by Kevin Lipe
Well, the Grizzlies didn't win last night. Usually, with a team that has been through so much for so long, moral victories aren't the kind of thing a fanbase can get excited about—and the Griz aren't out of the woods yet—but at least they made it a close game last night and only lost because of a missed free throw. With 3.5 left and down 3, Marc Gasol made a free throw, missed the second one, and then was fouled while pulling in his own rebound, and got two more free throws and an opportunity to tie.
Alas, it wasn't meant to be, but the Grizzlies showed signs of life last night on the last game of their 5-game-long West Coast road trip, a trip that saw them lose 4 out of the 5 games by 50, 19, and 10 before Monday night's close one.
I'd say that normally one never has to worry about whether the Grizzlies will play hard, but given the lackluster regular season play we've seen from this group since late last season, that's not really true. But last night, against the hated Clippers, they managed to get themselves worked up, and Zach Randolph had an excellent game (26 points on 19 shots, good for 63% from the floor, 9 rebounds, and a lot of those points were in the first quarter) while Mike Conley looked like himself again for the first time all season long. There were signs of progress, signs that maybe not all is lost in the current stretch of coach on the hot seat drama.
➭ For the first time all season, Mike Conley looked alive. After struggling to start the season, last night was the first game that he looked like he was (1) expending maximum effort and (2) was actually able to capitalize on some of the things he's been doing all year that haven't connected. Conley was 6 of 15 for the night, so still not a great shooting performance, but regardless of the final percentages, he looked right (our old friend the Eye Test), and that in itself was reason for hope, because that hasn't been the case yet this season.
➭ If Mike Conley looked alive for the first time this year, Marc Gasol... didn't. Gasol continues to struggle with pretty much every aspect of his game, not moving well, not really defending well, unable to connect on his midrange shots, and just generally not performing up to his usual standard. Even before he missed the game-tying free throw and just walked into the tunnel talking to himself, it was clear that Gasol was off.
I don't think it's honest to blame the whole thing on taking the summer off from basketball. I certainly think that's a factor, but Gasol's conditioning also looks nowhere near as good as it did coming into last year, and couple that with the neck injury he's already struggling with and you've got a recipe for a slow-starting Gasol. With any luck he'll shake whatever's ailing him, but right now Gasol appears to have no interest in facilitating this team the way he normally does.
➭ Jeff Green continues to be a drag on the starting unit, but he's starting to make plays in other areas. He had an excellent chasedown block of Paul Pierce last night:
When you fact check The Truth like it's the Republican debate. https://t.co/hDlNd4mC8K— grizzlam (@grizzlam) November 10, 2015
But he also continues to take ill-advised shots from just about everywhere on the floor, play mostly-terrible defense, create in the lane by dunking on anyone and everyone he can. It's somewhat concerning that he isn't getting to the line much—he only attempted two free throws last night—but like everything else with this team, it's a work in progress.
➭ Dave Joerger's closing lineup last night, when the game was very much on the line and he wanted to take care of business? Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol. When he needed to make an offense/defense substitution, the wings changed to Barnes and Courtney Lee. I had a hunch this would be the closing lineup by the middle of the season, so it's encouraging to see it deployed so soon. Barnes' +/- numbers last night were pretty bad, but he made some big shots and drew some big phantom 3-shot fouls to put the Grizzlies in a position to win last night, and I expect that kind of play to become more reliable as the season goes on and he gets more comfortable playing with this team. I really wouldn't be surprised to see Lee/Barnes starting some games before long; Barnes has the size of Jeff Green without compromising on defense, and that's where the Griz have been getting torched in these recent blowout losses.
Grizzlies Twitter has been such a dour, Armageddon-predicting place lately that it's been hard not to get caught up in it. That said, after seeing pictures of Zach Randolph's flip phone before the Portland game, this was only right:
@FlyerGrizBlog jamychal probably hooked him up with some free ringtones and they clicked after that— TAYLOR MORGAN (@ctm0rg) November 10, 2015
The Grizzlies are finally back home Wednesday night to face... the irresistible force known as the Golden State Warriors. One hopes that they can at least bring the energy they brought to last night's game, so they can avoid ever losing by 50 again. The Warriors are off to one of the best 8-game starts in the history of the NBA, so it seems unlikely that their momentum will have slowed any by Wednesday, but one never knows.
The pessimist in me mostly hopes that the Grizzlies can avoid being blown out again, because that sort of a mental blow could stall the progress the Griz have shown over the last two games in evolving back towards the same team we've watched for so long. If the Griz only played well because they hate the Clippers, they're in for a long night Wednesday night, but if the improvements we saw last night (and in the fourth quarter of the Utah game) are real, they might have a fighting chance to hand the Warriors their first loss of the season.
After all, that's why they play the games. Hopefully the Grizzlies show up.