No Zach Randolph. No Tony Allen. As arguably the hardest week of the season to date came to a close Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies were undermanned and surely exhausted heading into Cleveland for a matinee showdown with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. It showed in the first half, as the Grizzlies took an eleven point deficit into the locker room at halftime. The second half featured signs of life, but eventually the run lost steam and Cleveland took advantage of poor Grizzly movement & communication in a 105-91 victory.
Cleveland got off to a 14-4 start thanks to four LeBron assists in the first six minutes of the game. When James is that active offensively, most teams are going to struggle. Three Grizzly turnovers and a 2-8 shooting start for Memphis did not help matters either. The Cavaliers continuously attacked the paint, getting multiple layup opportunities en route to a 20-6 advantage with 4:22 left in the quarter.
Then, Nick Calathes & Kosta Koufos began to make some noise. Their pick-and-roll connection, along with better defensive movement and a more aggressive Mike Conley, led to a 13-2 Grizzlies run to end the quarter and only a three point disadvantage.
End of the First Quarter- Cleveland 22, Memphis 19
As would become the story of the game, in the second quarter, no matter how close the Grizzlies got in terms of score, it felt as if the win was always out of reach. When you're tired, things that usually are commonplace - like basic communication on defense - become that much harder to execute. Without Tony Allen & Zach Randolph, players like Tayshaun Prince, Jon Leuer, and Quincy Pondexter were also asked to do more in the game than they usually would have been.
The Cleveland Cavaliers took advantage of all of these factors on their way to a 30-22 quarter. Multiple drives to the rim and basic layups made things too easy for Cleveland, with players like Shawn Marion and Anderson Varejao seeing success in the lane. Mike Conley failed to score in the second quarter, and although Jon Leuer, Marc Gasol, and Vince Carter showed flashes of energy and success, and Quincy Pondexter made the Grizzlies' ONLY three-point shot in the contest, the lack of movement on offense and defense was the major story.
End of the 2nd Quarter- Cleveland 52, Memphis 41
Whether it was because of Coach Joerger giving the team an inspirational halftime speech, or just because good adjustments were made, the third quarter held much more promise for the Grizzlies. Memphis attacked the rim themselves, completing the extra pass and reading the Cavaliers' defensive rotations more successfully. Jon Leuer scored eight points in the first 4:30 of the quarter, helping spark the run. Conley was also much more active in this quarter (six points, four assists) and Marc Gasol went all "Wendigo" on the Cavaliers to the tune of thirteen third quarter points, with the final six being off of Beno Udrih assists. Beno adjusted to his injured finger as the game went on, getting more into the flow of the contest, and it surely helped Memphis cut into the Cleveland lead.
The closest the Grizzlies got was 74-70, but a Shawn Marion made a three-point shot to get the lead back to seven as the game headed into the fourth quarter.
End of the 3rd Quarter- Cleveland 77, Memphis 70
Anytime a quarter's MVP for the Cleveland Cavaliers is Dion Waiters, it probably means that they had a heck of a run in that period. Thirteen points for Waiters helped Cleveland towards getting this game out of reach in the fourth, as did Lebron James' dime dropping on the way to a 25 point, 11 assist double-double. The Grizzlies' legs were almost surely gone; you could tell throughout the game, but especially in the fourth quarter, due to missed shots coming up short and not getting back fast enough in transition. Marc Gasol was subbed out with 9:45 to go in the quarter and Mike Conley never reentered the game, making for a twelve minute span where neither scored for Memphis.
Dave Joerger saw enough and made use of the recently called-up Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes with several minutes left in the game. Adams showed flashes of his ability to score the basketball, and Stokes grabbed four rebounds in about four minutes of playing time. But both showed rookie attributes as well, missing shots at the rim and being out of place defensively. Whether in Iowa or in garbage time in the NBA, good learning experiences will continue for these two.
End of the 4th Quarter- Cleveland 105, Memphis 91
Three Takeaways from the Loss
1. The Silver Lining
Mike Conley only played 25 minutes in the game against the Cavaliers, and Marc Gasol only played 30. Considering Memphis plays again tonight at home against the Jazz, this is a welcome development. Even if Z-Bo and TA are able to go (questionable at best, especially with a nice three-day Christmas break on the horizon), Mike and Marc will surely have to carry the load if Memphis hopes to beat Utah on the second night of a back to back. Losses are never fun, but the beauty of the NBA is the next game is right around the corner.
2. Vinsanity's Comin'
Going back to the Philadelphia game, Vince Carter has started to come alive for the Grizzlies. In five games he has shot 43% overall from the field, 10% better than his season average and much closer to what Grizzlies fans were expecting from the super-sub. He has scored 12.4 points per game during that stretch, shooting 37.9% from three & appearing much more active on both ends of the court. In this game, he appeared to have his legs under him, and made some tremendous shots even without hitting a three. A healthy and clicking Vince Carter will only make this Grizzlies team better once Allen & Randolph are fully back in the fold.
3. Goals are Still Within Reach
Even with a terrible, and I do mean terrible, outlier of a shooting performance from range (a horrific 1-16 from three-point land, or 6.3%) the Grizzlies can still achieve the goal of a 10-4 or 9-5 December laid out for them at the beginning of the month by yours truly. 3-1 against potential Eastern Conference playoff teams is out the window now, but a win over Miami on the 27th puts them at 2-2 for the month in that category. Beating the Jazz tonight makes them 3-0 against the worst three teams they faced this month as requested, and after a nice (and needed) three day break, Memphis will certainly have a shot at besting Houston at home the day after Christmas.
That would make the Grizzlies 3-1 against Western Conference playoff contenders for the month, after beating Dallas and Golden State while splitting the month's series with the Rockets. The last game of the month, against the Spurs at home on the 30th, would be for their tenth win of December. Doing that while taking two out of three from San Antonio would mean accomplishing a truly remarkable feat considering the gauntlet that has been at the feet of the Grizzlies for the past few weeks.
For Memphis, despite the tough loss in Cleveland, it has to be an "on to the next one" mentality. A loss to the Jazz would mean the first three-game losing streak of the season heading into a tough stretch to close out the month of December. Here's to hoping for fresher legs and better aim from beyond the arc as Utah enters the Grindhouse.