An unusually eventful Grizzlies season has been even bumpier over the past week, with the most intensely enjoyable home game of the season — Friday's overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs — followed by two dispiriting non-performances: a big loss in Dallas the following night and a 99-73 drubbing at FedExForum Monday night at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers. The 26-point scoring margin is the Grizzlies' worst defeat of the season, and the 30.3 percent shooting was the worst home performance in franchise history.
There were excuses for both bad losses. The Dallas game seemed like a classic schedule loss, the second night of a back-to-back on the road after a draining overtime win. Monday night, the team was playing without leading scorer Rudy Gay, out of town for a family funeral. Gay's loss, on top of the loss of his own backup, Quincy Pondexter, had the Grizzlies playing unconventional lineups all night and against the league's deepest team. The Clippers, of course, were playing without their best player, Chris Paul.
If the Grizzlies have a good showing — win or lose — in a Wednesday-night rematch with the Spurs in San Antonio, these losses can maintain their asterisks. A bad showing Wednesday night and alarm bells will sound.
But while the Grizzlies' contender status and season trajectory still hangs in the balance — pending the next game, the next Rudy Gay trade rumor, or the next Lionel Hollins radio interview — let's take a quiet moment amid the clamor to recognize one player on the roster undercard who is doing good things now that promise even more going forward.
Darrell Arthur missed all last season with an Achilles injury and then missed the start of this season with a more minor leg injury. Upon his return, it's taken him a few weeks to improve his conditioning and timing back to something resembling his pre-injury form. But in recent weeks, he's shown why many — myself included — thought he was the team's best reserve player and one of the league's better backup forwards before the injury. Arthur's minutes and production are both up in January — his rebounding rate up, his turnover rate down, his jumper starting to fall more.
Arthur's surface stats don't look like much — seven points, three rebounds a game — but watch him closely and you'll regularly see Arthur make impactful defensive plays that don't register in the box score: Blowing up pick-and-rolls. Switching onto and containing perimeter ballhandlers. Cutting off drives and setting up teammate steals. Racing down in transition to disrupt a fastbreak.
This month, with the injury to Pondexter, we've seen Arthur add to his resume by playing a more than passable small forward. Prior to Monday night's debacle, the Grizzlies had outscored opponents by nine points in 43 minutes with Arthur on the wing. Against the Clippers, with most of the team in the tank, Arthur fared a little better than most and did while guarding five different players over the course of the game.
Arthur was the star of that dramatic win over the Spurs, with his best all-around game since facing the same Spurs, pre-injury, in the playoffs two seasons prior. Arthur made a series of big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime in that game: defensive rebounds, mid-range jumpers, winning a tip against Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, and sprinting out for a transition dunk that sealed the game in the final seconds. But his best moment was easy to overlook. In the final sequence of the game, after Gay made a pull-up jumper for the go-ahead basket, the Spurs had a chance to tie or take the lead. They ran a high pick-and-roll between point guard Tony Parker and Duncan. And Arthur blew it up: switching onto Parker and pushing him outside his shooting range, recovering back to Duncan to deny a pass, and then jumping back out on Parker to contest the fadeaway jumper that was left. Three key defensive plays in a matter of seconds to preserve Gay's big shot and set up Arthur's own dunk at the other end.
While many things are uncertain about the Grizzlies right now, Arthur's comeback and blooming versatility is a good story flying under the radar.