Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Blazers 100, Grizzlies 92: Five Thoughts

Posted By on Tue, Nov 21, 2017 at 8:34 AM

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

The Grizzlies played a much better game Monday night against the Portland Trail Blazers than they did against Houston on Saturday, but the ultimate result was the same: a 100-92 loss. The Grizzlies are now 4-6 in their last 10 games, and they sit tied for 8th in the Western Conference with a 7-9 record. This current homestand has not been kind to the Grizzlies; they've lost five games in a row going back to the road loss in Houston on November 11. Last night showed some glimmers of hope, but the Griz also fell victim to some recurring problems. Here are five takeaways from last night:

The defense and offense were both improved, but neither was consistent enough. Portland is one of the many competitors for the last couple of West playoff spots this year. I'd put them roughly in the same quality tier as the Grizzlies, so this was a pretty evenly-matched game last night. When the Grizzlies were able to play defense well and get stops, they kept up fine, but outside of transition baskets—the thing the Grizzlies have lived by all season long—the halfcourt offense wasn't there.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

On the other hand, when the offense was working—usually with Marc Gasol taking it to the block against Jusuf Nurkic and bulling him Z-Bo style for a bucket down low, or with Tyreke Evans carving through a scattered Portland defense for a transition layup—it was like the offense took so much focus and effort that the other end of the floor, the arguably more important (for this team) defensive end, nothing came together.

Unless the Grizzlies can somehow get back to getting stops defensively and using that as the point of initiation for the whole offense, they're just not going to beat anybody halfway decent. You can't be a winning NBA team and only concentrate on one end of the court or the other. (Maybe the 2012 or 2014 Grizzlies would beg to differ, but even they had Zach Randolph to just dump the ball to when the offense broke down, which happened regularly.)

James Ennis is not good right now. Griz coach David Fizdale said as much at the presser after the game last night: Ennis is struggling. It's been a common occurrance during his tenure with the Grizzlies; he's really only able to play well when his role is defined very concretely. When the lineups start to shift and it's not extremely clear what Ennis' minute load will be or what type of expectations he's carrying, he struggles to find his place in the offense and in the defense, and that showed last night. Ennis only played 7:47 and didn't make a shot, and got blown by several times on the defensive end.

Even with Chandler Parsons moved to the starting lineup, that's not enough production from Ennis. It can be hard to operate within constantly changing parameters—trust me, I work in the newspaper business—but Ennis has got to be able to find some sort of internal anchoring to be able to play well no matter what role he's playing or for how long. Otherwise, I'm not sure he'll even be able to stick in this rotation, the way things are going.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Deyonta Davis made me forget about Brandan Wright last night. Wright's been having a good year, but Davis, who was previously getting minutes for the Hustle after an unimpressive summer, came in and played 13 and a half solid minutes last night. His defensive instincts are still top notch, and while he only notched 3 rebounds and 2 steals (the Grizzlies' rebounding in general was atrocious last night), Davis had a positive impact on the game for the Grizzlies, something that seemed unlikely even a couple of weeks ago. If he can step in and play better defense than Wright, that clears up some problems rotationally for the Grizzlies, though Wright's ability to make baskets appear out of nowhere in pick-and-roll situations is certainly missed. Davis may turn into a real NBA player yet, which would be a big win for the Grizzlies and would justify how much time and energy I spent constructing this giant Deyonta Davis International Super Bandwagon™ last season. (You're all welcome to hop back on.)

It's cool that Chandler Parsons is starting, but I miss the good bench. Injuries have dictated the situation, for sure, but I can't decide whether I'm excited that Parsons—whom I was told straight up by a Grizzlies executive was not a small forward anymore—is now starting in that spot and getting good minutes, or whether I'm sad that the magic of the Chalmers-Brooks-Evans-Parsons-Wright bench unit is no longer with us. Probably the latter. Parsons struggled to find his shot last night, and clearly needs to spend some more time in the lab developing some chemistry with this starting unit sans Conley, but... any good thing Parsons accomplishes this season is mostly a win, considering that the contract to which he's signed is a sunk cost either way, one that it looked like they might have to write off last year.

The chemistry of the Grizzlies is totally out of whack right now, as could reasonably be expected with Conley injured and Green, McLemore, and Selden all returning from injury (though Selden was back out last night). The units that started the season playing well together are not the units being rolled out right now, because with Green back in the starting lineup and McLemore out there as a bench wing, everything is shifted around to accomodate, and all the while Mario Chalmers is out there trying to do his best Conley impression (which maybe would have been more convincing in 2013 or 14). Parsons' move to the starting unit is part of that; it's yet another variable being tweaked on the fly. Green and McLemore, you'll remember, didn't even participate in training camp. It's a work in progress, and that's a big part of why they're so uneven and frustrating through this stretch.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Sitting around .500 probably shouldn't be as frustrating as it is. I just keep telling myself that we knew this was going to be the season: shuffling guys in and out of rotation spots trying to find a good match, dealing with whatever injuries happen to Conley and Gasol (and they always end up missing time with injuries), trying to figure out what this team is going to be in the future with a coach who's still only in his second year on the job and a locker room full of personalities that don't necessarily mesh at first blush.

So why is it so frustrating to watch them struggle, when we all knew coming into the season that they were going to struggle? It's impossible to complain about their hot start, but that's definitely a factor here: they found some early chemistry when some of the good teams they played were still feeling some things out. Now the Grizzlies are the ones trying to adjust on the fly while everyone else is starting to settle into what they're going to be this season, and it looks like they're falling apart when really, they're just in the situation we all already knew they'd be in.

It's hard to explain, and this is certainly not an argument for pretending everything is fine when it's clearly not; there are definite long-term issues that this team has to figure out in order to be any good this season and beyond. But maybe some longer-term thinking is needed here. If you'd said in August that the Grizzlies were two games under .500 at Thanksgiving and asked whether that was a positive or a negative, I'd have said they were overachieving my expectations. That that's not true anymore says more about how well they started the season than about my expectations going into it.

Tweet of the Night

Let us never forget that Marc Gasol is always going to pass the ball to the open guy in the corner, no matter who that guy is and how well he shoots:

Up Next

A rematch against Dallas, who have played the Grizzlies better than they have any right to. (I blame Rick Carlisle's warlock and magic excellent coaching acumen.) After that, it's a one-game trip to Denver for a Friday night matchup against the Nuggets at altitude (also known as "a schedule loss") and a home game Sunday against the Nets (also known as "maybe another loss if they don't play hard). The Grizzlies are only going to break their losing streak if they show up for these games focused on both ends of the floor, which is something that hasn't happened in a couple of weeks (to the point that Gasol issued those "embarrassing and sad" quotes). At this point, whether they'll figure it out in time is anybody's guess.

Correction: this column originally said the Grizzlies were 7-6, which is incorrect. They're actually 7-9. The NBA standings page has outdated data and I didn't catch it while I was writing. We regret the error.
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