and Cavaliers still played a pretty close-fought game (for preseason, anyway). After previously announcing that the starting wing players would be Courtney Lee and Tony Allen, an injury to Lee forced Dave Joerger to go with Quincy Pondexter as the opening tip in his place—a lineup that some predicted would be the “real” starting lineup anyway. For his trouble, Pondexter spent some of the early minutes of the game guarding Kevin Love, which was a terrible, horrible thing that never needs to happen again.
In what was probably bigger news than the game, earlier in the day Wednesday the Grizzlies announced that they’d waived Earl Clark and Hassan Whiteside, bringing the total number of players on the roster to 16. Of all of the “preseason randoms” that the Grizzlies brought in, I had the highest hopes for Clark, whose game I think could really help the Grizzlies out in spots, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. It was always going to be a long shot for Clark to make the roster; the Grizzlies under Chris Wallace are historically very reticent to carry a full 15 players into the regular season.
The departures of Whiteside and Clark left only Iowa Energy standouts Kalin Lucas and Patrick Christopher on the roster. I don’t expect either one of them to get signed for the year; instead, I think they’ll both spend this year playing for the Energy while Griz brass keep their eyes on how they’re doing. From what I’ve heard, Christopher in particular has really impressed the folks he needed to impress this preseason. If a need for a wing arises during 10-day season, I’d be willing to bet that Christopher has dibs on it, and same for Lucas and a 10-day stint as a 3rd-string point guard.
But… there was a game played last night, a game that the Grizzlies won even though it looked precariously close to going into that most horrible of things: preseason overtime. The Griz were able to stave that off and win the game in regulation, 96–92, and everyone went home happy.
And now, for the first “three things” breakdown of the 2014–15 (pre)season:
Three Things I Liked
➭ Marc Gasol has been playing out of his mind the whole preseason, and last night was no exception, even facing off against Kevin Love and a healthy (for now) Anderson Varejao. Gasol continues to assert himself on the defensive boards, grabbing 6 (of a total 9 rebounds) last night in 25 minutes. One has to think that if Gasol can establish his rebounding and make that a factor into the Grizzlies’ transition offense, the Grizzlies are going to be that much more potent this year offensively. On top of the rebounding, Gasol is also playing more like the point guard he’s always wanted to be, making passes like this one on a regular basis:
Gasol appears to be heading into this, a contract year at what might be the peak of his prime, ready to make it the best year of his career. If that continues (knock on wood), the whole league should be on notice. In the GM survey released yesterday, only 25% voted Gasol the best center in the league. He appears to be on a mission to raise that percentage dramatically.
➭ Quincy Pondexter got the start last night, but that doesn’t really matter so much to me. What matters is the way that he played: Pondexter has done a much better job recently of playing within himself, not trying to do too much, and sticking to the things he’s good at. He had several good looks from long range last night that didn’t go in (finishing 2–5) and he ended up taking 9 free throws. He also finished with a block and two steals. I’ve been down on Quincy this preseason (a carryover from how bad he was last season) but if he can keep playing this way, maintaining this composure, he’s going to help this team this year. I still think the team only needs two of Allen, Pondexter, and Lee, but if they were to keep all three, that’d be a wing rotation that I’d be OK with at the end of the day.
➭ Vince Carter played 21 minutes. He still doesn’t look like he can run much, but he made some good passes and showed his potential as an escape valve when a play breaks down, making his own shot and/or attacking the basket whenever he ended up isolated on Mike Miller (who looks weird in a Cavs jersey). I asked Joerger after the game how Carter was fitting in and learning the offense, and he said that he’s not worried about Carter’s shot, his passing, or him learning the offense—that he mostly knows all of that stuff, and the minutes he’s getting in the preseason are “all about scraping off the rust” and getting him into better physical form.
One hopes that Carter’s body will hold up, and that he’s able to get back to where the Grizzlies thought he’d be when they signed him. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to be operating at 100% for a while, though, so it was good to see that even when he’s not at his best he can still make plays (like elevating to block two Dion Waiters attempts at the rim on the same possession) and help the team out.
Three Things I Didn’t Like
➭ The Grizzlies’ rookies (Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes) didn’t play at all, and after the game, Joerger said the rotations he used were likely to be the ones we saw him deploy in the regular season. This is frustrating, because I (along with most other people who watch basketball and, y’know, have brains) think that Adams and Stokes—but especially, especially Adams on such a wing-starved team—can contribute immediately, if not for huge minutes. Unless they were both getting the night off for rest, which seems unlikely, Adams and Stokes should’ve played the entire fourth quarter last night.
I don’t know what the problem is with the Grizzlies and rookies, but it’s the same old thing: rookies get better and develop by playing in real games. Yes, practice is important, but without game minutes, it’s meaningless. And yet the Griz love to send their rookies back and forth to the D-League (which is even easier now with the Energy relationship in place) and sit them on the end of the bench. Adams and Stokes aren’t just any old super-raw Tony Wroten rookie. They’re both good players and they’ve both had good preseason games. They need to be playing minutes in the freaking preseason. That’s what it’s for.
I will drive to Dave Joerger’s house in Millington and stand outside with a boom box lifted high over my head playing Peter Gabriel until this message gets through.
I might be there a while.
➭ At one point last night, Joerger deployed a lineup of Mike Conley, Nick Calathes, Tayshaun Prince, Marc Gasol, and Kosta Koufos. Let us never speak of this again.
➭ Speaking of Kosta Koufos, I don’t like it when Koufos and Randolph play together for extended stretches. When Koufos is in the post taking up all of that space under the rim, it pushes Randolph up to the the elbow or out to the short corners instead of giving him room to work under the basket. Because Randolph has become a much-improved passer over the last couple of years, this isn’t as big of a deal as it could be, but the frontcourt spacing issues and the lack of chemistry—which takes time to develop, and at which Gasol and Randolph have a several-year head start—makes the Z-Bo/Koufos pairing not as effective as it could be. I’d much rather see Koufos with Leuer (or even Gasol) than with Randolph, and I’d much rather see Randolph with Leuer or, obviously, Gasol.
Tweets of the Night
The best/most depressing went to the Commercial Appeal’s Chris Herrington:
That was like that awesome Spurs set in the playoffs only instead of a Diaw corner three it resulted in Tayshaun Prince from 18 feet.— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) October 23, 2014
And, since I’m in the mood for embarrassment, the dumbest joke I made all night:
If Kosta Koufos does it is it "gyroball"— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) October 23, 2014
The Grizzlies finish up their preseason schedule Friday night at home against the new-look Miami Heat, who will either be incredibly watchable this year, or will be an 82-game pile of burning refuse. Could go either way.
At some point between the Apology and the Crito, Plato appears to have written down this dialogue between Socrates and a Grizzlies fan. It remains undetermined whether this Grizzlies fan was just a smart person who liked to watch basketball, or was involved in writing about the team in some capacity. All that remains of Socrates’ conversation are fragments, of which these are the first two.
Griz Fan: Yes, but did you see that Courtney Lee and Tony Allen are the starting wings? I assume that means Lee will be the shooting guard and Allen will be the small forward.
Socrates: Does it matter which position they’re assigned to?
G: No, I don’t guess it does. I’m just glad Tayshaun Prince isn’t starting. He’s way too old.
S: I don’t think that’s what you mean, but yes, he has been in the league for a long time. Are you sure you’re satisfied with the starting lineup?
G: I’d like to see Pondexter, personally. I think he’s a really underrated player. I love 3-and-D guys like that.
S: Ah, yes, I see you haven’t been reading Beyond the Arc for long. Which I can forgive. What about Pondexter do you like more than Allen?
G: Oh, not for Allen—for Lee.
S: What makes you so sure Tony Allen should be a starter? Does it matter whether he plays the first minute, or whether his minutes are used appropriately?
G: Tony Allen helps the team get off to a fast start. He scores, sets the tone on defense… It’s a much better use of his energy for him to play early on and late in the game. Isn’t that right? Doesn’t Chris Vernon keep track of how many minutes Tony plays, and when it’s more than 25 minutes, the Grizzlies always win?
S: Those are facts. Tony Allen’s offense is helpful early in games, and he does play more in Grizzlies wins than in Grizzlies losses.
G: Then why wouldn’t he be a starter? Doesn’t that say something about his importance to the team?
S: It does.
G: Then why wouldn’t you start him?
S: I didn’t say I wouldn’t, I only asked why you would.
G: There is one thing, though.
S: One thing about Allen?
G: One thing about Allen.
S: (crosses his arms, looks at floor)
The Grizzlies played a preseason exhibition against Brazilian team Flamengo last night, and… it went about the way you would expect it to. Flamengo hung in pretty well against the Grizzlies’ starters (Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, Gasol) only trailing 27–20 after the first quarter, but it all fell apart from there for the visitors, whose names (like “Olivinha” and “Gégé”) Rick Trotter said he had to study three days to
pronounce correctly. By halftime, the Grizzlies were up 62–41, with 36 points in the paint and Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph doing whatever they wanted to against Flamengo under both baskets.
From there, it turned into a second-unit-and-rookies showcase, with Quincy Pondexter putting up 13 points in 16 minutes on 3–5 shooting and 6–8 free throws as he continues to make his case for starting (or maybe just a case for not becoming trade bait). The rookies also got in on the act, with Jordan Adams playing 13 minutes and Jarnell Stokes playing 9.
The Grizzlies ended up winning by 40 points, which makes this game hard to talk about in any meaningful sense, but there were some (small) things that could be taken away from last night’s game.
➭ I don’t know what the odds are that Earl Clark will make the Grizzlies’ final roster—I haven’t heard anything that would indicate that the Griz are planning on keeping him—but I really like the way he plays when he’s on the floor with a lineup that gives him space. Last night, he was on the floor with Jarnell Stokes for several minutes in the fourth quarter, and he pulled open Flamengo’s interior defense enough that Stokes became an unstoppable beast, and his midrange shooting also gave the Brazilians trouble. Clark plays hard, and started games for (admittedly bad) teams recently, and I think his potential as an end of the bench big would provide a great deal of injury insurance and a buffer in case the Grizzlies make some sort of Koufos trade (which I don’t expect them to make, but…).
➭ Jordan Adams did some dumb rookie things last night—a pull up 3 early in the shot clock had coach Dave Joerger particularly unhappy—but I thought he continued to look comfortable on the floor. One hopes that against actual NBA competition playing to win in a game that matters, he’ll continue to look as composed as he has during the preseason. The mistakes are going to happen; that’s just part of it when dealing with rookies. If Joerger can look past that and be comfortable with allowing Adams to develop, I’m pretty convinced the Grizzlies have a potential long-term starter on their hands. Of course, we all said the same things about our dearly departed friend Ovinton J’Anthony Mayo.
➭ At one point last night, Tony Allen almost caused a backcourt violation by doing whatever he was doing without talking to Zach Randolph. Z-Bo was visibly unhappy, walking around cussing, clearly frustrated with Tony. I see that as a good thing: Z-Bo is not a guy known for, shall we say, expending too much energy during the preseason, so if he’s fired up and correcting guys and taking that sort of leadership role even though the Grizzlies are up 20 over a team from Brazil, that says a lot about his mindset. Z-Bo’s role as the only guy who can tell Tony what to do might be underreported, but it’s a vital one, and one imagines that carries over to the rest of the team, too, not just TA.
Tweet of the week
This didn’t happen during the game, but I had to say something about it. Somehow, I’m going to have to figure out a way to work this one in:
The Grizzlies have three more preseason games before they open the regular season at home against Minnesota on 10/29. They’re all against good teams, so it’ll be interesting to see what approach the Griz take. Rest important players as the season approaches? Try to win them all and tune up the rotations? Throw all of the guys who are likely to get cut on the floor so they can play their way into deals with other teams, the D-League, or Europe?
Monday, they’re at Dallas. Wednesday night, the Cavaliers are in town (which, if I’m not mistaken, is the only time ESPN will be at the FedExForum for a game all season long, which is a gross miscarriage of justice). Friday, the newly LeBron-less Heat are in town for the last preseason game.
All three of these games have the potential to be very interesting, but they also have the potential to be completely pointless in terms of learning about the Griz heading into the season. We’ll just have to see what the approach is—whether they’re trying to win or not—and go from there.
Just be thankful the season is about to start, so we can evaluate these games without having to wonder whether the Grizzlies are more worried about winning or working out kinks. Come the 29th, there will be no question.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the Mike Judge classic Office Space, but if you haven’t, I’m going to lose you for a second (or at least until you watch this clip). I couldn’t watch the Grizzlies’ game against the suddenly Durant-less Thunder last night because I was at a concert, but I’ve looked at the box score and I read back through my Twitter timeline, so I’m ready to share some things I/we learned about the Grizzlies last night:
…okay. Seriously, though, I didn’t even watch this game but I can tell (since a total of 13 players on both teams sat out) that it was a typical preseason “throw the bench guys out there and figure stuff out” game. Not really worth getting worked up over, certainly not to the point of having all the conversations about Rodney Hood I saw in my timeline this morning. Things are going to be fine.
If we get to the last couple of games and the starters are playing heavy minutes and the Grizzlies are still losing and/or looking bad, then we can worry about it and we can analyze the games and try to draw meaningful conclusions. Last night’s Thunder game was a scrimmage between two 2nd and 3rd units. A very “preseasony” preseason game. Here’s hoping Friday’s home game against Brazil’s Flamengo is just as uneventful, and that the starting lineups stats to get tweaked after that so that the starters are in a rhythm once the season starts.
Last night was the first home preseason game for the Grizzlies, and their third game in four nights, but it felt like a “real” game (or, well, if about 6,000 more people had been there). The Grizzlies’ starters (Conley, Pondexter, Prince, Randolph, and Gasol, presumably because Tony Allen was out to rest up and Courtney Lee was out with a “personal matter”) played a lot of minutes, and mostly looked good doing it.
In other shocking news (to me, anyway) Vince Carter played last night and played 13 minutes. I was sure that Carter was going to continue to rest and recover through the rest of the preseason and only play in the last two or three games, just enough to get in some minutes before the season. But, no, there he was, last night, doing Vince Carter things in a Grizzlies jersey. He was 2–3 from three and made three free throws to finish with 9 points. Carter looked good, if a little unsure of himself in the Grizzlies’ offensive and defensive schemes, but that will only improve as he plays more.
Here are some other takeaways from last night’s game.
Marc Gasol had himself a night last night. He finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 3 blocks, and only one foul—but the most impressive thing about that stat line, and the most unusual thing for Gasol, was that 10 of his 13 rebounds were defensive rebounds. Gasol had a large (for him) percentage of defensive rebounds in the Milwaukee game, too, and one can only hope that this is a facet of his game that he’s really set on improving this year.
As Z-Bo ages and doesn’t come up with all the 50/50 balls that he used to, a Gasol who can grab the rebounds Z-Bo might be losing is an invaluable asset to the Grizzlies. (And, really, it was good to see Gasol doing Gasol things in general: my personal favorite was a pointless behind-the-back pass to Conley at the top of the key when he could have just handed it to him.)