Despite the epic feel of the Grizzlies overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, I'm actually going to keep this post-gamer fairly brief. But I'm going to follow-up tomorrow afternoon with a more well-rested consideration of what this game means in the big picture of this season and where the franchise is. But for now:
1. Best Game in Four Years: I crowned the Grizzlies win over the Dallas Mavericks Friday night the "win of the year," and that was true at the time. So what to say about this one? It was simply the best, most enjoyable, and most meaningful Grizzlies home game in at least four years. There have been good and exciting games in recent years: Rudy Gay game-winners against Orlando (last season) and San Antonio (two seasons ago) are both memorable. But those were games were early blips during mostly terrible seasons.
Tonight, the Grizzlies beat one of the league's best teams with one of the league's best players in a tightly contested game in the middle of an 8-4 stretch that seems to be establishing the team at a level of respectability and competitiveness Grizzlies fans haven't seen in years.
In this game, the Grizzlies took some punches — a thunderous beginning from Lebron James, a double-digit first-half deficit, significant frontcourt foul trouble — and stood their ground, coming out in the third quarter with a gritty, chippy demeanor to get back into the game.
Down the stretch and into overtime, every member of arguably the franchise's most talented starting lineup made big plays: Rudy Gay (21 points, 5 boards, 4 steals, 3 blocks) converting a driving lay-up at the end of regulation to force overtime. Marc Gasol (11 points, 8 boards, 4 assists) getting deep post position and dropping a close-range but high-arching shot over Shaquille O'Neal to open overtime. Zach Randolph (32 points, 14 rebounds, 4 steals) knocking down a Shane Battier Memorial Baseline Jumper to extend to a four-point overtime lead. O.J. Mayo (28 points, 5 boards, 5 assists) answering Lebron James' go-ahead lay-up with a cold-blooded three-pointer coming out of a timeout, giving the Grizzlies a two-point lead with under 20 seconds to play. And finally and most improbably, Mike Conley (12 points, 5 assists) darting around Shaq on a pick-and-roll with a hesitation dribble and getting off a quick scoop shot before the help defense could roll over, breaking a 109-109 tie and putting the Grizzlies up for good with only three seconds left.
This team effort extended to the defensive end as well, as the Grizzlies had 12 steals and forced 21 turnovers, feeding into 26 fastbreak points.
2. Rudy Gay's Growth: Rudy Gay had a nightmare first half tonight: He scored 4 points on 2-10 shooting. At one point, after drawing a clear path foul, he missed both free throws and then missed a dunk on the following possession. Meanwhile, the guy he was guarding — Lebron James — was going nuts, scoring 22 points on 8-10 shooting, with his first four baskets consisting of three monster dunks and one reverse alley-oop layup. Gay tried to answer the lay-up, but couldn't convert, and that exchange seemed to sum up the match-up and the game.
But something happened after halftime: For the next 29 minutes, Rudy Gay arguably outplayed Lebron James. Lebron scored 21 points, but on 6-19 shooting. Gay scored 17 points on 7-12 shooting, but it wasn’t Gay's scoring that was most impressive. He played aggressive but smart and focused defense on Lebron, contributing mightily to Lebron's poor shooting. And he made big plays off the ball, finishing with a game-high 7 "stocks," among them blocking Anderson Varejao at the rim and, crucially, running down and picking off a Cavs' outlet pass in overtime after a Grizzlies turnover, setting up that aforementioned Randolph baseline jumper. In a game with lots of big shots, this steal was perhaps the game-saving play.
Gay's defensive impact — both the solid man defense and his dynamic blocks and steals — fits his athletic profile but has never been a big part of his game. One key to the team's 8-4 run is that Gay seems to be getting more focused on playing an all-around game. And the second half tonight was a model for what kind of all-around player he can be.
3. The Hamed Haddadi Highlight Reel: With Marc Gasol in foul trouble and Hasheem Thabeet both in foul trouble and generally struggling, Hamed Haddadi played eight crucial minutes tonight and generally acquitted himself well. Thabeet is the better athlete with more upside, but Haddadi has better court sense and more offensive coordination and was able to soak up minutes without costly mistakes in a way the team probably couldn't depend on from Thabeet. And along the way, Haddadi had a couple of big-time highlights: He beat Shaquille O'Neal with a drop-step and then threw down a two-hand dunk on the Hall-of-Famer. And he set a crushing midcourt pick on Lebron James, putting Lebron on his butt. Hamed got called for a foul on the play, but it was worth it.
The Jacob Riis Report: Lebron James in person: Awesome but obnoxious. There's nothing in basketball — perhaps in all of sports — quite as impressive as seeing Lebron James' combination of power, speed, and body control in person. He opened the game with three thunder dunks that got the crowd — including dozens wearing Lebron jerseys — excited. But he was also playing to the crowd, flashing hand signals whenever he hit a three, dancing on the free-throw line, complaining the refs despite getting more than his share of star calls, and generally being a bit of a boor. Lebron might be the best player in the world — he's certainly one of the top two or three — but he might want to win a ring before acting like he owns the game.