Author’s note: I haven’t done one of these yet this season, and the last game between these two teams turned into maybe the greatest regular season game in franchise history, a 3OT Griz win in San Antonio, so I figured it was time.
I settle into my courtside seat right next to a laser printer and a Cisco phone that I’ve never actually seen anyone use. I have a migraine so everything is sort of hazy, not literally but thoughts are muddled, like I’ve been hit in the head, because that’s sort of what has happened.
As ever, the NBA injury train rolls on, which means no Tony Parker or Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs, and no Zach Randolph for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have not been great without Randolph—and, not coincidentally, he scored all 6 of the Grizzlies’ points in the 3rd overtime in San Antonio—but tonight it seems like both teams are down a man or two and so it’s even.
There are other elements of intrigue, of course: I just wrote a piece saying Quincy Pondexter might need a change of scenery and part of me hopes I’m right (credibility being an important thing) and the other part hopes he proves me wrong. I was worried about Vince Carter earlier and he came around, but the Quincy thing feels different to me. Time will tell. Maybe the Pondexter revival will start tonight.
➭ 12:00 - Tony Allen wins the tip, and immediately gets his layup blocked by Danny Green. The guy sitting behind me is already yelling at the ref using his first name. I don’t feel like this is as effective as the guy behind me does.
➭ 11:00 - Tiago Splitter backs down Leuer for a pretty easy basket, which is going to be a problem for the Grizzlies all night. Starting Leuer in place of Randolph is basically the only option that the Grizzlies have, because power forward is the weakest spot on the roster depth-wise. They really need somebody else in that spot. Leuer can’t carry the load by himself with Randolph out and Tayshaun is too small to be a consistent option (example being the Houston game last week when Josh Smith got the better of him simply by virtue of being bigger. I’m not sure what the answer is—it could be a small trade for another big, it could be signing somebody like Kenyon Martin or Emeka Okafor for the veteran minimum, or it could be the currently-underdeveloped Jarnell Stokes.
➭ 9:15 - Speaking of Jarnell Stokes, he checks into the game as the first Grizzlies player off the bench, subbing in for Jon Leuer to guard Splitter and maybe try scoring some (dare I say it) Randolph-style garbageman baskets under the rim. I was surprised by this—Joerger has shown that he doesn’t like playing rookies, and here he is playing one as the first sub against the Spurs—but given Z-Bo’s injury, the pickings are slim at that position, and unless something proves otherwise, Stokes is probably The Future there.
➭ 7:02 - Tony Allen gets another steal, causing the Spurs to sub Manu Ginobili in for Danny Green, and Stokes has shut down Splitter so Matt Bonner enters the game. It’s nice to see Tony Allen in full Lord of Basketball Chaos mode again; it feels like it’s been a while since he’s had a standout defensive performance. Meanwhile Stokes guards Cory Joseph (!) on the way down the court, forcing another Spurs turnover, and then “forcing” Gregg Popovich to get T’d up during the ensuing Spurs timeout.
➭ 4:48 - Marc Gasol vs. Tim Duncan: how many more of these are we going to get? Each one now seems so special, so pitched, so epic. It’s a joy to watch these two battling against each other, and I’m going to miss it when Duncan inevitably retires.
➭ 2:37 - Chris Herrington tweets this:
With Tony Parker out, Mike Conley is stepping up to perform the role of Tony Parker.— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) December 31, 2014
and Conley immediately makes a floater from the free throw line to go 5–5 on the night. After the 2013 Western Conference Finals it seemed obvious to me that becoming more Parker-esque was the next step in Conley’s development—that Conley could learn a lot from studying the way Parker plays. He did a great job of it last year during the glut of injuries, carrying the team with several 30 point games, and he’s still playing at an insane level this year (despite struggling with his shot sometimes). By the end of the first, Conley already has 16 points, shooting 7 of 8, his only missed shot a last heave of the quarter trying to beat the buzzer.
➭ 12:00 — I got lost in David Roth’s “Jim Harbaugh or Zodiac Killer” quiz during the quarter break and because of it I stopped paying attention to my game notes and started tweeting and watching. Despite the fact that I was trying to obsessively note everything that happened, it’s undeniably fun to drop into “dude watching a basketball game” mode, and not take the notes. The problem with not taking notes is that later on I realize I don’t have any idea how to say anything intelligent about what I’ve just watched. I just remember that I was watching basketball. I remember that Koufos got fouled by Baynes under the Spurs basket and they didn’t call it. I remember that Vince Carter is still just shooting everything he can get his hands on. I remember that these are the Spurs and I should be more nervous because The Are The Enemy and beyond that I don’t have any idea what happened in the three minutes before I started writing game notes this again. Sorry. We regret the error.
➭ At the scorers’ table, we started talking about The Boris Diaw Cappuccino story, maybe one of my favorite stories about the abilities of an athlete. It’s also maybe the most Boris Diaw story that’s ever been told.
➭ 7:32 - Joseph steals the Grizzlies’ inbounds pass and immediately converts it to a Spurs bucket, which is not the kind of thing the Grizzlies should be in the business of allowing. The crowd makes a weird disappointed sound, like it knew something bad was going to happen. Like they’re waiting on an inevitable, dream-crushing Spurs comeback win. Old habits are hard to shake.
➭ 5:03 - Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen in the game together—something the Spurs used to punish the Grizzlies to no end over the last two years of matchups—but there’s a wrinkle: Prince is the 4 in a small lineup (Conley/Tony/QPon/Prince/Gasol) so maybe it won’t be as useless. It seems to be working early. Pondexter is the 3 in this lineup, and he’s playing pretty well, knocking down shots when he has the opportunity. I’ll take full credit for it, since I’m just going to assume he hangs on every word I write here.
➭ 2:23 - The Spurs look frustrated with the officiating and the game feels like it might be starting to turn a little chippy. Not sure what this vibe is but I’m not sure it bodes well for the second half of this game. I’ve never really seen this Spurs team look out-and-out rattled like this while playing the Grizzlies, at least not since 2011. Without Parker and Leonard maybe they really just don’t have it tonight. This is about when I noticed that Splitter hasn’t been in the game since Stokes demolished him in those first quarter minutes.
➭ 46.8 - Both teams look like they’re getting a little sloppy down the stretch of this quarter; the Spurs are fouling a lot, and the Griz are leaving guys gambling for steals. Conley gets fouled on a 3-point attempt. The Griz are leaving Belinelli wide open too many times while trying to steal the ball from Patty Mills, the same help defense issues that always seem to pop up when the Grizzlies play the Spurs. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
➭ John Hollinger doesn’t have one go-to celebration move after he makes an alley oop dunk; he has several. “A whole routine,” he says.
➭ 12:00 - Splitter starts second half too, but Joerger doesn’t start Stokes on him, he starts Leuer. We’ll see what happens. Maybe they talked it over at halftime, or maybe Joerger doesn’t feel like Stokes for Leuer is a trade he wants to make in this game at this point.
➭ 11:19 - Courtney Lee finally makes a 3-pointer. He’s been taking too few of them for a while now, ever since he started slumping a little. It’s good to see him fill up the net here, because his confidence is the key to a lot of things the Grizzlies want to do this season.
➭ 6:00 - Marc Gasol stands at the Spurs free throw line for an entire Griz possession, refusing to run back on offense. He does it again on the next possession, and then doesn’t get down to the Griz end of the floor until there are 14 seconds on the shot clock. That’s not a good way to get into sets quicker on offense, unless Gasol has just been told not to worry about scoring, which seems stupid. I’m sure he’s just catching his breath, but… if the fast break attempt doesn’t work, it’d be nice if the center were already down there so the Griz can, y’know, run a set or something.
➭ 4:12 - Bonner comes in for the Spurs so Prince comes in to guard him instead of Stokes. I get that, I guess, but I liked the way Stokes was playing, and I think he could use all the quality minutes against a quality opponent he can get. Prince is definitely a little better-equipped to guard stretch 4’s like Bonner at the moment, though, even if just based on the length of his arms.
➭ 2:52 - Lee helps off Belinelli which leads to a 3 attempt (that misses) for the Spurs, but it could’ve easily been a bucket that would’ve cut the Griz lead to single digits. The Grizzlies’ 3-point defense problems have been pretty noticeable though December. They’re playing teams that shoot a high volume of threes, so it looks worse than it is, sure, but there’s still a (slight) problem. The 3-point defense wasn’t great under Lionel (which was also Joerger’s scheme). I feel like it has something to do with the extent to which the Griz overload the strong side; if a team can really move the ball well, they can often end up with a guy standing wide open in the weak side corner.
➭ At the end of the quarter, the Grizzlies are still up by double digits. But nobody feels like this is even close to over; the last game between these two had too many comebacks and too many overtimes to think that. The crowd is into the game but not into the game, and there’s not the same playoff feel that the Golden State game had (even though this game is also a sellout, the 6th such game of the season already) and this game also is certainly not the same Magical Realism ramble that marked the 3OT Spurs game. This one feels a little like work, like a Tuesday night in the NBA between two teams who just want to do what they have to do and then go home.
➭ 11:30 Matt Moore asks me who guards stretch fours in playoffs, Leuer or Tayshaun, and I realized that I don’t like either answer. Prince is ultimately too small (how many times have I already said this in this article?), and Leuer doesn’t have the consistent defensive chops yet. If they’re going to add some kind of a 4 to the roster (assuming they don’t think Stokes can do it, because they probably don’t, even though I think he might) it needs to be somebody mobile/athletic. Like Ed Davis I guess, if Ed Davis could play defense better. Imagine that.
➭ 9:17 - I got to make a really great Kyle Anderson/Lindsey Buckingham hair joke on Twitter. Sometimes it’s the small victories that you have to celebrate when you’re a Serious Basketball Journalist.
➭ 7:45 - The Spurs steal another inbounds pass on a lazy pass from Koufos, not paying attention to where Green was on the play. After that, the Grizzlies pass the ball around for 15 seconds and finally ends up in a QPon 3 that doesn’t go in. That “this is going poorly” vibe starts to go through the building again, and who can blame them? The Spurs Nerves will probably never be fully gone.
➭ 5:45 - Prince misses Pondexter with a pass that sails into the front row of baseline seats, and Pondexter stands there slack jawed instead of getting back on D. Right before this, Koufos threw an outlet pass out of bounds and Joerger yelled at him while immediately putting Gasol back in the game. The Grizzlies will end the game with 20 turnovers, and the Spurs will have 16—which makes it even more impressive that the Grizzlies managed to win the game, injuries or no injuries.
➭ 3:12 - the Grizzlies have suddenly figured out how to do things, breaking out of the funk they’ve been settling into for the last ten minutes of basketball, where nothing has been coming easy. They’re finally cutting out the turnovers, they’re getting stops and steals, getting rebounds. Prince is getting a lot of run as power forward tonight and it’s working out really well. The Griz have never been a team that has thrived with small lineups, but that may be changing this year with this roster (and, let’s be honest, this coach).
➭ 16.6 - The Grizzlies are going to win this one—the Spurs are waving the white flag. I don’t know if the 3OT game a couple weeks ago broke some kind of curse or not, and neither team was playing at full strength tonight, but the Grizzlies did something they haven’t done against the Spurs in a long time: they played loose. Despite the rough patches, the Grizzlies never once looked like they were playing knowing that the Spurs were going to come back and win, something that has happened over and over (and over) since the 2011 playoffs. The Griz finally look like they play the Spurs the same way they play every other team; the mental blocks are starting to fade. That may be the most important thing that happens this regular season: the Grizzlies finally start seeing that the Spurs are mortals just like they are. That intimidation factor has been huge and it’s good to see it start to fade, even just a little bit.