The Grizzlies enjoyed one of their best wins of the season last night, returning to “the birthplace of grit and grind,” as Pete Pranica put it before the tip, to end the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder's six-game winning streak despite the absence of Mike Conley and Dante Cunningham and subpar games from Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph.
Of course, this happened on a Monday night, right in the middle of our Monday-Tuesday production cycle at the Flyer, so I wasn't able to get into the game until I was done with print deadlines. But I want to get a few rambling observations down before the team takes the court again tonight, at home against the reeling Golden State Warriors. (Reminder: We're giving away two tickets to the game. Enter here. Drawing at 3 p.m.)
The Season Series/The State of Things: The Grizzlies went 1-3 against the Thunder in this season's series after pushing them to seven games in last spring's playoffs. If that feels like regression, consider this: All four games came down to the final couple of minutes, with the Grizzlies playing without Zach Randolph in two games and without Mike Conley in the other two, while the Thunder have been relatively whole.
And those player absences aren't exactly the main reason why I think it's impressive that the Grizzlies have played the Thunder so close this season. Flash back to last year's playoffs and think about what these two teams were then and what they are now: The Thunder have replaced injured back-up guard Eric Maynor with recent signee Derek Fisher but are otherwise the same team. They've been able to consolidate and build on the chemistry and style they had success with last season, resulting in a leap up the standings, where they've held pole position in the Western Conference since the Christmas day tip-off.
The Grizzlies, on the other hand, have suffered major injuries that spurred considerable roster upheaval and a major change in the way the team functions, at least on the offensive end. When the Grizzlies lost Rudy Gay last season, they lost firepower on the perimeter, but they didn't have to change their style of play: Before and after the Gay injury they were built around the two-man power game of Randolph and Marc Gasol. Losing Randolph, however, forced the team into a more dramatic, emergency shift. Rather than consolidate and build, the Grizzlies have had to freelance and improvise, and their ability to stay in the middle of the playoff race while doing so has been a testament to the team's depth and grit and to the leadership of Lionel Hollins and his coaching staff.
Given where the two teams left off last season and what's happened to them since, there should probably be a bigger gap between the Thunder and Grizzlies than there seems to be. That the Grizzlies have hung right with the Thunder in four match-ups despite missing key players in each game and losing much of their offensive identity should give the favorites in OKC some concern about the prospect of meeting up with the Grizzlies in another playoff series this spring. And I think I speak for most NBA fans in wishing we get a Griz-Thunder re-match sometime in these upcoming playoffs.
Road wins over the past week against the Thunder and the Lakers are a reminder that this team still has the wherewithal to be a legit contender come playoff time. But the challenge for the Grizzlies these final 15 games will be to solidify their playoff position — with an eye toward the #4 seed should the Clippers hit a rough patch — while transitioning back into the power game that will give them more post-season potential. Those two goals aren't entirely compatible, and balancing them over the next three weeks will be tricky.
Mulling Match-Ups: I spent a lot of time last night thinking out loud about match-ups in a potential Thunder series. The Thunder have three elite perimeter scorers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and sixth-man James Harden, and the scary thing is that they can easily play them all together. This is a match-up nightmare for anybody, but with the additions of Quincy Pondexter (who only played 5 minutes last night) and Dante Cunningham (who missed the game but could be something of a secret weapon against Durant now that Randolph is back and Cunningham doesn't have to stay at the four as much) to a core of Tony Allen, O.J. Mayo, and Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies have a lot of depth, size, and versatility on the perimeter. Given that, as we saw last spring, Mike Conley doesn't really have anyone to guard when the Thunder plays all three scorers, and given that O.J. Mayo — who won last night's game with a clutch late three-pointer — has both demonstrated a better ability to lead the offense and played some strong minutes defensively against Westbrook in last year's playoff series, I wonder if the Grizzlies wouldn't be more effective against the Thunder spotting Conley when Thabo Sefolosha (24 minutes last night) or Derek Fisher (15) play but sitting him when the Thunder go to the turbo scoring lineup.
Mayo-Allen-Gay would give the Grizzlies better defense against the Thunder's big three. And, honestly, given the way Gay has struggled with Durant, Mayo-Pondexter-Allen or Mayo-Allen-Cunningham would be even better. In concert with the post tandem of Gasol-Randolph up front, I tend to think those lineups would maximize the defense while leaving the offense enough scoring to get by. Again, just thinking out loud and getting ahead of myself, but if we do get Griz-Thunder again it will be an interesting challenge to find the right balance of offensive and defense on the perimeter for the Grizzlies.
Arenas on Durant?: In one of the oddest match-ups you'll ever see, the Grizzlies used Gilbert Arenas — a historically poor defender giving up probably seven inches — to guard Kevin Durant last night. And it worked! Twice Arenas “pulled the chair” on Durant, stepping backward while Durant was trying to post him and causing Durant to lose his footing. And Durant never seemed comfortable with the ostensible mismatch. This was apparently Arenas' idea. Scroll through sideline reporter Rob Fischer's Twitter feed for some really interesting post-game quotes from Arenas on this subject.
The Point Guard Rotation: Despite his unlikely defensive heroics, Arenas played 20 minutes last night without scoring and while registering only one assist, and still hasn't shown he can really be counted on for consistent minutes come playoff time. Rookie Jeremy Pargo got the start in Conley's absence and scored effectively (10 points on 4-7 shooting) despite having more turnovers (2) than assists (1). Pargo is starting to settle down a little, and I really like his defensive potential. I'm coming around to the Grizzlies picking up his low-cost option for next season. But the Grizzlies were at their best last night with Mayo on the ball and I still see no reason why a shortened rotation shouldn't hand Mayo most if not all of the minutes behind Conley once the playoffs start.
Quincy Pondexter's Tech: Pondexter got T'ed up for saying “ball don't lie” after James Harden missed a free-throw. This apparently happened. As Henry Abbott wrote today, “Referees should be trained that phrase is exempt on religious grounds.”
Rudy Gay's Jumper: Is suddenly M.I.A. Gay is a career 35% three-point shooter and shot just under 40% last season, but, of late, his long jumper has disappeared. Gay missed his only three-point attempt last night and is now 0-10 from beyond the arc in his past four games. This is part of a longer trend — Gay was 41% in January, 37% in February, 26% in March — that really needs to reverse itself when the post-season comes, if not before.
Z-Bo's Status: Since I was on-the-road for Zach Randolph's first two games back, at home, and since the team has been on the road for seven of their past eight games, I've only seen Randolph live once since his return. And you can see a lot more in person (with my good seat, at least) than on television (with my low-tech tube, anyway). So I'm going to be paying close attention to Randolph tonight, whose progress since his return seems slower than most hoped. I also wonder whether Randolph's minutes – much less his effectiveness – will be limited in what is the team's only three-games-in-three-nights stretch.