OK, the time for catching your breath and taking steps back is over. Time to step forward again, and some home cooking could be just what the Memphis Grizzlies need to turn their fortunes around. Memphis is now only one game in front of the Portland Trail Blazers for the 2 seed in the Western Conference and two games in front of the Houston Rockets for the Southwest Division lead. A continuance of their current struggles (4-6 in their last 10 games) could mean possibly slipping all of the way to the 4 or even 5 seed, and all that this team competed for throughout the season (a divisional title, home court in the first round, and maybe more) may be lost.
The Grizzlies may be without one of their key players as well. While Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen are expected to return to the lineup after their night off in Washington Thursday night, Mike Conley is doubtful to play against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight due to his sore ankle. Conley was in a walking boot Thursday at the Wizards game, and another night off would not be the worst thing for "Captain Clutch" since so much of the Grizzlies' present and future is dependent on a Mike Conley who is as close to 100% as possible. The Grizzlies' status as arguably the deepest they have ever been at the point guard position makes this easier to swallow, even with the 2 seed in danger of slipping away.
Memphis' challenge tonight is a tall one, with or without Conley. The Bucks are one of the NBA's most improved teams this season, solidly in the 6 seed in the Eastern Conference with eyes on a playoff appearance themselves. Head coach Jason Kidd has done a great job with a young, hungry Milwaukee squad anchored by "The Greek Freak" Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, with key contributions from newly acquired Michael Carter-Williams and the dangerous-when-healthy Ersan Ilyasova. Add in some old Grizzly friends like Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, and Chris Johnson, and there will be plenty of firepower thrown at the Bears of Beale Street.
Thankfully, Milwaukee is 15-19 on the road this season, and has struggled more than Memphis has the last 10 games (3-7). The Grizzlies are 24-7 at home this season and will be out for revenge for their loss earlier in the season to the Bucks, a 93-92 setback in Milwaukee on November 8th that ended Memphis' perfect 6-0 start and their quest for a perfect season.
All jokes aside, this is about as big of a game for Memphis as a contest against an Eastern Conference team in March can be. Time to right the ship. How to do it? 3 keys:
Defend & Help Yourself, Jeff Green
A good bit of the criticism of Jeff Green as a Memphis Grizzly comes from the fact that he is at best a neutral defender, and a good bit of the time, he is a negative on that end of the floor. His defensive rating as a Grizzly, 106 according to Basketball-Reference, is the best he has done since the 2012-2013 season, but is poor by Memphis standards. The eye test tells us he is too often caught with his hands down on three-point shooters, misses rotations and help opportunities, and is just overall a step slow far too often.
Whoever Green defends tonight, whether it be Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Ilyasova, or someone else, he must be more sound on this end of the floor. Part of the Memphis Grizzlies' history in the "Grit and Grind" era is these kinds of lulls in performance, so the blame being placed solely on Green is unfair. Another part of that history is being a plus defensive team, however, and Green must show more consistency. He can absolutely be part of the solution if he is able to better commit himself to making life more difficult for the talented, athletic wings and stretch fours of the Bucks.
Nick Calathes, Carter-Williams Container?
Assuming Conley, even if he plays, will be limited at best, Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes will have increased roles playing against the Bucks. While Udrih has been the starter with Conley out so far this season, tonight may be a good night to play the matchups and roll with "Nicky Slicks" as the starter. The reason? Michael Carter-Williams, who is coming off of a 28 point, 8 rebound, and 4 assist performance against the Indiana Pacers in his last game and is starting to get more comfortable in the Bucks' scheme despite low shooting percentages. Over the last 5 games, Carter-Williams has averaged 18.4 points, 6.6 assists, and 5 rebounds. Solid production.
Carter-Williams is also 6'6" and presents a mismatch physically against the smaller Beno. Starting Nick and matching Calathes and his 6'6" frame up against Carter-Williams, while allowing Udrih to run the second unit and try to take advantage of the young Tyler Ennis, may mean better opportunities for each player to be successful. Even if and when Beno starts, a quick pull in favor of Calathes may neutralize some of Carter-Williams' size and athleticism.
Aggressive Marc is the Best Marc
Even the most ardent Jeff Green supporters would agree that in no world should he have more shots in a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game than Marc Gasol. Unfortunately, that has happened too often recently. In the last five games, Green has shot more than Gasol three times, and Memphis is 1-2 in those games. When Gasol has shot more than Green? 2-0.
Of course, there's more to it than that simple coincidence, but Jeff Green should be a fourth option on this team, and Marc Gasol, the team's All-Star and future "Max" player, should be the first. In the 17 games this season when Marc Gasol has been the game-high scorer, the Memphis Grizzlies are 15-2. It's time for Marc to get back to what he was at the beginning of the season: an MVP candidate who had the Grizzlies at 15-2 through November. The best play is Marc's play more often than not at this point for these Grizzlies.
It is hard to confidently say that these Grizzlies will win any game at this point. They have struggled much of the past few weeks, even in wins, looking for flow and searching for what they had at the beginning of the season. The problem is, that team no longer exists. This incarnation of the Grizzlies must embrace how they are made up now, with Jeff Green in the fold, and continue to mesh together, utilizing his skill set in the best way to make both him and the team successful. Aggressive drives to the rim, corner threes, and defensive focus are hopefully in his future.
If this occurs, alongside minutes at the back-up "power forward", consistently, the Grizzlies will fit together more and more game after game. Even possibly without Conley this can continue tonight. Look for Marc Gasol to be aggressive early, for Jeff Green to execute effectively offensively and have renewed focus defensively, and for the Grizzlies to hit the ground running in front of a friendly home crowd as they get a much needed win.
Memphis 95, Milwaukee 90
|2015 NBA Season
45-20 (24-7 home)
34-31 (15-19 road)
|March 14th, 2015
|FedexForum in Memphis, Tennessee
|7:00 PM CDT|
|Fox SportSouth / 92.9 FM ESPN
|Beno Udrih||PG||Michael Carter-Williams|
|Courtney Lee||SG||Khris Middleton|
|Zach Randolph||PF||Ersan Ilyasova|
|Marc Gasol||C||Zaza Pachulia|
|2015 Advanced Stats|
|94.3 (26th)||Pace||96.4 (14th)|
|103.2 (14th)||OffEff||100.6 (23rd)|
|100.3 (T-8th)||DefEff||99.1 (2nd)|
Memphis- Mike Conley (Doubtful, Ankle)
Milwaukee- O.J. Mayo (Probable, Hamstring), Jerryd Bayless (Questionable, Ankle)
For the Milwaukee perspective, check out Brew Hoop