Author's Note: This seemed like the thing to do at the time: Instead of a normal "the Grizzlies did this and then the Wizards did that and then the Grizzlies did this," I figured it'd be more interesting (and ultimately more enlightening) to look at some statistics from Tuesday night's close win over the Wizards that tell the story of how the game was won.
Points scored by Nick Calathes. Last night's opponent being the Wizards, with Mike Conley out, Nick Calathes spent almost all of last night matched up against John Wall, who is just a touch more athletic and quicker than Calathes. It looked like a matchup with the potential to turn into a bloodbath if Wall started to get going.
More than one Grizzlies Twitter-er, this writer included, prepared for the worst headed into the game. Some examples:
It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m worried Wall is going to do bad things to Calathes and they’re going to be televised.
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) February 12, 2014
Griz-Wiz about to jump off. Marc Gasol might want to cross himself already on behalf of Nick Calathes.
— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) February 12, 2014
Neither of those tweets of foreboding (there's a 21st Century phrase for ya) proved to be necessary, as Calathes not only held his own, he played excellent defense on Wall (who scored 5 points on 2-10 shooting) and scored 18 of his own points on 12 shots while also grabbing 6 rebounds and making assists (at least two of which were no-look bounce assists to Marc Gasol, which is something Calathes is getting better at as of late).
It was another great game from the Grizzlies' backup point guard, and a sure step in the right direction for his direction and his career. If he can continue to play at something approximating this level, I think "Ole Glacier Veins Calathes" (another tweet reference) is going to be just fine. He's already at least as good as Keyon Dooling. (That was a joke, right?)
Points scored by Bradley Beal. With Courtney Lee playing but not quite 100% on a bum ankle, what the Grizzlies really needed was a wing who could go out and absolutely lock down the opponent's one hot-scoring shooting guard. If only they had a guy like that on the roster...
Herewith, some reasons the Grizzlies lost to the Cavaliers in overtime, 91-83:
The lack of Mike Conley has been killing the Grizzlies, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Lost in the shuffle of Conley's insanely high level of play this season is the fact that he's kept the Grizzlies' heads above water on that end of the floor by getting to the rim at will and knowing when to distribute.
In five games without Conley, the Grizzlies have scored 99, 77, 96, 79, and now 83 (but the 83 came after an overtime wherein the Grizzlies scored 5 points). The defense has played pretty well, but not that well, especially against Dallas and Milwaukee, and so the offensive shortcomings have proven to be fatal. I haven't watched the game back closely enough to know how many trips down the floor came up empty for the Griz last night, but I know it was more than it should have been.
And that's not to slight Nick Calathes; Calathes was solid last night, with 17 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. But, as we've seen from time to time this year, Conley can put up 28 or 30 seemingly at will, and last night he probably would've done that in the process of refusing to let his team lose to the Cavs. Without him, no such luck.
We need to stop pretending Marc Gasol is healthy. I'm not sure what happened, but the last three or four games, he's not trusting the knee anymore, and it's severely limiting what he can do out on the court. He has stretches of play where he looks fine, making spin moves in the post, playing great defense, and then he has other stretches where he looks tentative, scared to push off of his braced leg.
Maybe Gasol came back at just the right time to help the Grizzlies, or maybe he rushed back too soon and now he's paying the price for it. Either way, the approaching All Star break should be a good opportunity for him to rest up the knee and get the treatment he so obviously needs. Until then, 70-75% of Marc Gasol and 0% of Mike Conley—meaning 35% of your two best players—is going to continue to be a struggle for this Grizzlies squad.
The small forward position for the Grizzlies this season is a dumpster fire on top of a toxic waste pit somewhere near the engine room of the Titanic. Last night was a microcosm of the bigger picture: Tayshaun Prince wasn't terrible but he wasn't good, scoring 7 points on 6 shots, but (and this is especially true with Conley out and the offense starved for scoring) "not terrible" isn't really enough to keep the Grizzlies afloat for long stretches.
Meanwhile Mike Miller played 20 minutes, took 4 shots, and made none of them. Miller's struggles have been somewhat under-reported this season, I think, but he's been quietly having an abominable stretch of play lately, being used in weird lineups and/or just not playing very well, not taking outside jumpers and instead driving into the lane trying to make plays—something which worked for Miller the last time he was in a Griz uniform, but that was what, seven years ago?
On top of that, James Johnson lifted the Grizzlies back into the game in the fourth quarter by scoring 13 straight points—as in, he was the only Grizzly scoring for so long that he single-handedly willed himself to 13 straight points — and then he seemingly ran out of whatever good mojo had propelled him to the 13 straight and played crappy defense and tried to do too much on offense. That continues to be my main gripe with Johnson: he's brilliant for stretches and those stretches inspire him to keep trying to take over the game.
My favorite example of this was the time (I think it was the OKC game in which Gasol returned) that Johnson tried to wave off a Z-Bo who had position on his man (might've been Perkins, might've been Collison, I don't remember) so that he, James Johnson, could iso on that side of the floor. Z-Bo just raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and called for the ball again, and Johnson made the entry pass, but we've seen what happens when somebody isn't out there to say "Hey JJ, maybe not this time." It's something that Johnson just has to figure out: how to play all-out for 15 minutes while still recognizing when to play within himself and not try to make every single possible play on the court. It's the only reason I don't think he's ready to be a starter yet: he's too much of a liability once he gets going for a while. His decision-making is inversely proportional to his performance over time.
All of that is to say, if the Grizzlies do anything at the trade deadline, it'd better be for a good, young small forward. I don't know who that would be. The rumor going around last week was that talks of an Ed Davis/Harrison Barnes swap had happened. I guess I'd be fine with that, although I'm not sure how the Warriors would make that work. It's got to be a major off-season goal, though. Do whatever it takes to acquire a small forward, a high level 3s-and-D guy, probably.
Still not sure what's up with the lineups. How long into the third quarter did the starters play last night? 9 minutes? It felt like it. And so of course, down the stretch while Johnson was going off for his 13 straight, Gasol, Randolph, and Lee were all gassed, walking up and down the court begging for a breather. Joerger has to get better at managing who is in the game when, and realizing when he has to rest guys even though he may not be comfortable taking them out of the game quite yet.
It seems like poor form to criticize the rotations of a coach who has almost never had the same players available to him from night to night. The Grizzlies' roster has been something of a Mad Lib all year long, with random guys going down for a few games at a time all over the place. But he's got to be better than this with managing minutes and managing rest. It's no wonder the Cavs got back into the game last night and forced overtime, and it's no wonder once they got there, the Grizzlies were too tired to do anything: they were on the second night of a back to back, and they'd all played 15 minutes in in a row. It's the one thing I think Joerger has been bad at all year long.
I think last night's loss was bad, but given Conley's absence, and given the fact that they beat Atlanta — a much better team than Cleveland—the night before, I'm willing to let this one slide to an extent. Last night's loss showed weaknesses this team has had for a while now, of course, but I'm not willing to ascribe to it any bigger trend than no Conley, hurt Gasol, and a road SEGABABA. It'll get better, especially if Conley returns Tuesday against the Wizards as is hoped. His return will be the biggest improvement the Griz can make to correct the problems shown on Sunday night, which is why I'm not in panic mode.
Eventually you run out of ways to talk about games like this.
The players don't help, because no matter how far off the rails the game gets, no matter how bad things go for them, this group of Grizzlies doesn't go "off message" enough to give you any insight into what it's like to be out there on the court while everything you do fails, everything falls apart, and Rick Carlisle barbecues your defensive schemes and then serves them to you with a side of Monta Ellis, and then suddenly a game that
is was really important to the playoff race is in the rearview mirror and you lost by fourteen points.
They don't really give any insight into what happened, because that's not what the media gets to hear. Instead, and from a management standpoint it's a good quality of this group of players and not a bad one I guess, though it makes for less interesting recaps, they all say the "right" thing. Marc Gasol says "You win, you move on, and when you lose, you move on." Zach Randolph talks about how every game is important, every game is a battle, etc. Nick Calathes talks about how he turned the ball over too many times. In the postgame press conference, Dave Joerger says the loss was his fault because he didn't have the team prepared to face Dallas' intricate pick and roll schemes, and so Dallas carved up the Grizzlies' defense (which, yes, that happened).
It doesn't feel like the whole story, though. Dallas may have been doing things offensively that the Griz weren't ready to defend, but when Brandan Wright catches a pass at the free throw line and runs completely unchecked down the middle of the lane for a lay-in, while two Grizzlies are at the elbows and two Grizzlies are on either block (like they were running a box-and-one that was glued to the ground), and then after the dunk Jon Leuer and Marc Gasol just stare at each other...
The Grizzlies did not win at Oklahoma City on Monday night, but the Grizzlies and the Thunder sure made a mess of it: the Grizzlies scored 77 points, their lowest total of the season, but they also held Oklahoma City to 86 in the process. The offense wasn't working, and surprisingly enough it didn't seem like the absence of Mike Conley was the only reason. The Thunder in general have been playing good defense as of late, and Serge Ibaka caused all kinds of problems for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, as he is wont to do.
That was an important game, but the one tonight is even more so: the Grizzlies face the Mavericks at home for the first time all season. Both previous engagements between the two teams happened in Dallas—the first in the "lost weekend" of the first two weeks of the season when the Grizzlies didn't stumble out of the gate so much as fall face-first into a mud puddle, and the second featured a starting lineup of Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Miller, and Kosta Koufos due to injuries to Mike Conley, Tayshaun Prince, and Marc Gasol.
What makes tonight so important is the Western Conference playoff race. Currently in the standings, the Grizzlies are back in 9th place, a game behind Dallas, after jumping up to 8th place for a brief moment over the weekend based on overall win percentage. A Grizzlies win tonight is critical for grabbing and holding the 8th spot. A Grizzlies loss puts that much more space between the Mavs and the Griz.
It's not going to be easy: the Grizzlies go into their third game without Mike Conley at the point, which was easy enough to overcome against the Bucks, but was clearly a factor Monday night against the Thunder. Nick Calathes has played very well while holding the Grizzlies' reins, but Nick Calathes isn't an All Star caliber player, and that sort of absence isn't so easy to gloss over.
What does work in the Grizzlies' favor, however, is Dallas' defense: the Mavericks are currently 24th in the league in (unadjusted) defensive rating, allowing an average of 108.6 points per 100 possessions, putting them in such elite company as the Nets, Knicks, Lakers, Pelicans, Kings, Bucks, and Jazz. The Grizzlies have played some other teams in that category recently, and with the Anthony Davis-sized exception of the Pelicans, they've fared well. Exploiting the weaknesses in Dallas' D is going to be the key to success tonight. We know this is a Grizzlies team that can play defense, even with Conley and Tony Allen on the bench in suits. Scoring and getting into a rhythm will go a long way toward securing the all-important victory tonight.
Other subplot to keep an eye on: Jamaal Franklin got backup point guard minutes again vs. the Thunder on Monday night. Originally, when it happened (unsuccessfully) against the Bucks on Saturday, I laughed it off as a Patented Weird Joerger Lineup Experiment™ and figured it wouldn't happen again. But. He wasn't good against the Thunder, but I've had a change of heart about the whole thing.
Franklin is a rookie who needs minutes however he can get them. There's a good chance that, if/when he evolves into a rotation player, he's going to have to bring the ball up the court. Where's the harm? If the team (and this is assuming Joerger plays Franklin over new 10-day man Darius Morris) can stay afloat while Franklin is driving, and not make too many costly bad decisions, I'm all in favor of letting the rookie learn on the job while getting some PT. If he crashes and burns, throw Morris out there after two or three minutes. If he stays afloat, let him have a little bit of burn.
No matter whether it's Franklin or Morris or the Prince/Lee/Miller troika doing the backup duties, the Grizzlies need to make sure the offense is clicking tonight to exploit the Mavericks' biggest weakness. The playoff seeding implications make this one as important as a regular season game gets.
Grizzlies 99, Bucks 90: The Nick Calathes Game
Saturday night's game started uneasy. No one had heard much concrete information about the ankle injury Mike Conley suffered on Friday night at Minnesota, and no one wanted to speculate how long he was going to be out. All anyone knew was that the injury looked bad, and it would be a while before Conley returned to the court.
Then the game started, and true to form this season, the Grizzlies struggled. Against teams with a below average pace of play this year, the Grizzlies have typically not done well—as evidenced by both wins over Milwaukee, which have been much closer than they needed to be. Saturday night, it was more of the same, with defensive lapse after defensive lapse, lots of physical play under the basket with the Grizzlies' bigs banging with Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders (hey now!) and Miroslav Raduljica.
For most of the first three quarters, the mood in the stadium was one of frustration: the problems the Grizzlies were having with the Bucks didn't seem to be a direct result of Conley's absence. Nick Calathes started at point guard and through the first part of the game was completely adequate, hitting a couple of shots and distributing the ball well. The Grizzlies' problems seemed to be on the defensive end.
And then something clicked.
In the last 15 minutes of play—from the 3-minute mark of the third quarter through the end of the game—the Grizzlies scored 46 points. Calathes started it with a layup and and-1 free throw to cut the Bucks' lead to 64-56, and by the end of the third, the Grizzlies only trailed 69-67.
The Grizzlies won their third in a row last night at Minnesota, the third game in four nights, and they're now only one win away from sweeping their entire four-game-in-five-night gauntlet of a week.
In the fourth quarter last night, after surrendering a lead that had swelled to 16 points midway through the third, the Grizzlies stared down the barrel of their worst-case scenario when Mike Conley went down to the floor grimacing in pain and didn't get up.
The replays showed that it was a badly rolled ankle—Conley landed on the side of his foot instead of the bottom of it, essentially—and news coming out after the game confirmed that it was a bad sprain:
Update- Mike Conley has a right ankle sprain and will be reevaluated in the morning. @memgrizz vs. Bucks tomorrow
— Rob Fischer (@thefishnation) February 1, 2014
Mike Conley left 94-90 win over Minnesota with a right ankle sprain and 6:37 left in 4Q. He will be re-evaluated tomorrow before Bucks game
— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBeat) February 1, 2014
Further reports were that Conley left the arena in a walking boot and said he couldn't really put any weight on the ankle, which means he'll probably be in a suit tonight as the Grizzlies take on Mikwaukee. With any luck, his evaluation today will confirm that it is, in fact, just a bum ankle, and Conley won't miss too much time.
Missing any time at all, though, puts the Grizzlies in a little bit of a jam. The Nick Calathes experiment seems to be progressing nicely as Calathes has gotten more run and gotten more comfortable on the court. He had another nice night in Minnesota last night, but he certainly doesn't look ready to take over the team for a long stretch. And, because of the trade that sent Jerryd Bayless out and brought back Courtney Lee, there aren't any other point guards on the roster.
That was risky even with a healthy Conley, but now, with Nick Calathes as the only point guard available, things are going to get dicey. Last night after Conley went down, with the game on the line, Dave Joerger decided not to play a point guard at all, splitting the ball handling duties between Courtney Lee and Tayshaun Prince. And that worked, primarly because the Grizzlies' advantage over the Timberwolves was on the inside, and helped by the occasional three-pointer from Prince, everything went according to plan and the Grizzlies closed out a close game that Kevin Love shot Minnesota back into.
Tonight, the Grizzlies take on the Bucks in Memphis in the last game of this FOGAFINI. The Bucks are, well, I'll let Jeremy Schmidt of the TrueHoop blog Bucksketball give his take:
I'm starting to wonder if this is the worst team in the history of professional sports in Wisconsin.
— Jeremy Schmidt (@Bucksketball) February 1, 2014
So, at least the Grizzlies have that going for them: the Bucks are currently 8-38 on the season, and they've lost 5 in a row and 17 out of their last 19 games. They're a shambles of a basketball team right now, with only rookie standout Giannis "Greek Freak" Antetokounmpo to entertain their fans while they get pummeled, night in and night out. If there's such thing as a "good" game to have to be without Mike Conley, this is it—a matchup against what may be the worst team in the league this year.
But that doesn't mean much. The Bucks are, after all, still a professional basketball team, and tonight's game may be one of the few games on the schedule that O.J. Mayo actually cares about for Milwaukee, so I hesitate to ever call anything a "sure win." There's no such thing at this level of competition. At any rate, it's a fortunate matchup for the Grizzlies as they try to figure out how long they're going to be without their rock, their starting point guard.
I, for one, didn't really enjoy watching last night's game for much of it—I tweeted at one point that watching the game closely felt like reading a tax document: tedious, without feeling. It looked like the Grizzlies were playing that way at first, too, with a cold shooting start reminiscent of the first quarter against Houston on Saturday night. The problem for Memphis was that Sacramento wasn't also on the second night of a back to back, and ran out to an early lead.
There were also moments when it felt like former Grizzly Rudy Gay was in the midst of having one of "those games" where he banked in threes and got to the rim at will, looking liberated (and with his usage rate way up) in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins. As the game wore on, though, the fears of a Big Rudy Gay Game disspated much the same way Gay's scoring did, and he finished the night with 23 where early it looked like he might drop 35.
For the next 36 minutes of basketball, it felt like the Grizzlies were perpetually 3 points ahead of the Kings, barely doing enough on defense to stay ahead while scoring just enough for the Kings to stay behind. The bench was mostly quiet, and it was just... nothing. Nothing really happened.
By the end of the third quarter, the Grizzlies had accrued a six point lead, and finally something clicked and the Griz—particularly Mike Conley and Tayshaun Prince (!)—went off for a thirty point quarter, sealing the ten-point victory. It was a good showing from a team that hadn't really "turned it on" yet all game, and it was good enough to get the Grizzlies headed to Minnesota with a 2-0 start to the current four-game-in-five-night stretch.
• Mike Conley continues to amaze and astound me with the level of his play. Against Sacramento, he displayed the same killer instinct he showed against Portland—a willingness to be the guy to hit the big shot with the game on the line, without remorse, without worrying about what anyone else is doing. A basket needed to be made, and so Mike Conley made it. That's something Conley has shown this year that has been slow to develop in him, but this season, it finally seems to have blossomed, allowing him to be the "I'll take the last shot" player that Griz-watchers have long hoped he would be. It's a welcome development, and it's a big reason the Grizzlies are where they are this season, rather than on a month-long Tank Quest kicked off by Gasol's injury.
• Tayshaun Prince made some great plays in the fourth quarter—a steal followed by a dunk in transition on Rudy Gay, and another one trailing a Mike Conley fast break, along with some solid contributions on both ends of the floor. Prince has struggled mightily this season overall, but last night he showed some flashes of "Oh yeah, he's Tayshaun Prince" that probably reminded Griz fans who weren't watching the championship-era Pistons exactly what that means. I'm not sure what the ultimate answer is to the Prince Conundrum, but for now, at least in fourth quarters against certain matchups, the answer is to play him. He certainly came up big last night.
• Courtney Lee had his quietest game as a Grizzly so far, scoring only 4 points on 2 of 4 shooting and attempting no 3-pointers in 24 minutes. Not sure what the reasoning for that was, beyond the Grizzlies' general offensive woes translating into a lack of open shots for Lee, or a lack of opportunities to hit the pull-up shots he's been nailing with abandon as of late, but no matter the cause, his off night was either part of the reason (or part of the collateral damage) the Grizzlies' spacing on offense was less than stellar last night, overloading the strong side on offense the same way they do on defense which, well, isn't usually a good thing. With any luck it was just an off game, and Lee will bounce back in Minnesota on Friday night.
• Mike Miller was finally starting to string together some good games, playing within himself and hitting some shots (5-11 for 11 points last night, though only 1-6 from long range) and then he sprained his thumb last night towards the end of the game, and is now listed as day-to-day. It was inevitable that Miller would get hurt at some point this year; his history recently proves it would be foolish to expect him to stay completely healthy. But it's frustrating to see him get injured just as he was starting to pull out of the slump he's been in, a slump that's seen Dave Joerger play him too many minutes while his offense production has been zero or close to it. Hopefully the injury is just a blip and won't keep him out of the rotation for an extended amount of time. It'd probably also be a good idea to get Jonny Basketball out on the floor to take some threes in his absence.
Last night's road win over the Portland Trail Blazers is the signature win of the season so far. The Grizzlies put on a clinic on both sides of the ball in Portland on Monday night, and the Blazers—the third place team in the West, looking to bounce back against a poor showing on the road at Golden State—were helpless to do anything but stand in and take the body blows the Grizzlies were dishing out.
Portland has the highest-ranked offense in the league, in both points per game and offensive efficiency. Last night, the Grizzlies held them below 90 points at home for the first time all year. It was only the 10th time the Blazers had even been held below 100, and the second time below 90 (the first being that aforementioned Golden State loss).
But last night wasn't just about the Grizzlies' defense clamping down in a way that it hasn't often done this season—it was also about the offense, coming close to 100 points for the second time in two games after spending the first five games after Gasol's return hovering around 90. The Grizzlies' offensive efficiency last night was 107.4. The Grizzlies shot 51.8% from the floor and 46.2% from beyond the arc. Zach Randolph had 23 points (and 10 rebounds, which topped Pau Gasol's Grizzlies franchise record for most double doubles with 190).
And everyone who played (sorry Jamaal Franklin and Jon Leuer) contributed to the cause (except Ed Davis, who did an OK job on defense but overall struggled mightily on both ends against the much bigger and supremely gifted LaMarcus Aldridge). Nick Calathes played 13:24 and while he only made one bucket, he had 4 rebounds and 4 assists to go along with it. Mike Miller was 3-3 from long range. Tayshaun Prince took too many midrange jumpers. James Johnson's numbers don't reflect his defensive contributions (or how quickly he racked up those 4 fouls).
This is what we were promised when the Joerger Era began, though, isn't it? The same suffocating defense, augmented by an offense with the ability to go on big scoring runs when the conditions were right, bolstered by outside shooting and driven by ball movement run through Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?
(Speaking of Marc Gasol ball movement, he's got to stop hitting the wide open Tayshaun Prince with the ball instead of going to someone else. It's the same thing he did hitting Tony Allen in the corner for a wide open three. Yes, Marc, they're wide open. Let's consider why that might be the case before we pass, hmm?)
At any rate, the Grizzlies are now 6-1 since the return of Marc Gasol, and he's not even all the way healthy yet—or even particularly close. I'd say he's playing at about 70%-80%. Four of those wins have come over Oklahoma City, Houston, and Portland, teams the Spurs haven't been able to beat yet. The Griz are now 1½ games back of Dallas for the 8th playoff spot, but it doesn't stop there—now they're 2½ games out of the 6th and 7th spots. Only 5 games out of the 5th spot. The Western Conference playoff race is starting to tighten up at the bottom, and it's only going to get tighter as the season races toward its conclusion.
For comparison, the Grizzlies, currently 9th in the West, are closer to the top-seeded Thunder (11.5 games back) than the 3rd-seeded Raptors are to the Pacers in the East (12 games back). If they keep winning games like this one over the West's best opponents, the Grizzlies are going to make some noise, both in the regular season, and potentially in a first-round playoff matchup. They've beaten all of the top teams in the West except for San Antonio now. The only two teams above them in the standings whom the Grizzlies have yet to beat are the Spurs and the Mavericks, and they still have to play both teams at least one more time.
The Grizzlies appear to be starting to round into shape, coming together to make a serious run at the right time. Between now and the All Star break, the Griz have an excellent chance to stockpile wins and move up the standings and then take a week off to rest. Last night's win over Portland is further proof that this Griz squad can hang with the West's elite, and that the Grizzlies' opponents should all be wary of running into this particularly burly, non-bluffing buzzsaw.
While the Grizzlies have been re-finding their grove since regaining Marc Gasol from injury, there's been one important player sidelined by an injury with no return timetable: Defensive mastermind and Lord of Basketball Chaos Tony Allen.
When Allen first went down, the word was that he suffered a "ligament injury" in his hand—one in which the ligament pulled away from the bone and pulled a bone fragment away with it. The timetable given then was "two to three weeks." That was January 7, and three weeks from the 7th is... today.
One thing is for certain: when Allen comes back, he comes back to a team that has flourished with Courtney Lee starting in his spot. Since coming to the Grizzlies from the Celtics in exchange for Jerryd Bayless, Lee has proven himself to be an excellent shooter and a solid defender, and while he's not the world class stopper that Allen is, the truth is that Allen hasn't really played up to his normal standard for much of this year, presumably because he's been fighting through so many injuries (you may remember that he missed several games in an earlier stretch due to a thigh contusion suffered in a December win over the Phoenix Suns).
The Grizzlies have an awful lot of wing players now, and they all seem to have overlapping skill sets: Lee, Allen, Jamaal Franklin, Quincy Pondexter, James Johnson, and Tayshaun Prince. They don't all do the same things, but each of them has something in common with the others. It's a bit of a logjam at the 2 and 3 spots when everyone is healthy.
Going into the weekend, I thought it was possible that the Grizzlies could win both games against the Rockets—one home and one away—but that doesn't mean I thought it was likely.
When the Grizzlies won the first game in a close one (88-87) that came down to a couple of last-second possessions and some stifling defense (remember that?) from the Griz to end the game, no thanks to Chandler Parsons hitting ten three pointers in a row, my prediction for the second game was that it would be even uglier, even slower, and even closer. I was right... for one quarter.
Ultimately the Grizzlies won 99-81 after several minutes of garbage time. At one point with six minutes left, the Grizzlies led 90-63. The Rockets have been prone to shooting droughts as of late—I'm thinking specifically of this game against Oklahoma City in which they scored 73 points in the first half and 19 in the second—but that's not really what happened on Saturday night.
What happened is that the Grizzlies bludgeoned the Rockets into submission and ran away with the game. Zach Randolph, matched up on Dwight Howard for a good bit of the time and Terrence Jones for the rest of it, had 15 points and 17 rebounds. Kosta Koufos, who's been playing mostly spot minutes as of late, played 24 minutes and had 14 and 7. Marc Gasol only had 6 points, but his continuous frustration of Dwight Howard on both ends of the floor—something that's happened for years—made for delightful entertainment. According to the advanced stats, Howard had an offensive rating (ORtg) of 68 and a defensive rating of 95. Which is, umm, less than stellar.
Last night the Grizzlies played the Houston Rockets.
Tonight, the Grizzlies play the Houston Rockets.
It's only happened one other time since the Grizzlies moved to Memphis (a 2006 home-and-home against the Dallas Mavericks) but the Griz find themselves in the midst of a divisional home-and-home matchup, and it came at a point where the Grizzlies were 0-10 against Southwest Division opponents, including a fart-worthy performance on MLK Day against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Grizzlies are now 1-10 (21-20 overall), with an opportunity to improve to 2-10 and 2 games over .500 tonight, after defeating the Rockets in Houston last night 88-87.
Here are some things the Grizzlies will have to do tonight if they want to beat the Rockets twice in a row:
• Defend the three point shot better. The Rockets attempted 34 threes last night, and the Grizzlies were fortunate that they couldn't hit the broad side of Jake Tsakalidis in the first half. In the second half, Chandler Parsons heated up (like, really heated up) and made ten threes in a row—almost enough for Houston to steal the game away. If they'd connected on more wide open threes in the first half, the Grizzlies would've been playing from behind instead of from ahead. They have to do a better job of not helping off three-point shooters. (Haven't I been saying that since last year's Conference Finals?)
• Play solid basketball for 48 minutes. The Grizzlies had some stretches last night—especially the beginning of the third quarter, and a couple of spots in the early fourth where everyone forgot what the plays were—where they just weren't executing. It's the same thing we've said all year, but last night, in a critical spot, it almost cost them the game—several possessions ended in shot clock violations or other turnovers, and others ended in jacked-up threes with a second or two on the clock. Not smart basketball, and something they're going to have to watch out for tonight.
• I know Dave Joerger is trying to figure out the rotations still, but... I think I'm done with the "James Johnson and Tayshaun Prince as the 2 and 3" lineups. Last night saw Calathes-Prince-Johnson-Davis-Gasol together in the first quarter, and... needless to say, they didn't know what to do with each other. They haven't played much together this season, which explains the unfamiliarity, but maybe there's a reason they haven't played together (beyond the Gasol injury). I get that Johnson and Prince are tall. That doesn't mean they're secret weapons to be deployed in bizarre anti-smallball lineups when those lineups cause what little offensive flow the Grizzlies have to evaporate like spilled lighter fluid.
• Keep taking the ball inside. Late in last night's game, Zach Randolph got going and got Dwight Howard into foul trouble. That worked. When the Grizzlies got away from that attack down the stretch, the Rockets started closing the gap (and Brevin Knight got really frustrated on the broadcast). When the inside game is working late in a game like that, it has to remain the Grizzlies' first option. Why go away from something that's clearly working with such an important game on the line?
Bottom line is this: it's going to be hard for the Grizzlies to beat the Rockets two nights in a row. The Rockets are a good team. The upside is that tonight, both teams are on the second night of a back to back and the Grizzlies are at home. I expect tonight to be another close one, but if the Grizzlies can contain the Rockets' outside shooting (and keep James Harden from shooting 25 free throws) I think they can pull off the home-and-home sweep.
When the regular season was about to start, I wrote a preview for the print edition of the Flyer in which I put forth the ten big questions that would be facing the Grizzlies as a team and a franchise over the course of the 2013-14 season. Yesterday, I looked at the first five questions to see if they'd been answered yet. Today, I'm going to look at the other five questions from that preview piece and take stock of where the Grizzlies are with the halfway point of the season coming up between tonight's game in Houston and tomorrow's game in Memphis.
6. If the Grizzlies struggle this year, what will that do to their burgeoning fan base?
This is an interesting one. In the preview piece, here's what I said:
To be clear, I don’t think the team will trend downward this year, but the Western Conference Finals are a high bar that not many teams are able to reach—much less reach two years in a row. If the team’s newly-won fans expect the same level of performance this year, and things start to go south, it could create some interesting tension around the team.
Interesting tensions, indeed. Maybe I spend too much time on the Internet, but it seems to me like a small segment of Grizzlies fans are completely enraged by everything that has happened with the team since the last buzzer of WCF Game 4 sounded back in May. People are still talking about "If Lionel Hollins was still the coach..." The same group of fans used Ed Davis' early-season struggles as proof that he was never going to be any good. I'm surprised they haven't started calling for the head of Nick Calathes on a platter.
To be clear: there are legitimate issues and complaints to be made about this year's team, especially as it pertains to the struggles experienced by a first-year head coach and a team that has only looked "right" for two or three heartbreakingly short stretches this season. I stand by what I said back in November, though: "Make it back to the Western Conference Finals or the year is a failure" was a standard that probably wasn't going to be met even if everything had gone perfectly for the Grizzlies so far.
With any luck, the Grizzlies will be engaged in a thrilling playoff race and clinch the 8th seed and make it into the postseason, and that'll be the end of the... what did Calipari call them? Miserables? But we'll see. On the Internet, anyway, there's clearly a division among Griz fans between "Keep it the way it was" and "The new guys know what they're doing". Hopefully that's just an outgrowth of the turmoil the team has been going through this season. Winning covers a multitude of sins.
7. What will be the first in-season roster move the Grizzlies make?
I speculated that the Grizzlies would try to move Tayshaun Prince and/or Jerryd Bayless. Prince because of his contract, and Bayless because the front office wasn't expecting him to pick up his player option and return to the Grizzlies this season—but as soon as it was apparent that Lionel Hollins wasn't returning, Bayless did just that.
When the Grizzlies finish playing the Rockets in Houston on Friday night, and get on a plane to head back to Memphis and play the Rockets again Saturday night, they'll be at the halfway point of the season: 41 games played, 41 games to go.
Of course, they're on one of the longer breaks of the season right now, having last played Monday evening against the Pelicans, so this is a better time to stop and take stock of what a crazy season this has been so far.
If you'd told me in September that the Grizzlies would be 20-20 right now, with Tony Allen having played in 27 games, Marc Gasol in 17—Kosta Koufos and Mike Miller are the only guys who have played in all 40 games—with Jerryd Bayless replaced with Courtney Lee and James Johnson as a major piece of the rotation, I would've asked you what you were on, and maybe where I could get some. When we started talking about what the Grizzlies were going to look like this year, I think Memphis fans and media were a little blinded by what happened last year when trying to formulate what this year would look like—especially given the coaching change and the time that would be (and was) needed to adjust to that transition.
When I previewed the season all the way back in November, I asked ten questions about how the Grizzlies' season would go. So. Why not go through them and see if we have answers yet? I'll do the first five today, and the other five tomorrow, and it'll give us a good framework for taking stock of this season at its halfway mark.
On a day when the NBA makes it a point to honor the legacy and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the holiday to commemorate his birthday1, the Grizzlies took the extra share of national attention given to them and laid an egg for the national audience to see. Even though this year's MLK Day matchup seemed to be less of a marquee game than others—the Grizzlies/Pelicans game was at 4 PM on NBA TV instead of being the first game and featured on ESPN as is usual—it was still an important one: a chance for the Grizzlies to finally get a win over a divisional opponent and put away the Pelicans, who came into Monday's game missing Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Jason Smith to injury.
Since the return of Marc Gasol, we've been witness to the demise of JoergerBall: the Grizzlies were averaging well over 100 points per 100 possessions, they were pushing the pace, Mike Conley had all the space in the world to operate, allowing him to have a streak of games the likes of which he's never had in his career—all of it without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and high-post offensive savant who seemingly made everything happen last year. That's not to say the Grizzlies didn't miss Gasol. Especially on the defensive end, where the "grit and grind" thing died a horrible death months ago.
But, one has to admit, that with the additions of James Johnson and Courtney Lee, and the ascendance of Ed Davis, a streak of great games from Jon Leuer (who has since gone cold) and Mike Conley attacking every game like it was the Kobayashi Maru, things were going pretty well. The Griz clawed back up to one game under .500 just in time for Gasol to come back from his eight weeks off against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Right away things were off. The pace fell back through the floor. Gasol hasn't played in eight weeks, hasn't practiced with Johnson and Lee at all, and left the Grizzlies when they were playing the same way they played last year—and returned to a team with a much different look on offense, with Zach Randolph turning in some of the best post passing of his career, and hyper athletic 4's playing off Mike Miller and Courtney Lee putting up huge scoring runs. The adjustment was never going to be easy—and it's not like the Grizzlies have been getting beaten by 20 points regularly the way they were early in the season—but it does feel like since Gasol has yet to integrate with what the team is trying to do, the Grizzlies are driving with the parking brake on.
It felt like the Grizzlies were never going to get into a rhythm, and at times in the fourth quarter, it felt like the Kings had established a lead that would be hard for the Grizzlies to overcome. In the end, though, the Grizzlies were able to fend off a last-second Rudy Gay attempt at a game winner by forcing him to bobble the ball, which referee Marc Davis somehow decided was a jump ball.
The Grizzlies won the jump ball and thus the game. A win is a win, but this one felt uglier than it needed to be. Inserting Marc Gasol back into the picture has taken the Grizzlies from a fast-paced, high scoring offense back into, well, Grizzly territory. Gasol and Courtney Lee have never played together before. When asked about it last night in the locker room, Gasol said that when he was going through his light workouts last week, he wasn't even with the first team—he was with the second team so the starters could practice together.
Re-integrating Gasol into the Grizzlies' overall scheme is going to be a challenge for Dave Joerger, especially since the way the team plays shifted so much in his absence with the addition of James Johnson and Courtney Lee to the roster. So far, having Gasol on the floor has greatly slowed the Grizzlies down, both because he's never been much of a runner and also because, as Joerger pointed out in his post game comments, the rest of the Grizzlies got used to playing without him and now aren't always sure where everyone is going to be on the floor at any given point.
Last night, though, the Grizzlies were able to contain DeMarcus Cousins (except not without fouling him) and keep Rudy Gay to 19 points on 18 shots (a more "Bad Rudy"-like stat line than he's been putting up lately) and at the same time got 25 points and 6 assists out of Mike Conley, which was enough to get it done.
• The Grizzlies lost the rebounding battle in a big way, especially on the offensive boards where they only managed 2 OREBS per half for a total of 4. The Kings ended up with 10, and overall out-rebounded the Grizzlies by six. That's not normal, but it does point to the skill of DeMarcus Cousins. There were also times when the Kings had huge lineups on the floor, using so much size that Rudy Gay or Derrick Williams were the nominal shooting guard.
• Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol both thought last night was a block party, each blocking 4 shots. Two of Gasol's blocks came against Rudy Gay, and I have to admit: they were fun to watch.
• Nick Calathes had a great run in the first half. Legitimately good. He made some plays, hit a 3-pointer, kept the ship afloat with Conley on the bench, and then spent some time on the floor together with Conley while the Grizzlies tried to maintain a lead going into halftime. The crowd went crazy every time he did something good—almost a little too crazy, "sorry we booed you" crazy. Talking to Marc Gasol after the game, he said the cheers for Calathes made him really happy because "fans don't know how bad it hurts to get booed by your own side. I can't tell people not to do it, but I wish they wouldn't."
• Speaking of booing, fans had something worth booing last night: Marc Davis' officiating was pretty circumspect, especially the jump ball call that ended the game. Tom Ziller of SB Nation has a really good breakdown of what happened, including footage of the play. After the game I asked Tayshaun Prince how Davis explained the jump ball call, and Prince said he just said something about returning to the floor with the ball (which Gay did because he lost his handle on it, not because any Griz player's hand was on it) and told him to drop it. Not a good call, and not a way to end a close-fought game. No matter how the game ended last night, the losing coach would've had every right to blame the officiating. It wasn't good.
• Now the Grizzlies have a break before they take on the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Game. The halftime entertainer this year is Charley Pride, and I have to say, that fills me with an unreasonable amount of excitement. The Pelicans have been decimated by injuries this year, with Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson both out for extended periods and Tyreke Evans currently nursing a bone bruise in his left ankle, but Anthony Davis gave Gasol absolute fits the first time these teams faced off. It'll be an interesting game, and a chance for the Grizzlies to win their first division game of the year—they're currently the only team in the league without a single division win.