Last night, the FedExForum started to feel like the Grindhouse again. It was tentative, fleeting, contingent on whether the Grizzlies could actually hold on to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder, contingent on whether the team could snap out of the amnesiac stumble that's marked their last eight weeks of play.
Of course, these Grizzlies always (only?) play at their best with their backs against the wall, and with San Antonio and Houston both eyeing better playoff seeding—the Grizzlies remain in 2nd in the West, but could theoretically finish anywhere between 2nd and 6th—last night was pretty close to a must-win for them. They came out and played like the Memphis Grizzlies, against a team they've seen more times than any other since the 2010-11 season.
The biggest thing to take away from last night is that for whatever reason, the Grizzlies are starting to look like themselves. Whether it's because the playoffs are finally visible on the horizon, or because the seeding battle is tightening and they can finally tell that every game matters (as if it didn't before, when they were losing to Detroit and Utah and whoever else), or because they had three days off to practice and hang out at home and eat meals with their families, it's happening. I'm not going to say that they've turned a corner—this team is far too unpredictable of late for me to make any kind of pronouncement like that—but they're showing signs of life, and that's the best thing that's happened down at 191 Beale in weeks.
➭ Marc Gasol looked like a different person than the jersey-ripping emotional maniac who played against Sacramento on Monday night. Even before the game, he just looked different, like he wanted to play basketball. The game followed from the attitude: Gasol finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, and he looked comfortable.
Gasol is such an emotional player. His mental state is readily apparent on the court, from the way he carries himself to the way he fights for rebounds to the way he talks to himself after plays while he gets ready to shoot free throws. The comments about Gasol's stress level around the Sacramento game—what probably came off as jokes about the fact that he was in some kind of mental distress—weren't jokes. Something was wrong with this dude.
It's been a long year for Gasol. He played (hard) in the FIBA World Cup this summer, he and his wife had a baby (who is about the age to be undergoing some kind of sleep regression—since my own daughter is almost a year old, I have recent experience with that ghastly phenomenon), he's got free agency in the back of his mind looming after the end of the year... Gasol has a lot on his plate, and has since this summer. As the Grizzlies' play stagnated and things started to go pear-shaped, it was only another stressor on top of the pile he'd already acquired, and no wonder it made him a little crazy.
At any rate, just like the overall team, I'm not going to say "Gasol is back" just because he's had one good game. This season has been far too inconsistent to make statements like that. But last night was the first time in a while that he (1) played at a very high level and (2) looked like he was enjoying himself, and did both at the same time. Which is a good sign as the regular season winds down.
➭ If you're going to sit down and map out what the ideal Jeff Green game looks like, you'd probably draw up something like Green's performance last night: 22 points on only 12 shots, 2 of 5 from 3, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks, and playing inspired, tough defense on Russell Westbrook. (He wasn't so good defending other folks, but on Westbrook, he did a number on the white-hot force of nature.)
Lately, Green is looking a lot more comfortable in the flow of the Grizzlies' offense, both with the starting unit (Green returned to starting last night with Tony Allen still out nursing his hamstring injury) and with the second unit. His defensive positioning is still mostly subpar, but he's gotten "okay" enough that it's not always the problem that it was early in his Griz tenure.
His athleticism and ability to get to the rim completely change the nature of what the Griz are able to do offensively. Instead of having to shoot a last-second long jumper to bail them out when an offensive possession goes badly, they can swing the ball to Green and have him run at the basket, where he'll probably either get a layup or go to the foul line. Not having to rely on jump shooting as a relief mechanism is a big deal for these Grizzlies, who mostly still can't hit the broad side of a barn.
➭ Courtney Lee aggressively looked to score last night, even though his 3-pointer wasn't really falling. Lee was 1-4 from long range, but that was only a small part of his game. He still had a rough night accuracy-wise (5 of 13 for 13 points isn't exactly the most efficient performance) but his determination to get a layup or something on a pull-up from midrange was much different than he's been as of late, opting to just not shoot at all. A Lee who is scoring, even if it's not from 3, is much more valuable than one who isn't. If he can keep his scoring aggression up—and he's clearly still somewhat hampered by the hand injury he suffered, whether physically or mentally, so one can probably assume it comes and goes depending on how he's feeling—the Grizzlies have a much higher ceiling.
➭ The Grizzlies should always be attempting 20-ish 3-pointers in a game. If they're taking the shots, eventually they'll fall. The Griz were 4 of 21 from long range last night, and the shots were almost always open looks. Everyone knows they can't shoot—if they were even slightly below average at hitting 3's instead of abysmal, last night's game would've been a 20-point victory—but the more they take, the more they make. If they're only going to make 20% of the 3's they take, they need to take a lot more of them so they're still hitting 5 or 6. On the nights that they actually make 35% or 40% of them, they'll be unstoppable.
Tweet of the Night
Jeff Green kneed both Enes Kanter and Russell Westbrook in the face last night. He was going up for a rebound when he did it to Kanter—Kanter fell down under the basket and Green landed on him knee-first. He got Westbrook while jumping to block a shot—yes, he jumped so high his knee was even with Westbrook's face—and he clocked Westbrook on the chin. Westbrook, of course, has been playing with a mask due to a broken cheekbone, so he was down for a while recovering from the accidental blow.
Either way, it was just another moment in the Grizzlies-as-wrestling narrative:
Jeff Green has the best high knee I've seen since the heyday of Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) April 4, 2015