The Good: When is a 1-5 road trip not such an awful thing? When you're the Memphis Grizzlies and you head into the trip with a 1-13 road record in which your average loss is by double digits. As Coach Hubie Brown has repeatedly said, building a team from perennial bottom-feeder into a playoff contender is a process. The first part of that process is establishing your home court, something the Grizzlies seemed to have done over the last month, winning eight of nine in The Pyramid before heading out for the road trip.
Giving yourself a consistent chance to win on the road is the next step, and if fans can take any consolation out of the Grizzlies' recent West Coast swing, that would have to be it. All five losses were by single digits, and the team had a chance to win every game in the fourth quarter, including fighting back from big first-half deficits and potential blowouts against Sacramento, Seattle, and the L.A. Clippers.
The other good news was the emergence of Pau Gasol, who put together an eye-popping stat line on the road trip --22.3 points, 10.7 boards, 3.2 assists, and 2.8 blocks while shooting a sizzling 58 percent from the floor and 86 percent from the free-throw line. He scored at will in the second half of the Clippers game and outplayed MVP candidate Chris Webber in Sacramento. Most heartening, Gasol was a difference-maker on both ends of the floor while getting better post position and scoring more decisively than he had for any other stretch of the season.
The Bad: But, despite clawing their way into games down the stretch, the young, fragile Grizzlies were never able to finish. Every game on the trip was in single digits at the five-minute mark, but the team just didn't have the toughness or clutch shooting to get over the hump. The team's meltdown in the lone win against Golden State --the Grizzlies led by eight points with 40 seconds left but relaxed enough to allow Golden State to tie the game with four seconds remaining -- would have been devastating if the win hadn't been salvaged by Gordan Giricek's backdoor cut and Gasol's heady pass with two seconds left on the clock.
Though there's plenty of blame to go around for the team's struggles (including some horrendous rebounding against Phoenix), the lack of production on the perimeter seems the most glaring problem area. With injured sharpshooter Wesley Person on the shelf until the last game of the trip, the team struggled to find an outside threat. The Griz shot a dismal 23 percent from three-point range, including a woeful 18 percent from the starting backcourt of Giricek and Jason Williams.
On the whole, the starting backcourt was outscored by the opposition's starters in all six games and shot over 45 percent only in the win against Golden State. Jason Williams, in particular, had a rough time. Though his assist-to-turnover ratio was a gaudy 5.4-to-1 and he was still aggressive going to the basket, Williams' production took a nose-dive on the road. Since returning from injury in December, Williams has played arguably the best basketball of his career, averaging 14.1 points and 10.1 assists while shooting 42 from floor and 39 from behind the arc (neither number spectacular, but both well above his career averages). Most importantly, he'd led the team to a 7-4 record and was forcing normally scornful media pundits to reevaluate his game. On the road, those numbers fell off dramatically, a distressingly common performance from a player whose home and road production is perhaps more uneven than any player on the team.
The Ugly: The Grizzlies' homecoming performance before a near-sellout crowd during the nationally televised Martin Luther King Day game Monday was one of the most disappointing of the season. A chance at revenge against a Portland team they had lost to on the road (and one without their best player in suspended forward Rasheed Wallace), the game was pretty much the opposite of what happened on the road tip --except for the outcome.
Gasol, suffering from a minor back injury that kept him out of game-day workouts, went into the tank, missing his first four shots and then wilted, finishing with 10 on 4-13 shooting and only 5 rebounds.
The backcourt scored well enough. Giricek and Williams put in 15 each, outscoring Portland's Derek Anderson and Scottie Pippin, and the team as a whole shot a respectable 7-18 from beyond the arc. But a bit of Williams' wildness (combined with his teammates' inability to catch the ball in traffic, especially Wright and Gasol) came back, as he tied a season high with eight turnovers.
The one thing that was consistent was not finishing at the end: The game was close midway through the fourth, but a passel of turnovers and four straight Portland fastbreak baskets blew the game open for Portland.
Heading into the road trip, there was perhaps more optimism for the Memphis Grizzlies than at any other time since their arrival. But that may have been irrational exuberance. The team has now lost three in a row and seven of 10, with back-to-back games against Finals contenders San Antonio and Sacramento next on the docket. The upcoming eight-game stretch heading into the All-Star break is sure to say a lot about the progress of Hubie Brown's "process."