Leading 37-36 at the half — yes, that was the real, actual halftime score — but looking completely out of sorts, the Grizzlies came out in the third quarter and muddled through, looking flat, until something bad happened. After a free throw, Wayne Ellington and Quincy Pondexter collided in the lane, and Ellington's knee hit the side of Pondexter's. Pondexter went down and was writhing in pain on the floor with his jersey pulled over his face. He tried to walk off the court but couldn't put any weight on the knee, and had to be carried off the floor by a coach and Hamed Haddadi. (After the game it was announced that Pondexter had a sprained left MCL. Here's hoping it's not anything too serious, but it was clear to everyone watching that Pondexter was in serious pain.)
Remember him? The gigantic Iranian rebounding machine?
Well. Around the end of the third quarter, with the Grizzlies trailing 57-53, Coach Hollins decided to try something. The crowd was already flat, and so was the team, but the Pondexter injury only served to further take the crowd out of the game. The Grizzlies had no answer for JaVale McGee's length. The only thing left to try was to stick the tallest dude on the roster out on the court, and so, while Haddadi was in the locker room with Pondexter, Hollins called his number.
What happened next was awesome. The Grizzlies did what they should've been doing all year against the athletic, tall frontcourts that have been causing them so much grief: they took a big lineup from Denver and went huge against it. Starting the fourth quarter was a lineup of Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington, Darrell Arthur at the small forward spot, Marreese Speights at power forward, and in the middle, 7'2" 254 lbs. Hamed Haddadi.
Over the next 6 or so minutes, pandemonium broke loose. The Grizzlies' lineup was so big that the athleticism of JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried and the size of Timofey Mozgov couldn't handle it. When Speights and Haddadi were covered, Arthur was open for a jumper. Haddadi ended up with 2 points, 2 rebounds, and an assist in his 7 minutes, but what points they were: a monster slam directly in the face of "Manimal" Kenneth Faried that jolted a sleepy, worried crowd back to life. The usual knock on Haddadi is that he fouls too much, but he didn't get called for one tonight (other than a technical for... handing the ball to somebody?).
After the big lineup brought the Grizzlies back to the lead, Hollins immediately went the other direction, throwing out a lineup of Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington, Rudy Gay, and Zach Randolph. It was at this point that Rudy Gay put the team on his back and took over. For almost all of the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies looked like that Grizzlies team in November that was beating the league's best teams. The ball was moving around, shots were dropping, 3's were going in, and Rudy Gay was using his athleticism to jam the ball down the other team's throats whenever he got the opportunity. Gay finished with 19 points and 6 rebounds.
Tonight showed that Lionel Hollins isn't afraid to experiment with lineups. I had dinner with my buddy Clark (ClarkGrizzwold here at SoV) just Thursday night, and we were talking about the way the Grizzlies struggle with these teams like Denver with super-athletic forwards and centers. Clark's suggestion? Go huge and play Arthur at the 3. That's exactly what Hollins did tonight, and it worked wonders for Memphis. Hopefully in the future Hollins will throw this lineup out earlier in the game if it looks like we need a boost. There are few teams in the league equipped to match up with a lineup that big. It's another arrow in the Grizzlies' quiver.
The win tonight over Denver puts the Grizzlies at 19-8, and 13-3 at home. The season series with the Nuggets is now 1-2 in Denver's favor, but that's okay. The Grizzlies dug deep tonight and won an ugly, low-scoring game by having the right energy on the floor at the right time. A serious injury to Pondexter, who is scheduled to have an MRI tomorrow, would be a major blow to the team going forward. But for tonight, the Grizzlies are victorious over the Nuggets. And who doesn't love it when Haddadi obliterates somebody with a dunk?