After a tight early stretch in which the Rockets' high-octane offense was breaking through the Grizzlies perimeter defense and routinely finding open three-point shooters, the Grizzlies defense settled in, allowing the team to build a nice lead in the late second (up 8 at the half) and into the third quarter (a high of 17 about eight minutes into the third).
A mismatch of bench units in the second half kept the Grizzlies from pulling away, with a feisty Rockets group using five Grizzlies turnovers in a roughly three-minute span to peel off a 10-2 run that cut the Grizzlies lead back to single digits and prompted Lionel Hollins to come back earlier than desired with his starters.
With the starters back, the Grizzlies used tighter defense and back-to-back Mike Conley steals to regain control of the game.
Overall, it was a return to the balance and execution that has typified the Grizzlies at their best this season, with the team's top six players all taking between nine and 12 field-goal attempts and all scoring in double digits. But the Grizzlies achieved this balance in the context of exploiting their interior game, with both Randolph (6-12 from the floor and 9-10 from the line) and Marc Gasol (21 points on 8-12 shooting) topping 20 points for only the third time this season.
Man of the Match: Rockets guard James Harden is the fifth-leading scorer in the NBA at 26.2 points a game and had been held to single digits only once all season. Make it two now and chalk much of that up to Tony Allen, who helped keep Harden quiet early on and then put the handcuffs on him in the third quarter — including one notable possession when Harden got Allen on an island and went at him for much of the shot clock only to be forced into a tough, contested jumper (which he missed). Harden finished with 7 points on 3-9 shooting.
Even more unlikely than Allen holding Harden to such a low scoring night? More than doubling him up. While Allen still pulled the trigger on a couple of jumpers that he should have passed up (1-4 from the perimeter), he was 7-8 in the paint on the way to 16 points of his own.
Nightly Number: Marc Gasol is clearly healthy enough to play well — he won the opening tap and then went on to be a huge positive factor on both ends of the floor — but I remain concerned about his health and workload as the playoffs approach. Gasol took two spills tonight and has hit double-digits on the boards only once since his initial abdomen injury at the beginning of the month. In this game, he played 39 minutes, following 36 two nights ago in New York. With both Ed Davis and Darrell Arthur on the bench, it shouldn't be necessary to play Gasol huge minutes, but the Rockets made their second-half run when Gasol was out of the game and it's hard to fault Lionel Hollins for bringing him back when he did.
“That's just the way it is,” Hollins said after the game. “At some point I'm going to cut back on minutes, but right now it's a dogfight. Everybody is doing the same thing. If you look at the lineups of everybody, they're doing the same thing.”
While that assertion is debatable — Tim Duncan and Chris Paul, for instance, played 32 and 34 minutes in a nip-and-tuck contest between their two teams — what isn't is that the bench play in the second half of this one was not sustainable for the Grizzlies.
“I left the bench out there a lot in the first half. When they went out in the second half, they were a little lackadaisical,” Hollins said. “The energy and the effort wasn't there … a nine-point, 10-point lead with a team like Houston is nothing.”
“I wasn't taking them out until I was sure we had a win,” Hollins said of his starters. “Basically, what I'm thinking every night is that I'm playing them like we have to win. You guys might think that it's different from your view, in terms that this game is over. My view is totally different. I never want to take guys out and lose a game because I took them out too early. I would rather take them out too late.”
The Match-Up: Mike Conley continued his strong March, outplaying his more celebrated counterpart Jeremy Lin on both ends. Conley was a precise distributor early (six first quarter assists) and used his defense to stifle a Rockets run late. Conley finished with 15 points (5-11 shooting), 10 assists, and only one turnover while Lin struggled on 3-9 shooting with only three turnovers.
Odd match-ups all night for Zach Randolph against the small-ball Rockets. Starter Donatas Motiejunas presented a problem early with his ability to stretch the floor. Reserve Thomas Robinson — a true power forward but undersized — was pretty much easy pickings for Randolph. But the most notable match-up came in the second quarter when the Rockers went super-small and matched-up Randolph with 6'6” swingman Carlos Delfino. Randolph struggled with this at first, losing Delfino for an open three and then throwing the ball away trying to pass out of a double-team. But then Randolph settled down, factoring in 10 straight Grizzlies points: A tip-in of a missed Conley layup, a drawn foul on a low-post touch, and then then back to back post kickouts for open threes (to Conley and Bayless).
Elements of Style: Marc Gasol and Mike Conley made the plays of the night. First Gasol, who powered through three defenders for a hoop-and-harm that he competed with a reverse somersault. Then Conley, who got a steal and then purposefully slowed down to allow Rockets' reserve Patrick Beverly to catch up to him, scoring the basket and drawing the foul. Finally, Conley finding Gasol for a particularly pungent halfcourt alley-oop.
Before the game, Caesar's Entertainment (Harrah's, Horseshoe, and Tunica Roadhouse casinos) held an event in front of the arena to promote an April program where they promise to give away $1 million each Saturday. Illusionist Rob Lake made an armored car — or, at least, something that looked like an armored car — appear on a stage in front of the arena.
Where They Stand: The Grizzlies improved to 48-24 and are again tied in the loss column with both the Los Angeles Clippers (who lost in San Antonio) and Denver Nuggets (who won in Brooklyn) in a tight battle for the third seed.
Looking Ahead: The Grizzlies will try to snap a five-game road losing streak in Minnesota. The Clippers will be in Houston to face the Rockets, make the Grizzlies doubly grateful that Kevin McHale chose to rest his starters for the entire fourth quarter in Memphis. The Nuggets are idle.
Announced Attendance: 18,119 — the third announced sellout in a row,
Quincy Pondexter had a rough night, missing all five of his shot attempts and not fairing that well on the defensive end either. Pondexter has been erratic since returning from injury last month. The Grizzlies need him to come around since he's the only player outside the top six who pretty much has to be in the postseason rotation. (Given that if Hollins reduces the rotation to eight he could theoretically play only Ed Davis or Darrell Arthur regular minutes.) The Grizzlies are apparently looking into signing another point guard — names such as Keyon Dooling, Scott Machado, and Sundiata Gaines have been mentioned as candidates — for the postseason. But I wonder if they wouldn't be better served adding another wing player with three-point range and the ability to defend a little. (The latter being, presumably, the reason Austin Daye's minutes have declined.)