The Grizzlies lost 100-95 to the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night in a game that, in broad strokes, was similar to Sunday's 90-82 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers: A competitive game against a top team in which the Grizzlies kept it close down the stretch but could never completely close the gap.
In the details, however, it was drastically different. Against the Lakers, the Grizzlies' pestering perimeter defense was in rare form, forcing 27 Laker turnovers off of 18 steals and using this to rack up 31 fast-break points. But, in the halfcourt, against the Lakers dual seven-footers, the Grizzlies were completely lost, getting much of their meager production off newbie Marreese Speights' instant-trigger mid-range jumper.
Against the Thunder, the Grizzlies could only get their helter-skelter defense-into-offense game going in spurts, registering a mere six steals and 10 fast-break points. And yet they were still able to score 95 points on 46% shooting with a more functional halfcourt offense. Marc Gasol got back into an offensive groove (20 points on 8-16 shooting) after his 0-9 shooting against the Lakers. The team shot decently from three-point range (5-12, including 3-3 from O.J. Mayo). Mike Conley was very effective (10 assists to one turnover). And Dante Cunningham proved more useful (5-7 shooting, four offensive rebounds) against a team that didn't force him to guard a post scorer.
Unfortunately, the details of this good — if ultimately disappointing for the home team — game are secondary to what feels like a growing fan anxiety over recent struggles — the struggles of the team as a whole and the struggles of Rudy Gay in particular. So rather than go through the typical, detailed post-game report, let's take a broader look at those two issues:
The Team: Let's unpack this 3-6 start a little bit. Five of the team's six losses have come against elite teams (Spurs with Ginobili, Bulls, Lakers, Thunder twice). The Grizzlies are 1-4 on the road but 2-2 at home, with two close losses to the Thunder (the best team in the West) and blowout wins over the middling-to-bad Kings and Rockets.
If the team's goal was still what it was back when the lockout ended — to secure a top four seed in the Western Conference — then this start would be troubling. But once the team lost Darrell Arthur for the season and Zach Randolph for at least half the season, those goals changed. The more realistic goal now is simply to make the playoffs, and I don't think a 3-6 start against this schedule, with these injuries, and this many new players (Cunningham, Speights, Quincy Pondexter, Jeremy Pargo, etc.) is all that concerning.
The Grizzlies only loss to a non-elite team (based on how Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum are playing, I'm keeping the Lakers in the elite class) was on the road against the Utah Jazz, who are off to an ostensibly impressive 6-3 start. But in that start, the Jazz — who have a negative point differential — are 5-0 at home and their wins have come against the Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Warriors, Sixers, Hornets, and Bucks. Against good teams on the road? 0-3. Could it be that the Grizzlies will continue to be an under .500 team and the Jazz will continue to be a winning team? Sure. But I'm guessing the schedule has weighed heavily on each team's start, and the schedules will even out over time.
For the Grizzlies, the current challenge is to maintain composure in the face of early adversity. To continue working these new pieces into the mix. To continue finding their way absent their top scorer and best player. And to muddle through the next few weeks and be ready to make their move when the schedule eases up in February. In the Grizzlies' final 10 games before the late-February All-Star break, eight are at home and the only road games are against the Rockets and Nets. A shorter-term goal for the Grizzlies should be to get to .500 or better by the break. If that happens and they really do get Randolph back in early March, they will be in good position for another playoff run. Nothing that's happened in the first nine games throws much doubt on those re-calibrated goals.
Rudy Gay: Gay is struggling right now. There's no doubt about that. And Tuesday's game against the Thunder was the most glaring example of that. Gay scored 16 points on 7-21 shooting and grabbed only three rebounds in 38 minutes. And he had some particularly bad moments in the final minutes. He missed two free throws that would have cut a four-point deficit to two with about three minutes to go. He missed a couple of shots around the basket that would have cut a six-point deficit to four with about a minute-and-a-half to go. Worst of all, down three with 25 seconds left in the game, Gay got trapped on the baseline and lost the ball out of bounds. It was a frustrating performance, and not the first in these nine games, where Gay has ranged from bad to merely decent.
It's impossible to get inside Gay's body or head and know for certain what's going wrong for him to start this season, but my sense is that his 10-month layoff following the first major injury of his career has impacted both his timing and conditioning. That's a factor in his struggles, but not alone an explanation.
Gay's detractors tend to complain about a perceived lack of effort. I think that was a legitimate complaint early in his NBA career, but has become less of one over time. In fact, I think “effort” is often the easy explanation when fans are disappointed in a player's performance, but that, in most cases, there are other reasons.
Having watched Gay play up close for several years now, I'd argue that his biggest problem on the court is that he's not a terribly instinctive player. He doesn't seem to feel the game and react fluidly the way, say, a Marc Gasol or Tony Allen (on the defensive end anyway) does. With Gay, there's often a slight pause in his play, where he seems to be thinking about what he's going to do instead of just automatically responding to what's happening around him. And because he's so often thinking rather than reacting, that makes him more susceptible to self-doubt and frustration than more instinctive players. And I think that has as much to do with Gay's current struggles as his seemingly very real rust/timing/conditioning issues. You can see the pattern on the court at times, particularly Tuesday night against the Thunder and earlier in that terrible loss at Chicago: He struggles. He presses because he's struggling. He struggles more because he's pressing. And it snowballs from there.
All players have deficiencies — some more than others. Gay is a great athlete with very good skills who has proven he can impact the game in a number of ways. He has also, despite his problems at the end of Tuesday's game, probably hit more big shots at the end of games than any player to ever wear a Grizzlies uniform. He doesn't, generally, shrink from the moment. Production is production, whether it comes from physical gifts or mental ones or luck or whatever. But Gay's lack of instinctiveness manifests itself in ways that many fans are less willing to forgive than a wayward jumper. Because they perceive it as more correctable. As more under a player's control. And I'm not sure that it is.
One thing I think we've learned over the past couple of seasons is that, despite his scoring ability, Gay is at his best as a versatile second option. And playing with Zach Randolph allowed him to become that. With Randolph out, the pressure is on Gay to be a winning #1 option at the precise moment when he's most susceptible to the frustrations and doubts that his lack of instinctiveness sometimes causes. When, coming off the injury and layoff, he would probably respond better to a less instant immersion. And Gay's big contract — as is so common in the volatile relationship between athletes and fans — provokes more anger and resentment when he struggles.
The issue of Gay's lackluster production and unsteady fit as temporary alpha dog — a role that really belongs as much to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — is real, but doesn't need to be worried or hyped into an overriding one this early. (See that “team” comment above.) Gay may never comfortably fit into Zach Randolph's shoes as a first option, but, provided he remains healthy, he's not going to play this poorly all season.
So far this season, Gay is shooting 41% from the floor. He shot 47% last season and has shot 46% for his career. He's shooting 21% from three-point range. He shot 40% last season and 35% for his career. He's shooting 63% from the free throw line. He shot 81% last season and 77% for his career. His rebounding had been very good until these past two games. His steal and block rates have been pretty much normal. As in most things, I'd bet on regression to the mean in regard to Gay's play. While Gay's struggles right now are very real, I'd bet on a return to career norms over a nine-game sample coming off a major injury, a long layoff, and sudden pressure to match Randolph's production.