by Kevin Lipe
Last night did not go the way the Grizzlies wanted it to, and there are several reason why. Overall, though, it was more encouraging than not to see the Grizzlies go on the road and fight out a close game while at some obvious disadvantages. Houston is a good team, and the Grizzlies have historically struggled to win there. That makes last night's game both easier to take and harder to take; it felt like it was right there for the Griz to secure at points, and still managed to end up a loss.
• Zach Randolph had a good game, for the most part, because he was either being guarded by Dwight Howard—who racked up fouls just as fast as he probably racked up Christmas candy—or Terrence Jones, who is a good basketball player who's probably about 33% too small to guard Zach Randolph. Z-Bo ended with 23-17 on 20 shots, and both the field goal attempt and rebound numbers were probably inflated by what seemed like a larger-than-normal number of Z-Bounds.
• James Johnson (again) infused athleticism and energy into the Grizzlies' wing play coming off the bench, playing pretty good defense, cleaning up around the rim, and—let us not forget—doing this:
That'll do. Johnson is fast becoming an important part of the Grizzlies' roster, providing some much-needed desperation, toughness, and wild card play-making at the small forward spot. I think so far my favorite deployments of Johnson have come in lineups that also feature Mike Miller as a 2-guard. That seems to open up the floor a little more for Johnson to be able to attack the rim with reckless abandon—which is fun to watch. It's easy to forget Johnson was a first-round pick who played quite well for Toronto two years ago before struggling with the Kings last year (and, frankly, who didn't struggle with the Kings last year?), but he's earning a permanent spot on the Grizzlies' roster. I'd be shocked if they waive him instead of letting his contract become guaranteed for the rest of the year.
• I thought Kosta Koufos played a really good game against Dwight Howard. Howard certainly isn't the athletic freak that he used to be, but he still has post moves that work and he's definitely still a threat. Koufos was aided by Houston's inability to get the ball in to Howard—at one point Dwight was alone under the Houston basket being guarded by Mike Conley and the Rockets still failed to get the ball to him—but overall I thought he did well starting in Marc Gasol's place.
• Dave Joerger's rotations in the second half didn't make much sense to me. In the first half, Z-Bo played well (playing 15 minutes straight to start the game) and so did James Johnson and Ed Davis. The Grizzlies were up 53-45 at the break, and things were going well. After halftime, Joerger rode the whole starting lineup (including Tayshaun Prince, which we'll get to) for far too long into the third quarter, leaving all of them gassed, and when he did finally make a sub, he swapped... Jon Leuer in for Kosta Koufos? Davis and Johnson barely saw the floor in the third quarter. Joerger still struggles to stick with what's working instead of playing everybody. It's a "first-year coach" problem and it will continue to be one until he gets it figured out: when you find lineups that work, keep using them.
• Speaking of the starting lineup, Tayshaun Prince didn't play well until the second half when he probably realized James Johnson had that starting small forward spot in his crosshairs. When he came alive, he mostly did well (except on defense, which is unusual for Prince). Tayshaun Prince has always been one of my favorite basketball players, all the way back to a year or two before the Pistons won the '04 title. I've always loved watching him play. I was thrilled when the Grizzlies traded for him, just because I was going to get to watch him on a regular basis. That's why it's so sad for me to see him struggling the way he's struggling this year. Between the injuries, the illness that made him miss the entire preseason, and discomfort with the Grizzlies' ever-shifting lineups, he's had a rough year. I wouldn't be opposed to keeping him out another week or two to let that knee really get right (or, at least as right as it's going to get), because a Prince who can actually move around is a Prince who is much more useful to the Grizzlies, both this year and next.
• Mike Conley is not healthy, at all. I wouldn't be surprised if he misses more games while his leg heals up. In the three games since he returned from injury, he's shot 4-18, 2-11, and last night 4-14, he's not moving with his normal quickness, and he's just not playing at anywhere near the ridiculous levels he was reaching before the injury. Conley's play has been the lone bright spot of the whole season, and now that's been taken from us for a while, too. That leg needs to heal, and if he has to miss another game or two while that happens, so be it. Nick Calathes could use the minutes, anyway.
• 4th bonus thing I didn't like: James Harden shot more free throws last night (25) than the entire Memphis Grizzlies team (20). I've gone on record multiple times about my distaste for Harden's game, which is predicated mostly on trying to draw fouls instead of, y'know, making layups. It's not fun to watch—especially when he whips his bearded head back before he drives directly into a defender, who can't get out of the way fast enough and gets called for a foul, essentially for being run into. It destroys the rhythm of the game, and it allows him to do stupid things like score 27 points in a basketball game where he literally made 2 field goals. It's stupid, and I don't like it. Neither do the players: Zach Randolph lashed out at the officials after the game in what is sure to cost him some money. I'm not sure what can be done to keep Harden from doing what he does (mostly because I prefer not to advocate violence) but I detest the way he plays basketball and I wish there were a way to prevent things like that from happening.