The Lead: Okay, so the real lead to this game has become O.J. Mayo missing the game with so-called "bronchitis" after catching the bad end of an apparently brief fight with Tony Allen on the team plane coming back from Los Angeles. This story was first reported by CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish. As I understand it, Mayo suffered a black eye and other aftereffects that would have been very evident had he been at the game. The team is still, apparently, claiming "bronchitis" as the explanation for Mayo's absence, but I don't know any reasonable person who believes that.
The Grizzlies followed up their surprising 104-85 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers by beating a Thunder team that's firmly established in the playoff picture, giving the team consecutive wins against quality teams for the first time this season.
But, beyond that, this was simply, as Lionel Hollins noted afterward, "a great NBA basketball game."
The Grizzlies were playing short-handed on the wings with Xavier Henry and O.J. Mayo still out, which allowed current (and, presumably, ongoing) starter Tony Allen a longer leash that he might have otherwise had, and despite some early struggles, he made the most of it. (More on that in a minute.) Meanwhile, the Grizzlies top scorers — Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph (58 combined points) — were matching the Thunder's destructive duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (56 points) bucket for bucket.
The home team went up early, first 7-0, then 15-5, but missed free-throws and turnovers stalled the Griz offense and the Thunder responded with feathery Durant jumpers, explosive Westbrook drives, and a big contribution off the bench from James Harden. Ultimately, the game was knotted 89-89 with seven minutes the play and it came down to who could make the big plays. From then on, Allen hit two wildly unlikely threes, Mike Conley set Randolph up inside with a crisp entry pass, Rudy Gay isolated on Durant and drove down the middle of the floor for a dunk, and Randolph hit 8-9 free throws to ice it. A great team win overall.
"It was a good, hard battle," Hollins said. "I don't know if we're learning. I hope so."
Man of the Match:This will be remembered as The Tony Allen Game. Allen opened the game with a runner and foul, competing a three-point play to put the Grizzlies up 7-0. Soon after, his inner "trick or treat" emerged, as Allen followed a steal by missing an uncontested lay-up at the other end. He went on to miss, by my count, five lay-ups, along with a couple of unforced errors mishandling the ball. After awhile, there were loud, widespread groans throughout the arena whenever Allen's offense would go haywire. But you could feel that the crowd wasn't groaning in annoyance at Allen but in commiseration with him. Because Allen was still playing hard and making plays.
Earlier in the night, I had come up with a "5/5 Rule" for Allen: That if there are more than 5 seconds on the shot clock and he's more than 5 feet from the basket, then Allen should not shoot the ball. (Needless to say, this rule also applies to Hasheem Thabeet, and Hamed Haddadi.) And Allen mostly conformed to this rule. But with the Grizzlies up 90-89, the ball was kicked out to Allen behind the three-point line with plenty of time on the clock, and he rose up to make only his second three-point shot of the season. "Take that 5/5 Rule and shove it, Herrington," Allen seemed to be saying as he backpedaled down the floor, breaking out some brief take on Antoine Walker's famous shimmy. Allen went on to make another three minutes later, but that one was at the end of the clock, within the 5/5 constraints.
Ending his night with a pair of improbable free-throws in the final seconds and then strong defense on a missed Durant three-point attempt, Allen somehow finished with a season-high 19 points, along with 3 steals and 2 blocks, and probably a few thousand new fans.
For Allen, the performance — barring some kind of negative fallout from the fight that we found out about later — seemed to cement his emergence as a key part of this team, which has been a long time in coming.
After signing a three-year contract this summer and coming to the team having played a key bench role for the champion Boston Celtics, Allen struggled to find his place with the Grizzlies. He averaged only 11 minutes a game in November, with four DNP-Coach's Decisions. He had two more DNPs in early December and the widespread thought was that Hollins was not a fan of Allen's game and the team would need to seek a trade to find Allen a new home.
But since playing a big second half in a road win over the Los Angeles Clippers on December 11th, Allen seems to finally be settling in, and it seems like a combination of Allen accepting a role that limits his offensive explorations and Hollins accepting that you have to be willing to take on some of those misadventures to take advantage of all the good things Allen brings to a team.
"It wasn't [Tony]," Zach Randolph said after the game, when I asked him about Allen's early struggle to find consistent minutes. "It was coach. It just took awhile [for Hollins] to get comfortable with him," Randolph continued, acknowledging that Allen is something of an unusual player.
Over the past five games, Allen is averaging 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 3.5 steals in 26 minutes and his defensive demeanor seems to be rubbing off on the whole team, particularly Rudy Gay.
"He's got a different dynamic," Hollins said of Allen after the game. "He's always talking. Always upbeat. He's not afraid to say what he feels. And I've never seen a guy who gets his hands on so many balls and is still able to recover."
"I'm a blue-collar guy. I don't mind working hard. I just had to show them [enough to gain] some trust," Allen said after the game, "I'm just gonna play my role and stay within the realm of things … and make some lay-ups." Then he shook his head and smiled.
Allen was sitting at his locker, his right foot submerged in a bucket of ice and bags of ice strapped around both knees. A few weeks earlier, I had asked someone in the organization why Allen, known as a vicious in-game dunker with the Celtics, kept trying to lay balls up instead of finishing stronger, and I got a vague reply about some type of physical ailment that was limiting him.
When Allen referenced the missed lay-ups last night, Chris Vernon asked him why he didn't just dunk those attempts and, initially Allen seemed to be about to explain the physical situation.
"Right now I'm going through a process," he said, before his voice trailed off and he stopped himself. "Nah, I just need to start dunking," he said with a nod. "That's what I need to do."
"You got up there for that block [on Westbrook]," I offered.
"I know," Allen said, raising his eyebrows and shrugging, as if asking himself why that same explosion was absent on the offensive end.
Nightly Number: The Grizzlies starting froncourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol outrebounded their Thunder counterparts Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green 26-3. Last season, the inside dominance of the Randolph-Gasol pairing drove the team. When Randolph would grab 15, 16, 17 rebounds you'd look at the box score and Gasol would still get 10, 11, 12. With Gasol struggling to overcome the sprained ankle he suffered in training camp and Randolph getting over the bruised tailbone he got on opening night, the duo has not been as effective this season. Last night was only fourth game this season in which both players had double-digit rebounds. But that might be changing.
After getting 10 boards in the road win against the Lakers, Gasol now has double-digit rebounds in consecutive games for the first time this season. And Randolph said after the game that he sees Gasol moving better and finally getting over the lingering ankle injury. If Gasol is going to re-emerge, while Randolph is back on his prime 25-15 form, then the Griz could be primed for a run.
The Match-Up: Rudy Gay vs. Kevin Durant was a good one, as expected. And beyond just getting the win, you'd have to give Gay a slight edge last night. He was more efficient offensively, scoring 27 points on 18 shots to Durant's 28 points on 24 shots. And though Durant out rebounded Gay 9-5, once you factor in the poor rebounding of OKC's frontcourt and how much Randolph and Gasol were vacuuming up rebounds for the Grizzlies, Gay may have done more with his opportunities there. Gay had one more assist, two fewer turnovers, the same number of "stocks" (steals + blocks) and wins on style/swagger points with his driving dunk on Durant late in the fourth quarter. Durant's still the better all-around player, and will in all likelihood remain so, but Gay is closing the gap a little bit this season.
The Jacob Riis Report:James Harden may never be worthy of the #3 overall pick the Thunder used to acquire him last season, but he's emerging as a nice role player and was very strong in this game, with 17 points off the bench and nice contributions across the board, including 3 blocks. Meanwhile, the player taken directly in front of him in that draft, Hasheem Thabeet, sat on the bench watching all night.
Tweet O’ the Game:I bet Tony Allen hates the pregame layup line — @Jon_Roser
Arena Action: Celebrity fan and serial sports-talk caller Mario (@Latilleon) ended up on the Jumbotron with a "Shake Weight."
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies move to 16-19 and are in 10th place in the Western Conference, half a game behind the 9th place Houston Rockets and 2 games behind the Portland Trailblazers in the race for the conference's final playoff seed.
Looking Ahead: Big weekend coming up with a rematch against the Utah Jazz at FedExForum Friday and then rematch at Oklahoma City on Saturday. A split here would be good for the Griz. Winning both would be great.
Announced Attendance: 12,765