About That Mavericks Game
I wasn't able to watch the Grizzlies/Mavericks game on Wednesday night as it happened; I had to watch the whole thing on DVR in three sessions yesterday. A big part of the reason it took so long for me to get through my viewing of the game was the depressing nature of what I was watching—especially on the heels of being at the Lakers game on Tuesday night and the Timberwolves game on Sunday.
I think it has to do with my expectations for the season. Before everything got going this year, I wrote that the Grizzlies would face tougher competition this year and that they had to (1) stay healthy and (2) solve some of their issues on the perimeter to contend for a championship this year. I'm not a dummy; I knew last year's Western Conference Finals team had overachieved to an extent and at the same time caught a fortunate break with the injury to Russell Westbrook.
That team was good—very good—but the memories of the deep playoff run seem to have made everyone forget how much of a roller coaster the regular season was: a 12-2 start, and then .500 ball for months while Rudy Gay turned into a taller Nick Young with a lower eFG% and the trade rumors started to swirl. A salary-dump trade that got rid of Speights and Ellington and brought back Leuer, in whose basketball ability nobody believed at the time. Losing three straight games by 20 points. The Rudy Trade, a stretch of magnificent basketball through addition-by-subtraction, the injury to Zach Randolph against the Heat, and then The Playoffs.
All that is to say: last year was rough while it was happening, but it felt nothing like this.
This is brutal. Watching new guys get injured every other game and then watching the guys who are left standing (some of them playing through injuries of their own) get beaten by teams they were supposed to be vastly better than this year is a whole 'nother level rough.
When does it stop?
When do Grizzlies players stop getting injured?
Last night, the Grizzlies, still without Marc Gasol for several more weeks, and missing Mike Conley to a thigh contusion suffered on Sunday evening against Minnesota, came out and battled—without much organization and lacking any sense of offensive flow, but it cannot be said that they didn't fight for it—and in the end they couldn't pull off a victory. In the process, two more players went down with injuries: Tayshaun Prince, who left the game at halftime with a sore left knee, and Mike Miller, who turned his ankle so badly he fell over on the court, got up and tried to run it off down the tunnel to the locker room, but fell over halfway through the tunnel holding his ankle.
This season is a never-ending meat grinder of injuries. The list of Grizzlies players who have missed at least one game with an injury now, assuming Prince and Miller can't go tonight in Dallas? (That's right: the Grizzlies have to go on the road to play the second game of a back-to-back after last night's intense and ultimately draining loss to the Lakers.) It'd be easier to list the players who haven't missed time: Jamaal Franklin, Jon Leuer, Nick Calathes, Kosta Koufos, and... James Johnson.
It's possible that the Grizzlies could be down to nine healthy players again tonight in Dallas, right back where they were last week when we were saying "soon they'll be back on track." The nightmare continues.
I don't think it's time to give up on the season yet. The team is 10-14 right now, which is nothing that can't be brought back to .500 by a good week or two. The problem is that they're never going to have that good week if they keep having nine healthy players on the roster, getting guys back from injury only to lose another two guys the next night. And when they do have almost everybody (sans Gasol) they're still not able to execute.
Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers are in town to take on the Grizzlies for the first time since the Grizzlies defeated them in L.A. back in November as the first game of their undefeated West Coast road trip. (Remember that trip? It feels like a mirage, like something that happened a year ago, to a different basketball team.)
The fact of the matter is that the Grizzlies and the Lakers are in the same boat right now: not doing very well, affected by injuries (the Lakers literally don't have a healthy point guard on the roster) and trying to figure out if they're a dark horse 7- or 8-seed or one of the few Western Conference teams that's genuine lottery fodder.
In case you've been living in the mountains of Peru without access to radio transmissions, Kobe Bryant has returned from the Achilles injury he suffered last year—only seven months ago. The question at this point is still "Should he have?". Bryant has nineteen turnovers in three games since returning, his left calf muscle has atrophied to the point that it's visibly smaller than his right one, which has robbed him of some of his signature moves. The Kobe Bryant that has returned to action is decidedly not the Kobe Bryant of old, and he may never return to that form again given his age.
Meanwhile Mike D'Antoni and Pau Gasol have been taking shots at each other in the media, with Gasol publicly complaining about not getting touches in the post and D'Antoni (correctly) asserting that the worst thing the Lakers do on offense this year is post up. Gasol, who is a free agent after this season, doesn't seem to be enjoying the Mike D'Antoni Era of Lakers history in the least, and he may see himself traded before the deadline if things don't turn around.
All that is to say this: the Lakers aren't in great shape, but they've got a better record than the Grizzlies. Memphis has been bad at home this year, but the Lakers are the type of team they need to be able to come out and beat if they're going to have any hope of making a push for the playoffs once Marc Gasol returns from injury.
There's a problem with that, though: at the time of this writing, Mike Conley was unable to participate in shootaround today and will not play tonight. Conley suffered a thigh contusion against the Timberwolves after a collision with Dante Cunningham's kneecap.
The injury bug has bitten the Grizzlies hard this year, and continues to do so. Without Conley, whose level of play this year has been off-the-charts ridiculous, it's going to be tough sledding for the Grizzlies again, as Conley has picked up his scoring and passing and all around elevated his game to try to make up for the lack of Marc Gasol in the middle. Either Jerryd Bayless or Nick Calathes will get the start (my money is on Bayless) but neither of them is preferable to an uninjured Conley.
Should be an interesting night: a team of injured and/or hobbled and/or disgruntled Lakers against a team of injured and/or unmotivated Grizzlies. The good news for the Grizzlies is that there has to be a winner. The bad news is it doesn't have to be them.
The Grizzlies have officially announced the signing of James Johnson of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA D-League. From the official Griz press release:
The Memphis Grizzlies signed forward James Johnson of the NBA Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the team announced.
Johnson (6-9, 245) joins the Grizzlies after averaging 18.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.90 steals and 3.40 blocks on .496 shooting in 29.9 minutes in 10 games (all starts) for Rio Grande Valley this season. The 26-year-old is the only D-League player this season to rank in the top 15 in scoring (14th), rebounding (12th) and assists (14th) by average. He also places third in the D-League in blocks per game and is tied for seventh in steals per game.
Another useful place to go for info is Johnson's Basketball Reference entry.
Last night when I got word that the Grizzlies were interested in Johnson, I asked my friend Andrew Ford of SB Nation's Grizzly Bear Blues—who has worked on NCAA coaching staffs and loves scouting NBA prospects—for a little bit of a scouting report on Johnson, and here's what he said: Johnson is a tweener (but I would have to assume the Grizzlies are primarily interested in playing him at the 3) who has "a pretty complete offensive game" in that he can face up and create off the dribble, but also work with his back to the basket if he has an advantage. He can use his quickness and footwork to get a good shot against a bigger man in the post. His passing is also "very underrated, good for one or two assists a game."
If you look at his per-36 numbers, he can score and rebound, but his shooting percentages are, well, less than stellar. He's a career .273 from three, with a .461 eFG% for his career.
Overall Johnson sounds like a guy who can come in off the bench and contribute something. He's been performing well in the D-League and is neither (1) old nor (2) out for the year with an injury. This signing is certainly an admission that the small forward spot has been a problem for the Grizzlies, and hopefully Johnson can come in and contribute and put out the dumpster fire at the wing positions for the Grizzlies.
Friday night, the Grizzlies headed down to New Orleans to take on the Pelicans (sans Anthony Davis) and Sunday evening they faced the Minnesota Timberwolves at FedExForum. Neither game turned out the way the boys in Beale Street Blue wanted it to.
In New Orleans, the Grizzlies added Tony Allen and Ed Davis back to the rotation for the first time in a week—Allen was injured during the December 3rd game against the Suns, and Davis was injured on December 5th against the Clippers—and it seemed to help them out greatly in the first quarter, as they jumped out to a 34-26 lead after one. That same first quarter lead didn't do much to stop the bleeding when the Grizzlies turned in an 11-point effort in the third quarter, though, allowing a massive run by the Pelicans.
I watched the game on DVR (the Flyer Christmas party was Friday night) and my wife passed through the living room when the Grizzlies were only trailing by one (63-62). A little while later she came back and it was 84-65 shortly after the start of the fourth. I may not be a great purveyor of basketball analytics, but I'm pretty sure scoring three points while one's opponent scores 21 points is an indicator that both the offense and the defense are non-existent.
The Grizzlies made a run to make it a close game on the backs of the "bench" guys (Leuer, Calathes, Davis, and Jerryd Bayless, who had 7) but couldn't ever get closer than 5 or 6, and the Pelicans won.
Sunday night against Minnesota was the same sort of story, only the Grizzlies had their now-customary terrible quarter first. The Grizzlies only scored 17 in the first frame, while Minnesota came out and started hitting everything they took from beyond the arc—by the end of the game, Kevin Love, Corey Brewer, Ricky Rubio, J.J. Barea, Robbie Hummel, and Alexey Shved all hit triples for Minnesota—and it never really came back to them from there.
The Grizzlies, in the third and fourth quarter, showed a great deal of heart, fighting to keep the game close, and hanging around threatening to grab a lead, but every time they got close, something would happen (or, as Dave Joerger would say in the postgame, "Something wouldn't happen; we would make a mistake") and the Timberwolves would end up extending the lead. It felt like every Grizzlies missed three led to a Minnesota transition basket. We won't even speak of the Alexey Shved layup that turned into a goaltend on Kosta Koufos and a Flagrant 1 foul on Ed Davis and possession for Minnesota, which turned into another foul on Davis. (I guess I just spoke of it. It was bad.)
The rumor mill is starting in earnest now, with yesterday's Bleacher Report story on a rumor that the Grizzlies and Pelicans were discussing a trade of Zach Randolph for young sharp-shooting forward Ryan Anderson. While not likely to happen (according to Chris Vernon, anyway), the fact that another actual rumor has been reported is another sign that the Zach Randolph Rumor Mill is starting to get going.
With the Grizzlies struggling to get anything accomplished while missing four players due to injury, two of them (Marc Gasol and Quincy Pondexter) for extended stretches of time, and Zach Randolph approaching a $16.5 million player option for next year, it was bound to be this way. Here are three reasons the Grizzlies should trade Zach Randolph, countered with three reasons they shouldn't.
Reason to Trade Zach Randolph #1: The Salary
Randolph is aging, and while his production hasn't dropped off the way some feared it would, the Grizzlies also owe Marc Gasol $15.8 million next year (the final year of his current contract), they owe $8.7 million to Mike Conley, $7.7 million to Tayshaun Prince, $5 million to Tony Allen, and other deals for Quincy Pondexter, a team option for Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer and Jamaal Franklin on sub-$1 million deals. Ed Davis becomes a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
So... the Grizzlies don't want to fill up $16.5 million of next year's salary with Zach Randolph—they have to either work out a longer-term deal for a lower yearly salary with Randolph, or trade him now before he can pick up the player option. This is a team that desperately needs to add talent at the wings going forward. The Conley/Gasol/Randolph trio are going to continue to get beaten by teams that clog the paint until the Grizzlies acquire a credible wing threat or two to pull defenders away from the rim and keep them honest: that's a fact.
If Zach Randolph is making $16.5 million dollars for the Grizzlies next year, it severely limits the free agents they can sign, and it means that those wing players they would presumably acquire will have to learn to play in the Grizzlies' current plodding, violent style. With Randolph off the books, swapped for a young power forward and/or a young wing player who can make threes, defend at a high level, and create off the dribble when the need arises (basically, who can be what Rudy Gay could have been if he hadn't become a first class 19-foot Brick Machine), the Grizzlies can continue to build their offense around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and contend more effectively against teams like the Spurs, who are going to keep beating this team until they can hit an outside shot.
I don't even know what to write about these games anymore. This picture encapsulates most of it:
Look. There are four types of NBA teams:
The problem with the Grizzlies right now is that with Marc Gasol out until at least January, Quincy Pondexter out for the year, Tony Allen out for multiple games with a hip contusion, and Ed Davis out for multiple games with an ankle sprain, the Grizzlies are mostly #4 on that list: ugly to watch, and not very good. Last night was another example of that.
Without Gasol on the floor, opposing teams are putting their tallest, biggest man (sometimes also their most athletic man) on Zach Randolph and leaving him there, which is exactly the matchup Z-Bo doesn't want night after night. With Z-Bo having to do that much work just to make a basket and/or get a rebound, it takes him out of his game, and when the team keeps going inside to Randolph even when he's struggling that mightily to produce anything around the rim, the rest of the offense stops, too.
The problem this team already had with creating offense—even when everyone was healthy, the question was always whether the Grizzlies could hold their opponent to a low enough score to win, rather than outscore them—has become that much worse without Gasol. Pondexter wasn't playing well, but last year, when locked in and healthy, he was a credible threat with his corner 3's. Now that's not coming back this year, leaving Mike Miller as the only semi-consistent 3-point shooter on the team. (Side note: the way things are going, do you think Miller, in his quiet reflective moments, wishes he'd signed with the Thunder over the offseason instead of this injury-riddled Grizzlies squad?)
Kosta Koufos is playing very well, but his skill set is completely different from Gasol's. Koufos is more comfortable close to the basket rebounding and working from the blocks than Gasol, and when he's sometimes forced into situations where he has to be a distributor, the offense as a whole suffers. That's not really his role, or, at least, it wasn't until Gasol got injured.
The grim fact of the matter is that the Grizzlies don't have the personnel to accomplish what they want to accomplish on offense when they're missing these four guys. Yes, this was supposed to be the deepest team in Grizzlies history, but that was the deepest bench. A starting lineup of Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph, and Kosta Koufos is already going to be challenged offensively, and while Jon Leuer has played very well off the bench, Jamaal Franklin and Nick Calathes are rookies who are still adjusting to the NBA game, and Mike Miller has been mostly inconsistent on offense and mostly a net negative on defense. Those nine players, without Gasol and Allen especially, but also Davis and also Pondexter, just aren't that great of a roster.
That's not to say that the Grizzlies' problems are completely external, a result of injuries and nothing else. Last night I watched the worst 3-on-1 fast break I've ever seen in my life, involving Conley, Tayshaun Prince, and Jamaal Franklin. Simply stopping the play and handing the ball to the Thunder at center-court would have been (1) more to the point and (2) less vomit-inducing. Dave Joerger commented in his postgame presser that the Thunder were able to make backdoor cuts to the basket all night long. The Thunder have some very talented young players—Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson among them—who torched the Grizzlies on defense. Hasheem Thabeet got to play 5 minutes with a stat line of all zeroes. The Grizzlies who are on the floor aren't a cohesive roster that makes sense, and on top of that they're not playing very sharp basketball.
Which is a problem, because it means that (1) they're not going to win any games against elite teams in the West like Oklahoma City in this (hopefully brief) current configuration, and (2) the games are 100% horrible to watch. It's hard to enjoy the little things, like Franklin playing good defense against Kevin Durant, when the Grizzlies are getting clubbed like a baby seal. If the limited roster currently available can't figure out how to play sharper basketball and execute better on both ends of the floor—after all, Wednesday night's game was a 3-point game after the first quarter before the Thunder started making runs the Grizzlies couldn't match—it's going to be a long stretch before the return of Marc Gasol.
In a day that saw the Grizzlies announcing that Quincy Pondexter is "out indefinitely" with a stress fracture and a game in which Tony Allen and Ed Davis both missed yet another game due to lingering issues, the Grizzlies' bench came up big and powered the team to a win over a (pretty terrible) Magic team that refused to go away.
As has been the story in Griz wins since Marc Gasol went down with an MCL sprain two weeks ago, the Grizzlies' bench bigs (in the form of Jon Leuer and Kosta Koufos, who technically isn't a "bench big" anymore since he's starting in place of the injured Gasol) came up big tonight. Leuer played 27 minutes and grabbed another double-double, with 16 and 12. Koufos only shot 3-10 for the game, but ended with 7 points and 11 rebounds—and both of them played great defense on Orlando's Glen "Big Baby" Davis down the stretch.
Zach Randolph got his tonight, too, ending the game with 19 and 12, but early foul trouble meant Randolph was a non-factor for long stretches of the middle of the game.
The Grizzlies have officially announced that guard Quincy Pondexter has been diagnosed with a "tarsal navicular stress fracture in his right foot." The team's statement said that Pondexter is out indefinitely. Other sources, most notably Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, have said that Pondexter will miss the remainder of the season:
Memphis forward Quincy Pondexter is expected to miss the rest of the season with the stress fracture in his foot, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) December 9, 2013
Twitter was buzzing with speculation about the nature of Pondexter's injury after he tweeted this this morning without context:
Wow— Quincy Pondexter (@QuincyPondexter) December 9, 2013
Info surfaced that Pondexter had an MRI today, and it was all downhill from there.
While Pondexter's injury isn't as big of a blow to the injury-ridden Grizzlies as the loss of Marc Gasol, his absence will be felt by a team that was already sorely lacking in production at the wing. With Tony Allen and Ed Davis missing games with injuries, and Zach Randolph still recovering from a toe injury, the Grizzlies have been bitten by the injury bug this season, and hard. What remains to be seen is (1) how this injury will affect the ability of the Griz to tread water until Gasol returns and (2) what the team plans to do, if anything, to shore up those positions.
I've heard confirmation of another Wojnarowski report: that the team is working out free agent guards Reggie Williams, Darius Morris, and Seth Curry this week, in addition to Kendall Marshall, a name I didn't hear confirmed. So it seems like the Griz are likely to make some sort of a small move to shore up the rotation.
The season is only 25% of the way over, so it's too early to make any kind of "there goes the season" proclaimation, but it does feel like the Grizzlies can't catch a break this year, and like things are one or two more bad breaks away from slipping out of their hands. Pondexter had struggled this year, but is a good enough player that he was likely to return to form at some point soon. Now he's missing entirely, and the Grizzlies have yet another hole to fill.
For the first time since 2010, the Golden State Warriors beat the Grizzlies Saturday night, and boy did they beat them. Of course, one can argue how fair the fight was to begin with. Still without Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies were also missing Tony Allen to a hip contusion suffered Tuesday against Phoenix, and missing Ed Davis to a left ankle sprain suffered Thursday against the Clippers. To make matters worse, Quincy Pondexter left at halftime with a "right midfoot sprain," leaving the Grizzlies without two starters and two rotation players—and in Gasol and Allen, missing two of the big reasons they're able to beat the Warriors every time the two teams play.
— It's the same story as the Clippers, and a story that we're going to see over and over again until Marc Gasol returns: without Gasol in the game, the opponent is able to use their biggest, longest defender on Zach Randolph. Thursday it was DeAndre Jordan. Saturday it was Andrew Bogut (instead of David Lee, from whom Z-Bo steals lunch money every time these teams meet at full strength.)
— The lack of Allen and Pondexter meant far too much playing time for a monumentally bad Jerryd Bayless, who has struggled all year outside of the two games against Boston. Bayless was 0-11 from the floor (0-2 from 3) in 25 minutes, with a rebound, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Going to the advanced numbers doesn't make it look any better. Bayless has been off all year—at first because he was being used as the only backup point guard, and now because he can't hit a shot to save his life. One hopes that the poor shooting will improve and get closer to his career averages at some point, but it hasn't happened yet.
— I thought Jamaal Franklin should have played more last night. The Grizzlies were down double digits for most of the second half, and Bayless clearly wasn't getting it done, so why not? If the game is already mostly out of reach—and I get that an NBA game is never really out of reach before the last few minutes, but... the Grizzlies had nine players—and you have a rookie shooting guard who probably won't do any worse than the guy who is shooting 0-11, what's the risk? Why not play Franklin and see what happens?
— Steph Curry didn't hit a shot in the first half, but finished with 22 points. Remember when the Grizzlies drafted Hasheem Thabeet instead of him?
— The injury bug has decimated this Grizzlies team right now. With Gasol out, Allen out, Davis out, Pondexter out, and Z-Bo still struggling with his toe injury, the team is having to play lineups that were never intended to play 25 minutes together for 25 minutes. Against the other teams' starters. I think Calathes/Bayless/Miller/Leuer/Koufos is okay, but probably not against Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin, you know? The Grizzlies have got to get healthy. Like I tweeted last night, it was already going to be a challenge for them to go .500 without Marc Gasol. Losing other players left and right to injuries while Gasol is out makes that seem like Mission: Impossible.
— I'm not sure where I'd put the Grizzlies' playoff odds right now, but sitting 9-10 having already lost to every team in the division at least once, they're certainly a lot worse than most observers thought they would be at any point this season. Remember back in August when the Sports Illustrated NBA preview came out, and they projected the Grizzlies to finish ninth in the West, and Grizzlies fans were surprised by that (this author included)? In hindsight, it doesn't seem as crazy. Without Marc Gasol, this team just isn't as good. The offense without Gasol is mostly ugly (and especially without Gasol and without the Ed Davis P&R sets that were starting to work so well against Phoenix and L.A.) and the defense, especially on the interior, is terrible unless Kosta Koufos is on the floor, and even then, that's only one good interior defender. It's becoming clear that the Grizzlies are going to have to fight for their lives if they want to make the playoffs in this year's West.
Tonight's game marks the third time the Grizzlies have played the Golden State Warriors this season, and the second time the two teams have played in Memphis. Without question, Golden State is a good matchup for the Grizzlies—when the Grizzlies are healthy. The matchup of Andrew Bogut and Marc Gasol at center can be fun to watch, but Gasol has an undeniable edge on Bogut, and Zach Randolph loves nothing more than embarrassing David Lee at every opportunity.
Without Gasol—and potentially without Ed Davis, who sprained his left ankle in Thursday night's loss to the Clippers and at time of this writing was still classified as "day to day" (and aren't we all?)—the matchup changes a little. The Warriors haven't beaten the Grizzlies since 2010, but if Zach Randolph is still a little rusty returning from his toe injury, and Randolph, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer are the only three bigs that the Grizzlies have to work with, even the Warriors' subpar bench bigs (led by the abominable Marreese Speights, having a monumentally bad season) might be enough to make a difference simply because they're not going to have to play so much.
Tony Allen also missed Thursday's Clippers game with a hip contusion he suffered Tuesday against the Suns. If for some reason Allen can't go again tonight (I don't expect him to miss another game) look for the Grizzlies to play Nick Calathes more than usual. Calathes' length made him a tricky defensive matchup for Steph Curry the first time these two teams played (Jerryd Bayless missed that game with a tweaked knee) when the Grizzlies stomped the Warriors using a tightened rotation mainly featuring Koufos, Miller, and Calathes off the bench.
It's still too early in the season to call any game a "must win," but this is an important game. The Warriors, with a record of 11-9, are eight in the Western Conference standings, and the 9-9 Grizzlies are eleventh. These are the sorts of games that add up as the season goes on and the playoff standings start to shake out, and the Grizzlies have to be careful not to give up too much ground while Marc Gasol is still on the mend. In this year's West, .500 is not likely to be good enough to get a team into the playoffs, and the Grizzlies are there right now, treading water. These games at home against an opponent on a road SEGABABA are key games the Grizzlies need to win to keep their heads above water.
The matchups tonight aren't as favorable for the Grizzlies as they usually are, but if the Grizzlies can replicate what they've done to the Warriors in previous encounters—drag the pace down to glacial through defensive execution, creating stops and forcing the Warriors to run halfcourt sets—they should be able to make it a close game, and that's all they need to be able to get the win: to not get down 15 and have to fight back. They've done that a lot this year, and it has rarely worked in their favor.
But either way, we shall see.
The Grizzlies went into tonight gaining Zach Randolph back from missing two games with an ingrown toenail, but they lost Tony Allen, who missed tonight's game with a contusion to his hip suffered during Tuesday night's rout of the Phoenix Suns. Without Allen and without Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies were already starting at a disadvantage to the Clippers.
The lack of Gasol, in particular, immediately creates a match-up problem for the Grizzlies, because DeAndre Jordan can then be used to guard Zach Randolph full time. Jordan's length and his athleticism make him the basketball equivalent of Kryptonite for Z-Bo, because (especially this year with his improvements on the defensive end of the floor) Jordan is able to put a lid over the top of Z-Bo's already floor-bound game and keep him from doing much other than shooting midrange jumpers all night. When Gasol is in the game, Jordan has to guard Gasol, leaving Blake Griffin as Randolph's primary defender, and we all know how that usually goes.
The antidote to that tonight—in the first half, anyway—was Ed Davis. Davis is the Grizzlies' most purely athletic player, and his speed and his smart play in the pick and roll made him able to counteract the "in the mud" nature of Randolph, who was playing with a little more rust and a little less crispness than normal. In seven minutes spread across the first quarter, Davis played well on both ends of the floor...
...and then he went down with a left ankle sprain and didn't come back, leaving Kosta Koufos, 80% of Zach Randolph, and Jon Leuer as the Grizzlies' only big men for about thirty minutes of basketball. Without the element of athleticism and speed to the rim (especially as a roll man) the Grizzlies settled into isolation, midrange basketball for the rest of the game, and it worked about as well as you would expect it to for a team shooting 35%: about as well as a drunk guy can walk up a down escalator.
In the end it was fatigue and this general In-The-Mud-nosity (I should trademark that) that did the Grizzlies in, in part because of the injuries and in part because they just weren't playing alertly once the Clippers were able to start stringing baskets together. The whole thing just kind of collapsed, and then it was 101-81 and the game was over.
— Ed Davis left the game in the second quarter with a sprained left ankle and didn't come back. He's day-to-day with it, and Griz folks told me he'd be coming in for treatment Friday but that's assuming he knows how to drive on the sheet of ice that's supposedly going to be covering everything today. (Side note: two Grizzlies I talked to who wasn't worried about ice? Jon Leuer, who went to Wisconsin, and Kosta Koufos, who came to Memphis from Denver.) The Grizzlies, who looked like they had a loaded frontcourt at the beginning of the season, are now down to two healthy bigs (Koufos and Leuer) and a Zach Randolph who looked to me like he was still struggling with his toe injury a little. One wonders whether picking up a free agent big for the minimum wouldn't be a bad idea just as insurance.
— Nick Calathes struggled against the Clippers, for what I see as two reasons: First, the Clippers' backup point guard is Darren Collison, who is a fairly good defender, but second, the personnel groups he was on the floor with. Calathes struggles when he's not surrounded by fast-moving roll men and shooters, so when he's on the floor with bigs who are waiting for an entry pass instead of setting a pick, he's not quite sure what to do, and dribbles a lot. It's something I assume he'll get better at with practice; the Grizzlies have been moving away from iso-heavy sets as of late (enabled by Davis, who has excelled in the pick and roll in Marc Gasol's absence) and if Calathes wants to succeed at the NBA level he's going to have to figure out how to play with personnel groups that don't necessarily fit his style.
— In hindsight, the Grizzlies are pretty fortunate to have staved off the injury bug having an effect on how well they perform. In 2011, Rudy Gay went down for the rest of the season, but the team still had Randolph, Gasol, Allen, and Conley to rally around, and turning Hasheem Thabeet into a Shane Battier rental meant the Grizzlies essentially replaced Gay with a 3's-and-D small forward perfect for their style of play. In 2012, Zach Randolph went down, and the Grizzlies were able to insert Marreese Speights into the starting lineup, who played surprisingly well in Randolph's absence. Last year was mostly injury-free (except for Randolph's nagging ankle injury from March onward). This year, this is clearly not the case. Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph have all missed games with injuries, and now Ed Davis is banged up. It feels like half the Grizzlies' team is hurt. And, as discussed in my column earlier this week, that doesn't bode well for the Grizzlies' playoff hopes. We'll see. With any luck, Gasol will return sooner than hoped for, but when has luck been on the Grizzlies' side this year?
Well, it wasn't the Tuesday night game against the Phoenix Suns that we were expecting, but it was the one that we got—and what a game it was. The Grizzlies, without Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol for the second straight game, came out and punished the Suns' bigs all night long, with Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos both racking up double doubles (Jon Leuer was only one rebound short) and Davis and Leuer both scoring over 20 points.
It wasn't an end-to-end win, either. The Grizzlies were ahead after one, but found themselves trailing by 8 at halftime after being outscored 35-23 in the second quarter—partially because the Suns started hitting lots of jumpers, but also because the Grizzlies didn't have good defensive lineups on the floor. If they had come out and played a flat third quarter, which they've done on occasion this season, the game would've been over then, except there wouldn't have been any bench players to play in garbage time because they were all playing. Instead, the Grizzlies came out and scored 36 in the third while holding Phoenix to 20, and maintained a lead of their own through the rest of the game.
One obviously wishes for Randolph and Gasol to return to the lineup soon, because the matchups won't always be this favorable, but it was great to see Koufos, Davis, and Leuer—and especially Leuer, who has struggled to get minutes in this frontcourt—come out and play big minutes and play them well. All told, the three of them racked up 58 points, 33 rebounds, and 7 blocks. The inside game also led to a double double for Conley, who had 18 points and 14 assists. Seven Grizzlies players (the starting five of Conley, Allen, Prince, Davis, and Koufos plus Leuer and Bayless) scored in double digits. An all around team win, against a team that was supposed to be terrible but has been playing above .500 so far, while missing two of the team's three best players.
— Ed Davis was great. He was great on offense, where he hit jumpers I wasn't convinced he could hit, and fought and scratched for every rebound, and drew contact as often as he could, eventually breaking out his own variant of the Z-Bo mean mug. He was great on defense, where his athleticism led him to make some plays (and yes, Dave Joerger might have been telling him where to be on defense from the bench, but with Marc Gasol not there, I figure that's OK). It was the game that Ed Davis' supporters have been wanting him to play all along, and yes, it was against Phoenix, but that's exactly the type of game Ed Davis should have against Phoenix.
— Equally great was Jon Leuer. He's known as a stretch big, somebody who can shoot from way out to keep defenses honest, but when given a great deal of run like he was Tuesday night, Leuer proved he can do more than that. He had three or four monster dunks. He blocked shots. He was using post moves and hitting hook shots. He also shot 1-2 from three point range. Leuer was everywhere on both ends of the floor Tuesday night, and as a result he had career highs in scoring and rebounds. I'm not going to say I wasn't surprised by Leuer's big game, but I wasn't shocked. The guy is a good basketball player. The Grizzlies' heavily pick-and-roll oriented sets Tuesday night really opened he and Davis up for scoring opportunities against Phoenix's bigs. Leuer is a capable player, and when Randolph gets back, it's going to go back to being hard for him to find the minutes he deserves, and that sucks, but that's the way basketball is sometimes. Looks like the preseason Jon Leuer might not have been a fluke.
— Tony Allen scored eleven points on eleven shots, which is more efficient that he's been as of late. Several times Tony Allen took a pull up jumper and it went in, something that hasn't happened much in the past, if we're honest. I don't want Allen's newfound offensive prowess to come at the expense of his defense, but if his shooting can stay at this level—that is, passable—maybe he can provide just the tiniest bit of space that the Grizzlies' lumbering bigs (Gasol and Randolph, not Davis and Leuer, who do no lumbering) need to operate. Maybe. Not if he gets carried away with it.
— Ed Malloy was Mr. Technical Foul on Tuesday night. Tony Allen got one for complaining, and then Eric Bledsoe got one for complaining, and then Goran Dragic got one, presumably for saying something to Jerryd Bayless that made Bayless want to fight him. I'm not sure it takes much to make Jerryd Bayless want to fight somebody, though.
— Nick Calathes was terrible, especially against Dragic and Bledsoe. He dribbled out two straight shot clocks looking for a pass that never came, and when he made the pass, it was too low and the bigs had to pick it up off the floor before they could do anything with it. I'm not overly worried about it, though. Calathes is a rookie, and Dragic/Bledsoe is a good frontcourt. Even if it weren't, you have to be okay with a few bad nights for a young guy like that if you want him to develop into the player he can be. So, yes, he was awful. But I don't think it was a referendum on his qualifications for NBA play.
— Quincy Pondexter sat on the bench again, this time for showing up his coach during the Grizzlies' loss to the Nets on Saturday. Pondexter went on a hot streak and then returned to the bench staring down Joerger, who hadn't been playing Pondexter due to his crappy start to the season. Turns out that was a bad idea, and several have said that Pondexter was rebuked for that behavior by coaches and teammates alike, and he sat out Tuesday night's game as a result. Pondexter's a good guy, so with any luck this was just an isolated incident of a guy letting his emotions get away from him. Quincy has had a pretty miserable 2013-14 season so far, from the poor play to the broken nose, and now it's all this. Hopefully things turn around for him, and soon.
I think it's time to have a little chat about the Grizzlies, this season, and expectations. There are four possible outcomes for this season for Grizzlies—four potential ways for the season to end. I'd like to take you through them and then talk about what we're watching and what we're likely to see when it's all said and done for 2013-14.
Outcome #1: The Grizzlies have home court in the playoffs, return to the Western Conference Finals.
To my mind, this is the expectation of most Grizzlies fans going into training camp and preseason, even given the change from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger as head coach and the
shuffling of deck chairs small roster moves made in the offseason. The Grizzlies seemed like a team that was one or two shooters and a less-tired Gasol/Randolph tandem away from making a serious run at an NBA title.
If I'm honest, though, I'm not sure this is ever a reasonable expectation. The Western Conference is even tougher this year than it was last year. There are 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and 15 teams in the West. As of right now, the West has 12 teams at or above .500 (and one more, Minnesota, at .474) and the East has 3. Yes, three. Rudy Gay's Toronto Raptors are currently leading the Atlantic Division, and they have a 6-10 record.
My point is this: when the whole Western Conference is as good as it is, and all of these teams are competing at this high level, every single game counts. Rightly or wrongly—and believe me, I do not want to get into that debate here, regardless of how I feel about it, because it's a done deal—the Grizzlies were coming into this season with a new head coach, and with a new head coach, it's reasonable to expect an adjustment period. "Adjustment period" is a euphemism for "losing games." Losing games means a worse seed, and in this year's West, matching last year's 56-win total was going to be a hard challenge even without changes at the top.
Saturday night at the FedExForum was the first Grizzlies game since the arrival of Zach Randolph in 2009 that neither Randolph or Marc Gasol have played in. It was also an ugly game in which the Grizzlies began at a disadvantage personnel-wise and ended that way, too. Yes, the Nets have injuries, too, but they've been dealing with those injuries much longer—and regardless, the absence of two of the Grizzlies' three best players proved to be too much to overcome.
Randolph was declared out on Saturday as the result of an ingrown toenail that had to be cut out. (My grandfather told me one time that he cut an ingrown toenail out with a pocketknife. I'd like to see Z-Bo try that.) With Gasol out, the loss of Randolph dealt the Grizzlies' whole game—but especially the offense—a crippling blow, and it showed on the court: poor shooting, poor ball movement, a general lack of togetherness and an inability to stop the Nets' recently-returned Brook Lopez, one of the better centers in the league when healthy. The absence of Gasol meant the Grizzlies were essentially helpless against Lopez inside, especially with Ed Davis in a bit of foul trouble.
Overall, it was a pretty miserable game to watch, as the Grizzlies got down big, made it a close game in the third, and proceeded to go down big again. We've seen some games that were ugly because the Grizzlies made them that way, and the ugliness was what was essentially "Grizzlies" about the game—almost an identity thing. This was not one of those games; it was just ugly.
• Quincy Pondexter appeared to have returned from
the dead being sentenced to a lifetime of sitting on the end of the bench, scoring 22 points in 21 minutes. Pondexter was 3-5 from 3. At the end of the third quarter, it looked like Pondexter was staring down coach Dave Joerger, and it was clear while watching that Pondexter was playing with a chip on his shoulder. He got into a little bit of trouble once he'd scored fifteen or so of this points when he then tried to take over the game down the stretch, doing too much. Pondexter is at his most valuable to this team when he plays within himself and doesn't try to take his man off the dribble every time he gets the ball. But it was certainly a welcome sight to see Pondexter contributing again.
• All things considered, the Grizzlies' "bench" (which, for this game, consisted of guys who don't always play) made some good contributions. Ed Davis had 10-8 in his 30 minutes, and Kosta Koufos had 10 points and 11 rebounds in his third Grizzlies start. Koufos' rebounding has been a bright spot of his first stretch of games as a starter. Jon Leuer struggled to space the floor, but both he and Pondexter, who have been sitting a lot lately, were able to make positive contributions. Those guys are going to come in handy again at some point this season, so it's good to see them have the ability to play well when they're called upon.
• Honestly? There's not really a third thing I liked about this game. It was ugly—hard to watch. The Grizzlies were out of sync, moving the ball poorly, struggling to create anything resembling a good look at the basket, and just barely functioning on defense.
• Another game where Tony Allen (1) struggles to shut down his man—in this case, the bigger Joe Johnson, who ended up scoring 26 points on 15 shots—and does a poor job of knowing when to help and when not to help and (2) is tied for most field goal attempts (12). For all of Allen's great cuts to the basket and willingness to attempt a layup in traffic to draw contact, it seems like he's taking a lot of open jumpers this year, and there is a reason he's open for those jumpers. More concerning than the poor shot selection are the struggles on defense. Allen's help defense has been poor since the Spurs series last year, and he continues not to respect spot-up shooters the way he does a "big name" ball-handler. Which is natural, I guess, but it allows the Grizzlies to get torched by spot-up shooters. The gaps in Allen's defense this year are a concerning long-term trend—one that I hope gets reversed as the season rolls on.
• Jerryd Bayless apparently only shoots well against the Boston Celtics. Those are the two "Jerryd Bayless" games so far this year. The rest of the time, he's had stat lines like the one he put up against Brooklyn: 1 for six shooting, one assist, 0 for 3 from long range. The Grizzlies need Bayless to contribute a scoring punch off the bench, and so far he hasn't been able to find that rhythm this season.
• I know this is hard-hitting basketball journalism, but the Grizzlies just aren't that good when you take away two of their top three players. The Griz were already missing Marc Gasol's distribution and playmaking on offense and on defense, they've been missing his presence inside, guarding the lane and telling everyone else where they need to be. Taking away Randolph in addition to Gasol just means their primary post scoring threat is also gone, and so the offense is just as hobbled as the defense. It's not a situation I'd like to see the Grizzlies have to deal with for any significant stretch of time, so with any luck, Saturday night was an aberration.