by Kevin Lipe
The Grizzlies were busy over the Thanksgiving holiday, playing three West Coast road games in six days and winning all of them, for a Western Conference record of 11–0 and an overall record of 15–2. For those keeping score at home, the last team to start the season 11–0 against Western Conference opponents were the 2008–09 Lakers. The Grizzlies have one more road game—Wednesday night in Houston—before they return to the Forum to face the Spurs on Friday, but they’re returning to Memphis between yesterday’s game and Wednesday’s trip, so the 13th or 14th annual Grizzlies West Coast Road Trip was a little bit shorter than usual this year (usually there’s a game against Phoenix or Golden State thrown into the mix as well), but I doubt anyone is complaining about that.
Herewith, a brief rundown of what the Grizzlies were up to while you were traveling and/or stuffing your face with turkey and/or too comatose from pumpkin pie intake to pay attention and/or fixing your parents’ or grandparents’ computer while you were in town because that’s the only time any software updates ever get run:
Grizzlies 99, Lakers 93
Probably the least impressive of the three performances for the Grizzlies, as they trailed at the end of the first quarter and didn’t take the lead for good until some time during the third. Players who usually have good defense—Tony Allen and Courtney Lee—didn’t, and Lee especially had a rough night shooting after setting the nets on fire for most of the season so far. Once the Grizzlies asserted control, they weren’t in any danger, but this was not an efficient offensive performance nor a good defensive outing. Ed Davis had 2 points in 22 minutes, though, so I guess The Ed Davis Revenge Game is still forthcoming.
A tweet from Tuesday night that gives you a glimpse of what Lakers fans are going through this season:
Lin/Kobe/Wes/Booz/Hill has the worst Net Rtg of any lineup with at least 65 minutes. That lineup has played 231 minutes.— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersBlog_SSR) November 27, 2014
Grizzlies 112, Trail Blazers 99
On Friday night in Portland, another slow start looked like it was going to sink the Grizzlies. They got down big to Portland very early on, as the Blazers are a really streaky jump-shooting team and when they’re hitting shots and the Grizzlies aren’t, they can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. They fought back quickly, and held Portland to 18 points in the second quarter while putting up 29 or more points in each of the last three frames. Gasol was almost transcendent, with 26 pts, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. Z-Bo had 14 and 13 and collected that same weird blend of cheers and boos he always does when he plays in Portland. Jon Leuer dunked like he was never going to dunk again. Overall, Friday night was a big win against one of the best teams in the West, a team that was on a 9-game winning streak before the Grizzlies got to town.
It also started to become clearer that Jon Leuer (alias Jonny Basketball) is the best dunker on the Grizzlies’ roster. I’m not sure what that means, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Jon Leuer is the front-runner for the “Player Who Least Looks Like He Will Dunk On Your Face But He Totally Will” award— Austin Reynolds (@ReynoldsRant) November 29, 2014
Grizzlies 97, Kings 85
Last night’s game in Sacramento featured a Kings team without DeMarcus Cousins and a Joey Crawford with an itch to eject some folks. Unfortunately, the target of his ire was Ryan Hollins, who was playing ahead of Reggie Evans, who had been quietly racking up DNP-CD’s on the end of the Kings bench. Reggie Evans, you may remember, is a notorious Z-Bo-stopper and all around rebounding pest, and one of the few guys in the league who can consistently cause nightmares for the Grizzlies’ interior play on both ends of the floor.
He ended up with 20 rebounds in 35 minutes, while the Grizzlies’ beautiful ball movement and floor spacing from the first half slowly devolved into hideous 2012 LionelBall™, with the Grizzlies walking the ball up the court and throwing the ball into Zach Randolph for an isolation play that, because of Reggie Evans, usually didn’t go according to plan. Z-Bo still finished with 22 and 12, and his defense was unusually good (especially in the first half), but that kind of stagnation was disheartening to see after the start the Grizzlies have gotten off to this season offensively.
Once the Grizzlies started to assert control of the game down the stretch (and Joey Crawford reminded everyone he was officiating the game, as is his wont), the Griz pulled away and got the win, but for a while, it looked like Reggie Evans was about to ruin a perfectly good road trip.
Of course, Grizzlies fans are still a little salty about the Kings’ protest of the earlier game between these two teams, the one that ended with a Courtney Lee game winning buzzer-beater:
Are the Kings going to protest this first half or nah?— Andrew Ford (@AndrewFord22) November 30, 2014
So, of course, taken as a whole, there are good things and bad things that happened on the road trip that just wrapped up, things that stick out one way or the other as being of note:
➭ Marc Gasol continues to play like an MVP candidate most of the time. In the Portland game he was on another level, but even in the Lakers and Kings games, games where the Grizzlies didn’t always look great, Gasol played with an edge that we haven’t seen from him before. He’s been much more willing to go to the rim instead of settling for jump shots this year, and that’s put him on the free throw line a great deal more than he’s ever been there in the past. If Gasol can continue to do what he’s doing, it’s going to make it a lot easier for the Grizzlies to win at this rate. Gasol is the engine that runs the entire Griz identity right now, on both ends of the floor. His defense has probably regressed a little this year due to his increased focus on scoring, but regressing a little from “Defensive Player of the Year” caliber so that he can score 30 points on a regular basis isn’t exactly a trade I’m upset about making.
➭ The offense continues to have stretches of (dare I say it?) almost Spurs-ian crispness, especially when the Grizzlies’ shooters (Lee, Pondexter, Udrih, et al) start to get going. The things Joerger is doing, and the way the Grizzlies are almost fanatically committed to making the extra pass to get the better shot, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to be back “in the mud” again. The offensive effeciency has dropped off a little bit lately, and the Griz are still 8th out of 30 teams in offensive rating (according to Basketball Reference, anyway). It’s a thing of beauty.
➭ Zach Randolph has been mostly quiet, but even when flying under the radar he’s still shown that he can assert himself when his matchups are favorable. In the first half of the Kings game, especially, he found himself being guarded by Ryan Hollins and had 15 and 5 by the seven minute mark of the second quarter. Randolph has ceded his “first option” status to Gasol and Conley for the most part this year, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not a vital part of what the team is doing. With Randolph camped out on the blocks while the offense whirls around him, he’s able to transition his rebounding and putback game into the “Garbage Man” role he was born for, grabbing anything and everything that comes his way and putting it through the rim. It’s the perfect role for Randolph for the rest of his career, if we’re honest: just hanging out, getting double-doubles, no big deal.
➭ The first bad thing is exactly the obverse of what I just said: in the Sacramento game, the offense broke down (mostly because of Reggie Evans, if we’re honest) and everything reverted to the 2012 Grizzlies look: walk the ball up the court and Z-Bo iso. (Rudy Gay was on the other team, so at least there was one fewer guy to clear out for.) Randolph may have quietly stopped being The Guy this year, but that doesn’t mean he’s gotten it out of his system, but when the Grizzlies try to pound the ball inside to #Feed50 instead of getting him the ball in the flow of the offense—some spectacular passes from Udrih to a rolling Randolph in the first half of Sacramento were the perfect example of this—he can’t get buckets against good interior defenders the way he used to. “Throw Zach the ball” can’t be the Grizzlies’ offense anymore, or, at least not against teams with good bigs.
➭ Marc Gasol is muy turnover prone this year. He’s averaging 2.7 a game, but they seem to come in clumps of 4 or 5. It makes sense that he’d be turning the ball over more, given that the ball is in his hands a lot more on offense as he transitions from a facilitator to a scorer, but still: it’s a bit problematic. The joke about Gasol has always been that he’s got the handles of a point guard trapped in a center’s body, but he’s got to work on those handles a little bit.
➭ The third thing is not really a bad that’s happening right now but a bad that is bound to happen at some point: Courtney Lee will regress to the mean at some point. The longer he can play this way before he does, the better. Lee’s shooting has opened up the floor for the Grizzlies’ offense the way nobody ever has before. Lee is doing exactly what we all thought O.J. Mayo would do in 2012 or so. But he’s shooting so far above his career averages (53% overall this year, 45% career, and 53% from 3 as opposed to 38% from three) that there’s no way it’s going to continue at this rate. Even a moderate dropoff in Lee’s production wouldn’t be that big of a deal. What would be worrisome is if he goes through a prolonged drought, and can’t hit anything for a couple of weeks. That would shift the onus to shoot to Pondexter and Udrih and Vince Carter, who keeps shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting, and I’m not sure that the Grizzlies’ newfound offensive flow looks quite the same with those guys taking the shots.