The Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are in similar boats this year. After successful seasons last year, both replaced their head coaches and both are struggling this year. Denver had lost five straight coming into tonight, and like Memphis, was on the second night of a back to back. Both have small, athletic point guards and small forwards with neck tattoos that depict their children. So, appropriately, there was little to separate these teams in a quick, up-and-down first half.
But Memphis distanced themselves in the second on the backs of their improving bench, holding off a mild comeback attempt in the early fourth and countering with a series of haymakers. It wasn't a "Grizzlies style" win by any means, but that doesn't mean we didn't enjoy the hell out of it.
Kosta Koufos opened the game with 5 straight points against his former team and was 3-3 in the quarter. He and the starters played the majority of the period with only Ed Davis to help them out. Randolph, who has been stretching his shot out noticably in the last few games, hit a pair of 18-footers, but Denver coach Brian Shaw was reluctant to double-team anyone so the Grizzlies were able to work the inside with ease. They got 20 of their 27 points in the paint with 6 assists on 13 buckets. Conley appeared to still be fighting a nagging abdominal bruise and was 1-5 from the floor, although he nearly hit a 3-quarters-court heave at the buzzer.
Denver was in a scoring rut coming into tonight, but they feasted on Memphis’ poor defense early to the tune of 65%+ from the field and a bevy of threes. They led 29-27 at the end of 1.
James Johnson, Mike Miller, and Jon Leuer all chimed in from 3 to start the second quarter, but the Grizzlies could not defend the arc and so stayed behind until the officials waived off a Kenneth Faried buzzer-beater to make it 38-37 Memphis. Ed Davis had a tremendous sequence with a put-back slam on one end, a block on the other, and a driving layup that drew a foul to extend the lead. The Grizzlies’ most athletic lineup — Bayless/Miller/Johnson/Davis/Leuer — racked up a 15-1 run in the middle of the quarter and generally looked fantastic, creating turnovers, drawing fouls, and making buckets (if not free throws).
The poor defense continued however, allowing Denver to pull back even at 48 with 4 minutes remaining after hitting 8 straight shots. The teams traded buckets there on out and Denver took a 56-55 halftime lead. (If you heard a "SIGN THAT DUDE" yell echoing around your neighborhood or apartment complex, it was probably in response to a nasty Mike Miller to James Johnson fast break alley-oop midway through the quarter. Seriously, they looked like the dunking Elvises. Johnson was everywhere tonight.)
The Grizz starters narrowly edged the bench in points (28/27) but were woefully outshot at 64% to 48% and, if the plus/minus record is to be believed, the reserves deserve literally all the credit for keeping it close in the first half. The whole team was awful from the line (44% to Denver’s 92%) and really should have been leading the game at this point.
After struggling in the first half, Mike Conley took a steal in for a layup to lead an 8-0 run that he punctuated with an iso jumper. The whole starting unit redeemed itself in the first half of the third with better energy, offensive rebounds and even more forced turnovers, one of which ended in an unusually aggressive Tony Allen dunk. The Grizzlies tightened up on defense and opened a 75-65 lead in the period, with only Ty Lawson putting up a fight for Denver.
Zach Randolph was big with 10 points, and Jerryd Bayless threw in a three-pointer and a runner at the buzzer to cap a 30-16 quarter. The Nuggets shrank against the pressure -- understandably, after a disheartening 5-game losing streak on the road -- and just started handing the ball off on offense, giving 8 different Grizzlies a steal for their stat lines.
The Nuggets grabbed the first six points of the fourth quarter and tried to fight their way back into the game with a small, athletic lineup. Memphis countered with Davis, Johnson, and Bayless, and the groups got physical and even chippy with each other while the Grizz maintained a double digit lead. But the Nuggets buckled again and on a Johnson-led fast-break, Mike Conley buried an elusive triple to make it a 98-81 game.
The Grizzlies dropped in a series of threes and stonewalled the Denver offense down the stretch to put the game away. James Johnson continued to impress: he freakishly blocked a spot-up 3 and then finished the ensuing fast break, scoring 6 straight in the fourth quarter. This was as consistently energetic a game as Memphis has played all year -- they'll be putting this game film up in a glass case.
Calathes and Franklin only came in for the final 2:30, which I doubt will upset any Grizz fans. Seth Curry, who could potentially make a good Mike Conley backup, did not play. The 120-99 final score was the Grizzlies' biggest win and highest scoring game of the season.
The Grizzlies bench is getting more and more formidable. Tonight they looked downright scary. Forgetting all the "controversy" and the "crowded rotations" for a minute, it's awfully nice to be able to hand the lead over to a solid, well-developed and athletic bench unit. Good subs make your starters better too, with more rest and fewer deficits to battle.
Ed Davis had 17 points on 6 of 8 shooting, James Johnson had 7 rebounds and 6 assists to go with 14 points, and Jerryd Bayless seems to have hit a rhythm recently -- he finished 6 of 10 for 15 points. Zach Randolph led all scorers with 20, and Koufos had a game high 12 rebounds. The Grizzlies also out-rebounded the second-best rebounding team in the league, 46-25.
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