Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Next Day Notes: Grizzlies 102, Suns 101

Posted By on Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 8:05 AM

click to enlarge Zach Randolph's streak of double doubles ended last night against Phoenix. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Zach Randolph's streak of double doubles ended last night against Phoenix.

The Grizzlies had no business winning last night’s game in Phoenix against the Suns, and yet somehow they did. Despite losing the 4th quarter 29–25 and having absolutely no one who could do anything to stop Isaiah Thomas from going off for 16 points on 10 shots in the final frame, the Grizzlies got a rebound, basket, and free throw out of Jeff Green with 4 seconds left, followed by a Marc Gasol block of a Markieff Morris jumper as time expired. Winning 102–101 felt like a lucky break, considering the Griz had been down 101–94 only 1:49 earlier—but this year’s Grizzlies team has shown time and again that they know how to close out games, and they did it again on Monday night.

Phoenix is a very good team, with a very good coach. They may only make the 8 seed this year, but I see a future in which they’re dark horse Western Conference contenders. When they went to a small three-guard lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe, and Goran Dragic, the Griz had no answer for it, other than to go small with a Beno Udrih-led lineup. But that didn’t work nearly as well as going with Nick Calathes down the stretch (especially after Conley picked up his 5th foul and Joerger sat him down, something I felt was unnecessary). Calathes certainly lacks Udrih’s scoring firepower, but his length and his overall theftiness (hat tip to Chase Lucas) paid dividends last night.

The Grizzlies nearly lost the game in the second half for several reasons:

  • I’m not convinced Dave Joerger made the right decisions about which lineups he was playing for how long. In the first half, a bench lineup featuring Nick Calathes, Tony Allen, and Kosta Koufos did some serious damage to the Suns and opened up a lead in what been, to that point, a close game. Joerger didn’t go back to that lineup, choosing instead to deploy Udrih in the second half even beyond the point that it was obvious he couldn’t keep Isaiah Thomas from going left.
  • Phoenix is known for getting out and running in transition, looking at every opportunity to turn a rebound into an outlet pass and a break. By the 4th quarter, this had worn Marc Gasol—who played 20 minutes in the second half—down to a nub, and his legs were too dead to consistently defend well. That’s the downside of Joerger’s recent “play Gasol/Z-Bo the entire second half” strategy: they’re dead tired by the end of the game.
  • The Grizzlies just don’t have any lineup that matches up well defensively with Phoenix’s 3-guard set. Of course, I don’t think any team in the league does. Maybe Calathes/Lee/Allen, or Calathes/Conley/Allen, but last night Conley couldn’t defend Thomas without fouling and he’s never been able to defend Bledsoe much if at all. TA is pretty much the Grizzlies’ only hope of stopping Bledsoe, all the way back to his days on the Clippers.

This is where this year’s Grizzlies are different, though: they just decided somewhere around 1:30 remaining in the game that they weren’t going to lose, and they didn’t. The comeback was fast and furious, and it looked like it caught the Suns completely off guard. There’s always a lot of talk with young teams that they need to “learn how to win.” I never used to believe in that—I always just figured guys wanted to win the minute they stepped into the league. And they do. But there’s something about a group of players who have been together this long… they really do know how to win together. We’ve seen them do it time and time again this season, mounting all sorts of improbable comebacks, seemingly never anything but sure that they’re going to come out on top. They know how to win, and they’re doing it really often.

Game Notes

➭ I touched on this above, but Mike Conley’s defense was pretty bad all night. None of the three guards Phoenix rolled out—Thomas, Dragic, or Bledsoe—were great matchups for Conley, and he struggled to do anything to slow any of them up without fouling. He was able to make a couple of steals, and on offense, he had a great night, scoring 23 on 9–15 shooting. But Phoenix really hampered his defense and his facilitation (holding him to one assist) in a way that few teams have this year.

➭ Kosta Koufos was, as I said in a message to a friend, balling out of control. In fifteen minutes, Koufos had four points in eleven rebounds, the most boards he’s ever grabbed off the bench for the Grizzlies. His presence anchored some key bench lineups last night, and Phoenix, despite the improvement of Alex Len and Miles Plumlee (well, mainly Len), had no answer for him on the glass. The fact that Koufos was mentioned in trade rumors recently made sense at the time, but in his limited minutes, he’s proven more and more valuable to what the Grizzlies are trying to do this season. He only ever seems to play about 15 minutes, which I feel is too few—especially in light of Joerger’s preference for playing Gasol the whole second half. I’m not as big of a fan of the Gasol/Koufos “Twin Towers” pairing as I used to be—those lineups haven’t been very good this year—but I do think Koufos should play 20 to 25 minutes and Gasol should be as close to 30 as possible. Underusing Koufos is overusing Gasol, and both things are happening right now.

➭ Even though his consecutive streak of double-doubles ended last night because he only grabbed 9 rebounds, I don’t think there’s any question that this is the best that Zach Randolph (that’s Reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Zach Randolph to you, buddy) is playing the best ball he’s played since his 2012 MCL injury. His rebounding, especially on the offensive glass, is the engine that drives his newfound “garbage man” role (a role that faded back into “primary scoring option” over the past few weeks while he’s been playing so well) and watching him now, there’s little doubt that he can continue to be a 12–10 guy (or, more likely, a 10–12 guy) for the next three or four years. This Z-Bo is the one that we love so much, the one who captured our hearts in the first place. It’s been a beautiful, slow, wrenchingly violent and mean-mugging stretch to watch, and utterly captivating.

Tweet of the Night

Chris Herrington, moments after Dave Joerger let the final possession play out without calling a timeout, resulting in the Jeff Green basket-and-one that turned out to be the gamewinner:

Joerger’s decision not to call a timeout wasn’t just blind faith in his players, of course; it prevented Phoenix from being able to substitute players, from drawing up a defense to whatever play Joerger drew up, and let the players find a basket in rhythm instead of trying to run a set halfcourt play. But at the time, it felt really risky, and the fact that it worked out felt like a minor miracle.


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