The Rockets and Grizzlies faced off in the teams’ first divisional game of the season on Friday night. Memphis came out on top, flexed its muscle as a division title contender, and matched the best start in franchise history (4-1).
This game was a perfect example of where these two teams are at. Houston is young, weak in the front court, energetic and willing to fight. Memphis is talented, gritty, deep, experienced, poised, defensive and playoff ready.
The proof is in the pudding so to speak. The Grizzlies came away with 18 offensive rebounds and forced 20 turnovers. The Rockets jumped out to an early lead, but Memphis steadily chipped away and eventually went into half time down by four. The second half would separate the men from the boys so to speak as Tony Allen shutdown James Harden, forcing the rising superstar to go 0-5 in the third quarter.
The Rockets fell behind and were unable to keep up with the Grizzlies bench in the end. It was the reserves, a deep and talented group that outscored Houston’s bench 29-15 on the night, that would prove the biggest difference as Memphis built a cushion early in the fourth quarter.
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Houston attempted to stage a late come back after scoring a mere seven points in the opening seven minutes of the fourth, but Memphis was capable of absorbing the surge with Mike Conley and Rudy Gay making big plays at the end to win the game.
EARLY SEASON FLUKE OR SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?
The Rockets have struggled since their hot start to the campaign as teams have put a focus on stopping their back court duo of James Harden and Jeremy Lin. Harden is averaging 19 points and shooting 32% from the field in the last three games, all of which have been losses.
Houston is already on a downward spiral before experiencing a serious injury and appears to have been an early season fluke. If they are going to survive the first half of the season with playoff aspirations intact, they need a win on Saturday against Detroit before facing a tough stretch in which 11 of their next 15 opponents were playoff teams in 2012, a span that includes playing the Lakers, Jazz and Spurs twice each.
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Their front court is weak and needs to be addressed. The team failed to acquire Dwight Howard, but was unable to add suitable pieces in the draft. The front three of Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik were not heavily outgunned in this one, outscored 42-37 and 25-22 in rebounds by Memphis’ starting front three, but aren’t a proven group for the long term.
Harden and Lin are a talented combination, but they can’t carry the team on their own and fresh signing Asik isn’t enough firepower for Kevin McHale to rely against the more talented teams in the league.
The Grizzlies success of two years ago is still within their reach as they’ve kept the core of that team together. Last year, injuries to Zach Randolph and Mike Conley plagued the team, but Marreese Speights has proven a capable fill in for Randolph and the team acquired Jerryd Bayless (12 points in this game) to back up Conley. The Grizzlies second line is a talented mix of hard working, athletic players, similar to their starting lineup in style although not quality.
Memphis doesn’t possess an outright star capable of dominating games, but it does have a number of talented difference makers in its lineup and a good understanding of ball movement and team play amongst its core.
The team finished with only 16 assists on the night, but ball movement isn’t as important when you score 21 fast break points thanks to 14 steals and forcing 20 turnovers. Defense and rebounding wins championships and the Grizzlies have plenty of both, led by Allen who averages two steals per game on the defensive end and Zach Randolph who is currently averaging 15 rebounds and 16 points per game.
The Grizzlies are just showing signs of what is to come, a scary thought for opponents if they ever start shooting the ball well. In each of the last two games, Memphis has struggled to shoot very well and depended on second chance opportunities. Coming into the game, Memphis was shooting 42% as a team and lived up to the numbers converting only 37% of its chances in this one.
With Lionel Hollins at the helm, you can expect consistency from Memphis. He is a tough, blue collar kind of coach who knows what it takes and the perfect mentor for the still incomplete point guard Conley. Hollins won a championship as the point guard of the 1977 Portland Trailblazers and was a beacon of fitness and a blue collar work ethic in his time as a player. As a coach, he has transferred that same mentality to his players and it shows in the way the Grizzlies win.
With players like Rudy Gay, Randolph, Conley and Marc Gasol to go with their deep, little known bench, the Grizzlies are capable of winning a shoot out against high scoring teams, but can still play in the trenches and win dirty against just about anyone.
With San Antonio aging and Dallas on the verge of a rebuild for similar reasons, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Memphis take the Southwest Division crown.