Now that most of us have awakened (however slowly) from our food comas, and the Grizzlies have a home game tonight against the Atlanta Hawks, I thought it might be nice to spend some time in reflection. Grizzlies fans have a lot to be thankful for. The team has made the playoffs five years in a row, they've made it to the Conference Finals in that stretch, they're still one of the best teams in the West (though this year I think it's pretty clear that Golden State is the best), they've finally managed to grow—organically, through many repeated years of success and through an uncommon identification between the team and the fans—a fanbase that seems like it will persist for years to come.
But those aren't the things I'm thankful for this year—well, they are, but they're not the ones that made my list. Here are ten Grizzlies things I am thankful for.
#1: I am thankful that Mario Chalmers has improved the team since coming in via trade.
#2: I am thankful that I was able to let go of my long-held grudge against Chalmers for what might still be the most emotionally devastating sports loss I've ever had to sit through, by myself in a hotel room in San Jose, California, wearing a Memphis Tigers sweatshirt around the Bay Area all week before that garnering some strange looks. I may not have let go of the loss, but I have come to realize that Mario Chalmers was supposed to make that shot. He is a basketball player. Can't be mad at that. The Tigers' free throw shooting, though...
#3: Well, that got off track, didn't it. I am thankful for JaMychal Green, who (even though Dave Joerger says he is a small forward) has stepped up as the first big off the bench in ways I don't think anyone imagined. I'm also thankful that I saw him in Kroger on Union Ave. that one time buying wheat bread at 9PM. Wheat bread is good for you.
#4: I am thankful that Jeff Green has finally started to find a role and a rhythm on this team, because having to watch him amble around the court without a clue what is happening around him is pretty exhausting. His defensive awareness is still only marginally higher than that of, say, a stump, or a small woodland mammal, but when he's finding lanes to drive to the basket, getting free throws, and not taking so many horrific pull-up jumpers, Green helps this team. Resentment is toxic. Being free from Jeff Green Rage has been good for us, as a group of people who watch this team.
That said, I'm sure it will be back. When Zach Randolph slots back into the starting lineup, the space in which Green has been able to operate so well as of late will go away, and he'll be back to trying to improvise without anywhere to go. My hope is that he moves back to the second unit when Randolph returns to the first, so that he can continue playing in more pace-oriented groupings. "More pace-oriented" is one of the least direct ways I could think of to say "Gasol/Randolph don't move very quickly".
#5: I am thankful for the time we had with Beno Udrih, as a city. Beno is a guy who gets Memphis. Now we'll see how much of Hog & Hominy's monthly revenue he was responsible for. The Grizzlies may need to offer them some sort of bailout package.
#6: As ever, I am thankful that the Core Four era continues, even as we start to see the cracks emerging around the edges. As the unit that has brought the Grizzlies their first real run of playoff success, they're always going to be legends. As the team starts to transform away from this configuration—and you're kidding yourself if you don't see it happening already—it's going to be easy to say "Get rid of the old guys." And in some sense, that's the appropriate response—the NBA is not (typically) an environment that engenders loyalty to players. Fans cheer for laundry.
But if you're not a little bit wistful about Zach's struggles to keep up on defense, and Tony's out-of-place-ness and commensurate negative net rating—if that doesn't give you a little bit of "Oh man it's finally happening" sadness—I'm not sure I can help you. So I'm glad these guys are still around, even as they start to age. Might as well go on and crown Z-Bo Permanent Mayor of Memphis.
#7: I am thankful for bootleg T-shirts. Come playoff time (assuming the Grizzlies are in it, which seems like a safe bet at this point) I think we're going to try to do some Beyond the Arc shirts. They'll probably be weird. It'll be cool.
#8: I am thankful that Jordan Adams hasn't been traded yet. If there's one thing I wish for the Grizzlies franchise, it's that they might finally get their collective act together and start developing younger players. With Adams, that trajectory has been complicated by his lingering knee injury, but the plan—as far as I can tell—is still to let him get on the floor and start figuring out the NBA game. That's something that hasn't happened in a while: a real commitment to developing a young guy. The past is littered with Grizzlies first round picks who are playing better for other teams (or out of the league, Thabeet). Let's not go back there. Adams and Jarell Martin both have a lot of potential, and they need a fair opportunity to develop it. I am thankful that it appears they'll get that chance. (Watch them both get traded tomorrow now that I've said that.)
#9: I am thankful that Marc Gasol re-signed with the Grizzlies. There didn't really seem to be a backup plan beyond "throw money at Kosta Koufos" (which, let's be honest, not a bad backup plan), but more importantly, it keeps a guy who loves this city as much as the rest of us around for the next five years, and gives the Grizzlies time to develop the organization around him so that as he ages and retires, along with Mike Conley, there is a new generation of talent there ready to step up. That's what it really means to be "like the Spurs": to avoid bottoming out, and have guys ready to step up into bigger roles as soon as players start to fall off. Locking Gasol up for the long term not only keeps one of the best in the game in Memphis for a long time—which is a good thing in and of itself—but means that there's now a five year window to start preparing for the future. One assumes that Conley will be re-signed this summer as well (and I will continue to consider that a fait accompli until proven otherwise), which just makes that window even more of a real thing.
#10: I am thankful that the Grizzlies don't have to play the Warriors again until April. Maybe the Warriors will have actually lost a game by then. Hopefully they'll already have the 72-10 record beaten and will take those games off. Holy moly.
Last night the Grizzlies got a solid win against a Mavericks team that has been playing really well to start the season. The final margin of victory was good enough, but there were points in the night when the Griz were up by as much as 25 before Dallas clawed their way back into the game—and they always seem to claw their way back into the game. It was a great win for the Grizzlies, and several guys had standout performances—seven Grizzlies scored in double figures. Here are Ten Thoughts from last night's win:
★ In the absence of Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies rolled with a starting lineup of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green, and Marc Gasol. Not the player named Green I would expect to see in that situation, but it worked, and was Barnes' first start. Without Randolph on the floor, head coach Dave Joerger has been experimenting all season long with different lineups and looks, most of which involve Jeff Green and/or JaMychal Green and the "four out" kinds of sets that today's space-loving NBA is using more and more often. One wonders what kind of effect Z-Bo's return will have on these experiments; after a similar stretch of injury time last season, Randolph returned and played his best basketball since his 2012 knee injury. Something to keep an eye on, for sure.
★ Jeff Green had a good night, for the most part. His defense is still questionable, but Green was 8 of 14 from the field (including a three that was so spot-on it barely moved the net) and had a couple of highlight-reel dunks. What was noticeable about Green, though, was the freedom he had to operate without Randolph on the floor. It seemed like he and his fellow Green JaMychal both ended up with more dunks than usual—dunks that weren't in transition, but were a result of a guy being wide open underneath the basket. Something to keep an eye on, because those kinds of easy baskets have been hard to come by in seasons past.
★ Vince Carter continues to get minutes, and do fairly well with them. Last night Carter had 3 points in 11 minutes, but he also played excellent defense against Dirk Nowitzki, and kept the ball moving. Carter played a better game than Courtney Lee, who has struggled off the bench (just like he's always struggled off the bench) and ended last night 0-5 from the field in almost 18 minutes.
★ The Grizzlies are looking much better at a time when that really matters. The Griz have a very tough schedule early, and are playing a lot of division games right now when they and everyone else are still mostly finding their sea legs for the season (except the Warriors, but the Warriors are basically from a different planet at this point). The win over Houston, the win over Dallas—sure, the Spurs game happened, but who wants to talk about that?—and they're only a game back of the #3 seed in the West already. Getting things together quickly was the best thing that could've happened to this team. Now, tonight, they face Houston again with a chance to put even more distances between themselves and the Rockets in the standings. It's good for the Grizzlies to start establishing some buffer space between themselves and the rest of the Southwest now, because the schedule only gets easier for them over the next couple of months. They needed to right the ship quickly after the bad start to the year, and to their credit, they did.
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The jerseys looked good—really good. After the game Marc Gasol said it was weird to look up and see guys he knew wearing red, but the dislocation and temporary confusion of wearing Memphis Sounds ABA throwback jerseys was well worth it, because they were spectacular. Zach Randolph looked like he was born to wear one.
Alas, even with all of the (deserved) fanfare around the first Memphis Sounds Hardwood Classics night of the season, there was a basketball game happening, and that's what deserves out attention. Some scattered thoughts from last night's 122-114 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder:
★ First things first: Mario Chalmers. Off the bench last night against the Thunder, Chalmers had 29 points on 6 of 13 shooting and got to the line for 15 free throws. He was 4 of 7 from three. A 46%/57%/86% shooting split? From someone on the Grizzlies roster? I didn't think that was allowed. Either way, Chalmers continued doing what he's done since joining the team on Friday: making the plays that are available to him, playing hard on defense, doing what he can do to make the team better without having practiced with them.
Let's be clear about this: Chalmers will regress. There will be nights where he makes 1 of 7 instead of 4 of 7, or where he's pushing too hard and makes mistakes. Even though that's the case, the Grizzlies still made the right decision in trading for him. His defense of ballhandlers—he did a great job against Westbrook last night, or, well, as good of a job as one can do against Westbrook—is just as tenacious as anyone else on the roster. Chalmers is a definite upgrade. Playing him with Conley only makes that more the case, freeing Conley up to defend someone else, and letting him play off the ball some as well on offense.
★ Speaking of Mike Conley, Conley should just wear a Sounds jersey all the time. The +/- numbers don't really bear that out, because Conley was -4 on the night even though he scored 22 points, but he looked better last night than he has all year, hitting 4 of his 5 threes, making the right plays at the right time, just generally doing the Mike Conley Things he hasn't done this year until recently.
★ Z-Bo got a double double and wasn't on the floor in crunch time. Joerger went with JaMychal Green down the stretch of last night's game, and was justified in doing so—Green's defense was excellent, he hit a 3 at one point, and made life harder on the Thunder in general. Green's emergence as Second Unit Garbage Man is one thing, but his emergence as Crunch Time Power Forward is another. Worth paying attention to. One wonders how many times Randolph will actually be OK with sitting there while someone else brings home a close game.
★ Jeff Green had a good game... on offense. The Other Green (maybe we start calling him The Second Best Green after the last two games) had 20 points for the second game in a row, shooting 5 of 13 from the floor but getting to the line for 8 free throws and making all of them. This is exactly the kind of play the Grizzlies need from Green. He looks much more comfortable on the floor in the rotations he's had lately, in a rhythm offensively, mostly making good decisions about when to attack and when to pull up (the answer is almost never "pull up"). Like Conley, Green's big game came along with a negative +/- (Green's was -1) so I feel like there might be something I'm missing in the game film, but either way, it's good to be pleasantly surprised by Green's emergence as a contributor. Much preferable to having to find a new way to write him off every recap after another terrible performance. He can keep it up, too, if he keeps making smart decisions.
★ Russell Westbrook is a thing. He scored 40 points last night and pretty much singlehandedly kept the Thunder in the game in the absence of Kevin Durant. Y'know. Same deal as always. But his passing seems to have improved this year, and so now he's even more dangerous. Doesn't seem possible. Now the Grizzlies have a player who beat the Thunder in an NBA Finals, though, so maybe Mario Chalmers will function as some sort of Thunder Kryptonite.
★ The Grizzlies continue to get out-rebounded. Last night it was 44-34. The slippage of the Grizzlies' rebound rates is worth watching this year, because that's something they've always been good at, especially with Zach "20-10" Randolph on the floor. Not the case this year, though, and along with the early season problems with offense and defense (that was a weird way to phrase that) it seems to signal some sort of decline or shift. It's certainly possible to win games while getting out-rebounded—the Griz have done it more than once this season—but it's clearly not the preferred way to go.
★ One thing I learned last night: there was a Memphis Sounds player named George "Dirty Dingus" Carter. I looked it up: he is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. What a world.
★ The West is weird this year. Houston lost again last night, and it's starting to look like the split between first tier and second tier teams is a wider gap than previously thought. I'd put the Grizzlies pretty firmly in the second tier at this point, as they continue to work through these issues they've faced since the start of the season, but that second group is still pretty tightly grouped in the standings at the moment. Three teams are .500 (Utah, Denver, and Memphis) and the Warriors and Spurs are really the only two teams who have separated themselves from the 3-10 cluster of teams. Some teams will fall out of that group, and right now it seems unlikely that Portland, the Lakers, or New Orleans will climb back up into it, but it's going to be a close race to get to the 44 or 45 wins necessary to get into the playoffs this year. The Unstoppable West mostly seems to just be parity at this point.
At a couple of points late in the game last night, I thought Zach Randolph was about to punch Steven Adams in the face (again). Adams always frustrates Randolph, but last night it seemed to be approaching some sort of boiling point. Earlier in the game, though, Randolph did this to him, which is just as good:
Three days (!) of rest, which will allow Mario Chalmers to actually practice with the team—though I guess it remains to be seen whether that will help or hurt his explosive play so far—followed by a back-to-back of a home game against the flailing Rockets on Friday and a road game at the Spurs on Saturday evening.
Dear Haters, pic.twitter.com/NJQcm4oxPW— Chris Towers (@CTowersCBS) November 17, 2015
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On a night when there were things going on in the world—or in Paris, specifically—that made it feel a little ridiculous to be worried about the outcome of a professional sporting event, the Grizzlies finally played well enough in front of their home crowd for Friday night's game against the Portland Trail Blazers to be what an NBA game is supposed to be: entertainment, an escape, a time to have fun together watching men compete, watching them play.
Before Friday night, the 2015-16 Grizzlies season has been marked by a distinct lack of joy, a sense of pressure and worry and a desperate need to improve. During the game and after—after Zach Randolph tipped in his own miss with .6 seconds on the clock to steal back a win the Griz tried valiantly to give to Portland in the last four minutes—the Grizzlies played loose, with energy, and they looked like themselves.
I don't really have organized thoughts on this game (funny how the last time that happened was also a Portland game) but I did find things to celebrate and things to criticize:
★ Mario Chalmers came to play. After the game, Chalmers would admit that he was a little worried about how he'd be received, and whether he'd be booed for his Memphis/Kansas heroics, but he got a warm welcome from the crowd and then went out and made stuff happen in his 19 minutes. Joerger said postgame that he ended up playing Chalmers ten minutes longer than he'd planned on because he was doing so well.
It was clear that in absence of any knowledge of the schemes the Grizzlies use on offense and defense, Chalmers was just making up for it by playing as hard as he possibly could. That worked in his favor. He made a three, got some layups, played very good defense, had 2 assists and probably would've had more than that if some shots had fallen for other guys. Heat fans seem convinced that Chalmers is a frustrating player at times, so we'll see, but last night was a good start, and has the potential to be a massive upgrade. The team just moved more fluidly when he was on the floor last night.
★ Marc Gasol doesn't look right and still scored 31 points. The Blazers couldn't stop Gasol last night, as he determined he needed to score, and Scoring Marc showed up—even nailing a wide-open three in the waning minutes of the third quarter. It was a flash of last year's aggression from Gasol, something that's been sorely missed so far this year, and it was good to see.
★ JaMychal Green's hustle knows no bounds. Green was everywhere last night, and though he didn't have the most impressive stat line—6 points and 4 rebounds in 18 minutes—he was everywhere on offense and defense, and you could tell his strategy was just to outwork everyone on the other team. It works well for him, and in the absence of Brandan Wright (and I heard some rumbles that his knee might be bothering him for a while last night, but nothing I could verify) the team needs its bench bigs to play with that kind of tenacity. Green could probably play even more minutes than that in these sorts of games. He's starting to fit in.
★ Jeff Green had a pretty good night. It does happen from time to time. Green's 14 points even though he shot 4-10 from the field are indicative of how aggressive he was in trying to get to the rim. He had steals at important moments last night, too, showing a defensive awareness that he sometimes (OK, usually) lacks but that makes his game much more effective. I'm not sure what Jeff Green's future in Memphis is, but every game he plays is not a referendum on it; last night he did well.
★ The Grizzlies were bad down the stretch and lucky they won. After building up a double-digit lead, and swapping JaMychal Green in for Zach Randolph when it looked like the 3-point line needed to be covered, the Grizzlies' offense stagnated down the stretch in the worst way. Maybe it was Tony Allen and Jeff Green at the wings, maybe Marc Gasol was tired (Gasol played 40 minutes; no one else played more than 33), or maybe Portland just realized the game was still within reach. Whatever it was, the Grizzlies very nearly lost this game when Zach Randolph didn't close out Al-Farouq Aminu and he drilled a 3-pointer right in Randolph's face to put Portland up 1 with 12.5 seconds left.
After that, Courtney Lee bricked a 3-pointer but Randolph got the rebound, got blocked by Allen Crabbe, got his own Z-bound and laid it in with .6 seconds left on the clock. It was a great play, and exactly what you want from Zach Randolph, putting the team on his back and fighting through three guys to win the game, but a comfortable 10-point win would've been easier on everyone, crowd blood pressure included. A win is a win, but the Griz still have a lot of things to tighten up with this roster and with this team. The season is young. If Chalmers can play like that more often than not, this team is already looking better, but there is still growth and improvement ahead.
PS: I know I have readers in France because I talk to them on Twitter from time to time; I hope you all are safe and my thoughts are with you this weekend. Prayers up, as they say.
It's counter-intuitive to say that a 16-point loss, the Grizzlies' fourth in a row, was encouraging. And yet, given the way things went the last time the Grizzlies played the Golden State Warriors—the worst loss in franchise history—it's not crazy to say that Wednesday's 100-84 home loss to the best team in the league (and maybe one of the best teams in league history, given the way they've started the season) wasn't all bad news for the struggling Grizzlies.
The first and most obvious thing is the defense: it was recognizable last night. Even with Russ Smith thrown into the mix as the backup point guard having to try and stop Steph Curry (which, as he found out, is less possible that it sounds) and newly-acquired Mario Chalmers and James Ennis behind the bench in suits, the Griz gave the Warriors their best shot on Wednesday night, very nearly held them under 100 points, held Curry to 3 of 10 from long range, and... lost by 16 at home.
All is not right with the Grizzlies, still. But at least last night showed that Monday night's performance—in which they hung tough with the Clippers most of the night despite having no offense—wasn't a fluke, that what looked like serious effort issues to start the season were (hopefully) temporary. Some points of discussion:
➭ Mike Conley is still not right. After not making a shot in the first half, Conley's third quarter was much improved, but that's like saying "At least my Pinto has a radio." It's still fundamentally not where the Grizzlies need Conley to be if they're going to make the playoffs this year, much less be any good.
Not only is Conley struggling to get his own offense going; he also looks tentative, like he's afraid of getting into the lane and drawing contact, something he's never had an issue with before. I think there are probably two reasons for this, both fairly obvious:
If Conley has changed the way he plays, the team needs to adapt with him, or it's going to be a long, bad contract year for him.
➭ Matt Hrdlicka and others were talking about this last night and during the Clippers game, so I cant take credit for the observation, but Marc Gasol can't bend his knees well. This is a new and bothersome variation on the "Marc Gasol is not in game shape" meme we've all been talking about since the season began, but Gasol's limited movement, poor conditioning, and now his lingering neck issues have combined to make him much less effective than his norm, to say nothing of the Super Gasol we saw in the first half of last season.
I'm not really worried about this as a season-long thing; as long as he listens to his body and doesn't try to force anything—something Gasol is reticent to do as someone who wants to play every game—he'll be fine. The team told him to take the summer off. He apparently took it really off. Like Conley, this may take a while to work itself out.
➭ JaMychal Green had another good game as an energy/garbage guy: he scored 9 points on 3 of 4 shooting, grabbed 9 rebounds, blocked a couple shots and got a steal. I haven't figured out yet why Green's performances—in which he looks like a really nice hustle-based bench big—result in such poor single game +/- numbers and bad net ratings, too, but on the surface, anyway, Green is playing hard and (maybe this is a little too honest) making me question how much the Grizzlies really need Brandan Wright.
➭ Speaking of the bench, here was a lineup that did really well in the third quarter: Russ Smith, Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes, JaMychal Green, Zach Randolph. I've become a fan of these Z-Bo-as-bench-center units this season, and I think that's where he's headed long term as his career winds down, but even this season he just fits as the 5 in that lineup. The Lee/Barnes wing combo is a new look, like a Lee/Jeff Green combo that can actually defend and knows where to stand, JaMychal Green just floats around and shows up out of nowhere for rebounds and putbacks (and the occasional corner 3, which he hasn't attempted in a while), and Russ Smith only knows how to play basketball at Ludicrous Speed. It's a fun group. There's potential there, so don't be surprised if you see some variant of that 5-man unit logging serious second unit time this season.
➭ Marc Gasol hit a three. Be prepared. Someday soon he's going to start taking them all the time.
This moment of panic from the first half sums up the unadulterated terror of Grizzlies fans while they're playing the Warriors and Golden State is on a run:
MAKE WITH THE BASKETBALL MARC GASOL WE PAID YOU ALL OUR MONEY WE CAN'T EVEN BUY BBQ AND YOU EAT FANCY PAELLA AND DON'T MAKE SHOTS— MeTweet (@MeTweetGrizz) November 12, 2015
Friday night the Grizzlies face the Portland Trail Blazers at home, in what is the first real test of their improvement as of late. They were always going to play harder for the Clippers game because they strongly dislike each other, and the Warriors game was always going to be a double-digit loss, but Portland... Portland's gotten off to a much better start than anyone expected them to this year, and while their offense has been humming, the Grizzlies should be able to pay them back for the loss they suffered in Portland last week if they defense has tightened up.
Plus it'll be our first look at Mario Chalmers and James Ennis (if he plays) in a Grizzlies uniform, so while most of the Forum crowd, myself included, will be having horrible Tigers/Jayhawks flashbacks, it will also be a chance to see whether Chalmers is actually going to be an improvement over Beno Udrih or not. I think the writing was on the wall from preseason that Udrih wasn't going to be the same guy this season (except for his white-hot midrange game), but Chalmers comes to Memphis with a lot of question marks, beyond the obvious "Is some Tiger booster going to slash his tires on a nightly basis?"
If the Grizzles have really gotten it together, at least on defense, the Portland game should show us that.
In a move that has been rumored in one form or another for a week, but which most people seemed to have forgotten about, the Grizzlies have traded Beno Udrih and Memphis' own Jarnell Stokes to the Miami Heat in exchange for tiger killer Mario Chalmers and athletic forward James Ennis. The trade was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:
Yahoo Sources: Miami is finalizing deal to send guard Mario Chalmers and James Ennis to Memphis for Beno Udrih and Jarnell Stokes.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) November 10, 2015
Udrih quickly became a fan favorite here, mostly by genuinely liking the city of Memphis and the fans, and his man-out-of-jail enthusiasm about being released from Mike Woodson's cratering Knicks was hard not to like. But this year, coming off an ankle surgery over the summer that hurt his conditioning, he's been a shoot-first point guard on a bench unit that needs him to find other guys, and he hasn't been shooting well enough for that to make sense as a long-term strategy. Stokes, for his part, was this close to being cut so the Grizzlies could sign Ryan Hollins, and while I still believe he can develop into an NBA rotation player, it won't be here, where there's a crowd in the frontcourt and an organization that doesn't
bother to develop play young guys anyway.
Chalmers brings an increased offensive ability at the backup PG spot, theoretically improved 3-point shooting (at least enough that defenses might pay attention to him, unlikely though that may be), and he can play with Conley and the starters in a much more potent version of the Conley/Udrih and Conley/Calathes backcourts Joerger was fond of last season. Ennis, well, he hasn't played much, but when he does, he's been known to eliminate Rasual Butler from this plane of existence:
Seriously, though, Ennis brings athleticism at the forward spot (stop me if you've heard that before) and he's an intriguing, unpolished player who may or may not turn into something. The scouting reports I've read on him since seeing the original Woj tweet about the trade give me a James "Bloodsport" Johnson vibe, though hopefully without the 100% Insanity that made Johnson unplayable once he decided he was important.
The Grizzlies were destined to make a move at some point. This is a minor thing that could open up a few more offensive options and spread out their abysmal floor spacing. It's not a cure-all for the problems they're having right now, especially defensively, but replacing Udrih is probably a step in the right direction in that regard, as well. With 76 games left, we'll have plenty of time to see if it pays off—and plenty of time for the Grizzlies to continue to try to shift the roster.
Well, the Grizzlies didn't win last night. Usually, with a team that has been through so much for so long, moral victories aren't the kind of thing a fanbase can get excited about—and the Griz aren't out of the woods yet—but at least they made it a close game last night and only lost because of a missed free throw. With 3.5 left and down 3, Marc Gasol made a free throw, missed the second one, and then was fouled while pulling in his own rebound, and got two more free throws and an opportunity to tie.
Alas, it wasn't meant to be, but the Grizzlies showed signs of life last night on the last game of their 5-game-long West Coast road trip, a trip that saw them lose 4 out of the 5 games by 50, 19, and 10 before Monday night's close one.
I'd say that normally one never has to worry about whether the Grizzlies will play hard, but given the lackluster regular season play we've seen from this group since late last season, that's not really true. But last night, against the hated Clippers, they managed to get themselves worked up, and Zach Randolph had an excellent game (26 points on 19 shots, good for 63% from the floor, 9 rebounds, and a lot of those points were in the first quarter) while Mike Conley looked like himself again for the first time all season long. There were signs of progress, signs that maybe not all is lost in the current stretch of coach on the hot seat drama.
➭ For the first time all season, Mike Conley looked alive. After struggling to start the season, last night was the first game that he looked like he was (1) expending maximum effort and (2) was actually able to capitalize on some of the things he's been doing all year that haven't connected. Conley was 6 of 15 for the night, so still not a great shooting performance, but regardless of the final percentages, he looked right (our old friend the Eye Test), and that in itself was reason for hope, because that hasn't been the case yet this season.
➭ If Mike Conley looked alive for the first time this year, Marc Gasol... didn't. Gasol continues to struggle with pretty much every aspect of his game, not moving well, not really defending well, unable to connect on his midrange shots, and just generally not performing up to his usual standard. Even before he missed the game-tying free throw and just walked into the tunnel talking to himself, it was clear that Gasol was off.
I don't think it's honest to blame the whole thing on taking the summer off from basketball. I certainly think that's a factor, but Gasol's conditioning also looks nowhere near as good as it did coming into last year, and couple that with the neck injury he's already struggling with and you've got a recipe for a slow-starting Gasol. With any luck he'll shake whatever's ailing him, but right now Gasol appears to have no interest in facilitating this team the way he normally does.
➭ Jeff Green continues to be a drag on the starting unit, but he's starting to make plays in other areas. He had an excellent chasedown block of Paul Pierce last night:
When you fact check The Truth like it's the Republican debate. https://t.co/hDlNd4mC8K— grizzlam (@grizzlam) November 10, 2015
But he also continues to take ill-advised shots from just about everywhere on the floor, play mostly-terrible defense, create in the lane by dunking on anyone and everyone he can. It's somewhat concerning that he isn't getting to the line much—he only attempted two free throws last night—but like everything else with this team, it's a work in progress.
➭ Dave Joerger's closing lineup last night, when the game was very much on the line and he wanted to take care of business? Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol. When he needed to make an offense/defense substitution, the wings changed to Barnes and Courtney Lee. I had a hunch this would be the closing lineup by the middle of the season, so it's encouraging to see it deployed so soon. Barnes' +/- numbers last night were pretty bad, but he made some big shots and drew some big phantom 3-shot fouls to put the Grizzlies in a position to win last night, and I expect that kind of play to become more reliable as the season goes on and he gets more comfortable playing with this team. I really wouldn't be surprised to see Lee/Barnes starting some games before long; Barnes has the size of Jeff Green without compromising on defense, and that's where the Griz have been getting torched in these recent blowout losses.
Grizzlies Twitter has been such a dour, Armageddon-predicting place lately that it's been hard not to get caught up in it. That said, after seeing pictures of Zach Randolph's flip phone before the Portland game, this was only right:
@FlyerGrizBlog jamychal probably hooked him up with some free ringtones and they clicked after that— TAYLOR MORGAN (@ctm0rg) November 10, 2015
The Grizzlies are finally back home Wednesday night to face... the irresistible force known as the Golden State Warriors. One hopes that they can at least bring the energy they brought to last night's game, so they can avoid ever losing by 50 again. The Warriors are off to one of the best 8-game starts in the history of the NBA, so it seems unlikely that their momentum will have slowed any by Wednesday, but one never knows.
The pessimist in me mostly hopes that the Grizzlies can avoid being blown out again, because that sort of a mental blow could stall the progress the Griz have shown over the last two games in evolving back towards the same team we've watched for so long. If the Griz only played well because they hate the Clippers, they're in for a long night Wednesday night, but if the improvements we saw last night (and in the fourth quarter of the Utah game) are real, they might have a fighting chance to hand the Warriors their first loss of the season.
After all, that's why they play the games. Hopefully the Grizzlies show up.
Short version: no, but that doesn't count for much in the NBA.
No one thought we'd be having this conversation in the third week of the season. Sure, people had expressed doubts about whether the team would be able to compete for a championship this year, but the concern was never that they'd get beaten by 19, 30, and 50 points all in the same week, before getting down 20 to the Jazz—too far down to come back from, as it turned out on Saturday night. The concern was that the roster was a little weird, and lacking in a few areas that might hurt them as the season progressed— never that they'd look old, tired, and washed up right out of the gate.
Instead, here we are. The Grizzlies are 3-4 which, given the strength of their early schedule, really isn't that far out of line with what would've been a reasonable expectation. That's not really the problem, though: the problem is that they look like the worst team in the league when they lose. They're currently 29th (out of 30 teams) in offensive rating, 23rd in defensive rating, they're 27th out of 30 in pace—which is how you know any player blaming their poor start on playing too fast is throwing the coach under the bus—and they're last in the league in field goal percentage at .401.
All that being the case, it's not really surprising that ESPN's Marc Stein reported on Friday that Joerger could be fired if things don't get better. In the NBA, when a team that should be good starts playing like garbage, that's usually the first head to roll. But is that the right thing to do?
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Last night's game ended very late and I didn't have much time to do a full Next Day Notes treatment—and I'm not sure the Grizzlies' performance deserved one anyway—so instead, here are ten quick reactions to the Grizzlies' third loss of the season (and third by double digits, though 19 ain't so bad when compared to Monday's 50-piece).
1. If Marc Gasol sits Thursday's game out with his neck injury instead of trying to play, this is a different story. Gasol was clearly hampered all night long, could barely move—which greatly exacerbated his already-not-great conditioning so far this year, and he was clearly limited in what he was able to do on both ends. Everything he accomplished, he accomplished by sheer force of will and not by physical fluidity or comfort, and it probably would've been better if he'd just sat out.
2. So far this year, teams are not scared of the Grizzlies' physicality, and they shouldn't be, because the interior defense is garbage. I feel like the Iowa Energy could score 30 paint points on the Griz right now. Between Gasol looking rusty and then getting hurt, and Zach Randolph looking like he may have opened the Ark of the Covenant over the summer and now he's melting, the Griz can't stop anyone inside.
3. It's hard to tell what's wrong with Mike Conley—but whatever it is, the Grizzlies will not be any good until it's sorted.
4. JaMychal Green is a good basketball player and has made progress that no one expected him to make. He sometimes struggles with defensive decision-making once he's switched onto a smaller guy, but that will improve with experience. I can't speak highly enough of his game this season—it's been a bright spot in what might be shaping up to be an abyss of misery.
5. You know, if you're going to lose a bunch of games by a lot of points, it might be time to play your young guys. Jordan Adams, who is still hurt, apparently, is exempt from this somewhat because if he gets re-injured now he won't be able to play later, but is Beno Udrih really a better option than Russ Smith when you're down 20 and not coming back? You know what Beno brings. Russ needs NBA reps. Don't overthink it.
6. The Grizzlies aren't this bad (at least, I don't think they are) but the issues they've had this year have been brewing for a while, and all the smart people who have been watching this team have been saying it: age is an issue, the NBA is evolving rapidly away from a style of play that they can effectively defend and defeat, there's still not enough offensive production from the wings, and they haven't developed their young players very well (hence the gaggle of older trade pieces and free agents). These issues are not temporary, they're just amplified right now. If they go on a 10-game winning streak, these issues will still exist under it all. Don't forget that.
7. The beginning of this season looks familiar:
This reminds me of when the Grizzlies stopped playing hard because they didn't like Joerger's offense, then they ditched it— #TLoading #LakerGang (@Trisity_) November 6, 2015
Remember that? When the Grizzlies were inexplicably terrible for three weeks and then they went back to Lionel Hollins' playbook because they blamed the "new offense" for how badly they were playing, even though it was also in no small part because guys showed up out of shape and were still adjusting to having their assistant coach be the head coach?
This does look a lot like that, though I'm not sure what the issue would be. Maybe the players (Tony Allen led the charge in 2013-14, but some of what Mike Conley said last night may be starting it up this season) will blame the system soon, but Gasol was quick to point out after the first game that as soon as the new stuff wasn't working, they abandoned it, and still lost by 30. So I'm not so sure.
But there's clearly something going on here—a little too much smoke for there not to be a fire—and given the team's really .500 end to last season from the All Star break on, maybe this is really a continuation of something brewing that we don't yet know about.
8. Jeff Green is starting to look a little more comfortable as a bench scorer, but that doesn't mean the Grizzlies shouldn't trade him. Trick some other team into thinking Jeff Green will solve their problems. I don't think anyone will still give the Grizzlies a first round pick for him, but if they offer it and the Grizzlies don't take it, we should burn down FedExForum.
9. Without an excellent defense, the Grizzlies are toast. Period. If the defense doesn't come back—and I think it will; it looks like an effort and conditioning issue on defense right now—the Grizzlies will never make it much farther than .500, and they might not manage that. The key to this team has always been defense, and winning games 95-90, and if they can't manage the "90" part, they're still not going to do much better than the "95" part, so they will lose. Often.
10. I don't think it's time to panic yet. The goal all along was to come out of the early part of the schedule a few games over .500, somewhere around Christmas time, and then put together a stretch of wins as the schedule gets easier. That's still very much in play, and I'm not going to truly panic until we get to December and the Grizzlies are still getting blown out on a regular basis. What's happening right now is bad, for sure, but... I just don't think it's time to scrap a 5-time playoff team based on six games. Call me crazy.
That said, if you feel like worrying about it, you're not unjustified in doing so. The Grizzlies look like garbage. They've gotten destroyed three times, one of which was by a team that wasn't supposed to be any good this year. The unease with the team is a valid one.
He's always been one of my favorite TV analysts, so I jumped at a chance to ask NBA on TNT analyst (and NBA great) Chris Webber a few questions about the Grizzlies and this year's Western Conference.
Webber will be on the call with play-by-play broadcaster Marv Albert and reporter Rachel Nichols when the Grizzlies visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. Central on TNT.
Beyond the Arc: So the Grizzlies have changed some things up this year, but mostly it's the same Grizzlies team that's been in the playoffs the last few years.
Chris Webber: Well I tell you, my first thoughts are Gasol has been, you know, if not the top then one of the top 2 or 3 defensive players in this league the last five years. I'm not just talking about when he won Defensive Player of the Year, and I definitely think teams like the Clippers with their big men have learned from the inside play and passing of those two guys, where they don't play above the rim, but they're still passing, getting each other involved with ducking in, and just the post game of Gasol himself. Any time you have those two guys, and Conley... even though it's the beginning of the season, you're gonna expect great things barring injury and things like that.
I do know coach Elston Turner, he was my coach in Sacramento, and I know he's a hell of a defensive coach—in my mind one of the best defensive coaches in this game—and I know whereas they're trying to become more fluid offensively, you know, that he can still hold them down defensively, and on that sideline. And, you know, Tony Allen... I'm just a big fan of that team and how tough they are, and with the addition of Matt Barnes and Jeff Green.
So I really don't know what to expect with the first week of the season. You see how everybody kind of meshes and gels together. But with their four starters, they have a piece to have a good team for a long time.
Speaking of it being early in the season... This is more a question for you as a guy who played in the league a long time than as an analyst. They just lost to the Warriors by 50 points the other night. The cliche is that you lose like that and just move on to the next game, but is that true?
I'm just thinking about me, personally, that would bother me. I don't know that I'd be able to look past it. What's that like in the NBA, when you lose a big game like that? How do you get past that?
Well, I tell you—if we start with college, or let's say football, where you have a bye week, and you have to sit on a loss, that's terrible, or in college, when you have a loss and you have four days in between. I remember when I first got to the NBA, one of the best feelings was even though it's a lot of games, you can't sit on a loss. Because you have a game the very next day. And that really helps. That focus helps as a distraction.
You can't survive if you're worried about one game. You know, if they're worried about the Warriors, they could make it to the playoffs and the Warriors could be out the round before them. There are no guarantees. There's no way to predict, and those that are strong are the ones who say 'This game is one game.' And as long as it's just one game in the loss column, you have to fix it, and you have to come out and play better—and the next time they play them, I'm sure it'll be in their head—but as far as the next night, no.
Teams that are under .500, that's who they are. When they win a big game, they're still excited about it, and they take back because they can't leave that at home, and vice versa.
I'm like you. I've done it in basketball, but if I were a pitcher, I don't know how I would pitch in a big game after giving up a home run. Friends of mine that are pitchers say the best pitchers have the worst memories. It's a skill that you kind of have to take and hone and make it a skill, because it's not natural.
They are going to remember it the next time they play. If they say they don't think about then, that's not true. When you get blown out, you can not remember it the next day because you can't get that back, but the next time they play, I definitely... especially at home, I bet Memphis looks good.
The Warriors, though. They definitely seem to be the team to beat in the West right now. Who are those other teams, to you? That could really win the West and make it past the Conference Finals. Are the Grizzlies one of those teams to you?
I think when you look at the West, you really have to go top to probably seven. So I do think they're one of those teams. I agree with you—the Warriors look great, and Stephen Curry looks like an MVP, but having played in the league I know there are ebbs and flows in the league. And having watched the league you know injuries come into play, road trips come into play, other things. It's not about—you can't win the championship right now. You have to get into the playoffs and your team has to get better and that has to be your focus.
When you look at a seven game series, some would say the Clippers are favored. I would say that they're really good and they can be favored but they may have trouble with Memphis in a seven game series. Or Memphis may have trouble with Houston in a seven game series. Basketball is all matchups when it comes to the playoffs, and none of those are true scenarios I mentioned, but those are examples that teams one through seven in the West, actually one through eight, because you may have OKC who wasn't there last year, or Phoenix or someone else that slides in with momentum. Definitely the top six teams can have something to say about who's going to be champion, and if you take out the favorite, it's a free-for-all.
So that's what I expect in the playoffs. I don't expect to see anybody win series that are 4-1, 4-1, 4-1. We haven't even talked about San Antonio, and they may have one of the best power forwards in the game playing with Tim Duncan, and that pick and roll is so hard to stop.
So I think the West is wide open.
The Grizzlies have been a playoff team the last five years. They've made it to the Conference Finals once, and they've been in the second round a few times, but they've never quite gotten over that hump. When you watch this team, what is it to you that has kept them from being able to get to the Finals and win a championship? What is the one thing the Grizzlies need to do to make that leap? Is it just luck? Do they need to catch the right team?
You know, there are so many factors that play into it. We could ask the Clippers the same thing, or San Antonio a couple of years ago. It's all of that. It's luck, it's magic, it's having the right players. I remember during the series in the Grindhouse a couple years ago—the series they lost to the Clippers in seven games, I think they were going to play a team they'd dominated in the regular season, San Antonio or something.
I think one obvious thing is that defense has been great and they can bang inside and set the tone inside-out, but some knock-down shooters would be great.
But really, they can win with this style. I would say they're one of five teams with an identity. You look at San Antonio, you look at the Clippers because of the high-flying, you look at Cleveland because of how LeBron plays... this team has an identity. I think that's the biggest thing to be proud of in the chase for a championship, because everyone else—a lot of other teams search and search and search. And as a player it's frustrating to be searching, and be part of a new program every year, starting back at ground zero. These guys have had some tough roads, but they've always been consistent with how they play and their attention to detail, and that's really all you can ask.
Maybe some more knock-down shooters, that type of thing, maybe that would spread the floor even more for those guys, but I really don't see a glaring weakness in one of the toughest teams in the NBA. I think that's a pretty good identity to have.
I know when you were playing, there may not have been a lot of people at the games in Memphis, but when you come back to cover playoff games here, does it surprise you how much the fanbase has grown here?
No, not at all. When I played, I loved it. The games I played there were pretty well-attended. I always loved the culture of Memphis, and the museums I would go to—Stax, and the school of music there, and the food. I have family that's there in Tunica nearby, so it's always been great for me. I know people that represent Memphis in sports are very tough, so I'm not surprised. I knew the culture there.
I'm happy that they don't have to be a culture that just loves their team, that they can be a culture that has a really good team that they can support. As a fan, every year for the last five years, I think you can say honestly every year that your team has a chance to win it. You have to feel good about that. As a fan, I think that's all you want, is to be a part of the conversation.
You talked about Gasol and his defense a little bit. Last year was a big contract year for him. He's locked up on a long term deal now, and he didn't play for Spain this summer like he always has. So he's come in a little bit rusty because he took the whole summer off.
When you're a player and you sign a big contract like that, does it change your motivation a little bit? You always hear "so and so is having a big year because it's a contract year", but is that real? Or is that just an excuse people make?
I think it's definitely true for some guys. But that's when you see inconsistent effort, and I don't think you've ever been able to see inconsistent effort in Gasol. And I think, with the new contracts, that you got him for cheap. With the way these contracts are going to happen in the next three years.
I think it's good that he took the summer off. Basketball isn't a year round sport, but because endorsers and camps and what not require you to be that way, you have to rest and play for the NBA. I love him, I love his Olympic team and all that, but he's NBA first. So the fact that he took off this summer, that really shouldn't be controversial, because he's supposed to take the summer off.
I talked to him about it a little bit and he was saying it was weird not playing, that it was the first summer he hasn't played for Spain in years. And I was thinking that has to play into fatigue down the stretch of the season, in April.
You know? Exactly. And think about it. Let's just say if it was four summers, that's two seasons. And if I'm a Memphis fan... I'm just being honest about that. And the same goes for our Olympians.
But I do think, you know, you look at LeBron and his back, you look at other things—it really does take a toll. It's surprising when Kobe gets older and hurt but I remember him playing with broken hands and thumbs... it takes a toll. And the only way for it not to take a toll is with the proper rest and rehab.
I would say that maybe that's the one thing with all the technology and the great way all these guys are working out, all the nutrition, that the old common sense of rest is not being adhered to. So I'm actually glad that he got some rest this summer.
You played against Zach Randolph. How hard is that? Do you just feel like you got hit by a train the next day? What's it like to face off against Zach Randolph?
He and Marc, but Zach... Zach reminds me a lot of when I first came into the league, the older players I would play against that, after the game, your sternum is bruised because they would take their shoulder right up into your sternum. There's an art to bang in the paint and not foul or get frustrated. He's a frustration artist. Because he doesn't hold, he doesn't...
You know, if there was a tape, on anyone in the league, of how to post up and get open the correct way, that I was going to show kids in middle school, high school, college, it would be of Zach Randolph. He's not the most athletic, he's not the strongest, but he uses his space, his low center of gravity—and just like Bill Laimbeer and some others that maybe didn't have the highest jumping ability, you know, Bill Laimbeer led the league in rebounding because of his positioning. He plays position defense.
It's frustrating playing a guy like that. Because you really have to keep your balance and slow the game down, because the faster he moves and frustrates you, the better. But I love watching those guys play because it's like the basketball I grew up watching. It reminds me of the Bad Boys, and the Bulls, and that stuff. So I like watching those guys play inside.
Big thanks to Chris Webber for taking time to talk to Beyond the Arc. —KL
I didn't think the Grizzlies would win Monday night in Oakland. Golden State has started the season on a tear, and Steph Curry was off to one of the hottest starts in NBA history. The Grizzlies had struggled against Cleveland (and by "struggled" I mean lost by 30), before beating two much worse teams.
What I didn't expect was what happened: after fighting back in the first quarter to claim at 22-21 lead, the Griz proceeded to make nine field goals in the second and third quarters on their way to the worst loss in franchise history and also, of course, the worst shooting percentage in franchise history.
The Vancouver Grizzlies were terrible. The first season or two of Memphis Grizzlies were terrible. The team after the Pau trade was terrible. And yet, the following players did not lose this badly in a Grizzlies uniform:
The list continues, because even on all those 15, 14, 22, 24, and 8 (lockout year) win seasons, no Grizzlies team has ever lost by fifty points. This tweet of mine was wildly popular with Grizzlies fans in Vancouver, where the Canucks actually had "Grizzlies Night" featuring Shareef Abdur-Raheem last night, who are still retweeting and favoriting it this morning.
You know who never lost a game by 50 points? These guys. pic.twitter.com/EN7UTagN9Y— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) November 3, 2015
The final score doesn't even look real. What does one even say when a team gets beat this badly? It's not unprededented—teams have lost by 50 before—but it is a bad sign that this Grizzlies team, who by all accounts think they're trying to win a title, has now played both of the teams from last year's Finals and lost by a combined total of 80 points.
And credit to the Warriors: they are an efficient, terrifying basketball killing machine right now. The Clippers have done everyone a disservice (imagine that!) by continuing to insist that the Warriors "got lucky" last year and essentially didn't deserve the title. Of course they've come out on a mission to prove everyone wrong, giving an edge to what was already one of the best teams of the last 25-30 years. Thanks for nothing, Doc Rivers.
But obviously Doc Rivers has nothing to do with the ways the Grizzlies got vicisected on NBA TV last night. Everything that gave the Griz problems against Cleveland reappeared, but against an even better team playing at the top of their game (and how's this for frightening: Golden State's Andrew Bogut didn't even play).
With Zach Randolph in the game and Tony Allen being guarded ("guarded") by Festus Ezeli, every time Randolph or Marc Gasol caught the ball in the paint, he immediately ran into a wall of three tall dudes. The strategy the Warriors used so effectively to overcome the Grizzlies in last spring's playoffs? They still work. Allen was unable to convert his wide-open scoring opportunities (mostly because the only thing available to him, by design, were long-range shots) and so Dave Joerger substituted Jeff Green, who had played really well coming off the bench in the previous two games, but has struggled to find a rhythm with the starters since being traded to Memphis...
...and that didn't go much better. What finally helped the Grizzlies—and got them back into a game that was already starting to look lopsided in the first ten minutes—was when Zach Randolph went to the bench and the Griz rolled out a lineup of Mike Conley, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green, JaMychal Green, and Brandan Wright... and things looked good.
This is an uncomfortable truth that has already reared its head this season: Z-Bo is not in shape, and the team plays a completely different offense when he's not on the floor. It's like watching a different basketball team altogether, one that plays four out/one in and runs spread pick and rolls. Randolph, whether because as he ages he's even less mobile than he was to begin with, or because he's just not in the kind of shape he needs to be in yet, has struggled to defend and has run into walls of opposition on offense. I'm certainly not saying Randolph has outlived his usefulness—I think he's mostly just out of shape—but we knew the day would come where his age would impact his defense, and it looks like that day might be here.
And anyway, the bench unit is clearly playing a completely different style of basketball from the starters. The pace is different, the sets are different, the spacing is different, the types of baskets they're looking for are different. When I said this might be a rebuilding year, this is the kind of thing I was talking about: retooling in place to reload for the future while still trying to be good and make the playoffs this year. These changes are happening right in front of us, and it's only the first week of November.
I'm not really sure it makes any sense to nitpick aspects of last night's game. Literally everything went wrong after the first quarter. This was a game in which the Grizzlies lost by fifty points (again, fifty points!) after attempting 96 field goals to the Warriors' 84. I'm not a fan of single-game +/- stats, but some of last night's are legitimately eye-popping:
So... no one played well, no one looked like they knew what they were doing, everything was terrible, and I never want to watch another game like that as long as I cover the NBA.
The Griz, of course, are still .500, and they can still accomplish the bigger goal of winning 3 out of 5 on this West Coast road trip and surviving. But the fact that they clearly have problems playing the league's top-tier teams is concerning, and is worth paying attention to as they go about the rest of this early part of the season. Time will tell whether last night was really "just a bad night" or whether this team really just can't keep up with the league's top tier. I'm afraid of what the answer is, though.
JaMychal for three—
Don't leave him in the corner.
Griz have a stretch four?
Halloween, a ghost returns!
The Nets are not good.
This year's Grizzlies bench,
They play four-out basketball.
Jeff Green, the starter:
Marc and Z-Bo clog the lane.
Off the bench? Freedom.
The West Coast Road Trip
A looming date with chaos,
A mountain to climb.