The Memphis Grizzlies are only three games into the playoffs, and three games was all it took for Beno Udrih to take over on the court and in our minds. (Really, the Beno puns are too much now. I made a bunch in the last game and I'm not proud of it.)
In the first game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which was a 14-point loss, Udrih made a negligible impact in 15 minutes of court time. In the two wins since, however, he's been nothing short of incredible. In a combined 28 minutes of playing time over the last two games, Udrih has collected a total of 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting to go with five rebounds and four assists. What he's doing right now is snaring the hearts of not only Grizzly fans, but of NBA postseason viewers worldwide.
Old & New Memphis shine in Grizzlies OT win
It was a return to playoff basketball in Memphis Thursday night, and this blogger was fortunate enough to cover the game up close and personal. How it all turned out was nothing short of the best of old, and new, Memphis.
They come for Kevin Durant, and they get Beno Udrih. I'm a Durant fan, but come on. This is just awesome. Udrih was the Grizzlies' third-string point guard. Since joining the team in February 27th as a midseason free agent signing, Udrih had played all of 55 minutes across 10 games in the regular season. 10 games, out of a possible 26.
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from Udrih, who was following up abandoned point guard projects in Seth Curry and Darius Morris. Udrih has a bit of a reputation as an outside shooter, but his numbers fluctuate a lot from season-to-season (partly due to small playing time sample sizes in recent years) and his career three-point percentage is a middling 35.6%. He appeared to be a solid passer with assist metrics trending up in recent seasons and mild turnover rates, but solid in one area isn't much to get excited about with a 31-year-old that looks more the part of tech repair guy than pro basketball player.
Udrih was at the point of his career in which it looked like he was a journeyman on his last breath, making one last go around the league for an opportunity to cash in whatever remaining months of NBA basketball he had left with any team willing to sign him. You know the type – the Grizzlies signed Keyon Dooling last season too.
Like Dooling, Udrih was quickly fading. As a player creeping towards 30 on a bad contract, the Sacramento Kings chose to sell high in the 2011 offseason after he peaked in 2010-11. Udrih was sent off to the Milwaukee Bucks and spent a season and a half there as a forgettable backup. Dissatisfaction with playing time led to his inclusion in a midseason trade last year that landed him in Orlando with the Magic as an expiring contract. Udrih had a couple good games to end his season for the injury-riddled Magic, including three double-doubles and a 27-point outburst, but it was clear that 2010-11 had passed long ago.
Last offseason, the Grizzlies were one of five teams to express interest in Udrih as a free agent. The reserve point guard market wasn't great, with Mo Williams (currently driving Portland Trail Blazers fans insane) as one of the hottest available names. The Grizz swung and missed on both Williams and Udrih, instead making a move for the then-unheralded Nick Calathes. Udrih joined up with the New York Knicks on a deal at the veteran minimum instead, giving up a bit of money to join with a team that had the look of a winner. (Ha.)
Grizzlies Grades for Game 3 win vs. OKC
Player-by-player breakdown of all the performances in Memphis last night.
Udrih picked up a few starts throughout the season when the Knicks found themselves struggling with injuries to incumbent starter Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni, among others, but he really wasn't that great. He had double-digit assists once and hit double-digit points nine times in 31 games and 12 starts with the Knicks. Udrih looked awful defensively and held the appearance of a veteran placeholder point guard more than anything. He was the tumbleweed across your TV ghost town. Udrih actually requested a trade after clashing with Mike Woodson. (Ha.) A few teams, including the Spurs, Wizards and Nuggets, expressed interest at the trade deadline, but ultimately, no team struck a deal and Udrih eventually got bought out after the deadline.
Through drifting his way across the league, Udrih ended up with the Grizzlies as they claimed him off waivers to be their third attempt at a third-string point guard. This was around the time where Nick Calathes had fully taken off, so there wasn't expected to be much a role for Udrih. FedExForum hardly ever got to see him before the playoffs, and the satisfaction level with Calathes was reaching a high.
So with that in mind, it looked like disaster had struck for a moment. Calathes, one of the better-looking rookies in this season's unimpressive draft class, was hit with a 20-game suspension for violating the NBA's Anti-Drug Policy. He tested positive for Tamoxifen, an over-the-counter athletic supplement. Calathes was nearly a 20 minute-per-game guy at this point, and it appeared that Mike Conley would have to play 40-minute games in his absence.
Game 1 against the Thunder saw Dave Joerger entrust Udrih with 15 minutes in a game that was uncompetitive for stretches as the Thunder took it to the Grizzlies. Like many of his teammates, Udrih was uninspiring. He finished 1-of-4 from the field and 1-of-4 from the free throw line for three points, with four rebounds and an assist as well. Udrih clanked two pull-up jumpers and one catch-and-shoot three, failing to make any sort of dent on offense.
The magic started to happen in Game 2. The Grizzlies claimed their first way in the series in a triumphant battle, and Udrih added 14 points of eight shots in 14 minutes to the winning effort. Eight of those points came in the fourth quarter, and that one saw a true take-over. Joerger went super-small against the Thunder and their perimeter-oriented attack (that's a nicer way of saying they don't have any big guys that can score down low), at one point combining Udrih with Courtney Lee, Tony Allen and Mike Miller.
As the primary but not dominant ball-handler in this well-spaced lineup, Udrih was able to find his shot. He found his comfort level in the midrange, and a lot of his production is simply pulling up for jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. When the ball was out of his hands, he moved well and this high-arcing fadeaway out of a Marc Gasol hand-off had the bench on their feet:
With Udrih looking as great as he did, Conley didn't need to be relied upon for heavy minutes. Instead, Joerger felt comfortable leaving Udrih in for more than half of the fourth quarter. Even with the five-minute overtime period in consideration, Conley saw 38:58 of court time, fewer than anybody in the starting lineup not named Tayshaun Prince.
As a pleasant surprise for everybody, the Udrih mania continued in Game 3 last night. Udrih had 12 points on six shots and even hit a three in transition, his first in this season's playoffs (hopefully with more to come, given the Grizzlies' infamous shooting struggles). The off-ball movement was a greater focus in this game as the Grizzlies' lineups shifted more towards the conventional Randolph and Gasol lineups, and Udrih made some great judgment calls with cuts during a post-up for one of those two.
Of course, the highlight of the night was this play: a spinning layup that made Durant look like Kendrick Perkins. THEY COME FOR KEVIN DURANT, AND THEY GET BENO UDRIH.
I'm going to swat your most glorious dreams down now: this is absolutely not going to continue. We'll be lucky to get another Udrih spin layup, but even his hot shooting is bound to return to earth at some point. He's doing a lot of his damage from midrange, and though he's historically been reliable from that area, nobody is shooting upwards of 75% for longer than a handful of games. Udrih is up to two games, and there's no telling when the ground gives way.
Udrih could very well regress back to a five or six point-outing in his next game. Whenever an exciting leap occurs in a player's production level, that's often a spike within a small sample size. Given what we know about Udrih from his 9-year career, this is probably that.
On the bright side, the benefit of hot streaks attributed to small sample sizes happening within the playoffs is that the playoffs themselves are a small sample size. The longest a playoff run can be is 28 games and it can be as short as 16. This is speaking strictly in hypotheticals, but if we say the Grizz win it all, we can split the difference and say the playoff run would have been around the median point of 22 games. Make your realistic best scenario guess for how long Udrih can keep this up, then remember that he's doing right now is beyond the "realistic best case scenario guess" you would have made coming in to the playoffs. Playoff Beno could be forever.
But hey. Let's take it in for the moment, and enjoy it. Good backup play is basically replacement-level play to keep the ship afloat while your starter sits out. Right now on this hot streak, Udrih isn't keeping the ship afloat. He's actively pushing the team forward with his play off the bench, which is the kind of thing you say about super-subs like Manu Ginobili or Taj Gibson. It's not rare for bench players to go through brief phases of that level of play, but while your unheralded third-string point guard is doing it in the playoffs, it's well worth appreciating.
When said point guard is a journeyman veteran finding that he has a little more gas in the tank than anyone realized? It's worth remembering. Udrih is making a difference in this series, and if he hasn't accomplished that already, he could make a difference in the Grizzlies' season outcome.
For one of any team's two best players to play less than 40 minutes in back-to-back overtime playoff wins (over the two-seed, no less) is incredible, and right now Conley can get extra rest with Udrih capable of lifting the team. Preserving his energy as much as possible for later might bring about tangible results, and the Grizzlies aren't sacrificing good for average to do it. They're sacrificing Conley for playoff Udrih.
There would Beno difference.