VOL. 131 | NO. 245 | Friday, December 9, 2016
Grizzlies Great at Winning Close Ones, But Upcoming Schedule Unkind
By Don Wade
The Grizzlies had just survived to beat the Orlando Magic 95-94 at FedExForum. This was on the first day of December and it kicked off what would become, at minimum, a four-game winning streak.
The Grizzlies' Zach Randolph (50) posted a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds in the Grizzlies' 96-91 victory over Philadelphia on Tuesday, Dec. 6. It was Randolph's first game back after missing seven games following the death of his mother. Randolph's return should ease a little of the pressure on center Marc Gasol, but the 76ers were the latest team to spend much of the game doubling up on Gasol and daring other players to shoot.
(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
“We did a good job of staying in the moment,” center and team captain Marc Gasol said.
He was right, of course, but his statement can be applied much more broadly.
Two nights later the Grizzlies were hanging on beat the Los Angeles Lakers 103-100 as Troy Daniels went for a career-high 31 points off the bench. Two nights after that, in New Orleans, Gasol was playing 45 minutes and notching the second triple-double of his career in a 110-108 victory in double overtime.
Even the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, who were as shorthanded as the Grizzlies, would not be put down easily; they led by two points with less than two minutes to go and it was still a one-possession game until with 3.9 seconds remaining when JaMychal Green hit a pair of free throws to finish the scoring in a 96-91 Memphis victory.
For years, we’ve called the Grizzlies “tough” and embraced the “grit and grind” label. It all still fits. But by the NBA’s “super-clutch” metric, the Grizzlies have been just that. In games where the margin is within three points at any time during the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime, they were 11-0 going into their Thursday, Dec. 8, game here vs. Portland.
They also were 4-0 in games that went into overtime.
“They don’t make excuses,” said Memphis coach David Fizdale. “They don’t care if it’s back-to-back or whatever. When it gets down to the wire, they really know how to dig in and we’ve been pulling out those games.”
Yes, two of the overtime wins were over the Pelicans, one at Philadelphia, one over Washington. They are all projected lottery teams next summer. So is Orlando, and Denver and Minnesota and, well, you get the idea.
The Grizzlies haven’t just been “super-clutch,” they also have been very business-like in mostly beating the teams they should beat, or have to beat, given their injury woes. They were 15-8 going into the Portland game, and they need every victory that they have banked.
The schedule takes an ominous turn beginning Saturday, Dec. 10, when the Golden State Warriors come to FedExForum. The following Tuesday the Grizzlies are in Cleveland to play the defending NBA champions, and the next night LeBron James and the Cavaliers are in Memphis.
The next three games are at home against Sacramento (possibly an emotional game with Dave Joerger’s return) and then Utah and Boston (projected playoff teams).
“We’re about to go through the gauntlet here in a little bit,” Fizdale said.
The challenge in that three-game stretch with the Warriors and Cavs isn’t about staying in the moment so much as staying in the game. Truthfully, if the Grizzlies go 0-3 it would be neither surprising nor an indictment of who they are or of what’s possible going forward.
But if the games are not close, it could shake the foundation for the young players. They’ve become comfortable with the games decided in the last minute. But will they will be able to rebound emotionally if out of games in the first half?
Gasol has been playing very well, but it’s clear that even with Zach Randolph in the rotation – he missed seven games while on bereavement leave – opponents are going to dare everyone else to beat them.
Randolph was impactful in his first game back against the 76ers, posting a double-double – 12 points and 14 rebounds in just 22 minutes – and as Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said, “He rebounds in his sleep.”
But with Daniels’ hot shooting hand very cool this night – 1 of 8 from distance – the 76ers were determined to load up on Gasol.
“We are getting used to that now,” Fizdale said. “That’s pretty much what people are doing because Marc is playing so well and you can’t blame them. We were 2 of 17 from three. It was a smart thing to do.”
For his part, Gasol more or less shrugged at this new reality. It’s not going to change anytime soon, not with point guard Mike Conley on the shelf and rookies Andrew Harrison and Wade Baldwin alternately good and bad from one moment to the next. Gasol isn’t just the best scoring option, he needs to touch the ball on almost every possession for the offense to have a chance to work.
“I’m just trying to find the angle, trying to make a quick move,” Gasol said. “Obviously, there are going to be a few guys open on the back side, but there is a reason why they’re open. If their double-team works, then that’s taking you out of the game and they get what they want.”
True. And when he talks about players being open for a reason, he’s not just referring to Tony Allen. Opponents are happy for any of the perimeter players who aren’t Troy Daniels to shoot threes. In fact with Conley out, Gasol is the most feared 3-point shooter on the floor (or should be, he’s shooting 42.3 percent from deep and Daniels is shooting 36.9 percent).
“Hopefully, we are going to get better with the spacing, with the cutting and passing from me and to me,” Gasol said. “That’s going to give us better options. It takes practice and we haven’t had that much practice with all these games and our limited roster, as much practice as you need to create that kind of chemistry. We have games and you can’t stop the games to coach every possession. It takes time and I’m sure we’ll get it eventually.”
But even with the chemistry a work in progress, they have won so many games that easily could have gotten away. They have, in essence, made an early down payment on a playoff berth with a 15-8 start to the season.
That gives the Grizzlies a good chance to survive some likely rough moments just around the bend.