The Lead: To say the Grizzlies have struggled against the Houston Rockets lately is an understatement. Heading into tonight, the Griz had lost seven straight to Houston, the team's longest active losing streak against any opponent. And the two previous meetings this season had been ugly, both 16-point losses, with neither feeling even that close.
Asked if the team had gotten a monkey off its back tonight, coach Lionel Hollins called it "a two-ton monkey."
In a terrific, hard-fought contest, the Grizzlies were climbing uphill most of the way. The Rockets jumped out to an 18-8 lead in the opening minutes behind a scoring barrage from Luis Scola and Griz Killer captain Kevin Martin, who had combined for all of Houston's points.
The Griz battled back to tie the game at 37-37 early in the second quarter, only to see the Rockets immediately go on a 10-2 run. Then the Griz clawed back to within one late in the third behind strong off-the-bench backcourt play by Greivis Vasquez and O.J. Mayo, only to see the Rockets respond with an 8-1 run.
The Grizzlies finally got the deficit to within a single possession when a Mayo-to-Rudy Gay fastbreak dunk cut it to 85-82 late in the third quarter.
From there, the final 14 minutes were a slugfest, with 3 ties and 5 lead changes. At the 3:33 mark, the Grizzlies found themselves down 101-106. The closing 14-4 Griz run was the kind of sharp, decisive late-game execution Griz fans haven't seen enough this season, with Zach Randolph (six points) and Rudy Gay (four points, one assist) leading the effort.
It was a huge win for the team, not only to beat a playoff and division rival who had previously owned them, but to wash away the aftertaste of their poor late-game execution against New Orleans Wednesday night and to send the team off on its last long road trip of the season in a good mood.
Hollins called this "a team-bonding win." Fans can hope he's right.
Man of the Match: Lionel Hollins called this a team win "punctuated by Zach Randolph." I'll agree, but add that the punctuation was a series of exclamation marks.
First the numbers: Randolph, with 29 points and 19 rebounds, tied Shareef Abdur-Rahim's franchise record with his ninth straight double-double and came up only one rebound short of what would have been his fifth 20-20 game this season.
Now the context: Randolph somehow managed to get only one free-throw attempt tonight despite the fact that 21 of his 25 field-goal attempts (and 12 of his 14 makes) were clustered in the paint.
Randolph scored 12 of his 29 points (on 6-9 shooting) in the fourth quarter. Routinely isolating on the right block, first against Jordan Hill, then against Chuck Hayes, and attacking. Both of Randolph's offensive rebounds in the quarter went into the basket. He hit a couple of short jumpers, a reverse lay-up, and a crazy driving bank shot.
Finally, what Randolph's closing performance felt like from my vantage point only a few feet away, next to the Rockets bench:
Nightly Number: 72-0. The Grizzlies scored what I'm assuming is a season-high 72 points in the paint (36-59) and scored exactly zero points from three-point range (0-4). Following Randolph, Rudy Gay (22 points, 18 of them in the paint) did his damage inside too, while taking no threes.
Obviously, three-point shooting is a team weakness. But I feel like the team probably needs to look for a few more attempts than they've been taking lately. Gay has been a very good percentage shooter from long-range this season, but has taken more than two attempts only once in his past four games. And while O.J. Mayo was 0-2 from deep tonight, the team needs to look to get him more clean looks from deep.
The Match-Up: Former backup Kyle Lowry had gleefully decimated the Grizzlies in the two previous games this season, averaging 23 points and 15 assists. Not tonight. Lowery had only five points (with eight assists) on 2-8 shooting, including a more familiar 1-6 from long-range. Meanwhile, Mike Conley carried over his good shooting (but not, thankfully, his fragile late-game performance) from Wednesday night, scoring 17 points on a tidy 7-11 shooting.
The Jacob Riis Report: The Rockets start the allegedly 6'6" non-scorer Chuck Hayes at center, which seems like a joke until you start watching him play. Hayes is somehow one of the hardest guys in the league to score against on the block. In the last match-up, Marc Gasol shot 2-16 against the Rockets and was only 2-4 tonight. Zach Randolph got his points against Hayes, but had to work really hard for them. It's some combination of strength, quickness, and focus that makes Hayes so good. When I asked Randolph about Hayes after to game, he helpfully explained, "He's strong … like a tree stump."
Tweet O’ the Game: At Grizz game and Thabeet is in. My 5 year old nephew asks if everyone gets to play in this league. #notreally — @TedHor
Where They Stand: The win moves the Grizzlies to 20-23, now a half game ahead of the 20-24 Rockets, but a game behind 9th place Phoenix and 3.5 games behind the 8th seed Portland Trailblazers, both of whom have been surging lately.
Looking Ahead: The Griz left tonight for Milwaukee, where they'll face the Bucks tomorrow night in the first of four roadies against Eastern Conference teams with losing records (also: New Jersey, Toronto, Philadelphia).
Announced Attendance: 13,458
Even with Tony Allen returning from injury, Sam Young got the start tonight. Young got off to a very rough start, missing his first two shots and picking up two fouls while Kevin Martin torched him for 10 early points. Young was better in his third-quarter minutes, but I'm guessing Allen moves back into the lineup tomorrow night.
A highly unusual occurrence: The Grizzlies may have gotten more productive minutes in the middle tonight from Hasheem Thabeet (five points, six boards in 12 minutes) than from Marc Gasol. Thabeet has now come off the bench and made some positive contributions in three straights games. Can this trend possibly continue?
The Play of the Night: Greivis Vasquez to O.J. Mayo for a fastbreak alley-oop that I had a good angle on but still found surprising.
Mayo, by the way, played strong all-around minutes off the bench, with 13 points (5-10 shooting), 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in 33 minutes. He also, most importantly, defended Kevin Martin well. I would still like to see him back in the starting lineup.