I'm kind of crunched for time this morning, but I didn't want to let tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs pass without mentioning a few things about it. Herewith, five quick thoughts:
1. Tonight is going to tell us a lot about whether the Grizzlies' bench additions are going to be able to space the floor against the Spurs, who essentially wrote the book on how to dismantle this Grizzlies team during the Western Conference Finals last year. We know, despite his exceptional level of play on the West Coast road trip, that Zach Randolph has struggled with the Spurs since the 2011 playoffs. The Spurs defend Randolph exceptionally well, and caused all kinds of problems for the Grizzlies in the paint during the playoffs last year. It's going to be up to the perimeter players—and new addition Mike Miller—to prevent the Spurs from being able to, you know, put five guys all in the lane when Zach Randolph touches the ball. Miller and Quincy Pondexter have been shooting pretty poorly so far, but if they can make a difference tonight, they'll make it much easier for the Grizzlies' dominating big men to breathe.
2. Mike Conley vs. Tony Parker has the potential to be as much fun to watch as Marc Gasol vs. Tim Duncan, and I think Gasol vs. Duncan is close to the pinnacle of basketball. Conley's play this season has been incredible, and Parker is Tony Parker. With any luck we'll get a good show out of those two tonight.
3. He may not do it tonight, since the Grizzlies are playing the Spurs, but some time soon, Dave Joerger is going to need to add a fourth big to the frontcourt rotation. I said in my Warriors recap that it should be Ed Davis, and the comments were flooded with votes in favor of Jon Leuer. I want to say for the record that I don't think that's a bad idea at all. I think Davis plays better when he's in the game for a longer period of time than 5 to 10 minutes, but I also understand the folks who think he's just... not the guy. I get that. Either way, I'd like to see somebody in addition to Gasol, Randolph, and Kosta Koufos to soak up some minutes. It's a long season.
4. I still like Jerryd Bayless better off the ball. Calathes is going to improve, and playing him against good teams is a way to make that happen. I've broken out the #FreeCalathes hashtag on Twitter before, but ideally, for me, Calathes will be the backup point guard by January or February and Bayless can return to his off-the-ball Bayless 'tude. I like Bayless best when he's fearless, and he's not fearless when he's trying to facilitate.
5. Linkbait: I did a Fraternizing with the Enemy Q&A with my friends over at SB Nation's Spurs blog Pounding the Rock. I felt like it was a good conversation, and PtR does excellent work, so check that out.
The Grizzlies are now 30th out of 30 teams in the league in pace, according to Basketball Reference, and as they've plummeted to the bottom of the league's pace-of-play rankings, they've started to solidify into a cohesive team of grind-it-out intensity and a violent offensive mindset spearheaded by two (or three when Kosta Koufos also gets a double double) of the league's best big men. The Grizzlies everyone (including this author) was worried about are gone, and the old Grizzlies have returned in their place.
The Grizzlies defeated the Steph Curry-less Warriors to overtime last night despite (1) playing their fourth game in six nights, all on the West Coast and (2) the Warriors' starting Andre Igoudala at point guard due to injuries, causing the Grizzlies to struggle mightily with their length on the perimeter for most of the first half. They did so by doing what they do best: forcing the Warriors, one of the most potent offensive teams in the league, into what was probably the slowest game they've played all year, with both teams tied at 75 at the end of regulation.
Tony Allen is going to miss tonight's road game against the Golden State Warriors while he serves his suspension for, y'know, kicking Chris Paul in the face Monday night, but he's not the only key player who'll be missing from action: Stephen Curry will also be out with a concussion which he suffered Monday night against the Jazz.
The absence of Allen means Quincy Pondexter will probably start in his place. Pondexter has struggled on and off all season, but has lately picked up his game a little, maybe because of his awesome black facemask.
Other fun fact about tonight's game: the game Curry is missing due to a head injury is his own bobblehead night at Oracle Arena.
Is that ironic that @StephenCurry30 is missing his own bobble head night because of head trauma???
— David Lee (@Dlee042) November 20, 2013
What're the odds?
At any rate, tonight's game gives the Grizzlies a chance to complete a 4-0 sweep of their West Coast road trip that seemed completely impossible a week ago. Four games in six nights, all of them on the road, including a game against the Clippers on the second game of a back to back? Forget about it. The discussion was about whether they'd go 1-3 on the trip or 2-2. About how if they were lucky, they probably wouldn't lose all four games.
This Grizzlies team has come alive on this trip. I still think their success is masking future issues with the rotation—I think eventually Calathes will be the backup point guard, and eventually Ed Davis is going to have to get some playing time to reduce the load being placed on the frontcourt starters. But for now, this group is playing well, and more importantly, they're playing with purpose. No longer are they wandering around like they're underwater watching the other team move the ball around, feet glued to the floor. They're playing like the Grizzlies, and that has everybody feeling better.
Whatever issues this team is going to have going forward—and I can think of a few: poor offensive play at the small forward spot, Ed Davis' continued need to step up and play better, the fact that Bayless is much better off the ball but is still being used as a backup point guard, et cetera—it appears that motivation is no longer one of them. The decision to buy in to the Joerger Era is no longer one of them. Marc Gasol playing like a hefty Byron Mullens is no longer one of them.
So, win or lose, tonight's Grizzlies game will feature a Grizzlies team that has started playing like a Grizzlies team (including a drop to 27th in the league in pace, of course). And this early in the season, I think that's all anybody really wanted to see.
• I expect the Grizzlies' bigs' dominating play to continue tonight, since the Warriors (as we saw previously when the Grizzlies beat them at FedExForum) don't really have anyone who can guard them. David Lee gets eaten alive by Zach Randolph almost every time the two meet each other, and Marreese Speights defended so poorly the last time these two teams met that Mark Jackson had to play the Corpse Formerly Known As Jermaine O'Neal instead. Look for the Randolph/Gasol/Koufos triumvirate (The Triumvirate is a great band name) to do serious work tonight.
• With Curry out, the Warriors' perimeter threats are going to have to work that much harder: Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala (and Harrison Barnes, too) have their work cut out for them. It'll be interesting to see whether the absence of Tony Allen or the absence of Steph Curry plays a bigger part in tonight's game.
• I'd like to see Nick Calathes get some run against the Warriors again; he played a lot of minutes against them last time because Jerryd Bayless was out. He acquitted himself very well, and I think he's much better as a backup ballhandler than Bayless. Bayless proved last year that he was much more effective off the ball—and that was with Keyon Dooling at the point, not Calathes, who is a much more able (if reckless) passer. "Reckless" can be fixed. The stifling effect that playing at the point has on Bayless' game probably can't. I'd like to see Calathes get some run tonight.
If I'm honest, that wasn't the outcome I expected last night: the Grizzlies went into Los Angeles and defeated the much-hated Clippers pretty much from beginning to end, and they did it without Tony Allen for most of the game. The Grizzlies were able to exploit mismatches against the Clippers' frontcourt as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Kosta Koufos—the only bigs who played any time for the Grizzlies—combined for 59 points and 33 rebounds. It was a solid road win for the Grizzlies, who are now 3-0 on their West Coast road trip, with 4-0 very much in play, as they face the Golden State Warriors again on Wednesday at Oracle Arena. Herewith, some thoughts:
Zach Randolph has been great. In all three games on the road trip so far, both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have put up really good numbers—and Gasol has gotten more engaged and more "Marc Gasol-like" as the trip has gone on—but the star of the show, even when there are other players (Gasol and Conley) contributing just as much to the Grizzlies' success, is Z-Bo. He was in top form again Monday night in Los Angeles, putting up 26-15 (along with 2 blocks and 2 steals). Even though the Clippers began the game doubling him every time he touched the ball, he still put up 13 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter.
When Randolph is playing at this level, the rest of the team can breathe a little easier, and everything goes better. Whether this is just some sort of phase or whether this is really the level Z-Bo is going to be operating at this year remains to be seen, but either way, Randolph's play has been a pleasant surprise so far this year. I'm willing to admit publicly that I wasn't sure he had these kinds of numbers in him on a nightly basis this season.
Marc Gasol looks like he's finally starting to get back in the swing of things, after spending much of the opening weeks of the season walking around in a Eurobasket-and-paella induced coma. Gasol's return to form couldn't have come at a better time for the Grizzlies, as his defense has started to round back into form after an abysmal start that saw him (1) out of position all the time and (2) seemingly not worried about it. At the same time, Gasol has started to be more aggressive on offense—especially when it's clear that he has a mismatch, as was the case last night when he was being guarded by Byron Mullens—and his set shot from the elbow, though it hasn't falling at the rate it did last year, has finally started to look right, and will surely start dropping soon if he keeps taking them.
Grizzlies 97, Kings 86
First things first: yesterday afternoon in Sacramento, the Grizzlies got themselves back to .500 with a road win over the Sacramento Kings on the second game of their four-game West Coast swing. Just like their win over the Lakers on Friday night, it wasn't always pretty, but pretty doesn't show up in a box score, and the win itself is certainly more significant than style points.
Just as Zach Randolph led the way against the Lakers, he did so again against the Kings with 22 points and 10 rebounds, but yesterday's game wasn't just about Z-Bo. Marc Gasol, despite still not looking like he knows where he is all the time, had 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists, and Mike Conley also had 19 points and 9 assists. The play of these three guys goes a long way to smooth over any issues the Grizzlies may be having system-wise. The offense in general was much improved against Sacramento, though; the Grizzlies' ball movement was impeccable, and the crisp and smart passing got them some easy baskets that they weren't getting two weeks ago. That was an encouraging development.
The bench didn't really do much. Mike Miller played almost 21 minutes and didn't attempt a shot, according to the box score. I watched the game and I feel like I remember him taking at least one, but... Mike Miller serves almost no purpose if he's not going to attempt a single field goal. Quincy Pondexter's play has improved, but he's still not playing at the level he's capable of. Kosta Koufos was a bright spot, scoring six and grabbing six rebounds in only 13 minutes of play.
The Grizzlies are in Sacramento to play the Kings this afternoon (the game starts at 5pm Memphis time), hot on the heels of their gutty-but-ugly win over the Lakers in L.A. on Friday night, led by Zach Randolph's commanding 28 point, 11 rebound performance. The Grizzlies need to use that game as a springboard for the rest of this 4-game West Coast swing; 3-1 on the trip means the Grizzlies come back home on Friday to play the Spurs at .500. Standing in their way at the moment is a Sacramento team that, while not very good, poses some interesting challenges.
1. Demarcus Cousins is playing well this year, presumably reinvigorated by the fact that his team now has a real owner and a real commitment from the front office to, you know, actually try to have a good basketball team instead of just try not to lose any money. Normally I wouldn't be worried about Cousins, because although he's an excellent player, Marc Gasol typically plays very good defense against him. This afternoon, the way that Marc Gasol has been playing—against the Lakers, he turned in one of the most listless 18-8-3-3 stat lines I've ever seen, if there can be such a thing—I worry that Cousins is going to be hard to contain. The Grizzlies' interior defense has been pretty terrible thus far, and DMC is not the kind of player against whom you want to have a bad interior defense.
2. Speaking of which, the Grizzlies perimeter defense has to be better, too. Mike Conley and Tony Allen have to do a better job of communicating about which one of them is switching onto which guy, and they both need to do a better job of making sure they're staying home on spot-up shooters as much as they can. The Lakers' shooting guards torched the Grizzlies, both because they were open more than they should have been and because point guards were able to drive into the lane at will and kick it out however they wished. The Grizzlies, let's be honest, barely beat the Lakers. If they're going to build momentum out of this West Coast swing, they need to tighten up and take care of business against the Kings, too.
3. Joerger's rotations still need some time to settle. Against the Lakers, 9 guys played: the starting five, Mike Miller, Jerryd Bayless, Kosta Koufos, and an anonymous masked man (Quincy Pondexter sporting a pretty cool black facemask to go with the broken nose he suffered against Indiana). No Ed Davis, no Nick Calathes, no Jamaal Franklin, and no Jon Leuer. Clearly the Grizzlies' depth is nice, but while he can't play 12 guys major minutes, I do think Joerger is going to have to play Davis (but only with Koufos and Gasol and not with Randolph) and Calathes (as a backup point guard while Bayless plays off the ball) for the Grizzlies to be at their best. Those guys have to develop, and they're not going to do it from the bench. I don't think Bayless is a better point guard than Calathes, even considering turnovers. The rotations are going to have to settle, but something tells me we're going to see another couple of "12 guys playing more than ten minutes" performances this week. I'm not sure that's tenable for the whole year.
Today's game is an important one for the Grizzlies. It's a chance to use the momentum from Friday's win to build more momentum, and a chance to get back to .500 and create a little more of an atmosphere of calmness around this team. With any luck, the defense will tighten up through playing together, and the Grizzlies will deal with the Kings without too much difficulty.
It was a Grizzly final score and a Grizzly stat line for Zach Randolph—28 points and 11 rebounds, 11-18 shooting and a perfect 6-6 from the line—but the Grizzlies' Friday night win over the Lakers in Los Angeles was not a pretty one.
Randolph got on a roll early and kept it going all night, taking over the game in the fourth quarter with the Lakers in the lead and threatening to extend it. The Grizzlies have struggled mightily to be able to absorb the other team's run and stay within striking distance this year, but tonight in L.A. it didn't seem to be as much of an issue. Randolph was huge tonight, no two ways about it, and his stepping up had to have been a calming influence on the rest of the Grizzlies team.
The issues tonight, though, were on full display. The defense is still terrible. Tony Allen, maybe the best perimeter defender in the league last year, has been great on offense but not as great on defense, as communication issues on switches often leave the opposing shooting guard uncovered. Lakers guards Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, and Steve Blake all got plenty of wide open looks at the basket tonight by camping out on the weak side and waiting for Tony Allen or Mike Conley to help off of them.
Allen sometimes struggles with spot-up shooters because he wanders off of them toward the ball handler, as was especially evident during last year's Western Conference Finals when Allen would help off Danny Green time after time. Those struggles seem to have carried over to this year. But I'm not willing to claim that Allen is solely responsible for these lapses. At several times tonight, either Conley or Allen would switch off of his man, expecting the other to switch at the same time, but it wouldn't happen, leaving Meeks, Young, or Blake wide open. It happened too much.
Compounding the issue on the perimeter are the Grizzlies' continued struggles guarding the paint. Marc Gasol continues to stumble around on defense like The Dude, blissfully unaware of what's happening around him. This is bad for guarding the other team's big men, but it's also bad for perimeter defense. I lost count of how many times a Laker guard—usually Blake—was able to drive all the way to the restricted area and kick it out to a wide-open Meeks or Young.
In the end, Zach Randolph, like a whirlwind of mean-mugs and flying elbows, was too much for the Lakers to handle, and he returned to "Vintage Z-Bo" mode, getting the ball on almost every trip down the floor, taking it straight to Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol, scoring seemingly at will, and that was enough to put the Grizzlies back on top and keep them there while the Lakers attempted to mount a comeback.
The rest of this road trip, the next game of which is Sunday evening in Sacramento, is going to be informative: is this who the Grizzlies are this year, having to depend on a vintage Z-Bo takeover, a commodity that is probably harder to come by than Griz fans would like to admit, to score enough points to make up for the abysmal defensive play and the horrible (7.7%) shooting from beyond the arc to get past a bad team on the road, or was tonight just a "circle the wagons" and get back to business win that will start the Grizzlies on the path back up to a .500 record and help them form an identity?
We'll know soon. Out on the West Coast, the team is away from the Memphis echo chamber that's sprung up in the last couple of weeks—where everybody blames a different Griz player for the problem, while some blame Dave Joerger and some blame Jason Levien and Robert Pera for the problems on the court—and they've got a perfect opportunity to come together as a team and start to build a foundation for the season going forward. Will they take advantage of the opportunity, or are they really the team that showed up tonight? It remains to be seen.
The Grizzlies are going away for a while, and hopefully while they're off on the West Coast trying to figure themselves out, they can manage to win a basketball game or two.
Honestly, at this point, sitting 3-5 after getting drilled by the Pacers in Indiana and the Toronto Raptors—returning Rudy Gay and all—at FedExForum on Wednesday night, is better than they deserve to be. There have been a lot of games that haven't been very close, and there have been a lot of people booing the Grizzlies as they wrap up another 3rd quarter trailing by 20 (and, honestly, one can see their point), and a lot of crowds streaming out of FedExForum early because the Grizzlies are down big and not going to mount a comeback. The team, meanwhile, has looked good in one game (the win over Golden State) and bad in every other one, whether it's the starting five wandering around listlessly, out of position, bricking jumpers, or it's the all-bench lineups we've seen a little too much of, running down the court and passing the ball to a season ticket holder in the third row. They toughed out an overtime win over the Detroit Pistons, they managed to beat the Boston Celtics after trailing, and they came out, played an 8-man playoff rotation, and put the screws to the Golden State Warriors, who were on a SEGABABA and who are also just plain old bad at beating the Grizzlies because of matchups.
That's a really long paragraph that actually doesn't say much. Truth is, I have no idea why the Grizzlies are playing so poorly, and neither does anyone else, not really. Sure, you can point to specific things—turnovers—and specific players—Marc Gasol—and you can say it's the fault of the coach—and he's certainly not blameless—or the fault of the front office, who messed with the formula for the Grizzlies' success by replacing Lionel Hollins with Dave Joerger. But not of those, in isolation, is the problem.
And so here we are. Watching a 3-5 basketball team that can't hang on to the ball and doesn't look much like they care, with a coach who thinks he can play a 12-man rotation, in a town full of people who just want to know why it can't be the way it was.
Don't ask me to explain what happened Wednesday night at FedExForum, because I don't think I can, not really. The Grizzlies got beaten—badly—by the Toronto Raptors at home, and they did so without putting up much of a fight in the final frame. In so doing, they managed to fall to 3-5 on the year the night before they load up and head out West for a four-game-in-six-night road trip that sees them taking on the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Warriors before returning home to play the Spurs (again) a week from Friday.
This has the potential to go very badly.
Rudy Gay came back for the first time since the trade that sent him northward last January, and even though he was booed by about 35% of the people in the building when the Raptors' starting lineup was announced—which I thought was in pretty poor taste, if I'm honest, even though I guess I understand the motivations behind it—and then he and his Toronto Raptors, who I'd like to point out aren't a very good basketball team once you get past their starting five, and who are typically an incredibly poor jump-shooting team, proceeded to kick the crap out of the Grizzlies for 48 minutes.
The Grizzlies tied the game at 70 in the third quarter on a brilliant run of steals and transition baskets, mostly sparked by Mike Conley (also known as "The Only Grizzly Who Is Playing Well"), but over the last 20 or so minutes, the Grizzlies again got outscored 33-17 and the whole thing went up in flames.
After the game, Dave Joerger didn't say anything that made me feel especially hopeful, and none of the players sounded like they had any clue why they'd just gone out and gotten housed by Tyler Hansbrough and company. And it made me want to, you know, rend my garments and rub ashes on myself Old Testament style.
It's not time to panic yet, but it's creeping in around the edges, the signs and signifiers of what we're all hoping isn't a lost season. I'll have more on this, to be certain, once I'm not completely slammed. But, for now, just try to carry on about your everyday business and keep the howling fantods of lottery picks and empty FedExForums and burning John Hollinger effigies in the streets at the periphery.
The Real Lineup Problem
I'll just put it bluntly: the Grizzlies cannot survive this season if they start playing a short, eight-man playoff rotation in November. That approach may win them games in November, but it (1) won't win them games through the winter when guys start getting fatigued and it (2) will render the starters—three of whom are in their 30's—so worn down by the wear-and-tear of fighting through the regular season at 36 to 40 minutes a night that they can't keep playing at the same high level through the playoffs.
So, part of the Grizzlies' issues are related to rotations—Mike Miller is playing far too many minutes, and Ed Davis and Quincy Pondexter are playing so poorly that they've had their minutes limited, and while Nick Calathes has played well at backup point guard in the absence of Jerryd Bayless, who is clearly much more comfortable off the ball than he is at the backup spot, Bayless' scoring punch off the bench (when his shot is falling) has been sorely missed as well. But to insist that the shortened rotation is the one that Dave Joerger needs to go with is to miss the point of having a deeper bench: to prevent the starters from being worn out by the time the playoffs roll around.
The other issue is that the Grizzlies' starters haven't been good. Or, more precisely, Tayshaun Prince's game has been limited by the illness he suffered during the preseason that kept him from practicing and playing, and Marc Gasol has looked halfway interested in the Grizzlies' losses, while Zach Randolph has played well on offense and mostly gotten abused on defense and Tony Allen keeps on Tony Allen'ing. The starting lineup just isn't working right now, for whatever reason. The starters + Koufos, Calathes, and Miller rotation that beat Golden State by so many points is just not going to be tenable over the course of the season.
So Joerger has lineup problems, but they're not the lineup problems that Twitter is worried about. The problem with the lineups so far has been that the players in them are mostly not playing well.
Not much went well for the Grizzlies, who fell to 3-4 Monday night on the road against the still-undefeated Indiana Pacers. The Pacers, after coming up one game short of the NBA Finals last year, are on a mission to win home court advantage this year, and they've gotten off to a white-hot start, and at this point they're the only team left in the league that has yet to lose.
The Grizzlies got off to a slow start, trailing 23-16 after the first quarter, and they never really got back into it from there. They only outscored the Pacers in the 4th quarter, and that was only by one point. Really, nothing went according to plan for the Grizzlies.
• Injuries came into play tonight: Jerryd Bayless did not dress for the second straight game after injuring his knee against the New Orleans Pelicans. Quincy Pondexter left the game after taking a nasty elbow from, well, Ed Davis, and X-rays on his face later revealed that he had a broken nose. It remains to be seen how much time Pondexter will miss, if any—Pondexter seemed to be back in the rotation after only playing limited minutes against the Warriors on Saturday night.
• The Pacers, honestly, are a better version of the Grizzlies. Roy Hibbert is in the top tier of NBA centers, and the Pacers have much more talent on the wings than the Grizzlies do at this point, especially offensively. George Hill gave Mike Conley all kinds of problems tonight, but what really killed the Grizzlies was the play of Lance Stephenson, who notched his first NBA triple-double, and Paul George. Until the Grizzlies are able to supplement their inside play and stifling defense with more offensive firepower—time will tell whether the addition of Mike Miller was enough to improve spacing for this year's Grizzlies, but early signs point to "ehhhh"—they're going to look like a scrappier, underdog version of this Pacers team.
• The interior defense problems popped back up tonight, with the Pacers' guards and forwards able to slash through the heart of the Grizzlies' defense at will. At least twice, Paul George drove straight through a crowd of four Grizzlies players to get a layup. That's just not going to cut it. Sure, the Pacers are good, but the Grizzlies have to tighten that up.
• I'm still not panicking. I think we are starting to see what's worth worrying about, though. Joerger beat a good team by shortening the rotation and then went right back to "play everybody" mode tonight in Indiana, except for Jon Leuer, even though Leuer had been playing really well. I don't understand how it takes this long to see that the all-bench-players lineups aren't able to do anything productive and that there's no shame in always having a starter on the floor. Just because the team can go 12 deep doesn't mean that (1) that has to happen every night and (2) you need to just sub the whole team out hockey-style. It's early, but the shorter rotation worked wonders on Saturday night.
• Ed Davis, on the whole, was more good than bad against a very good team. In 17 minutes he had 5 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and while he had his moments—trying to dunk on Roy Hibbert was a bad decision—I thought he handled himself pretty well. Mild praise, I know, but Davis seems to be becoming a bit of a punching bag among Griz fans (Grizz fans? I know we're having a "One Z or Two" debate in the Grizzlies universe right now...) and I want to point out that he wasn't bad against Indiana.
That's all I got. The Grizzlies lost on the road to a better team that was executing much better and looked much more confident in their identity. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Pacers in the Finals. I'm glad that's the only place in the playoffs the Grizzlies could possibly have to play them.
UPDATE: The original version of this post mentioned Danny Granger in the Pacers' wing rotation like he'd played tonight... which didn't happen. Granger hasn't played a game yet this season. To be honest, I don't remember who I was thinking about when I typed "Danny Granger" instead, or whether I was thinking about this Granger update, so I just deleted that sentence. Blogging is a tough business, y'all. That said, whenever they do get Granger back, the Pacers are going to be even better.
6:10pm, Pregame Down in the bowels of FedExForum eating chicken tenders and fries that I assume were leftovers from the Tigers game the night before, calculating how much barbecue sauce would make the startlingly pale fries taste OK, the mood was one of muted anxiety. The conversations ran along lines of "what happens if they don't get it together?" and "how bad will it get over the next couple of weeks if the Warriors win by 25?" and even the most optimistic observers couched everything with "If they do _____" or "If they can only get it together." The sixth game of the season, and already a fanbase on the edge, and a growing sense among the media that this particular team, this front office, is perfectly willing to blow the whole thing up if they continue to flounder into December, into January.
Peter Edmiston had us go around the table and make predictions, winner and point spread. Warriors by 18, Warriors by single digits, Grizzlies by 5, Warriors by 10. The conversation was quiet, a little apprehensive. Even the folks with nothing at stake knew the game was important as a statement, as a correction, a return to the mean.
12:00, 1Q The Grizzlies win the tip, and Zach Randolph scores a bucket isolated on David Lee. Randolph seems to have a list of players he keeps in his head (or maybe in his locker) and whenever he comes up against a player on his list, it's like he makes it a point to embarrass that player. Blake Griffin. Kevin Love. Kendrick Perkins (although usually Marc Gasol seems to handle that). David Lee is on the list, and Lee would have his hands full with Randolph for the whole game.
I think you’re probably as tired of reading “What’s Wrong With The Grizzlies?” pieces as I am of writing them, and we’re only five games into the season. So I’m not going to write another one of those, because I’ve done it twice now.
The more irrational members of the Grizzlies' fanbase are in full-on panic mode, and though I don't really subscribe to that ethic, it's easy to understand what's motivating some of the panic. This is a team that started 12-2 last year (even though they went on to play exactly .500 through December and January after the hot start), that blew up opposing teams with defense and effort and barely scoring enough points to beat the other guys, and that made the Western Conference Finals thanks to a combination of intensity and toughness and Kendrick Perkins' all-around awfulness.
The Grizzlies, at their current level of play, are 2-3 right now. The Warriors come into town 4-2, fresh off a loss last night in San Antonio. The wins have come over the Lakers, the Kings, the 76ers, and the Timberwolves, and the losses have come on the road against the Clippers and the aforementioned Spurs. Historically (as in, over the last two or three seasons), the Grizzlies have had the Warriors' number, but these circumstances would appear to be a little different.
If the Grizzlies can come out tonight and play the style of defense for which they've become known around the league—anchored by Marc Gasol's brilliance and Tony Allen executing his role as the Lord of Basketball Chaos—they should be able to at least slow down the scoring attack of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Golden State's addition of Andre Igoudala (who I wanted to trade Rudy Gay for for a long time) gives them help on the defensive end that can occasionally get hot from three himself. Andrew Bogut is healthy for the first time I can remember, and is playing very well. Somehow, the ghost of Jermaine O'Neal is also on this team, presumably because the Warriors offered more money than the Crypt Keeper. They're a good team, a team that historically has struggled on defense whose defensive rating—93.6 points allowed per 100 possessions—is good for 2nd in the league at the moment.
It's going to go one of two ways:
Scenario One: The Grizzlies, embarrassed by being booed off the court Wednesday and bolstered by two days of good practice and home cooking and finally snapped out of whatever torpor they've been in since the Raptors preseason game, come out and play their brand of defense and stop taking stupid 20-foot jumpers on offense. Mike Miller does not play 25 minutes and thus does not negatively impact the defense by being played too much. Z-Bo is so happy about Zach Jr., who was born during Wednesday's Pelicans game, that be clobbers David Lee so badly that Lee immediately retires from basketball, scoring 40 points in the process.
Scenario Two: The Grizzlies come out and play crappy defense again. Marc Gasol wanders around the lane, not defending well and not facilitating on offense in a smart way. Mike Miller plays 30 minutes and Andre Igoudala schools him on both ends of the floor. The poor offensive play allows Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to get out in transition early and often, and the Grizzlies get run out of their own building, losing by 40 points.
Those are exaggerated, of course—Lee might wait a week before retiring—but you catch my drift. If we see "the old Grizzlies" tonight, the Griz are going to make a big step towards getting back on track sooner rather than later, and the fans who think the whole thing is doomed will probably start to calm down. If we see the team that we've seen in the last five games, and, importantly, if some of those lineups stay the same, playing every guy on the roster except the racing-to-the-hospital Z-Bo ten minutes or more, the Warriors are going to win, and then the Grizzlies go into a road game in Indiana Monday 2-4, probably return home to play Rudy Gay and the improved Raptors on Wednesday and either come back to 3-4 or fall to 2-5, and then...
...they head off on the dreaded November West Coast Road Trip of Death that always seems to put the Grizzlies in a hole to start every season. If the Grizzlies can't get it together tonight—and, hoenstly, one game is a pretty quick turnaround and I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect them to fix everything in two days' time—it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Strap in, folks. Tonight's a big one.
Instead of trying to craft a narrative about how it’s either (a.) time to panic or (b.) not time to panic, I’m going to list all of the things that went horribly wrong for the Grizzlies in their 99–84 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. The Grizzlies came out and played such a flat, uninspired 35-or-so minutes of basketball that it’s hard for me to imagine a way to convey it on the page. Those of you who were in attendance—and, don’t forget, many in attendance started booing when the Griz were down 22 points at the end of the third quarter, and rightfully so—will understand.
Marc Gasol was a complete, total disaster tonight. In 30 minutes of play, he managed to secure 1 rebound, and that’s not even the worst thing he did. On multiple occasions, Gasol was one-on-one against Greg Stiemsma—GREG STIEMSMA—within seven feet of the basket, did a move to get by him, which is easy because IT’S GREG FREAKING STIEMSMA and he’s Marc Gasol, and once he was by his man and completely unguarded three feet from the basket, he… froze, and passed it back out to somebody on the perimeter. One time such a pass landed in the hands of Tony Allen, who was wide open from three, who promptly fired one, which (as is typical) missed and was rebounded by the Pelicans.
I don’t know what’s wrong with Gasol, but he looked like he’d rather be back in Eurobasket tonight than competing in an NBA game. He wasn’t making good decisions on offense—which is very unusual for him—and he wasn’t playing well on defense at all, whether it was against Anthony Davis, which is understandable, or against Greg Stiemsma, which is roughly equivalent to guarding a cardboard cutout of my dad.  If Gasol doesn’t get his head right, and it hasn’t really been right yet this season, the Grizzlies are going to get worse before they get better. No two ways about it.
The Grizzlies look to maintain their undefeated record at home tonight when the newly-christened New Orleans Pelicans (née Hornets) come to town tonight for what is already the third divisional game the Grizzlies have played in the young season so far. The Pelicans come into town 1–3, with losses to the Pacers, Magic, and Suns, and a win in New Orleans over the Bobcats.
World-beaters they aren’t, but the Pelicans do have one weapon which could prove effective against the Grizzlies’ porous interior defense: Mr. Unibrow himself, Anthony Davis. In his second year in the league, Davis is so far averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds a game, and his length and athleticism around the rim make him a force to be reckoned with even given his relative lack of experience. The Grizzlies have struggled to stop guards from penetrating the paint so far this year, and they’ve also let opposing bigs do more damage than is usual for a Memphis Grizzlies defense. If they’re not focused on containing Davis—and all the while keeping the Pelicans’ guards away from the rim, because, after all, this is a team that features Jrue Holiday (acquired from Philadelphia in a draft-day trade for Nerlens Noel), Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans.
The Pelicans aren’t a great team yet, but they’re making moves in the right direction, trying to build a contending team in a division seemingly full of them. The Grizzlies shouldn’t have much trouble with them, but then, they shouldn’t have had much trouble with the Boston Celtics on Monday night either, and that game was far closer than either team probably expected it to be.
It remains to be seen how long it’s going to take the Grizzlies to get their act together on both ends of the court. Monday night against Boston, it seemed like the whole team was settling. Someone on Twitter—I can’t remember who or I’d just embed the tweet (UPDATE: it was Peter Edmiston)—said that the game resembled a 1/16 matchup in the NCAA tournament, where the top-seeded team didn’t even bother to prepare for the game. That’s how it felt. I won’t say that the Grizzlies weren’t playing hard, but it’s indisputable that their execution wasn’t what it should have been. If it hadn’t been for Jerryd Bayless’ 4th quarter explosion, the game could have ended in a manner that was… much less pleasing to the Griz faithful, a fanbase which already feels a little more panicked than they should be after four games.
I’m going to keep repeating the “It’s early in the season” mantra for a while. I don’t know that anything that happens in October or November is really indicative of the true character of a team. After all, the 76ers are 3–1 and have beaten the Bulls and the Heat. Things aren’t settled yet in the NBA. While every game counts, every game is not the final word in how good or bad a team is, and it’s still early enough that I’m not going to be seriously concerned about the direction in which the Grizzlies are headed until they make it out of what looks to be a tough November schedule.
Speaking of which: the Grizzlies are at home tonight against the Pelicans, they’re at home against Warriors on Saturday, and then five of the six games after that are on the road for the classic Grizzlies Early Season West Coast Road Trip (hey, remember the time Allen Iverson went on one of those and didn’t come back?). After a Monday in Indiana and a Wednesday home game against the Raptors—and the newly eyesight-adjusted Rudy Gay’s first chance to, well, see the Memphis crowd—it’s four games in six days, including facing the Clippers in L.A. on a SEGABABA, which is as tough of a draw as it gets in the Fall 2013 NBA. This week of home games is important for the Grizzlies because they’re going to be pushing a giant boulder up a hill for much of the next two weeks, and establishing their identity in the current home stand would go a long way toward making that less of a death march.
It should be a good game tonight. The Grizzlies and the Pelicornets always seem to play each other well, regardless of how good or bad either team is, and I expect tonight’s game to be no exception, especially given the Grizzlies’ peculiarly inchoate nature at the moment. I just hate that I won’t get another look at Kelly Olynyk’s Mike-Miller-rivaling hair.