by Kevin Lipe
The Grizzlies, with nine players, won last night, only 24 hours after playing Toronto tougher than anybody expected. Head coach David Fizdale has taken to calling them the Nasty Nine (which brings back shades of last year’s pre-Chalmers-injury Hateful Eight who rolled into Cleveland and beat the Cavaliers), but there’s more to it than that–through defensive effort, a Troy Daniels who is rapidly shooting his way back to his career averages, and great individual performances from guys who needed to step up, the Grizzlies were able to grab a desperately-needed win on the second night of a back-to-back against a team with a good defense. Looking at the Grizzlies’ schedule over the next six weeks–the amount of time the team said they expect Mike Conley to be out–it was a win they needed very badly if they’re going to stay in the West playoff hunt.
First off, some thoughts about the game itself. There were a few individual performances worth mentioning, but the overall point is that the nine Grizzlies who were playing played as hard as they could for a full 48 minutes, and even when the Magic started to gain some real separation by going up 14 in the fourth quarter, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen came back in and the deficit immediately vanished. It was a game between two teams with good defenses and bad offenses, and ultimately, the Grizzlies’ defense is what pulled it off.
★ Number Nine when you need him. Tony Allen was a force of nature in the whole game, not shooting well but doing everything else to make Orlando miserable. The most important stretch was probably in the middle of the fourth quarter, when Jeff Green (remember him?) was on a bit of a run for Orlando, extending their lead and racking up 14 points. Allen had been guarding Evan Fournier all night, but when he came back into the game this time, he was on Green, who then didn’t get the ball at all for the next couple of minutes and was taken completely out of the flow of the game. That’s not to bag on Jeff Green—though I will readily admit that I enjoy doing that—but to say: Tony Allen can still come in and totally turn off the water on someone, and when he does, it’s glorious, and it can win games.
★ Andrew Harrison is not afraid Last night, Andrew Harrison continued his growth from “petrified rookie” to “I like this kid.” He made plays when it mattered, was extremely valuable on defense, where his size advantage means he has all the makings of a terror, and he didn’t screw up. Sometimes that’s the most impressive thing a rookie can do, is not screw up. By contrast, Wade Baldwin IV, Harrison’s fellow rookie, showed some flashes but still looked very raw. Harrison— no doubt thanks to his year in Iowa, at least in part—showed no such unsteadiness last night, and if the Grizzlies are going to keep their heads above water during this Conley-less stretch, that’s of the utmost importance.
★ Troy Daniels actually looks like an NBA player now. Percentage-wise, Daniels has always been an excellent shooter, so it was always a question of when and not if Daniels’ shot would return, and whether it would happen before he fell completely out of the Grizzlies’ rotation. The dramatically shortened bench means Daniels is going to get the minutes whether he’s ready for them or not, so it’s good that being thrown into the fire a little seems to have brought back Daniels’ ability to knock down shots. After last night’s game, Fizdale also pointed out that Daniels’ defense has improved as his shooting has improved, and I’m not so convinced, but when Daniels can shoot he can really shoot, so having him find his stroke when the Griz most need the contribution is comforting.
★ Also, this happened.
Marc, are you SERIOUS with this pass?!?! pic.twitter.com/WW1mXERPK3— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) December 2, 2016
This is the part that is less pleasant. The Grizzlies’ announced timetable for the Conley injury was six weeks, and this is what the Grizzlies schedule looks like during that stretch:
With Zach Randolph still away from the team for personal reasons, with Vince Carter out with a hip thing, with Chandler Parsons and James Ennis out without any sort of update about the condition of any of them, with Brandan Wright basically never even having been on the team, and with Mike Conley out for the entire stretch… it’s not going to be pretty. Even if you assume the best case scenario, which is that Randolph is back next week, and Ennis and Parsons are back the week after that, it’s still not pretty. 22 games, a majority of which are against good teams, with very little rest, without the guy who has clearly been the most impressive player on the team all season long.
They won last night. I think an optimistic projection has them winning six or seven on this stretch, which would put them somewhere better than .400 but worse than .500 when Conley returns. If it goes worse than that–and it could, but if there’s one thing we know about this team it’s that they aren’t going to quit playing hard–they could be even farther out of reach with the playoff standings by the time Conley returns. January and February bring a kinder schedule, to be sure, and I certainly don’t think the Griz are out of the hunt for a playoff spot, but let’s be real: it’s now the hunt for the 7th or 8th spot, and it’s going to be a struggle for them to get there. There’s never a good time to have that many of your best players all missing time simultaneously, but… this situation seems particularly heinous.
Last night’s win was a sign that the Grizzlies are going to catch some teams off guard during this stretch and be a tougher out than they seem on paper. But don’t mistake that for “everything is going to be fine,” at least in terms of the standings. The young guys will get to explore who they want to be on the court, maybe they’ll get that injury exception and bring in Toney Douglas for a couple of weeks (though with Harrison playing this well I’m not convinced they have to), but there’s just no way to look at the schedule and at which players are available to play and think this is going to be a fun stretch on the court for the Grizzlies. In a five-day stretch they play the Warriors and a home-and-home with the Cavaliers, and they might have ten players while they’re trying to do it. Hold on to your butts, folks.