Saturday night at FedExForum, the Grizzlies pulled off an improbable win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in a game that was really only ever close in a few spots. After taking the lead somewhere in the middle of the first quarter, the Grizzlies put their collective foot on the gas and never looked back, leading by as many as 19 points in the third quarter.
I won't say I was shocked by last night's outcome—the Grizzlies have had the Warriors' number for a long time now, and there always seems to be at least one game per year in which the Grizzlies get in the Warriors' heads and camp out for a while. But I didn't expect the Grizzlies to look so dominant, or for the bench to outperform the starters so thoroughly. (Well, except Marc Gasol, but we'll get to him in a bit.) It was a good all-around win for a team with a lot to prove, and it came much earlier in the season than was probably fair to expect. For all of the doom-and-gloom about the Grizzlies headed into this year—and make no mistake, they're only two games in and there are still questions yet to be answered—it does seem like maybe the "rebuild in place" is happening a little faster than the national basketball commentariat predicted. Here are five other things that stood out about last night:
★ Marc Gasol is not from this planet. Gasol ended last night with 34 points on 16 shots, 14 rebounds, and a career-high 17 free throw attempts. Gasol was everywhere last night, shooting 50% from three, cooking in the post, defending well, pulling down rebounds at a rate we've never seen before1, and mostly making up for Mike Conley's off night in every statistical category. It was a marvelous game from him last night, one of the best I can remember in a long time.
If Gasol is going to play like this all year (barring the nights when the conditions just aren't right for him to create his basketball art) the Grizzlies are going to make the playoffs, simply by the sheer force of his will towards perfecting each individual possession.
★ The current second unit is unstoppable so far. Mario Chalmers, Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons, and Brandan Wright got the Grizzlies the lead in the first half and played a big role in their keeping it. Gasol already had a double-double by halftime but the rest of the Grizzlies' starters stumbled out of the gate a bit, and it was up to the bench to salvage the situation. Chalmers only took 4 shots but got to the line for 8 FT attempts, Brooks ended with 9 points but was more impressive on the defensive end (except for the few times he got burned, because, y'know, rookies get burned), Parsons was 2 of 4 from 3 and moved the ball well, and Wright, even though the stat sheet doesn't really show it, kept things moving with his length and athleticism.
It's been quite a while since the Grizzlies had a bench that was this reliable. And they did this, last night, missing two or three rotation players (JaMychal Green, Wayne Selden, and Ben McLemore, all of whom will presumably play—though maybe not if Brooks continues to perform at this level). I wrote in my season preview that the Grizzlies' wing rotation top-to-bottom was better than it's been in a long time, and I think even then I wasn't positive enough. The bench is good. This, apparently, is a seriously deep team.
★ Jarell Martin probably isn't ready to be a starter yet, but held his own. Martin got the start in place of the injured Green. Before the game, head coach David Fizdale said he wanted to start Martin as a test to see where he's at, but also that Martin's versatility "fits this game." Once the game was underway, one could see what he meant: Martin seemed overwhelmed at times against the Warriors' starters, especially when the Griz defense started switching more rigorously, but he was able to make plays with his athleticism that he 100% would not have made in the previous two seasons. There is real growth happening there with Martin, even if it's still the early stages of what he can be. "Everyone's consensus pick to be cut at the end of camp" to "starting against the Warriors in Game 2" is a heck of a recovery.
★ James Ennis is the starting 3 the Grizzlies have needed for five years. Since Rudy Gay was traded, the Grizzlies have had issues at the small forward spot. Tayshaun Prince was a good facilitator and defender but he was on the downslope of his career and his shot had mostly started to fail him. Jeff Green was apparently on the Grizzlies for a while. Chandler Parsons was forced to start for 20 minutes to rehab his knees and clearly couldn't play. But this year, with Ennis in that spot, he's everything they've needed for years. He's athletic, he can defend, and he doesn't need to produce much offense, but when he does, it's extremely efficient. Ennis was 6 for 6 last night, finishing with 13 points, and it felt like all 6 of those made field goals were lob dunks or putbacks. He's the cleanup guy, not doing anything flashy but making sure the Grizzlies aren't leaving points on the board. Every game he has like this I get retroactively more upset that Dave Joerger once cut him to re-sign Ryan Hollins. Sure, when the Griz signed Parsons, the plan was for Ennis to be farther back in the rotation while Parsons manned the starting 3 spot. But plans change, and Ennis has changed them as much as any other circumstances have. If only this Ennis had been on the 2014 or 2015 Grizzlies.
★ The defense is much farther along than I expected it to be. Last year's model of Tony Allen was not the Tony Allen of old; he'd lost a step and was making up for it by gambling for steals and cheating into passing lanes, often leaving Marc Gasol home alone under the rim to deal with whatever got past Allen. But even with that being the case, I still wondered what the Griz defense would look like without him. It's been seven years since I had to think about it.
Last night was at least an early sign of what this team can be defensively. Fizdale and Gasol both stress repeatedly that the defensive end is still their focus, and last night it showed. Everyone was locked in, forcing 17 turnovers, holding the Warriors under 40% from the field, frustrating ball handlers and denying the ball to anyone not named Durant or Curry. Durant finished with 29 and Curry finished with 37. Klay Thompson had 14, but most everyone else on the roster finished with 0, 2, or 4 points (though Shaun Livingston had 8). They switched, and it worked. I repeat: They switched, and it worked. This is not the 2013 Grizzlies, who overloaded the strong side and stayed there until Tony Allen forced a turnover. This is a totally different defensive system than the one in which Marc Gasol once won a Defensive Player of the Year award, and yet it's still working for them. Maybe he can win another one.
It's a tie. First, from noted Warriors fan Jacob Greenberg of The Diss:
Warriors wanna be on the couch on a Saturday. Watching netflix, smoking that legal weed. I feel that. I RESPECT that. Love my team— jg 🍤 (@jacobjbg) October 22, 2017
Then, Marc Gasol is going to cause Klay Thompson to run up an expensive therapy bill for this one:
The Grizzlies are in Houston Monday night to take on the Rockets, who find themselves without Chris Paul. Without Paul, the Rockets look to be... exactly like they were last year, when they were really good. Even after knocking off the Warriors, in some ways Monday's game is more important; the Griz play the Rockets four times by November 18, which is insanely early to be completely done playing a divisonal opponent. They need to win as many as they can even while it's the first month of the season, because the West playoff race will be tight and every tiebreaker they can rack up now will undoubtedly pay off later. If Paul is out that whole time, maybe that helps, but the Rockets were a very tough out for the Grizzlies last year even without him. In some ways, it's a more interesting test of where the Grizzlies are this early in the season than the Warriors game.
Let's pause for a moment to ponder that Gasol, at this point in his career, has simply decided, "Now I will be good at rebounding," and is immediately a force to be reckoned with on the glass. Is there anything more "Marc Gasol"?↩