The Lead: After a poor performance Sunday night against the otherwise-reeling Utah Jazz, the Grizzlies rebounded tonight with a strong win over division rival Houston Rockets, securing at least a tie in a potentially crucial season series and moving to within half a game of getting back into the Western Conference playoff bracket.
The Grizzlies got a balanced effort, with five players in double figures, and swiftly overcame an early five-point deficit to take a lead midway through the first quarter that they never relinquished.
The lead topped out at 15 points early in the third quarter, but though the Rockets made some mini-runs after that, the Grizzlies never let them claw all the way back. The two times the Rockets seriously threatened, the Grizzlies responded with big three-pointers. An O.J. Mayo three-pointer stretched the lead back to 9 early in the fourth quarter after the Rockets had pulled to within 6 to start the quarter. Later, after his own bad-pass turnover was converted into a layup by Rockets (and former Griz) guard Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley responded with the biggest play of the game, hitting a straightaway three-pointer off a Dante Cunningham offensive rebound to push the lead back to 8 with 2:25 to play. On the ensuing Rockets possession, a Rudy Gay steal and long lead pass for a Mayo lay-up all but iced the game.
The Rockets went small in the second half to try to get back in the game, but while Lowry was effective getting to the rim (a game-high 24 points, including 9-9 from the line), the Rockets couldn't get anything going from three-point range, hitting only 1-6 from beyond the arc in the second half.
“They went small and started to attack us off the dribble — but they didn't hit threes,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “When they really stretch us out is when they hit threes.”
Man of the Match: After a balanced first quarter, the Grizzlies took turns offensively. Rudy Gay scored 12 in the second quarter, starting with a reverse slam on a baseline drive and continuing with a series of short jumpers. Marc Gasol had his jumper on automatic in the third quarter, scoring 11 on 4-5 shooting, all makes from 15 feet and beyond. And in the fourth quarter, Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo scored 15 of the team's 21 points, combining for 3-4 from three and with Conley hitting 4-4 from the free-throw line when the Rockets got into must-foul territory.
With that balanced scoring and with Tony Allen's big play defensively (more on that in a bit), this was a true team effort, but we'll give this one to Rudy Gay, whose 20 points on 8-15 shooting was augmented by a team-high 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals — including the steal and assist on the game's decisive play.
Nightly Number: With Lowry as the only Rockets starter in double digits and all the Grizzlies primary players having strong games, it felt like the Grizzlies should have pulled away in this one instead of letting the Rockets hang around into the fourth quarter. The culprit? The second straight rough game from the Grizzlies' bench, which was a combined 2-13 through three quarters, before O.J. Mayo got hot from three and Dante Cunningham got a putback in the fourth quarter.
After a season-best performance against Minnesota last Wednesday, Quincy Pondexter was virtually invisible for the second straight game and Jeremy Pargo was unsteady is six minutes at backup point guard.
The Match-Up: Longtime Grizzlies fans know that Kevin Martin is a potential go-to guy on the Griz Killer team. Martin's been lighting up the home team since his days with the Sacramento Kings. But tonight, one of the league's most efficient scorers faced off with arguably the league's best perimeter defender in Tony Allen. How much of it was the defense and how much of it was other factors is hard to say, but the box score doesn't lie: Martin went scoreless for the first time since 2006, shooting 0-3 in 19 minutes.
“It happens to the best of them. I just want to credit my teammates, that's all,” Allen said after the game, when asked about Martin's donut. Pressed to elaborate on his own approach, Allen granted that he'd watched video of Martin's past three games before tonight's tip and discussed his approach to Martin with assistant coach Dave Joerger.
“I studied his tendencies and tried to crowd his airspace,” Allen said. “[O.J. Mayo and I were] talking about Kevin in the shoot-around today, talking about him being a, what you call it, 'Griz killer' — just joking around. But we had our antennas up on him.”
I'm pretty sure I spotted Allen making his trademark “cutting the water off” gesture in the first quarter.
Up next for Allen could be Nets guard Deron Williams Wednesday night in New Jersey. Allen is unlikely to get the primary call on Williams, but as a big point guard and the Nets' primary scorer, Williams is just the kind of lead guard Allen could be asked to cool off.
“They can grab me by the collar and throw me on anyone. I can be that thirsty dog,” Allen said with a smile when I asked him about the prospect of checking Williams. “It's not like I'm gonna say no.”
Elements of Style: Seriously, Daryl Morey. How did you end up with a small forward tandem of “Chandler & Chase?” That's like a law firm or — per Griz mic-rocker Rick Trotter — the title of some bad TNT show. At one point, Chandler (Parsons) and Chase (Buddinger) were on the court together in a small-ball alignment with Kyle Lowry and Courtney Lee, and a fan behind me cracked, ““Chandler and Chase and Courtney and Kyle? What is this, Beverly Hills 90210?”
The Jacob Riis Report: Kyle Lowry is one of my favorite former Griz players. Since early in his rookie year — and he suffered a season-ending injury 10 games into his first campaign — I thought Lowry looked like a future starting point guard. And while I understood trading him — I would have placed my bet on Mike Conley as well, and you weren't going to re-sign both coming off rookie deals — I didn't think they got strong enough return. (A late first-round pick they blew on DeMarre Carroll.) Lowry is fierce going to the rim, like a bowling ball on fire, and he willed his way to a game-high 24 points tonight. But I don't think you're really going anywhere with Lowry as your best player. And with Luis Scola starting to show his age and Martin still a bit too one-dimensional, that's what Lowry's become.
The Rocket's 16-13 record against a tough early schedule is impressive, but they aren't adding a Zach Randolph in the second half. At #9, the Grizzlies need one team ahead of them to fall. It could be Portland or Denver or even the Lakers. But I think Houston is the most likely target.
Arena Action: A couple of proposals during this Valentine's Day game. One on the Jumbotron during the nightly “Kiss Cam” seemed legit — and, apparently, successful. Another was set up during one of the team's on-court in-game bits and was a rejection. It played out awkwardly in a way that it wasn't clear whether the rejection was real or a set-up, and team employees gave mixed-messages on the veracity of the scene. It was either a real proposal-and-rejection or a poorly staged stunt.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies moved back above .500 again, at 15-14. With losses Tuesday night from Portland and Utah, along with the Grizzlies defeat of the Rockets, the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff race tightened up. The Grizzlies are now essentially tied with Portland for 8th (but are down 0-1 in the season series) and a single game behind Houston for 7th.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies flew out after the game and will play a road game against the New Jersey Nets Wednesday night, followed by a return home for back-to-back games with Denver and Golden State Friday and Saturday.
Announced Attendance: 13,042
More good news was delivered on Zach Randolph's status Monday as the Commercial Appeal reported that Randolph's latest MRI showed more healing and that Randolph would soon begin on-court (non-contact) drills. Randolph seems on pace for an early-to-mid-March return, with the CA speculating about him playing his first game on March 7th at Golden State, a game that would be preceded by three off days, allowing maximum practice time before his debut. If he's ready by then, that would make a lot of sense.
In other team news, rookie point guard Josh Selby was sent down to the team's D League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns. I don't see this as a negative for Selby or the team. With Jeremy Pargo and O.J. Mayo sharing back-up point guard duties and no current injuries on the perimeter, Selby was only seeing the floor during so-called “garbage time.” I've been reasonably impressed by Selby in his limited minutes so far this season and am more optimistic about his ability to handle point guard duties in the NBA than I was before the season started. But he's still raw and needs court-time to develop. Going to Reno will allow Selby a heavy dose of court time. This is what the D League is for, and Selby is exactly the kind of player it's designed to benefit. Selby made his Bighorns debut Tuesday night, scoring as team high 26 points on 10-15 shooting in a 118-110 loss to the Austin Toros. On the down side, Selby had only 1 assist to 6 turnovers.
Rudy Gay was the victim of a minor Twitter flare-up after Sunday night's loss to the Utah Jazz, when a quote of his in reference to the play of Jazz forward Gordon Hayward came out screwy in an unfortunate and apparently innocent transcription error. The crucial word "myself" was left out in a comment about the team learning from Hayward's hard play. The misquote — in which Gay was incorrectly portrayed as criticizing teammates — was passed along by a Utah reporter and re-tweeted by others.