Last night the Grizzlies, yet again without Mike Conley, defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-80. The final score is a little bit closer than the game felt in the building; the Grizzlies’ largest lead was 37 points, and Russell Westbrook was ejected after being assessed his second technical foul halfway through the third quarter, which cut off whatever comeback chances the Thunder still had.
It was the kind of performance we’re used to seeing from the Grizzlies lately without their highest-paid player: an impressive defensive performance (especially in the second quarter, where the Grizzlies opened up the game for themselves by holding the Thunder to 18 points and 21% shooting), anchored by scoring outbursts from Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and a fourth-quarter volcanic eruption from Troy Daniels (to the tune of 22 points on 8-11 shooting, including 6/8 from long range… in one quarter). As has been the case without Conley since he originally went down weeks ago, the ball moved freely, and without much in the way of a backup point guard, when starter Andrew Harrison wasn’t on the floor, the offense ran through Tony Allen bringing up the ball to Marc Gasol, who was operating from the elbow. It worked well—or, well enough, anyway—and the Griz were able to function pretty well without having to rely on a still-shaky Wade Baldwin IV (whose recent stint with the Iowa Energy was less than stellar) to carry the offense when he’s pretty clearly not up to it.
The moral of the story of last night’s game is twofold: (1) This team is at its best when Marc Gasol isn’t worried about making Conley better and (2) The Griz have got to figure out a way to be more consistent with their energy and focus level.
To the first point, David Fizdale said in his postgame presser that even Conley is starting to say this stuff to Gasol—that Gasol should look for his own shot first and then worry about whether Conley gets going. “Mike’s going to get his,” is what Fizdale said. One hopes that with a steady stream of encouragement coming from Fizdale—a coach Gasol seems to respect immensely—and Conley, the guy whom Gasol is so worried about facilitating in the first place, Gasol can start to learn how not to disappear in games, how to assert himself even when it doesn’t feel like the most natural thing for him, and how to attack when he’s got the opportunity even when in theory the “right” play would be to pass. He’s such a great passer that I totally understand why it’s his first instinct, but I also think the Grizzlies’ chances are inversely proportional to how much he tries to be a point center instead of an MVP-level all-around threat.
We’ve been saying this stuff about Gasol for years, and it’s never seemed to change much (except in the first half of his last contract year, before the Jeff Green trade apparently triggered some kind of nervous breakdown), so maybe with the Grizzlies’ new situation, new leadership, and new pecking order (in which Gasol is the sole captain of the team), the message will start to sink in.
Now, to the second point: it’s a simple fact that if the Grizzlies played with 25% of last night’s defensive intensity against Orlando on Monday, they would have at least had a chance of winning, instead of getting run out of the building by a team that isn’t as good. And if they’d been as sharp during their game at Boston, they’d have hung around in that game, too. Last night was the third game the Grizzlies have played this week, but it was the first one in which they looked like themselves, rather than sleepwalking through a game with their minds still back at Christmas dinner. Maybe Santa didn’t bring them what they wanted. Maybe they had too much Old Grand-Dad in the egg nog and every last one of them was still hung over in Orlando. Maybe they just weren’t feeling it.
The Grizzlies’ successes only come when they’re playing with a high level of energy, and an extreme level of focus on defense. It’s not about what schemes they’re running or what they can do execution-wise. This has been the case for years. But it’s not possible for one to be at the top of his or her game every time he or she shows up for work (other than myself, obviously, the lone exception to this rule). When the system matters less than the focus, the focus has to be there every night or the system can’t make up for it. That’s what happened in the Orlando and Boston games, and that’s a big part of what powered the Grizzlies to hold Russell Westbrook without an assist for the first time since 2013 last night. They were locked in, and as a result they ran away with the game and Westbrook got himself kicked out so he could hit the showers. They may not always be that good, but last night everything worked.