The Grizzlies did not win last night, and the fact that they didn’t lose by fifteen or twenty points is something of a minor miracle. The 116–113 final score doesn’t reflect the fact that without Mike Conley, the offense was stagnant and ineffective for most of the game, that the starting lineup continues to be a black hole while the second unit carries the team, or that the Grizzlies spent the first three quarters of the game utterly disinterested in playing defense.
The score doesn’t reflect those realities because of a furious attempt at a fourth quarter comeback, led by Marc Gasol (who had a great game that was swamped by the team’s difficulties, similar to that of Tyreke Evans in Monday night’s loss at Milwaukee), Mario Chalmers (kinda) and, of course, a still-rolling Tyreke Evans. But what happened? Why did it take three quarters? You know the drill by now; I have five thoughts about that:
★ Adding three injured guys back to the rotation at the same time is a little too much too fast. They don’t have a choice, but with Ben McLemore, Wayne Selden, and JaMychal Green all coming back at the same time, the Grizzlies have three new guys on the team, one of whom didn’t even go through training camp and preseason. It makes for some interesting chemistry-on-the-fly experiments. Green’s the only one who has seen the floor in a regular season game, and that was only a few minutes on opening night. It showed on the court. The Grizzlies played several lineups that haven’t been seen at all this year, and there were times when it looked exactly like that: guys who haven’t ever played together. Fortunately, it’s still November, so there’s plenty of time for them to work it out, but hovering around .500 after their hot start applies some pressure that maybe shouldn’t be there (and wouldn’t be, if they’d started the season out beating bad teams instead of good ones).
★ Marc Gasol had one of the quietest “great” games I’ve seen. Gasol finished the night with 35 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 blocks, and until the fourth quarter it didn’t really seem like he was doing that much. Gasol was doing his part to get the Grizzlies back in the game, but they were having such a hard time gaining any traction that it just didn’t seem like it. After the game, he was fuming to Wayne Selden about the team’s defensive mistakes, and then repeated the same rant to assembled reporters—cleaned up for television, of course. The whole team was unfocused defensively, and because they lost in that way, Gasol wasn’t in any way happy about the stat line he put up.
★ Mario Chalmers wasn’t bad. This is newsworthy, because he has been bad lately, and with Mike Conley out for now (and from the sound of his injury, out for a good stretch of time while the Achilles heals, but that’s not the official prognosis) he’s going to have to carry a lot more of the team’s minutes at point guard. Tyreke Evans has been scoring so well that moving him to be the primary ball handler seems like a mistake, and Andrew Harrison has already shown that he’s just not any good this year so far. If Chalmers can step up his play, the Grizzlies should get by OK without Conley. If he struggles the way he was a week or two ago, things will not be good.
★ Defense generates everything for this team. And, as a corollary, when they don’t play it, they’re not good. The offense was stagnant last night because the Griz weren’t getting stops. When they get stops, they can get out and run and use their newfangled youth and athleticism. They’re just not a half-court team anymore, really; they’re not built to play the old Hollins-style ground-and-pound game. But they only way for them to avoid getting stuck in immobile half-court sets waiting for Gasol or Evans or Parsons to bail them out is to generate offense in transition, and they can only do that when they’re focused on defense.
Gasol made an interesting point after the game last night: on defense, a lot of what observers read as “effort” issues are actually focus and awareness issues. If you’re not paying enough attention to where your man is going, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying really hard, he’s going to get away from you—but from the stands it looks like you just weren’t trying to keep up with him. I think that’s an interesting note, because it recasts the Grizzlies’ problems on that end of the floor. It’s not a motivation issue (most of the time), it’s a focus issue. If you’re playing hard but you’re distracted, it looks like you’re just not playing hard enough. Whatever the Grizzlies need to do to encourage that level of focus and awareness on defense, they need to do, sooner rather than later, because otherwise nothing much about this team works well.
★ Tyreke Evans and Marc Gasol are a weird fit together. This point is pretty much lifted wholesale from a conversation I had with Peter Edmiston during last night’s game: Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans play basketball so differently that they’re essentially playing different sports. Gasol is obsessed with each possession, and with Playing The Right Way on each possession, making each pass neatly and quickly, facilitating before looking to score, moving the ball and probing the defense. Evans is an improvisational layup genius, able to slice through defenses all by his lonesome and contort his body to make layups in traffic very few other humans can make, but he’s not looking to facilitate unless he can’t make the basket himself. (That said, he did finish with 9 assists last night, and made some great drive-and-kick plays down the stretch). Gasol is the human embodiment of Pass First. Evans is the human embodiment of I’m Gonna Get To The Rim And See What Happens. It’s a strange mix, and it’s going to be a while before they get comfortable together, if ever.
This about sums it up:
Griz have allowed 30+ points in 17 quarters this year (at least 1 in every game except Portland)— Rob Fischer (@thefishnation) November 16, 2017
Tonight was the 7th time they’ve allowed 30+ in the 1st quarter (3 straight games
Griz have also allowed 60+ points in 1st half of last 3 (60-62-67)
With any luck, the rhythm the Grizzlies found during the comeback attempt carries over into the four-game home stand they just started. Saturday sees their last (!) matchup against the Houston Rockets, Monday the Trail Blazers are in town, and Wednesday they play the Mavericks (and noted basketball warlock Rick Carlisle will attempt to slap-chop Fizdale’s game plan all to pieces again).
It remains to be seen how long Mike Conley will be out. It was a fait accompli that he’d miss some time with an injury at some point this year; if anything, it’s fortunate that it’s happening now and not later during a more crucial stretch. The Griz are .500 now, and frankly with all of the things they’re figuring out on the fly, it’s hard to see how much better than that they can get without a healthy Conley on the floor. I say that, but this team seems to get better when they’re missing players—maybe because it eliminates the focus issues Gasol was talking about. Who knows. At any rate, they’ll do well to go 2–2 on this home stand given how the Rockets are playing, and that would keep them right where they are: .500.