First, they narrowly escaped a depleted Oklahoma City Thunder squad with a two-point win. Then, they snapped the six-game winning streak that opened their season with a thoroughly disappointing loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. After those two games, maybe we should consider ourselves lucky that the Memphis Grizzlies didn't completely throw the game away against the Los Angeles Lakers?
But they sure came close. With 6:50 left in the 4th quarter, the Grizzlies were up by 17. Over the next two and a half minutes, as second unit guys were plucked out of the lineup for starters, the Lakers trimmed the lead to 10. Against the starters in the final 4:32, they came as close as three points – with 37 seconds left in the game – and nearly pulled off the unlikely comeback.
That was the theme for mostly the whole game: the bench guys were good, the starters were inconsistent. On the bright side, the bench guys were good! It's been a looooong time since we could say that, and Beno Udrih and Kosta Koufos made themselves the first and second players to break double digits in points off the bench this season for the Grizzlies. This game was a breath of fresh air.
And their mini-breakout proved timely. As flawed as the stat may be, it speaks volumes that only Mike Conley was able to register a positive plus/minus rating of the starters (barely made the cut with +3), while the entire second unit was positive, apart from Quincy Pondexter in a two-minute cameo. PopcornMachine.Net's GameFlow feature tracks the point margin against the flux of players being subbed in and out, and it provides a visual way of showing the impact of the second unit versus the starters. Look at how many of the Lakers' scoring runs came against the Grizzlies' starters!
It's not fair to say the starters weren't productive – if you looked at the box score, you wouldn't see a single empty stat line among them. Zach Randolph double-doubled, Marc Gasol nearly triple-doubled (somehow without actually hitting double digits in any category), and Mike Conley led the team with 23 points. Tony Allen racked up all four of his offensive rebounds in the beginning of the game, when the Grizzlies couldn't make shots to save their lives and were bailed out by having more chances at it. Courtney Lee, in another efficient performance, powered an 11-2 second quarter scoring run during which he dumped in seven of his 15 points.
But man, the offense went through serious stretches of all-too-familiar Grizzlies poopiness – like the period during the Lakers' comeback effort, during which they scored two points over nearly five and a half minutes of play while giving up 16 to the enemy. The Grizzlies went 1-for-5 from the field and threw the ball away four times for good measure.
This play can kind of give you a feeling for how that stretch went:
Let's chronicle the stages of nope:
- Gasol gets the ball in the post. Lee actually gets a decent screen from Conley at the top of the arc, but Gasol chooses not to make the pass. He sees potential help defenders close to the middle of paint, so that's not viable either.
- Gasol spins baseline, smack into Jordan Hill. He loses his dribble.
- When he gets his dribble back, he tries driving middle...into a lane packed by four guys, in part due to an ill-advised Allen cut.
- He sort of fumbles his way back to the low block. At this point, there's only a few seconds left, so he goes to the turnaround fadeaway that goes over the backboard as the shot clock expires. Really hoping he yelled, "Kobe!"
For the Grizzlies, that late-game Lakers run was just one of those stretches where they kept ramming their head into a wall via uncreative sets. The play calls were simple: plain drives or post-ups with little extracurricular motion, giving players few options other than to force something that wasn't there. Credit the Lakers for playing some good one-on-one defense late, but the Grizzlies should've done more to test them – this is a team full of defensive holes waiting to be exploited.
(I'll give the starters' defense a pass for Kobe Bryant canning a few tough shots down the stretch, since that's still a thing he can do from time to time. But the efficient scoring lines out of time-proven scoring maestros Carlos Boozer, Wes Johnson, and Jeremy Lin throughout the game left a lot to be desired defensively, even if the actual comeback wouldn't have come close without Kobe.)
But for all the grief the Grizzlies gave us near the finish, they still won the game. And for parts of it, often when the second unit was in, it was actually plenty of fun to watch! Udrih had a spin layup along the way that I can't believe wasn't put on Vine, and gave Ronnie Price some work here with this move:
Carter chipped in with an efficient six points, a made three, and solid defense, but Udrih and Koufos stole the show as much as two aesthetically boring players could have stolen it. Udrih dropped 16 on 8-for-11 shooting. His signature pull-up jumper was falling, a major plus against bigs that are too slow to pressure the pick-and-roll and are forced to sag in the lane (ahem, Boozer), and he mixed in a few very impressive drives as well.
Koufos scored 14 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-4 from the free throw line. It's a nice turnaround for him, having entered the game shooting 4-for-16 on field goal attempts this season. The three rebounds leave a bit to be desired, but we'll settle for baby steps. His touch around the rim looked good today – he had a hook shot over Robert Sacre and also finished an awkward-looking alley-oop layup with his left (off) hand.
Udrih and Koufos combined for 10 of the 24 points that the Grizzlies scored in the fourth quarter, and played a big part in building the cushion that the starters would eventually need. Maybe a blowout would've been easier on our hearts, but in a season where the second unit has started off ice cold, it's pleasantly refreshing to see them play the heroes in a game that was very nearly blown by the usual stars.
Now we want to see this level sustained. High hopes were pinned on to the bench cast at the outset of the season, and their poor start had some folks anxious even during the 6-1 (now 7-1) start. Word from the game is that free agent big man Kenyon Martin sat next to Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, which is probably not as meaningful as it may seem, but still interesting.
Martin's a fine defender even in his old age, but he's probably not the guy the Grizzlies need right now. That guy exists a couple times over on the Grizzlies bench, just in the form of players waking up groggy for the regular season. Here's hoping last night is the start of a greater turnaround.