by Kevin Lipe
The Grizzlies had eight players in uniform as they rolled into Cleveland on Monday night to take on the defending Eastern Conference champions. Not among those eight players:
So with a starting lineup of Mario Chalmers, PJ Hairston, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, and Ryan Hollins, and a bench of Vince Carter, Lance Stephenson, and Jarell Martin, the Grizzlies tipped off in Cleveland with no real reason to expect to be able to win, and then proceeded to do exactly that—and not only win, but lead most of the game, get tired, lose the lead, and claw back again to seal it in the final minute.
We've seen this kind of game before, when the under-manned Grizzlies hold their own against a tough opponent, but usually the script goes the other way: the Griz have to play so hard to win against good teams even when they're not missing almost all of their best players; usually they start to run out of steam down the stretch and they first lose the lead and then lose contact with their opponent, falling apart because their legs are dead. Not last night, though. Tony Allen missed eight games, and came back ready to roll. The young bigs—JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin—both played a lot. Mario Chalmers was a warrior. Vince iced the game with free throws late, because—sometimes we forget—he's Vince Carter.
It was a game to be proud of. The Goon Squad Grizzlies are a team of castoffs, players no one else wants thrown together to make the meanest stretch run possible out of expiring contracts. They're the pro basketball version of the Dirty Dozen. And yet last night, their constant swarming of the ball, their refusal to give an inch to a Cavs team who clearly expected them to fold and was bewildered when they didn't, carried them over the best team in the Eastern Conference, when the Grizzlies have spent all year getting clobbered by "elite" teams. I would say maybe they should've had this group of players on the floor back in October, but even I don't believe this group would actually hold it together for 82 games.
It was a glorious thing, last night. After a season of uncertainty—of frustration and of blowout losses and a team that was clearly struggling to find motivation—the last few days have been pretty great, if you pretend they didn't lose to the Suns in Memphis on Sunday afternoon. Friday night against the Jazz, the arena PA went out and Grizzlies fans responded by yelling like it was Game 7 of the Finals. Last night, after more medical updates with re-evaluation timetables, the Grizzlies took 8 guys on the road and beat the Cavs at home, something no other West team has done but the Warriors. They've only lost six home games all year.
The Grizzlies are fun to watch right now (even though they're going to lay an egg every so often) precisely because no one thinks they should work. One gets the sense that they aren't even sure how they're holding it together, but the locker room is a pretty collegial place to be. These guys like each other, it seems. They have each other's backs, because they know no one thinks they can actually accomplish anything together. There's power in that, and we saw it expressed last night.
I've said this before, but there's a reason Memphis is behind this Goon Squad version of their hometown heroes even more than they were earlier in the season: we can relate to being unwanted. A team that already represents the thing Memphians love most about ourselves—our toughness, our blue-collar, show-up-when-there's-work-to-be-done spirit—now also reflects back to us some of the things that keep us up at night: a reputation, a sense that we've been passed over, dismissed, an inferiority complex that may or may not be rightfully earned. Memphis is a city that loves to call people out for dissing Memphis, even when it's not actually a diss. Now, a city which at times feels like nobody wants us is represented on the court by a bunch of guys nobody else wants, and they're going out and beating people based mostly on sheer determination. It's a beautiful symmetry, even if sometimes they lay an egg. Sometimes we do, too.
★ Tony Allen played out of his mind. After missing eight games with a knee injury, Tony Allen started, and gave no quarter to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In almost 34 minutes, Allen played his characteristic chaotic, maniacal defense, doing his best to deny LeBron James the ball and any opportunity to put an end to the Grizzlies' lead. But on top of that, Allen scored 26 points on 17 shots and drilled the only 3-pointer he took.
I don't know what else to even say about Tony Allen at this point. After being picked on (and also injured) in the Golden State series last year, the consensus among national writers was that there's no way the Grizzlies could afford to play Allen anymore—that the game had passed him by now that no one had to defend him anymore. He's been left wide open a lot this year, and in the early part of the season, he looked like a shell of himself—like maybe he'd been reading all of those articles about how he was washed up, and maybe they'd rattled him a little bit.
The Tony Allen we saw last night is transcendent. He stole the ball 5 times (three of the Grizzlies' starters last night ended up with at least 4 steals, but more on that in a bit), blocked a shot, only turned the ball over once, only missed one fast-break layup that I can remember, hit all of his free throws, and did it all while glued to whoever he was guarding, fronting, hovering, jumping passes, the basketball version of cable wrapped around the legs of the AT-AT's on Hoth. (There's your Star Wars reference, nerds.)
I don't even know what else to say about it. You should watch the game again. You should look at each of his steals on the NBA.com box score video breakdowns. Bathe in this Tony Allen performance, drink it in like a single-malt whiskey. Words fail me. All heart, I think the man said.
★ JaMychal Green has arrived. Last night, Green had 16 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and only 1 turnover, on 13 shots from the field. I'll let the Grizzlies' own Ross Wooden tell you how good that is:
Only other NBA players to post 16p/10r/6a/4s/2b stat lines this season? Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo. https://t.co/VZWBiyLXJm— Ross Wooden (@RossWooden) March 8, 2016
JaMychal Green would not be denied last night. Whenever it looked like he'd finally played so hard for so long that he couldn't continue, Joerger had to sit him for a couple of minutes, and the Grizzlies immediately started to surrender their tenuous lead over the Cavs. And then Green would come back in, and the Grizzlies' fortunes would start to turn around. As great as Tony Allen was last night, and as badly as he wanted to, he can't beat Cleveland by himself. Green's performance was every bit as spectacular and every bit as surprising—to people around the league who haven't been watching him this season.
Green has been good all year, even when he's been buried on the bench behind Hollins for no good reason. He's played through all of it, and now that he's guaranteed to get some run because of the decimation of the frontcourt rotation, he's making the most of it. His energy, and his athleticism, make him the best backup forward the Grizzlies have had since pre-injury Darrell Arthur, and for those of us who remember DA's Spurs series in 2011, that's some high praise. When he's on the court, good things happen. The Grizzlies plucked Green from D-League obscurity and he turned out to be a perfect fit. Here's hoping they can keep him, and as he enters his prime—he's 26—they can provide him with a role appropriate for a player of his talent.
★ Mario Chalmers is not impressed. Against the Cavs last night, Mario Chalmers (who has been consistently very good for the Grizzlies, and refuses to take anything off of anybody) held down the fort for 40 whole minutes, and did so while being fouled—hard—almost every time he touched a basketball. He did so while matched up against Matthew Dellavedova, the shorter, smugger version of Steven Adams, whose entire game is designed around frustration and physical contact.
Unlike Adams, who is so freakishly strong that he causes real problems for the Grizzlies on the inside, Chalmers, Allen, Lance, and the rest all know what to expect from Dellavedova, because they all deploy the same back of Frustration Game tricks. They were unmoved where other guards would've fallen apart—especially Chalmers, who played through some serious contact and also found time to deploy some of his Ph.D. flopping skills to draw offensive fouls on the Cavs. It was a master class in playing point guard in a physical game, in fighting through contact. Chalmers made it work. And I'd probably give twenty bucks to know what he said to his former Heat Yelling-Dad LeBron James in between plays. It probably isn't fit for public consumption.
★ Lance Stephenson kept it under control. He's been gambling a lot, since he clearly isn't familiar with the plays yet, or the group of guys he's with, but as in the Utah game, Lance was efficient and under control last night, defended pretty well, and (even though it was probably a foul) tipped the ball to Vince Carter off a LeBron/TA jump ball to give the Grizzlies a chance to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter last night.
I'm not going to pretend to know whether the Grizzlies are going to keep Lance Stephenson next year—his 2016-17 team option is worth $9.4mm—but I do know this: the dude can play, and in Memphis, he's finally starting to find his rhythm with a group of guys who are (1) trying to stay relentlessly positive from the head coach down, as Joerger emphasized after the win over Utah and (2) totally cool with Lance being insane because they are all just as crazy. Stephenson is a shot creator like the Grizzlies have never really had—he's better at getting to the rim than Rudy Gay was. Of course, sometimes when he gets there the ball ends up in the third row, but you take what you can get from him, and sometimes what you can get is dazzling. Stephenson has given the Grizzlies more good than bad so far during his tenure, and even that is more than most people expected from him.
You know. Only in the movies and in Memphis.
@kmmvols1291) March 8, 2016
★ Jarell Martin blocked LeBron. Don't believe me?
Martin was thrown into a bigger-than-expected role last night and did pretty well. He's active, he's clearly got a feel for the game, and he looks like he belongs on an NBA court—more than can be said for most Grizzlies rookies of the past few years. Martin—who looks huge on TV and even bigger in person—took a charge from LeBron James last night that would've leveled an NFL linebacker, popped up, and kept right on going. Sometimes it's the little things.
I wasn't crazy about the Martin pick when it happened—I killed it, and the front office, on this very Internet Web Site. But in seeing him on the court, there's clearly a great deal of potential under those rough edges, and if he continues to get minutes and find his way through the NBA game (this is a guy who has only played basketball since his junior year of high school, after all, and he's only 21), I think he's going to be really good. Last night did nothing to dissuade my Martin man-crush.
Who had "lose Marc Gasol, trade for a lineup that should be nicknamed 'Con Air' and get BETTER" in the pool?— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 8, 2016
A hard road.
The Grizzlies play five games in seven nights this week, which started Sunday vs. Phoenix and last at Cleveland.
On Wednesday they play in Boston, and then on Friday and Saturday they're home against New Orleans and away against Atlanta. It doesn't get much better the next week, in which the Griz face Houston, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and the Clippers, all on one or zero days of rest.
When they finally do get two days in a row of rest, on March 23 and 24, they come back and play at San Antonio. After they play at San Antonio, they're back home... against San Antonio.
Things are probably not going to get better for the Grizzlies from here on out. With Conley and Andersen both out at least 3-5 days—and that's before they're even re-evaluated, so really, who knows—they're going to be shorthanded for a while, and maybe until the playoffs.
But the good news is the standings (from NBA.com):
The Grizzlies have a pretty solid hold on the five seed right now. If they can only beat the teams on the schedule that are .500 or worse, I don't see any way they fall out of the playoffs. If they pull that off while missing all of these players, they should be awarded keys to the city. Or medals. Or something. They're in a good position to get to the postseason, and if they face the Clippers there, they may even get out of the first round.
But who even knows. Trying to predict what's going to happen with these Grizzlies is impossible. Lose to the Suns, lose a few players, go beat the best team in the East on a road SEGABABA. Predictions are mostly useless at this point. What matters is that we enjoy the Goon Squad for what it is while it's here: a wrecking crew made up of questionable characters, but our wrecking crew.