Tonight the Grizzlies return home from an embarrassing 104-64 loss in Chicago and I make my regular-season debut at FedExForum, having missed the season's first two games due to holiday travels. Given both of those realities, I'm going to treat this one a little different than a typical game preview.
Five notes on the State of the Griz and tonight's game:
Another Bad Beginning: Grizzlies fans are accustomed to bad starts even in good years. Even in the five seasons in which the team hasn't been terrible, the Grizzlies have never been better than .500 a couple of weeks into the season. The Grizzlies starts during the “good” years:
2010-2011: 4-9 start (46 wins)
2009-2010: 1-8 start (40 wins)
2005-2006: 3-3 start (49 wins)
2004-2005: 0-4, then 5-11 start (45 wins)
2003-2004: 2-4 start (50)
A Fragile Place: Ordinarily, this season's 1-3 start wouldn't be that much of a concern. Two of the losses came against the teams with the two best records last season (Spurs and Bulls). Two of them against two of the consensus three best teams this season (Thunder and Bulls). Two of them on the road (Spurs and Bulls). Two with the team's starting point guard sidelined with a minor injury (Thunder and Bulls). So there are a lot of reasons to shrug off that 1-3.
But there are a couple of over-riding reasons not to: For starters, the shorter schedule makes each game more important, allotting the Grizzlies less time to make up for another bad start. But much more troubling are the team's issues related to injuries and depth.
Mike Conley is one thing. After missing most of three games with a sprained ankle, there was talk of Conley playing tonight. That won't happen, but you would expect to see him back in the lineup sometime doing the coming three-game road trip.
But Zach Randolph? Randolph went down hard against Chicago after O.J. Mayo rolled into his buckling knee. The Grizzlies are calling this a “right knee contusion” and listing Randolph as “day to day.” And hopefully that's right. But I don't put much stock into any of that until full medical testing has taken place, and that hasn't happened as of this morning. Randolph is scheduled for what the team is terming a “precautionary MRI” today. Until the results of that test are revealed, Griz fans have every reason to keep holding their breath.
Those injuries on top of the season-long loss of Darrell Arthur, the delayed return of Hamed Haddadi, and the team's inability so far to procure a true rotation-quality big man to play behind Randolph and Marc Gasol form a collection of problems far more troubling than a 1-3 record.
The Grizzlies really need this one tonight, but will be playing with two rookie point guards, one true big man, and two purported wing scorers in O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay both off to rough starts (a combined 4-21 agains the Bulls), making what should be a probable win instead a very dicey situation.
Rudy's Rust: Through three games — the whole team fell apart against Chicago — Gay was playing significant minutes as a small-ball four in response to the team's lack of frontcourt depth and was do a great job on the boards and bringing generally active play (fine steal and block rates) on the defensive end. And coming off that February shoulder injury, Gay seems healthy.
But though four games, Gay has been an abject disaster offensively. As a post on True Hoop yesterday illustrates, no one in the NBA is putting up more shots with a lower true shooting percentage.
Gay has forced some bad shots, but he's also missed a lot of good ones. In the third quarter, against Oklahoma City, Gay got three wide-open three-point looks in the span of about 10 possessions, all off kickouts, all in perfect shooting position, and missed all three. Against Chicago, Gay routinely missed bread-and-butter shots — open 16 footers, short pull-ups in the lane, etc. Is this rust from the long layoff? Conditioning? Psychological effects of returning from the first major injury of his career?
Since I've been away from FedExForum in the opening week, it's hard to ascertain what the specific problems is, but against the Bulls it sure looked like all of the above packed into a familiar downward spiral: Struggle. Press because you're struggling. Struggle more because you're pressing, etc.
Through four games, Gay is shooting 35% from the floor and 17% from the three-point line. For his career, he's 46% and 35%. Last season, he was 47% and 40%. As long as he's healthy — and given his rebounding and strong drives to the rim, he seems to be — this will get better. But with the shortened season and Randolph's injury, the Grizzlies can't afford to wait too much longer for Gay to get into sync. The recovery needs to begin tonight.
Other People's Problems: Even with all the problems the Grizzlies are having right now, a home game against the Kings is a good chance to get back on track. The Kings are 2-3, but have played four of five games at home. Their only road game so far was a 22-point loss to Portland and they're now dealing with their own turmoil in the form of difficult second-year center DeMarcus Cousins, who made the trip to Memphis but whose availability is uncertain.
Beyond the Cousins issue, the Kings are dealing with a young, mismatched roster filled with score-first guards and no one to set them up — although the Kings' reluctance to pass also keeps their turnovers low, mitigating one of the Grizzlies' strengths. This team is more interesting than it is good, but presents danger in the form of several players capable of getting hot. On top of their other problems, the Grizzlies can't let one of these streaky scorers — I'd worry about Marcus Thornton (Griz Killer sixth-man candidate?), Tyreke Evans (coming off his best game), DeMarcus Cousins (potential match-up nightmare if he plays and is focused), and The Jimmer Fredette, in that order.
The Lonesome, Crowded West: At 1-3, the Grizzlies currently sit in last place in the Western Conference, but it's so early that only two games separate 15th and 2nd. And the Grizzlies aren't the only prospective Western power having some problems. Even with a resounding 100-87 home win against the Thunder last night, the defending champion Mavericks are only 2-4 and look like they have a lower ceiling than last season. The Lakers 3-3 with a razor-thin rotation and Kobe Bryant showing his age. The Spurs are 3-2 and could be without their best player, Manu Ginobili, for six weeks after he broke his hand last night. The Clippers, at 2-2 and with a so-far porous defense, are not an immediate juggernaut. Portland, Denver, and even Houston have looked pretty good so far, but are a combined 8-0 at home and only 1-5 on the road.
Even with the compressed schedule, the Grizzlies could probably be bad for up to a month and still have a decent chance of working their way into the playoffs. But the schedule ahead makes tonight's game, if not a “must win,” then at least extremely important.
After tonight, the Grizzlies will hit the road to face a vastly improved Minnesota Timberwolves team on the second night of a back-to-back and then continue on the road against the Jazz and Lakers. They'll come home to a four-game set that will include rematches with the Thunder and Bulls and a national television game against the Knicks. Given the current problems, it wouldn't be a shock to look up at the end of all that and see the team sitting at 3-9, which could be a lot of ground to make up.
It's a precarious but compelling road ahead. I'm glad to be back to follow it.