By Chris Herrington
As was pointed out in these pages two weeks ago, the play of Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams is the clearest barometer of team success -- and the team's first four games of the season only bolster that argument. In the Grizzlies' first three games -- all against elite teams, all blowout losses --Williams averaged 8.7 points, six assists, and four turnovers and shot 37 percent from the floor and 29 percent from the three-point arc. Monday night, the Grizzlies played another elite team, the San Antonio Spurs. But rather than get blown out of the building again, they forced a bigger, more experienced, and more talented Spurs team into overtime. It took a long, fadeaway jumpshot at the buzzer from reigning MVP Tim Duncan -- over the outstretched arms of Pau Gasol -- to put the Grizzlies away. In that game, Williams put up 19 points, nine assists, and only two turnovers and shot 47 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three-point line.
But it isn't as simple as the numbers. It's Williams' notoriously erratic decision-making -- nuances that don't show up in the boxscore --that really drives the team's fortunes. You could see both sides of Williams' Jekyll and Hyde point skills in the team's past two games and see how his decision-making during the second quarter in particular often determines whether the team will have a chance to win.
Coach Sidney Lowe's point guard rotation is pretty consistent, at least in the first half of games: Williams starts, giving way to backup Brevin Knight sometime in the final few minutes of the first quarter. Knight continues into the second quarter, replaced by Williams midway through. Williams finishes the half.
In the team's 17-point loss to Sacramento last week, the Grizzlies led 13-8 when Williams left the game in the first quarter. Knight held the lead, and the Grizzlies were up 35-29 when Williams returned with 8:31 to go in the half. Then the bad J-Will emerged. Over the next four minutes and 10 offensive possessions, Williams ignored his duty to run the offense, pulling up for four quick, contested jumpers --all misses -- before another teammate had touched the ball. Only once in those 10 possessions did the team's trigger-man make a pass that was actually catalytic --a pass intended to actively initiate or create offense. (Swingman Gordon Giricek got an open three off Williams' penetration but missed.) In the four minutes after Williams returned to the game, the team didn't score a single field goal, and the Kings went on a 14-2 run.
At that point, Lowe called a timeout and Williams played the rest of the half much more in control, but the damage had been done: The Kings went into the half with the lead, the Grizzlies lost their momentum, and Sacramento blew the game open in the third quarter.
Monday against the Spurs, Williams wasn't inspired in the second quarter, but he was efficient. The Grizzlies held a one-point lead when Williams left the game in the first quarter, but when J-Will reentered the game mid-way through the second quarter, the Spurs were up by six (36-42). Through 15 offensive possessions to close out the half, Williams jacked up only one of his trademark off-balance, early-in-the-shot-clock three-pointers. He pushed the ball when the opportunity was there --hitting Lorenzen Wright, who got fouled, and Giricek, who finished. He walked it up and got the ball to Gasol and got the offense going. Williams wasn't flashy during these six minutes. He didn't score a single point. But he had three assists and no turnovers. More importantly, the team went on a 14-7 run, reclaiming a one-point lead heading into the half and giving them the momentum to battle the Spurs on through to overtime.
There's a coda to all this, of course. In the overtime period against the Spurs, Williams gave Grizzlies fans a mini-version of the good J-Will/bad J-Will dichotomy. For the first two and a half minutes of the five-minute period, the offense ran through Gasol exclusively. Twice, Williams got open shots off Gasol passes and twice he knocked them down. Through two and a half minutes, Williams had five points (all in the flow of the offense), two assists, no turnovers, and the team pulled ahead 99-94. Then, inexplicably, the Grizzlies went away from running the ball through Gasol. Williams pulled up for two quick threes, both misses. He committed a turnover. He went to rookie Drew Gooden down low, who fumbled the pass, instead of an open Gasol. The Spurs closed the game for the win.
After the game, Lowe was obviously disappointed in the execution at the end. Does Williams always have the option to pull up for a quick jumper, one reporter asked. "Option?" Lowe responded, incredulously. "No, that's not his option, not in that situation. That's a decision [he made], but not an option. He's the type of player who wants to put a dagger in you. He wants to go for the big bomb. He took a couple of bad shots, but [other than that] he played a good game for us."
Williams can't catch a break on press row. It seems like every decision he makes is deemed a bad one, while "good guys" like Shane Battier and Knight are given a pass when they come up short. One popular theory floating around last year, which seems to still have some currency, is that the team functions better with Knight at the helm. This may be true on nights when Williams is having a particularly bad game but is otherwise absurd. Last season, in games in which Knight played 24 or more minutes (in other words, in games in which he was the primary point guard), the Grizzlies' winning percentage was a calamitous .111. In games in which Williams had control of the team, the winning percentage was a still paltry, but dramatically better, .339.
Lowe was right: Williams did have a good game on Monday. He put the team in a position to win, but he didn't finish. Jason Williams gives this team its best opportunity to win -- but this year is the make-or-break year. If he puts it together, this team will improve by double digits in the win column. If he doesn't, the malaise will return. Pay attention to those second quarters.
By Kenneth Neill
How mad can a proverbial wet hen get? Trust me: no madder than the thousand or so drowned rats disguised as U of M football fans still prowling around the bowels of the soggy Liberty Bowl late Saturday afternoon, having watched their beloved Tigers figure out yet another creative way to lose a football game. This time, the Blue Boys snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, losing 26-21 to a mediocre Houston squad that, in the end, could only smile and quote Elvis ("Thankyaverramuch!"), knowing just how lucky they were to head home with a win.
Victory was there for the taking: The Tigers had the ball first-and-goal on the Houston five, with but 1:15 to play. A casual observer would have thought it impossible for the Tigers to blow this one, but we, the Loyal Order of Drowned Rats, knew better: If there was a way to lose, the Tigers would surely find it.
And, sure enough, they did. A remarkable (for the sheer stupidity of the decision) quarterback draw call on first down netted minus-three yards and kept the clock running, allowing for the usual time-wasting offensive confusion on the field as the Tigers tried to regroup for their next play. On second down, Danny Wimprine threw an incompletion, and then, on third down, his passing arm was hit as he threw and the ball dropped into the eager arms of a Houston defender. Game, set, match, Cougars. We of the LODR trudged home like war refugees to soak our frozen feet in buckets of warm water and ponder what might have been this season.
Where did it all go wrong? Well, one could start with the spate of special-teams goofs that killed momentum week in and week out and brought us heartbreaking defeat after heartbreaking defeat. Then consider the intense bout of Turnover Fever that infected the team in midseason, giving opponents a couple more easy victories. And, yes, behind it all was the Dirty Little Secret about the Tiger defense: namely, that we barely had one. Preseason backfield defections, inexperience, and a spate of injuries combined to make this Tiger defensive squad perhaps the weakest in recent memory.
The good news is that much of this was fixed by last Saturday, when the Tigers -- remarkably under the demoralizing circumstances -- played one of their better games of the season. The intriguing quarterbacks-as-floating-punters strategy actually worked well most of the time, and the Tigers made but one turnover (albeit a costly one; Derron White's punt-return drop set up Houston's first TD) until the game's final seconds. And the defense -- outweighed, overmatched, undermanned -- played just about as well as it could.
So what went wrong Saturday? The same thing that's gone wrong all year. The Tigers failed, yet again, to maximize their strength. A Tiger offense that should have been among C-USA's best this season sputtered like an old car with water in its gas tank.
Look at the facts. We have a veteran offensive line, a quarterback in Danny Wimprine who (despite his uncanny knack of making exactly the wrong decision at exactly the wrong time) is on everybody's list of the top three in the conference, receivers who can fly, and a running-back tandem (Dante Brown and D'Angelo Williams) clearly as good as anyone else's in the C-USA.
And what have we done with all this talent? We've squandered it with offensive strategies that defy logic, with a no-huddle system apparently designed to encourage communication snafus, and boneheaded play-calling at critical times. It hasn't helped that there have been days when Tiger receivers have dropped every ball thrown at them, but that's football. That kind of bad luck makes you 4-5, not 2-7.
When you're not the most talented football team on the planet, you have to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. The 2002 Tigers have done just the opposite, and it shows. That last painful series against Houston said it all. Whatever you say about the play-calling and execution, the offense looked completely confused. And you can't win football games when you're confused -- whether you're the coaches on the sidelines or the players on the field.