1. A Message Game: At this point, I think opposing teams and coaches and hardcore NBA fans around the country know that the Grizzlies are for real, but tonight's game — the team's first before an announced sellout crowd and first (and only) on national TV (not counting NBATV games) — sent a broader message. In beating the Suns, the Grizzlies aren't just half a game out of the final playoff spot; they're a single game out of the 6th seed, two games out of the 5th seed, etc. And it was a high-scoring, wildly entertaining display for a live and TV audiences packed with people who probably haven't been paying close attention to the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies built double-digit leads in both the first and second half only to see the explosive, veteran Suns push back. The Grizzlies were up 14 early in the second quarter only to see the Suns fight back to take a brief lead off the energetic interior play of Robin Lopez and Louis Amundsen, of all people. The Grizzlies are the best team in the league with offensive rebounding and interior scoring, but the Suns were beating them at both tonight — +4 in offensive rebounds and +16 on points in the paint in the first half, both categories roughly even in the second half.
In the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies had an 11-point lead with two and a half minutes to play, but the Suns just wouldn't go away, going on a 13-5 run over the next two minutes, capitalizing on a Griz turnover and some missed free throws with their own transition scores and three-pointers.
After using their bench more in wins over Minnesota and San Antonio, the Grizzlies leaned heavily on their starters tonight, with the "core four" of Gay, Mayo, Randolph (all playing 40+ minutes), and Gasol (limited to 27 minutes due to foul trouble) accounting for 105 of the team's 125 points. Mike Conley, after struggling for much of the game, finished strong, with two steals, two assists on Gasol lay-ups, and a big floater down the stretch.
After tonight, the Grizzlies are 22-18, winners of a team-record nine consecutive home games and right in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race. At this point, barring major injuries, I could see them finishing anywhere from 5th (no, really) to 11th. How they fare against a tough looming schedule could say a lot: @NO, OKC, ORL, @DET, @SA, NO, LAL, @CLE, HOU.
2. The New Wrinkle: The Grizzlies may have gotten beaten at their season-long strengths (offensive rebounding, points in the paint) tonight, but they made up for it by beating out the Suns in an unlikely area — three-point shooting. The Suns hit one more (10-9) due to firing up shots in their comeback attempt, but the Grizzlies beat them percentage-wise: 9-19 for 47% for the Grizzlies, 10-29 for 35% for the Suns.
On the season, these teams couldn't be much further apart on three-point shooting. Phoenix is second in the league in percentage (41%), the Grizzlies are 24th (33%). Phoenix is 4th in attempts per game (22.1), the Grizzlies are 29th (11.7). But this is starting to become less of a weakness for the Grizzlies. Part of this is simply O.J. Mayo breaking out of his early slump (he's over 50% from three-point range in January). But it's bigger than that. With more teams keying on interior scorers — doubling and fronting, as the Suns were doing to Zach Randolph tonight — outside shots are opening up and the Grizzlies are starting to take better advantage. Mayo (career 39%), Gay (35%), and Conley (39%) are all viable three-point shooters (and Mayo, of course, is a whole lot more than just viable), so they should be able to take advantage of more open shots. There's still no three-point shooter off the bench, and if the Grizzlies add anything to the team this season, that will likely be the target. But when this team is hitting threes to go with its steady interior and transition game, it can be as good as any offense in the league.
3. Pre-Game Activities: The day-long festivities at FedExForum culminated with Grizzlies-Suns, but there was a whole lot more going on than that. The warm-up act was a high-school game between Melrose and Germantown (the latter the Griz school of the moment with O.J. Mayo's brother Todd and Lionel Hollins' son Austin in the starting line-up). I got there in time for second half to see Melrose pull away for a convincing win. In a game apparently filled with seniors heading to D-1 colleges, Melrose junior Adonis Thomas was clearly the best player on the floor, filling up the stat sheet with dunks and other athletic plays around the basket.
After that game, the Martin Luther King Day Symposium was held on the team's practice court, with TNT's David Aldridge talking to award recipients Oscar Robertson and Alonzo Mourning.
Widely known as an ornery cuss — and not without good reason — Robertson had some provocative things to say about the quality of the education he received at his segregated Indianapolis public high school (where, he claimed, none of his teachers ever asked him about basketball) and what he sees as the declining quality of public education today. He didn't have a chance to connect the rather complicated dots on those two observations, but it would be interesting to hear him cut loose on what he clearly sees as insufficient cultural progress. Aldridge on Robertson: "At a time when African-American men were not given their full share of the American dream, this man stood up and demanded it."
Mourning had just flown in from Haiti where he was assisting doctors from Miami on a humanitarian mission and was getting ready to fly back tomorrow. His detailed descriptions of what he'd seen in Haiti and what they need most (water, food, medical supplies) was riveting, and his hands-on commitment to helping was inspiring. It was clear throughout Mourning's comments that he's very involved in the day-to-day work of his various charitable enterprises, both in Miami and beyond.
The Jacob Riis Report: The Suns changed their starting lineup tonight, replacing Channing Frye and Jason Richardson with Robin Lopez and Leandro Barbosa. The Frye-for-Lopez switch really helped. The Grizzlies had abused Frye in the previous meeting, but the bigger, stronger, more defensive-oriented Lopez presented bigger problems, and Lopez went for a career-high 19 points tonight with 7 rebounds (three offensive) and 3 blocks.
Rudy Gay has had some rough shooting nights recently, but rebounded tonight with a game-high 31 points on 11-20 shooting. More so than any of the other starters — including Zach Randolph — Gay has a tendency to hunt for shots. He gets criticized for this, and not without reason. But one thing that isn't mentioned enough is that it's easier for Gay to get a decent shot than for anyone else on the floor: He's an elite athlete with good size for his position, a functional handle, and deep range; he can get to a spot and elevate over pretty much any defender. There's no shot he's not capable of getting or making, and in a game with a 24-second shot clock, this shot creating ability is valuable. With the team otherwise struggling in the first quarter, Gay's shot-hunting to the tune of 13 points on 6-9 shooting kept the Grizzlies afloat. He's better when he gets in the flow, of course, but there are times when the team needs to be bailed out, and Gay's capable of doing it.
DeMarre Carroll again led the team in bench minutes, albeit with only 13 tonight. Carroll is extremely active and gets involved in lots of plays, sometimes with good results and sometimes with bad results. In his first appearance tonight, Carroll badly missed a SBMBJ, lost a ball off his foot, and twice fouled Suns players who completed three-point plays. It was rough. But Carroll settled down and ultimately helped the team, especially with an unusually long fourth-quarter run, during which Carroll hit a mid-range shot, forced a turnover, and got fouled on an offensive rebound and put-back (making both shots). Carroll's deficiencies are many, but with an improving mid-range shot, a propensity for hustle plays, and a lack of other good veteran bench options, I continue to be a proponent for him getting regular rotation minutes.
The Grizzlies struggled with the Suns' zone in the second quarter, but figured it out in the second half with help from a couple of unlikely sources — DeMarre Carroll and Steven Hunter. Carroll made a couple of good plays (and one bad one) as a trigger man at the free-throw line and Hunter slipped under for a couple of baseline lay-ups. Hunter took Hasheem Thabeet's minutes in the second half after Thabeet struggled in the first.
When O.J. Mayo hit a late three-pointer, Grizzlies announcer Rick Trotter let loose my favorite call of the year: "Oh! Oh! Oh… JAY MAYO for three!" I was sitting right behind Rick, so I don't know if he was doing the "Oh Face."
The sartorial highlight of the game was definitely Lionel Hollins' "Beale Street Blue" suit, which he acknowledged after the game he'd purchased this summer but had saved for the national TV game.