Thursday, February 7, 2019

Wendigone: Marc Gasol's Memphis Era Ends

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2019 at 10:47 PM

The tale of the Grizzlies' half-man, half-Memphian, has  come to an end.

Matt Moore of the Action Network coined a nickname for now-former Memphis Grizzly Marc Gasol that took off on twitter during the height of the Grit n’ Grind era. “The Wendigo,” as Moore called him, came from Gasol’s tenaciousness on the court and his physical appearance. A mythological half-man, half-beast creature known for devouring people whole, the Wendigo was an accurate description of the long haired, uber-aggressive Grizzlies rookie center that Moore saw in 2008. Gasol was a wild man on the court back then — an inside presence who banged the boards and battled in the paint to the delight of the fan-base that took pleasure in seeing a more “Memphis Made” alternative to Marc’s older brother, Pau. For everything that fans longed for in Pau, Marc was the tougher, grittier, upgraded version.
MATT PRESTON
  • Matt Preston

Marc Gasol was as close to being a native son as any non-Memphian could be. He played high school basketball at Lausanne Collegiate School and later turned down an opportunity to walk on at the University of Memphis in order to go play professionally back in his native Spain. Fate would bring him back to Memphis via trade. The younger Gasol’s years of being one of the best prospects overseas prepared him well, and he became a welcome surprise upon his arrival to the NBA. He was a traditional European-style big-man, infused with Project Pat lyrics and Bluff City swagger and toughness. What Matt Moore saw as being half-man, half-beast was actually more like half-man, half-Memphian — a player who became a product of his environment — but also the methodical, intellectual, introverted, puzzle that we know today.

As Gasol’s game would develop and change on the court, his understanding for the importance of the role that he played for not only the team on the court, but the Grizzlies organization — and the city of Memphis — would change as well. As Gasol faded farther away from the basket, his love and understanding for the essence of the city of Memphis grew closer to his heart, and Gasol himself grew closer to the heart of the fan-base.

The addition of Zach Randolph in 2009 allowed Gasol the freedom to not to have to bang in the paint as much and provided him with a teammate that joined him to form half of one of the best front-court tandems in the NBA. Gasol became more of a facilitator and an outside threat as years went by, and many, including me, would grow frustrated with his tendency to defer to his teammates instead of looking to be more aggressive offensively.

Gasol was an acquired taste for some within the fan-base. On some nights he would be an unstoppable monster that you could run everything through on offense, while also remaining an elite defender. Other nights he would seem to be disinterested and passive, blaming either his teammates or coaches. Gauging Gasol's temperament was difficult, but he was without a doubt the team’s thermometer. Want to know the mood of the team and the outlook in the locker room? Take a look at Marc Gasol’s body language, or better yet, put a microphone in front of him. Gasol's demeanor could range from grim and grumpy to grateful and giddy — and it could all happen before halftime. 
Marc Gasol - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol

Gasol’s time with Memphis has now come to an end. He is off to Toronto, where he will have a much lower level of expectation placed upon him. There won’t be as many people begging him to rebound, score in the paint, or attempt to block a shot. He will have less pressure on him, but he won't get nearly as much love as this city provided — a love that he always made an effort to return. From the aggressive half-man, half-beast without fear or limitations that he was back in 2008 to the more seasoned and worse-for-wear veteran he is now, his time in Memphis won’t soon be forgotten. Here’s to Marc Gasol continuing to represent for the city that adopted him as its own.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Conley and Gasol's Possible Farewell Brings Mixed Emotions

Posted By on Tue, Feb 5, 2019 at 8:53 AM

Today the remaining two members of the Memphis Grizzlies’ “Core Four” era could be playing their final home game for the team they have played for their entire careers. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have been involved in several trade rumors after it was recently announced that Grizzlies owner Robert Pera was willing to trade the
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
m before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.

The Grizzlies play at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday night, before a road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. I would expect the Tuesday game to be emotional for the fans and media members, who could be seeing Gasol and Conley for the final time in Beale Street Blue. I’m also sure that there will be a tone of emotion from both Gasol and Conley, as they reflect on the possibility of playing their final home game for Memphis.

The possibility of both franchise stalwarts being traded creates a unique situation for the Grizzlies. For a franchise with a relatively short history, compared to others in the league, Conley and Gasol represent the first long-tenured, accomplished players who are having a farewell tour, so to speak. Both players have played for Memphis since their rookie seasons, and Gasol, of course, attended Lausanne High School here in Memphis, while his brother Pau played for the Grizzlies. 
We've watched these two now-established veterans grow literally from being boys to men. We've watched them change in appearance and body frame over the years, and we've seen them get married, have kids, and become a part of the community — on and off the court. The thought of Conley and Gasol not being a part of the Grizzlies is a difficult one to comprehend, but one that, as far this season’s trade deadline is concerned, is definitely a possibility.

It has been reported that the Grizzlies covet draft picks and young prospects in any trade, and some reports also suggest that they desire expiring contracts in return for either of their stars. Many trade scenarios include the Grizzlies gaining players with warts and flaws that the team believes could be less worrisome in a different environment. Others have suggested that the organization should consider Conley's and Gasol's accomplishments and contributions and choose a destination for them that is mutually beneficial to the Grizzlies and the two players.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
I don't think that that should be a factor. The NBA is a business, and a shrewd one, at that. Teams have a limited window of success, and in a small market like Memphis, that window can have a screen, bars on the outside, and be quickly painted over, if opportunity isn’t seized and handled intelligently. There have been complaints that the Grizzlies organization failed Conley and Gasol by not providing an adequate supporting cast for them during their time here — especially recently.

I am personally fine with considering the possibility that Gasol and Conley were also the product of their other two Core Four members, and instead of being a two-man tandem, were part of a quartet that needed all four members to truly make hit music.

The Core Four was like a concept album. A beautiful creation built around Grit n’ Grind, where if you were to separate the various songs from the whole record, they don’t hold the same weight. Yes Conley and Gasol have been vital to this organization, but why do they deserve a better send off than Zach Randolph and Tony Allen received, which was nothing? They both played their entire final season expecting to be back, and wanting to come back, only to be told (or not told) that they weren’t welcome.

Could a trade be announced tonight in the middle of the game, leading to an awkward but potentially amazing moment? Possibly. Or will we see Conley and Gasol make it past the trade deadline and keep playing for Memphis for years to come? The one thing that is definite is that the NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and two of the city’s adopted sons might be playing their final home game here. It’s one game that I won’t miss — even though I might not miss these two players as much as others will.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Grizz Front Office Woes? Pera Doesn't Have To Look Far For a Solution

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 8:04 PM

With the Grizzlies now on the verge of possibly trading the last two pillars of the Grit 'n Grind Era in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, many fans and media members have shown concern. Not so much a concern over whether or not it is a good idea to trade the two veterans, but more a concern about who would be in charge of trading them — namely Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace.
Tayshaun Prince - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tayshaun Prince

Wallace has been connected to his share of baffling moves and blunders while serving as the team’s general manager. From the Hasheem Thabeet draft pick, the countless other picks that didn’t pan out, the questionable trades, the giving away of draft picks haphazardly, the overpaying for players, and the signing of Chandler Parsons to a max contract. Is it understandable fans might be gun-shy about trusting Wallace with another rebuild?

Yes it is. Especially when this rebuild is different — for many reasons.

This isn’t the fresh, cute and cuddly Grizzlies franchise that was new to a city that didn’t know what to expect. This team has grown on — and with — the city and the fans have tasted the spoils of victory. They won't settle for years of bad basketball or a poorly run franchise. It’s a crucial time for the organization. A mishandled rebuild could be fatal to the organization by driving away its fan base. 

So let’s assume that Grizzlies majority owner Robert Pera also has concerns about Wallace’s ability to prepare the organization for its next phase. Where does he turn at this point in the season? Who would be willing to come on board with the organization (or lack thereof), with its seeming constant flux and instability? To me, the answer might be simple. In fact, the answer in this case might already be here.

Chris Makris - NBA.COM
  • NBA.com
  • Chris Makris
The Grizzlies have two under-utilized members of their front office in former NBA player Tayshaun Prince, who serves as Special Assistant to the General Manager, and Chris Makris, the Director of Player Personnel. As a former highly respected and professional NBA player, Prince has clout around the league. Players, coaches, and executives, alike, respect Prince and his work ethic. He is highly intelligent in terms of seeing the game, identifying problems, and looking at the many intricate ways in which they can be addressed. He has a wealth of knowledge about the game — and knows what it takes to win. Most fans will also remember that he was a steadying presence on the Grizzlies' Western Conference Finals team — and a major loss off the court when he was traded for Jeff Green two years later.

Prince is still relatively inexperienced in the area of day-to-day operations, but this is an area where Makris could come in and support Prince by filling that void. Similar to the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka partnership with the Lakers, I could see Makris and Prince being a tandem that accentuates each other’s deficiencies for a common goal — a successful NBA team built the right way, with no short cuts or ulterior motives. With the Lakers, Magic Johnson has the clout, pull, and credentials, while Pelinka handles the behind-the-scenes grind. Neither Prince nor Makris are yes men. And both choose to let their work and their actions do the talking.

I originally became aware of Makris when he was serving as General Manager for the Iowa Energy, after the Grizzlies acquired the team as a developmental league affiliate. He served in this capacity for 10 years, during a tenure that included four division titles and one league championship. Makris ran the basketball side, as well as the business side. He hired three Iowa Energy coaches that now serve as either NBA head coaches or assistants: Head Coach Nick Nurse and Assistant Coach Nate Bjorken in Toronto, and Sixers Assistant Coach Kevin Young. Makris and his revamped and refocused scouting team also identified Jaren Jackson Jr. early in the scouting process and saw his potential as the best player in this draft, when many others didn’t.

Are Prince and Makris experienced enough to handle this team for the upcoming trade deadline and beyond? Maybe not, but they have done the work and have all of the tools needed to succeed. And they would be a breath of fresh air in a front office that needs a major upheaval. The fanbase has seen what Wallace and Hollinger have to offer and most think it's time for a change. I believe that Prince and Makris have the DNA that matches what the fans want to see, going forward.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Grizzlies, Memphis, and MLK Day: Still a Long Way to Go

Posted By on Tue, Jan 22, 2019 at 9:09 AM

The Memphis Grizzlies do a phenomenal job with their annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration. In what I consider the crown jewel of the Grizzlies' operations side’s achievements, the team pulls out all the stops to recognize and celebrate the legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left behind in this country for all who suffered racial and economic injustices. The team traditionally honors former athletes who have been examples of Dr. King’s legacy, and hosts a captivating symposium that allows the honorees to share stories of adversity and inspiration. 
A recent Grizzlies MLK Day uniform
  • A recent Grizzlies MLK Day uniform

The celebration, of course, also surrounds an actual NBA game. The Grizzlies were the first organization in the NBA to place an intentional emphasis on the day, which is fitting, considering Memphis’ history as a key city during the civil rights movement and Dr. King's tragic assassination here in 1968.

The NBA has since hitched their wagon to the Grizzlies' innovation and made MLK Day a major event league-wide. This also resulted in the Grizzlies being bumped from the prime-time nationally televised game to the earlier afternoon game (and even being moved to the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day in 2017). The NBA eventually made things right by returning the Grizzlies to the Monday game last season. In 2017 and 2018 the team wore uniforms inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

The Grizzlies and the NBA have done an excellent job of capturing the essence of Dr. King on a surface level, but there is so much more that needs to be done, especially in the city where Dr. King took his final breath. I was born and raised in Memphis and I love this city with everything I have. I love its soul, its attitude, its hospitality, its culture. There’s isn’t much about this city that I won’t defend to its core — except for the fact that now, 50-plus years after Dr. King’s assassination, Memphis still has a long way to go as far as achieving the actual essence of his dream.

The difference between schools in the inner city and the suburbs is appalling. As someone who has a background in working hands-on with the city’s youth, and alongside its school system’s employees, I can tell you that a visit inside of some of the inner-city schools can bring you to tears. There are no rules or laws that separate us but there is a lot of “that’s just how it is.”

The racism is veiled, but still alive and well. There are parts of town that people avoid, either because of perceived danger or just plain ignorance. From another viewpoint, there are also parts of town that people stay away from to avoid unfair treatment, stares, and racial profiling.

But the show must go on. The games and the festivities around them must still be played. There’s a cliché that gets a lot of notoriety here in Memphis: Namely, that the Grizzlies bring the city together. This is a cliché to which I will never subscribe. Sports don’t bring a city together. They are a temporary escape from reality — a coping mechanism. If a person has disdain or prejudice towards someone of another race or social class, it doesn’t magically disappear when you both see the upside in Jaren Jackson Jr.

Maybe the Grizzlies cause you to cheer together against a common enemy or to join together in the joys of victory, but all of that can quickly fade away when you see the guy that you just gave a high-five to pull his wife closer as she clutches her purse in the parking lot while passing you. I’ve been a part of this scenario enough to know that it’s a real thing. I’ve lived in this city long enough to know that it needs work to achieve all that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. Has there been progress? Yes, but there is little to actually celebrate about.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Trade Deadline Forces Grizz into a Tough Gasol Decision

Posted By on Sun, Jan 20, 2019 at 8:19 PM

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
With the NBA trade deadline approaching, the Memphis Grizzlies’ ownership and front office will have a tough decision to make. Marc Gasol, who has a player option on the final year of his contract in 2019-20, can either opt in for one year or opt out — and become an unrestricted free agent. Opting in would pay him the remaining balance of the nearly $26 million owed to him. Opting out means he could explore other offers and find out what NBA teams might pay for his services.

Opting out doesn’t necessarily mean an end to Gasol's career with the Grizzlies, as he could also re-sign with the Grizzlies with a new contract. This could also include a situation where Gasol would opt out of his final year, become a free agent, and re-sign with the Grizzlies for a lesser amount that would help the team with its cap situation.
All of these options, of course, depend on Gasol’s decision, but the Grizzlies ultimately have the opportunity to decide their own destiny concerning Gasol by simply — or not-so-simply — moving him by the February 7th trade deadline. Many within the fan base have been saying that Gasol should be traded, and the constant, and now annual, trade rumors from local and national media have done nothing but add fuel to the fire.

It’s easy to see Gasol’s decline on the court. Never an natural athlete, he has even struggled lately as a positional defender — an ability that once led to his being named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Gasol hasn’t been assertive offensively, either. Whether this is because of health issues, physical decline, or disinterest is hard to tell. He's been routinely passing up shots and hasn't been much of a primary, or secondary, option, which is vital to this Grizzlies team's success. Gasol's been frustratingly gun-shy from mid and three-point range, as well, and his post fade-away has seemed to well … fade away.

Gasol's decline at both ends of the court is a key reason for the Grizzlies' failure to win this season.

Of course, it would be great if a deal happened that would benefit the Grizzlies and Gasol, but the often-heard refrain of “just trade Marc for some picks” is more fantasy than reality. For the Grizzlies to be able to trade Gasol, the other team would have to be able to return comparable salary numbers. This would likely take the form of a bad contract coming back from a contending team. It won’t be multiple young players – and maybe not even one young talent. You also more than likely won’t see a lottery team with cap space (which is also a rarity) absorb Gasol’s deal and trade a lottery pick.

The same decline in his game that's obvious to those of us who see Gasol up close can can also be seen from afar — including by the teams that the Grizzlies would most like to trade with. Would a contending team be willing to trade one of their young players, a larger contract, and maybe a low first-round pick for Gasol? Maybe. But this same team would probably also be more inclined to offer more for the services of Anthony Davis, who will definitely have suitors at the trade deadline. The Grizzlies also have the option of simply leaving the choice up to Gasol, and not trading him. What could then be viewed as “Marc Gasol leaving for nothing” could also be the Grizzlies freeing up $26 million in cap space without having to take on years of a filler contract from a trade.

Regardless of how this all plays out, the ball is in the Grizzlies hands, and they are on the clock.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Is It Time To Crank Up The Tank?

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2019 at 9:34 AM

cover_grizztank-teaser.jpg

This time last year, I created a hashtag on Twitter that would serve as a coping mechanism for fans who were left to deal with the doom and gloom of that losing season. As a play on words, based on the rallying cry for the Confederate statues to be removed — “Take ‘em down 901” — as coined by former Grizz head coach David Fizdale — #TankEmDown901 was my personal attempt to get fans on board for the team's tanking.

Last year, it made perfect sense. A team that was aging and filled with mediocre young talent in need of a potential young star had the opportunity to position itself to do just that. Mike Conley had suffered a severe heel injury, so sitting him for the season gave the team an out. The Grizzlies were so bad without him that it was second nature to do as little as possible to try to actually win games. It was clear what the best course of action was. The “tank” was full of gas — locked and loaded.

This season, things are a little different. The Grizzlies owe a conditional first-round draft pick to the Boston Celtics from the Jeff-Green-for-Tayshaun-Prince trade. So, it would be a little haphazard to go into what is an imminent rebuild for the franchise without a strategic plan.

It was no secret that Grizzlies ownership and management were doing everything they could to make this season’s team the best it could be in order to convey the worst pick possible to Boston. If this plan also resulted in a playoff berth for the Grizzlies, it would be a win-win for the organization. Regardless of the spiel coming from the front office, coaching staff, players, and even the owner, the main goal was always to get off of the trade obligation to Boston with the least amount of damage.

This plan looked like it had a great chance of working, earlier in the season, but now that the Grizzlies sit at 19-24, 14th in the Western Conference, and with the eighth worst record in the NBA, the question of whether or not to tank again this season is not as simple as it seemed, even a few weeks ago.

There are a few things of which many fans don’t really have a clear understanding. So, it’s been entertaining to see those who fought the #TankEmDown901 movement last season until the bitter end, now turn bloodthirsty over the chance of taking another high pick this year. Tanking has an odd thrill to it.

But fans need to understand what is at stake in totality and not what is just in front of their faces. For one thing, the pick that the Grizzlies owe Boston is top eight protected this season, top six protected in 2020, and unprotected in 2021. If the Grizzlies are bad enough to finish in a position in which they draft in the top eight this season, you can expect that they will be bad enough again next season to be among the top six picks.

The kicker is that in the 2021 draft, which is most certainly going to be a bad one for the team, the team is staring at the possibility of not only being bad but having to surrender their pick, regardless of position, to Boston. Most who are for tanking this season are basing that position on the team getting one of the projected top four picks, including Duke Freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. The reality is that the Grizzlies would more than likely, based on current odds and record, draft outside of the top four — in a draft that is weak, except for the studs at the top.

I would prefer the Grizzlies just let the season play out and not do anything drastic to put themselves in the best position to neither win nor lose. The reality is that with proper planning and execution of the pending cap space, good things could become available over the next two years. I know that asking for proper planning and execution from Pera and company is basically like asking for consistent weather in Memphis. But regardless of what they do, a lot is at stake regarding the draft this season and the next few to come.

There are too many question marks about how tanking this season could turn out. I would prefer to see the team finish outside of the top eight picks, but with the way things have been going lately, the Grizzlies may not have a choice.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

After Slow Start, "Slow Mo" Keeps Things Moving

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 7:04 AM

Kyle Anderson defends against the Spurs, Wednesday night. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Kyle Anderson defends against the Spurs, Wednesday night.
I’ll preface this by saying that I am probably the last person to expect to write something about Kyle Anderson without being biased. I’ve had a strange fascination with him, dating back to the summer before the 2014 NBA draft, when he was taken eight spots behind the Grizzlies' pick at 30th overall.

Tayshaun Prince was the team's starting small forward, and I welcomed the prospect of having a play-making small forward that actually showed the ability to make three-pointers in college — shooting 48 percent in his final season. And Anderson was crafty around the basket and found ways to get to the rim in spite of his obvious lack of athleticism.

And then he was “Spurred.” Or should I say “Popped”?

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is known for shaping his players to fit his system and philosophy and he made no exceptions with Anderson. Gone were Anderson's days of being on the ball and being the primary ball handler. Instead, Popovich used Anderson as more of a power forward with limited on-ball usage. While Anderson’s offensive game was forced to change, he also developed a knack for being a high-level on-ball defender.

Anderson’s signing with the Grizzlies was a bit of a surprise, and his tenure with the home team started off a little rocky. After an early achilles injury that limited him in the preseason, Anderson found himself coming off the bench in a reserve role. He would struggle to find his way with the team even after gaining the starting spot after the now-departed Chandler Parsons began to experience knee soreness.

As of late, Anderson has picked up his game, and despite his nickname, “Slow Mo,” he has quickly become a necessary component of lineups that lead to success. He is far from being a great shooter — especially from three-point range, only shooting 27 percent on the season — but Anderson has a knack for scoring around the basket and has been much more assertive since being allowed to be on the ball more this season.

Defensively, he has been outstanding. Though he's Limited athletically, Anderson's high basketball IQ, combined with his elite-level hand instincts and reactions, allows him to work angles and create turnovers. He was one of the team's best rebounders during a crucial period where rebounding was a prime need, and his ability to find and feed rookie stud Jaren Jackson Jr. is unmatched among his team-members. (Not to mention, it brings cheer to the fanbase that wants to see Jackson emerge as more of a scoring threat.)

In Wednesday night's 96-86 victory over his former Spurs team, Anderson didn’t have a monster game, or even a revenge game, but he had the type of Kyle Anderson game that we have come to expect — one that's relatively low scoring, mixed with timely plays and defensive highlights. This was most evident in a highlight-reel lob pass and finish by his favorite target, Jackson Jr., late in the second quarter, and an insane block of a Bryn Forbes shot with 4:47 remaining in the game.

That sequence was typical Kyle Anderson, as he missed a free throw on one end, got back on defense for a chase down block, and started off a break that led to a Mike Conley layup that made the score 91-77, basically sealing the deal on the victory.

Anderson will never be a knockdown shooter, he won’t blow by anyone on his way to the basket or amaze you with his offensive aesthetics, but he does things that pass the eye test — and fill the spreadsheet — that contribute to winning. When the Grizzlies are making a run and playing good basketball, it's more than likely that Anderson will be on the floor. Regardless of his deficiencies, he's looks to be a player you would want to keep throughout this transitional season and the imminent rebuild.

His game won’t wow you, although you will get a kick out of noticing that he actually appears faster during slow motion replays than in real time. Go look it up. It’s a real thing and it’s low-key awesome. Sort of like what he brings to the table for this team.

Don’t blink, (well you actually might have time to blink a lot) because Slow-Mo is making things happen faster than you think!

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Monday, January 7, 2019

The Curious Case Of Mike and Marc

Posted By on Mon, Jan 7, 2019 at 8:29 AM

I actually left an unfinished draft of this article on my personal blog-site before the season started. It was going to be a an article that explained why, in a transitional season like this one was scheduled to be for the Memphis Grizzlies, having players like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol was so vital. It was meant to outline, while the best years for both Gasol and Conley were behind them, how it would be the best idea to still base the team’s immediate future around them. 
MATT PRESTON
  • Matt Preston

It seemed like a solid way of thinking at the time but, just like the real life product on the court, I never got around to actually finishing what I started. It was good in theory but the actual follow-through was left incomplete.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Conley and Gasol pick-and-rolls have been as much as a staple of the franchise for Grizz fans as growl towels, close wins, bad draft picks, and blowing big leads. The two veterans have had a chemistry that has made them one of the winningest active tandems in recent history. Whether it’s been under the leadership of Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger, David Fizdale, or JB Bickerstaff, when all else fails, some good ol’ Mike-and-Marc magic has seemed to always save the day — or at the very least, make the Grizzlies a team that can compete and play above the talent level of the sum of its collective parts.

The duo is 361-288 (55.6 percent) playing together over their careers, which is impressive. But they are only 57-56 as a duo since the 2016-2017 season, which also lines up with the departure of fellow “Core Four” members Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.

The Grizzlies are currently 18-21, and have gone 6-16 after starting the season with a 12-5 record. Conley leads the team in scoring but the offense has been abysmal lately, especially with Gasol being inconsistent and limited, either physically or emotionally. It’s also fair to say to say that Conley and Gasol have done a poor job in trying to look for rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. more in the offense.

Trading the last two members of the core four that captured the city’s heart is always a possibility, and honestly, as a media member who is also a fan and a Memphian, I can see both sides. It’s an interesting dilemma, because you know that trading one or both will ultimately send the team into rebuilding mode, immediately.

I took a hard stance against tanking this season, due to the fact that the Grizzlies still owe their 2019 draft pick to Boston if it lands outside of the top eight picks, but as the season and reality progress, I have found myself not as “10 toes down” as before.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

The two core vets were supposed to be the guys who would help hand the franchise over to the new era, led by Jackson Jr. This looked to be the case early in the season, but lately, it seems like they are simply denying the inevitable change that has to come. You can’t help but wonder if it would be better for Jackson — and the team — if Gasol and Conley would defer to him more, to allow him to be the focal point of the offense while they still do “Marc and Mike stuff.” It would be something similar to the way that they still deferred to Zach Randolph, even while at the height of their careers. It’s frustrating and confusing. It seems like it should be much simpler than what we're seeing on the court. The two established leaders should be benefitting to the young players and helping them grow, which should ultimately lead to wins.

But it simply isn’t happening.

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Bickerstaff’s Bad Habits Bite Again Against Boston

Posted By on Sun, Dec 30, 2018 at 4:36 PM

Sometimes a person can be so good at what they do that they make whatever it is that they are doing look easy. Oddly enough, sometimes someone can also be so bad at what they are doing that they can make whatever it is look like it’s a lot easier than what it is.
I’ve never coached an NBA team before. I’ve never been a coach of any sports team on any level. I am far from the greatest of basketball minds. I won’t pretend to act like I know all of the ins and outs of what an NBA head coach’s job entails, but like many other people who observe the Grizzlies of late, I can’t help but wonder: Is it really that hard?
Grizzlies Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff - SAMUEL X. CICCI
  • Samuel X. Cicci
  • Grizzlies Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff

Certain things seem like they should be simple. If a certain thing works, then let’s keep doing that until said thing doesn’t work, or, even better, starts to show signs that it is about to stop working soon. It also seems that with all of the advanced metrics available at any head coach’s disposal, that it would never be out of the realm of possibility to see, with even more great detail, what works and what doesn’t. Like, there are literally stats that show you what combinations of players work and which ones don’t.

I thought that the Grizzlies had moved past this. After two consecutive wins — against the Lakers on the road and then at home against the Cavaliers — it seemed as if head coach JB Bickerstaff had had an epiphany. It seemed as though he and his players were going to embrace Jaren Jackson Jr. more, and look to make him more of a focal point on both ends of the court. After a great game against Los Angeles, which included a step-back three-pointer to drive a stake through the heart of LeBron James, and a Cleveland game where Bickerstaff allowed Jackson to play through a not-so-good performance without pulling him, it looked like he was finally getting it.

But yeah …

The Grizzlies hosted Boston Saturday night, held a 17-point half-time lead, and led by as many as 19 points. Even so, the team found a way to lose, 112 to 103, in a game where, with a 14-point lead with 5:43 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Jackson was taken out and played only a little more than a minute for the rest of the way.

Dillon Brooks, who finished with 19 points, was the team's leading scorer when he was pulled early in the fourth quarter in favor of Garrett Temple. Actually, Brooks and Jackson were the team's leading scorers when both were pulled — which also coincided with Boston’s comeback and a 33-16 fourth-quarter scoring advantage.

Coaching is hard. I’m sure it is. Bickerstaff comes from a distinguished line of coaches who mentored him, including his father, but I swear coaching seems a lot easier than Bickerstaff has made it look, lately.

Bickerstaff has to hear the murmurings from the fan-base. I’m sure he reads tweets and columns like mine, as well as those of other local journalists. I’m sure he knows what's being said. It seems to me that if he got the same losing results while using all of his assets, namely Jackson and Brooks (and Jevon Carter), that fans and pundits would be more understanding. There would be less, “Well, if we only did this …” and more, “Well, we gave it all we had.”

Therein lies the problem: We haven’t been giving it all that we have. Too much of what we do have — and need, in my opinion — is remaining on the sideline when they're needed most.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

He's Not Z-Bo, But ...

Posted By on Thu, Dec 27, 2018 at 8:28 AM

The Grizzlies need to continue to feed Jaren Jackson.

During the aftermath of the Grizzlies' five-game losing streak, I decided to visit a fan page on Facebook to sample what the responses were. I stumbled upon a comment thread that included someone basically saying that Jaren Jackson Jr. needs to be more of a focal point — and that he was “Z-Bo 2.0.” A couple of people responded with agreement, but I, for one, want no part of it.
Jaren Jackson Jr. - JOE MURPHY/NBAE
  • Joe Murphy/NBAE
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.

I’m a huge Zach Randolph fan. He and Mike Conley are easily my two favorite Grizzlies ever. He had amazing touch around the basket, he was as strong as an ox, and his hands swallowed offensive rebounds like Pac-Man threw down power pellets. He was the team’s leading scorer during the Grit 'n Grind era and he embraced and reflected everything that was the heart of this city. What Randolph meant to this team and this city will never be duplicated — but that's not the issue I had with comparing Jackson to Randolph.

Despite all of Randolph’s strengths, and the contributions that he made to the franchise, he still had a game that was mostly limited to scoring around the basket and from mid-range. He showed the ability to occasionally knock down three-point shots, but for the most part, his bread-and-butter plays were made in, or near, the paint. You knew what Randolph was — and what he wasn’t. No one expected him to dunk on someone or lock somebody down on defense. He was Z-Bo and we expected him to do Z-Bo things. 
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Jackson, on the other hand, has a ceiling that is almost literally through the roof. Many draft analysts and NBA minds projected him to be a stretch big with limited post skills and elite defense. Not many predicted that he would be as good in the paint as he has already showed so far this season, and even fewer foresaw his ability to get to the basket off of the dribble. In just 34 games this season, Grizzlies fans have seen him showcase an ability to shoot three-pointers at an increasing rate, score in the paint and in traffic, get to the basket off of the dribble, roll to the basket or pop out to the perimeter when setting screens, score off screens set for him, and, of course, do awesome things like hit a step-back three-pointer in LeBron James’ face to seal a victory.

Jackson’s potential is scary-high and it seems as though Coach JB Bickerstaff — and Jackson's teammates — are finally realizing, after initial stubbornness, that a player like Jackson should not be treated as a project or as a cherry on top of the team sundae. He has the potential to be this Grizzlies team’s first or second option — something that it needs in order to balance out Conley’s high usage and point production. Even in games like Wednesday night’s 95-87 victory over Cleveland, where Jackson finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 block after struggling for most of the game, Bickerstaff continued to use him. This wasn't the case just a few games ago.

No, Jaren Jackson Jr. is not Zach Randolph, but even on past Grizzlies teams that had Marc Gasol and Conley in their primes, Randolph was still consistently the team’s leading scorer. Even though the offense was run through Mike and Marc pick and rolls, they still managed to get the ball to Z-Bo enough to let him carry the scoring load. Jackson is not the same type of player, especially when it comes to rebounding, but he has the tools to be called upon more as a scorer for this team. And he has defensive skills that Randolph never had.

Jackson doesn’t need add muscle or start wearing a headband to try to live up to short-sighted comparisons. He just needs to be the given the opportunity to be the best version of Jaren Jackson Jr. that he can be.

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Saturday, December 22, 2018

Grizzlies Five-Game Skid Has All Eyes On Bickerstaff

Posted By on Sat, Dec 22, 2018 at 7:32 PM

The Grizzlies have lost five straight games, including three straight on their current five-game road trip. After a 14-5 start that had them atop the Western Conference, the home team is now 16-16 and sitting outside of the top eight playoff seeds in 10th place. 
JB Bickerstaff - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • JB Bickerstaff

Whenever a team has a fall from grace like this, there is always a wide range of reactions and responses. Fans are asking, “Is this who the team really is?” “Do the Grizzlies need to do something drastic to shake up the roster?” “Are we about to move to Nashville?”

Well I haven’t heard that one yet, but it wouldn’t be a Grizzlies season without someone worrying that each and every loss inches us closer to Nashville.

Probably the most common response to the Grizzlies recent run of mediocrity has been an increased amount of criticism towards first-year head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff, who filled in for David Fizdale after Fizdale was fired early last season, is serving in his first permanent role as a non-interim head coach after stints as interim here in Memphis and in Houston. Many of the questions concern his perceived under-utilization of rookies Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter, and his over-use and over-dependence on the players who stand in their way the most — Jamychal Green and Shelvin Mack.

This year’s Grizzlies roster is far from perfect. As a matter of fact it has a generous helping of flaws. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are at the twilights of their respective primes and there is no other consistent scorer outside of those two. There is definitely a need for talent upgrades in certain areas, but I, for one, believe that a lot of the Grizzlies' problems don’t come down to “trade this player and trade that player” but more to “play this player and not that player.”

Yes, the Grizzlies could trade for another scorer or shooter, but in the meantime, I believe that a lot of the team's roster issues can be remedied internally. Maybe the most unsettling feeling that I have is that we are leaving bullets in the chamber. It’s the feeling of not maximizing everything that the team has to get the best results — and that, unfortunately, points directly to Coach Bickerstaff.

Do I think that Bickerstaff is a bad coach, in general? No. I’ve seen bad coaches and I’m not quite ready to label him as such. He’s a phenomenal defensive coach and has the genuine, unanimous respect from his players — something that has been a rarity throughout the history of the Grizzlies. Is he stubborn? Yes. And it is clearly to his detriment. It makes me wonder if someone from the Grizz front office or owner Robert Pera himself has ever addressed Bickerstaff about certain things.

Unlike the three Grizzlies coaches before him, Bickerstaff comes off as the one who would most likely respond well to criticism — or a decree — to make a change, which makes me wonder if it's ever happened.

Pera has been around the team up close lately and I, like many, would love to hear his thoughts. We have a rookie in Jackson who has all of the tools to be a superstar and it often seems as though Bickerstaff handles him with unnecessary caution. This was clearly seen in Friday night's 102-99 loss to the Kings, in which Jackson had 12 points in the first quarter, then went scoreless and, more importantly, was under-utilized for the rest of the game. Jevon Carter brought life into a Houston game last week and he was not rewarded for his performance, either.

It’s odd. It’s head-scratching. It’s frustrating. Bickerstaff seems to manage his rotations as if the Grizz are a star-studded super team that doesn’t need a young star like Jackson or a defensives spark like Carter to help win games. They are both treated like luxuries, instead of two players that the team needs to help them win. Bickerstaff is old-school, cut from the same cloth as his father, Bernie Bickerstaff, and former Grizz Coach Lionel Hollins. He comes from a belief that rookies have to wait their turn and that it’s best to rely on your veterans to win. But, in my opinion, his over-dependence on Grizz veterans has cost him several games this season, and has rightfully brought him criticism.

In a season where you already are at a talent disadvantage, there is no excuse for not using all assets that you have at your disposal. He’s a new coach with old-school ways, a combination that so far has had mixed results.

But things need to turn around soon.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Jevon Carter’s Debut Brings Hope To Dismal Grizz Weekend

Posted By on Sun, Dec 16, 2018 at 9:08 PM

Jevon Carter
  • Jevon Carter
Somewhere in the middle of a 100-97 loss to Miami on Friday night and a 105-97 loss to Houston on Saturday, the Memphis Grizzlies managed to be involved in a botched three-way trade. The now infamous deal that never happened included Memphis, Phoenix, and Washington, with the butt of the joke being that the Suns were expecting to receive Dillon Brooks from the Grizzlies instead of Marshon Brooks. Washington was the mediator of the trade and supposedly relayed the wrong Brooks to Phoenix. After Marshon Brooks and Wayne Selden were told they were traded, they were later pretty much given a “my bad, bro” by Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, as the deal was basically dead after the miscommunication was discovered.

Also, somewhere in the middle of the weekend's two losses, was the debut of Grizzlies rookie point guard and second-round pick Jevon Carter. Carter has gathered a bit of a groundswell from fans that were calling to at least see what the team had in the former West Virginia Mountaineer. This was becoming a dilemma as Grizz coach J.B. Bickerstaff was leaning heavily towards veteran backup point guard Shelvin Mack, so much so that it seemed like we would see very little of Carter this season. Cam Rose of the Outsiders Podcast suggested that Carter be used more in a way similar to how Boston plays three point guards in Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart. Other teams have tried this as well and it works — especially when one of the smaller guards is able to defend shooting guards or small forwards.

At any rate, Carter was impressive in his debut, scoring 11 points in 22 minutes and getting two highlight-worthy steals from Chris Paul and James Harden — two of the best guards in the NBA. Carter was relentless on both ends, sparking a comeback for the Grizzlies that brought them to within six points after being down as many as 21. Memphis came up short in Carter’s debut, but he left an impression that I hope will cause Bickerstaff to call his name more often.

I wrote a story during the pre-draft workouts about how no one screamed “I'm Memphis” more than Carter. When he said his mother was from here and he'd spent time living in the Bluff City, it only sealed the deal. His mother is easily his biggest fan, and if you'd seen her at a Memphis Hustle game you would clearly agree. I managed to sit close enough at a recent Hustle contest to overhear an exchange after Carter took a bump and came to the bench. His mother, Cynthia Johnson, said something along the likes of, “You okay, babe? You need a band-aid or something? You know I got you, boo!” And, trust me, it was loud enough for Carter to hear.

The Hustle and Grizz medical staff probably won’t need Cynthia’s band-aids, but this team and this city definitely could use Jevon Carter coming in to stop the bleeding now and then, so to speak. Carter could be a healthy spark off the bench — and just the addition the Grizzlies need to get back on track after the recent rough patch.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Bah Humbug! Memphis Should Have Seen Joakim Noah Coming

Posted By on Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 6:34 AM

I’m disappointed in you Memphis. Not because of the low attendance numbers this season, in spite of a Grizzlies team that has managed to look like a playoff contender in the always competitive Western Conference. And doing so, while national media said we had a better chance of moving to Las Vegas or Seattle than making the playoffs. Not because first year head coach JB Bickerstaff is low-key putting together a coach-of-the-year season while implementing one of the league's best defenses. No, I'm disappointed because we have yet another great reclamation project on our roster and too many fans didn’t see it coming before it happened.
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Christmas is 12 days away. Its officially time to sing a song about gifts from your true love that literally no one would be excited to see under the tree. (Hey babe, I got you some pregnant geese that are literally in the act of laying eggs!) But anyway. Speaking of gifts that no one wants … recent Grizz signee and NBA vet Joakim Noah was the turtle dove of guys sitting at home on the couch. The former Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate was mostly down-talked by Memphis fans and media members alike.

“He’s old”
“He’s injured”
“He sucks”
“How does he help?”

These were all things fans said and asked about Noah on social media and elsewhere; things that were said about a player that has done exactly what he was brought in to do — bring infectious energy off of the bench, rebound, and embrace his role. His humility and genuine gratitude for being back in the game has been as storybook as it gets. Just another heart-filled holiday story to add to the Grizzlies' list of residents on its Island of Misfit Toys.

Noah wasn’t the first player to come to Memphis looking for resurgence. He isn’t the first to come with a game and attitude that matched the heartbeat and core of this city, and hopefully he won’t be the last. He joins the likes of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, James Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Tyreke Evans, and probably some other guys that I’m forgetting about.

Noah will have big games where he comes in and makes his presence felt. He will have games where you forget he’s on the court. But for the most part, I believe that Noah will help this team tremendously, on and off the court. He has a work ethic that will impress and inspire the vets and a quirkiness and peculiarity that will speak to Jaren Jackson Jr. He is broken, damaged, weird, loud, and disruptive.
Sounds like a match made in Memphis, and we should have seen it coming.

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Saturday, December 8, 2018

James and Lakers Blow Out Grizzlies, 111-88

Posted By on Sat, Dec 8, 2018 at 11:13 PM

The piercing, pubescent squeals that were prevalent during the Kobe Bryant days weren’t there Saturday night, but the horde of Memphis area Laker fans still got what they came to see, as the LeBron James-led version of the Lakers dominated the not-so-home team 111-88. After struggling to find their rhythm early in the season, LeBron’s Lakers have since found their stride and unfortunately the Grizzlies were caught up in the middle of them flexing their new-found muscle.

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Down by as many as 29 points, the Grizzlies, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and their third game in four nights, had no answer for what looked like LeBron and company playing NBA 2k on rookie difficulty. Everything fell early for the Lakers, and what didn’t fall found a way to end up back in someone wearing purple's hands. The Lakers ran away with the rebound total 57-36, as Tyson Chandler and Javale McGee combined for 24.

Adding to the deflation of the evening and the stench of freshly purchased Lakers jerseys was the barrage of three-pointers made by the visitors — namely from Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had four each. James also almost messed around and got a triple-double with 20 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists. On a positive note for the Grizzlies, Wayne Selden had a productive game, scoring 17 points in his nearly 21 minutes after returning from an injury that had sidelined him the past few games.

Selden downplayed his individual performance and spoke about the team's lack of effort, instead: “The stuff we didn’t do tonight is stuff we’re capable of,” said Selden. “Boxing out, getting to shooters, and stuff like that; we just didn’t do it tonight like we should have been.”

Every team has games during the season where they flat-out lay an egg, and this game in front of a pro-Lakers crowd was amongst the most rotten eggs possible. There is always a feeling of resentment when the opposing team’s fans come in droves, and the Grizzlies' performance didn’t offer much in the way of defense for the home team. The line at the Wing Guru inside FedExForum seemed even longer than usual, with fans that tapped out on the game, figuring an order of Honey Suicide wings would be better than the slow death they were seeing on the court.

But like all things, the game finally came to an end. In typical and expected fashion, the LeBron/Laker fans left in bunches — prematurely — as their king made his final exit from the court with about three minutes to go. James missed his last game in Memphis, due to rest, but in this one his devoted following was given plenty to be as obnoxiously giddy about as possible.

Okay, Grizzlies, you guys took the night off on this one, but enough of this. You have a bounce-back season to finish. Here’s to more effort, fewer tired legs, more rebounds and fewer reasons to give fans who come to see the road team something to cheer about.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Grizzlies Cough Up 17-Point Lead, Lose to Raptors 122-114

Posted By on Tue, Nov 27, 2018 at 10:57 PM

The Memphis Grizzlies entered Tuesday night's homestand on a two-game losing streak, and faced the top team in the East in the Toronto Raptors. After a brief stint at the top of the West, Memphis has hit a rough patch, having trouble closing out close games and giving up sizeable leads.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
The Grizzlies had an abysmal start to the game. Jaren Jackson picked up two fouls in the first minute of play, and took an early seat on the bench. Meanwhile, the Raptors jumped out to an 8-0 lead.

The Grizzlies defense eventually settled in, slowing down the game and allowing the Grizzlies to battle back to take the lead with 4:13 remaining in the first period.

Both teams got it going later in the first quarter, with the Grizzlies finishing with a 1-point lead over the Raptors at 32-31.

The Grizzlies's defense on Kawhi Leonard was particularly strong to start the game, holding him to 4 points on 2-5 shooting, and no assists. Overall, team defense played a big part,.I n his pregame availability J.B. Bickerstaff talked about how the Grizzlies would throw a lot of bodies at Leonard. Kyle Anderson's effect cannot be diminished, however, as he played fantastic individual defense on Leonard.

The Grizzlies continued their surprisingly high level of scoring in the second quarter, finishing with 39 points. Mike Conley also had a nice block on Kyle Lowry at the buzzer that left the home crowd on their feet heading into halftime.

Marc Gasol led all players in the first half with 15 points, dished three assists, and played with a great rhythm on both ends of the floor (shooting 6-9 and registering 2 steals). Garrett Temple also had an impact with 12 points and two made threes.

Overall team defense was stout in the first half, accumulating tons of deflections, 7 steals, and making it difficult for Toronto to get into their offensive sets.

The Grizzlies went into halftime with a 71-59 cushion over the Raptors, and extended the lead to 17 early in the third. On the first possession out of the half, Conley and Gasol executed a brilliant two-man game that was essentially a give-and-go vortex with both players swirling around one another's screens and cuts, resulting in both defenders following Conley's drive into the paint before he kicked the rock back to Gasol for an open three-point make.

But the Raptors battled back to cut the Grizzlies lead to one point, as Memphis' defense fell flat for most of the period. At one point the Raptors were shooting 11-14 in the quarter, and the Grizzlies didn't seem to get any stops, until they strung several together to end the period. The Raptors finished the third quarter shooting 11-21 from deep, and trailing the Grizzlies 97-93.

The stellar defense on Leonard fell apart in the second half. He finished the third quarter with 9 points and shot 7 free throws after scoring just 5 in the first half. He finished the game with 17 points, 5 assists, 2 steals, and one turnover.

Jaren Jackson picked up another couple of fouls in under a one-minute span early in the fourth quarter, and things continued to go downhill from there. Memphis has been giving up a lot of three-point looks from the corner this season. The Grizzlies have been relatively lucky, with teams not converting on those open looks at as high of a rate as they should, but they got bit in this game, as Toronto buried corner three after corner three down the stretch to put the game out of reach. The Raptors hit 7 threes in the final quarter.

Conley also missed consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter. He's done that several times this season, and I can't tell if it's fatigue late in games or if it's a mental thing.

In his postgame press conference, Bickerstaff said the Grizzlies got rushed as the Raptors dialed up the defensive intensity, forcing Memphis to play at a pace too fast for its comfort. He also characterized the open three-point looks granted to Toronto in the corner as non-structural, saying "there were some errors we made to create those situations. We're not trying to give up corner threes by any means." Still, this has been a problem pretty much all season, and tonight was the first time the Grizzlies paid for it. It probably won't be the last.

Marc Gasol rolled his ankle late in the game, finishing with a noticeable limp. Fortunately, his injury appears to be a day-to-day thing.

In the locker room after the game, JaMychal Green (13 points, 7 rebounds) said: "We just got to bounce back. Ain't no excuse. We just got to come in, play hard, and when it gets down to crunch time, lock up."

The Grizzlies will have two days of rest before they travel to Brooklyn on Friday to play the Nets.

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