The Grizzlies lost to the Sacramento Kings last night, 96-92. They trailed more than that for most of the game, really, and they were this close to making it another of their now-habitual comeback wins, but poor shot selection on the final play and a general lack of pick and roll defense doomed them to the fate for which they’d been setting themselves up since the first quarter. Afterwards, coach David Fizdale was displeased with the team’s effort, and mostly everyone agreed with that assessment. It was an anticlimactic night that saw two returns that should’ve at least made the game interesting.
Former Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger wasn’t just the head coach for three seasons, he was also an assistant for several before that—so he was a part of the landscape of the franchise for quite a while. It was strange to see him coaching on the opposite sideline, and hanging out in the media/team dining room in Sacramento Kings gear. The reaction from the crowd when Joerger was pretty lukewarm—some applause, the occasional boo—but overall it didn’t feel like as big of a deal as when Lionel Hollins returned to town coaching the Nets in his first season back.
Joerger’s return to the Forum was mostly overshadowed by a different return: Mike Conley returned to the floor after only missing nine games on what was supposed to be a four-to-six-week transverse process back fracture. Conley’s insane toughness has been discussed here before, at length, and it was always my impression that Conley was going to do everything in his power to come back before that six week mark, but… wow. Once it became a matter of pain tolerance and nothing else, there was nothing holding him back. As we know from the way he played in the 2015 Warriors series with a broken face, his pain tolerance alone is probably worth a max contract.
None of that theoretical emotional energy made its way to the basketball court. The Grizzlies got out-hustled, plain and simple. The Kings came up with every loose ball, the Griz defense—which has been #1 in the league since Conley went down—couldn’t keep track of the Kings’ shooters, Conley looked rusty and he and Gasol struggled to know who should be the primary option in the offense, and nothing anybody did seemed to make any of it better. It didn’t help that the refs called 56 fouls in the game, breaking up any rhythm either team was able to get into and fouling out players on both teams, but a focused Griz team should have been able to play through that.
In the final minutes, the Griz attempted to mount one of their patented comebacks, but with the ball and a chance to tie the game, Conley tried to take a shot and draw a foul instead of passing it off to someone who might have been more open, a lapse in judgement that ended in the Kings getting the ball back to shoot free throws. Hoping for a foul call in the last seconds of a game is never a smart strategic decision. It’s clear that Conley’s reintegration into the offense is going to be a bit of a struggle, which is probably foreshadowing of what’s to come when James Ennis and Chandler Parsons come back… but last night still seemed to be about effort. Some nights in the NBA a team just comes out flat and can’t get it going; last night was one of those for the Grizzlies.
Which isn’t to say that the mood after the game was one of acceptance of that fact. Fizdale was clearly frustrated in the postgame presser, saying the Kings beat the Grizzlies to all of the 50/50 balls, and that the effort level just wasn’t there against a team that was playing harder. Asked whether the Grizzlies’ poor shooting night (they were 37.7% from the floor) had anything to do with it, Fizdale’s response was “We shoot bad every night, so that’s not what it was.”
Asked about the coach’s comments, Marc Gasol was cryptic and evasive, as though he disagreed, but then, Gasol has never been one to enjoy having his effort level questioned, even when perhaps it’s well deserved. Tony Allen and Mike Conley both echoed what Fizdale said–that the focus wasn’t there, and the Grizzlies let the Kings have too many little advantages. Conley even said that with his return and playing against Joerger for the first time that maybe the Grizzlies were too emotional and excited and once it was clear that it was going to be a rough shooting night, they let that turn into discouragement.
Regardless of who was right and what the issue was, after the game it was clear that everyone involved wasn’t thrilled with the way it had gone down, and knew they’d left a win on the table. One hopes that frustration just moves them to be sharper against the Jazz on Sunday instead of settling in like a fog the way malaise has set in on Grizzlies teams of the past. With most of the injured players returning, they’ve got their work cut out for them re-integrating important rotation pieces.