When the Memphis Grizzlies dropped a home game to the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night, it felt as though maybe the exciting weekend of continuing to ride this burst of momentum would fall flat on its face. Now, of course, after Zach Randolph arched that looping game-winner in on the Dallas Mavericks last night, the weekend was saved. The tracks to the playoffs are back aligned, as they even separated a bit from the ninth place Phoenix Suns, now a game and a half back.
The 1-1 weekend split was not surprising in itself, how the Grizzlies got there, though, was. Up next come the Oklahoma City Thunder and the possibility of making that Hornets game feel like a really long time ago.
More after the jump...
If we can for a second, back to Friday's loss. All told, it wasn't that terrible of a defeat other than the fact that they, well, lost. Both teams started out sloppy in the first quarter, and as New Orleans found their groove, the Grizz responded with their own series of runs. It was back and forth in terms of who was playing well at a given moment, but it was even in it's inconsistency. The scoring by quarter went like this: 20-20 in the first, 25-25 in the second, 27-27 in the third, and, sigh, 26-19 Hornets in the fourth. Clearly, this wasn't a game the Grizzlies had no business being in, though; more Hornets (the great Chris Paul, who was pretty spectacular in this one, and the, uh, unheralded Willie Green come to mind) just rose to the occasion when it came down to it. Sometimes that happens. Marc Gasol isn't a dead-eye free throw shooter, but he probably won't miss two in a row down the stretch all the time, either. Hopefully.
Those, and the game as a whole, hurt. It was a game, at home, against a playoff-caliber (albeit, prior to this weekend, a struggling one) team, and it was, unlike the win over San Antonio, tense and close throughout. It hurt because it felt like a rough playoff game between two teams who know one another well and the Grizzlies lost. Those are the kind of games you want to see them winning, if only to affirm our hopes and beliefs in their legitimacy as a postseason squad. It brought up the questions you're going to have about a team battling for the final playoff seed in the Western Conference; yes, there's some good things happening, but there's also got to be some bad trends holding the team back from climbing the standings further. Friday's loss brought those back to the forefront. Can Memphis handle the NBA's elite point guards? Can they execute consistently enough on offense when they aren't forcing turnovers and running? Can they win tight games? The sort of questions always best saved for teams that aren't yours.
For the first half of last night's game in Dallas, it wasn't looking better. Worse, actually. Up 55-38 at halftime, the Mavericks were just playing around with the Grizzlies. When everything's clicking for the Mavs, it can be hard to get a word in edge-wise, but they also have a habit of letting teams hang in there and making uninteresting games interesting by the time five minutes left in the fourth quarter rolls around.
Presuming Memphis has also noted this trait of their division rivals, and it's to the Grizzlies' credit that they played the third quarter like the brand new half that it was. The 41-23 third quarter boom was all about Memphis settling in and working harder on playing towards their strengths. They forced turnovers, got out in transition, set up camp in the paint and took advantage of the inevitable Dallas lull. The third put them in position to be there 'til the end; again, Dallas doesn't seem to mind this, they usually pull it out anyway, especially at home.
But Shane Battier made two distinctly Shane Battier plays late, nailing a corner three in one instance (one of only three threes for the Grizz all night) and throwing in a reverse layup as the shot clock expired on another occasion. And they needed more than that, like eventually an in-any-other-case-ill-advised shot from Zach Randolph following a potential Dirk Nowitzki dagger, to win it. But it was the fact that they brought themselves back into contention after a pretty rough first half that made Randolph's rainbow feel a little more befitting rather than just pure dumb luck. They had earned the right to be in that spot.
The Grizzlies still struggle in putting together consistent offensive flow, especially against a team that limits its turnovers. And yet they never quit on what they want to do; they bother passing lanes and work through their bigs until it, hopefully, works. Friday showed that sometimes, especially as we go later and later into the season, more will be required. But if the weekend as a whole proved anything, it was that their style of play can keep them involved even if everything's not going exactly as planned.
So, tonight: The Thunder make the trip to Memphis fresh off a shootout win in Phoenix last night (the only kind, really). Russell Westbrook has ascended rather quickly into the upper echelon of NBA point guards, in the freakishly athletic division, and he could be a problem. Kevin Durant is nicknamed after a spider, which is terrifying enough, but Memphis should have the bodies to throw at him so at the least, the burden of slowing him down won't fall on one guy.
Portland's in Orlando tonight, New Orleans is in Chicago and the Suns are off (meaning, in this case, that they aren't playing tonight). Tonight's another one in this two week grind, another chance to gain ground or distance or both. The Grizzlies are proving there's some real value in these quick turnarounds. Or maybe it's the other way around.
***For Thunder coverage on tonight's game, please do visit Welcome to Loud City.