After last night's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, there was some pressure for the Memphis Grizzlies to start March off right. The playoffs are right around the corner, and the Grizzlies are still trailing the Dallas Mavericks by a thread in the steeplechase that is the Western Conference standings.
So, the matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers might as well have been a must-win. Though the Cavs have looked much better of late between better play from Kyrie Irving and the successful addition of Spencer Hawes, the perception of this team is that they're a dysfunctional one (not a statement completely without merit). A loss would've only been frustrating for the fanbase.
Well, things piled on the fans quickly as the Grizzlies came slow out of the gate and the Cavs didn't.
Not long after the game's start, Spencer Hawes had drilled a pair of uncontested threes. And by uncontested, I mean there wasn't a single person within five feet of him. The Grizzlies' bigs were unwilling to come out of the paint to commit on him, and it showed. Unfortunately, that was only the start of the Grizzlies' defensive troubles as Kyrie Irving put on a one-man assault against Mike Conley. The success for Irving and Hawes offensively trickled down to Tristan Thompson, who often found himself with an easy shot right at the rim. It was a tough start out of the gate for the Grizzlies, and despite solid offensive play, particularly from Marc Gasol, the Grizz were down 30-22 after the first quarter.
A troubling trend of late has been Conley's struggles, and once again he found himself having a tough time early. Not only could he not contain Irving, but offensively, he was unable to make even open shots and didn't look quite himself attacking the rim either.
Come the second quarter, things didn't improve by much. The Grizzlies' offense picked up from 'solid' and looked damn strong. They shot 60.0% in the second quarter, highlighted by confident shooting from Marc, a very active Tony Allen and a number of open jumpers for Courtney Lee. Unfortunately, the defense still couldn't find its footing. The Cavs made some shots that were just something else, but at the same time, Irving remained unstoppable and the rest of his team played off of him very well. Every Cavs starter made at least two field goals in the second quarter, and the team shot 62.5% overall.
Well, the third quarter came by and everything flip-flopped. The Cavs defense was the one looking lifeless, as things started to click for the Grizz and everybody made their bounce back. Of note was Z-Bo, who exploded for 13 points and six rebounds. In a word, he was a beast, doing work on the offensive glass and punishing defenders in the post. Conley found himself a bit of a groove in attacking the rim on offense.
Defensively, the Grizzlies looked as sharp as ever this season in the third quarter. Kyrie was still Kyrie and Thompson had built up some confidence for himself in being active under the rim, but after their 12 combined points, the rest of the Cavs could only put together three points, all from Luol Deng. Their field goal percentage quickly plummeted as they shot 37.5% from the field in the third, and that's without mentioning the activity of the Grizzly defenders in the passing lanes and on the loose ball as they forced a number of turnovers.
The defensive pressure continued into the fourth, where the Cavs shot 31.6%. They had enough in them to make a comeback attempt with about four minutes left in the game, much of it naturally rooted from Irving, but a number of late outside makes eventually shut down the comeback. One of these was Lee's fifth three-pointer of the game, a season-high for him. It also ties his career-high – Lee's actually made five threes in four other games before, but all four of those were in 2010 and 2011, so a long while ago.
Though the final score says 110-96, a blowout-ish figure, don't overlook how close this game was heading into the final minutes. It was a three-point game with 3:27 left. Z-Bo, Gasol, Lee and even Conley after his rough start all played well, combining for 86 points on 56 shots. Tony Allen was a shot of 5-Hour Energy compressed into 24 minutes off of the bench, scoring 16 points and generally wreaking havoc through backdoor cuts and defensive mania. However, that leaves a total contribution of 8 points from the rest of the team.
To be fair, the bench didn't see too many minutes as the starters dominated this one. The frustration here mostly lies with Tayshaun Prince: okay last night, but 1-for-8 tonight in 33 minutes. He's competent in a lot of other things, from defense to rebounding to passing, and those were on display tonight. However, having skills at a complementary level isn't particularly helpful when there's nothing to complement. I have no idea why Joerger only played James Johnson for seven minutes and Mike Miller for six when Prince struggled so mightily.
Well, that's the only negative in a night of resilient triumph. The Grizzlies get John Wall and the Washington Wizards on Monday, so look forward to what should be a great matchup in Wall and Conley!