The Memphis Grizzlies suffered a tough loss in Phoenix on Wednesday, and their road trip didn’t get any easier with a trip to Denver on Friday night.
Lionel Hollins’ team would ultimately come up just short of a valuable road win once again, losing to a fast paced Nuggets team 99-94.
Memphis’ troubles come as a bit of a surprise after their hot start to the season, but while this loss should cause concern, it also should fall short of stirring a panic.
The fact is, the Nuggets are sixth in the NBA in shooting percentage, eighth in scoring, fifth in fast break points, fourth in rebounding, fifth in blocks per game and the best team in the league when it comes to points in the paint. Put simply, there isn’t a whole lot that the Nuggets don’t do well, even if their record doesn’t show it.
An important thing to remember here is that the Grizzlies strong points come from their front court, areas like rebounding and points in the paint, but they were simply outmatched on the day. While the Grizzlies won the battle of the boards, they were outscored 52-30 in the paint, with the Nuggets defense holding Zach Randolph to just 10 points and 5 rebounds and Marc Gasol just short of a double-double at 10 points and 9 rebounds, stats that combined add up to an ordinary night for Randolph alone.
The Grizzlies aren’t a particularly strong fast break team, an area where they were punished severely in this game 27-7. When the Nuggets weren’t scoring on the break, they were getting to the basket with impunity, Danilo Gallinari’s off the back board assist to himself serving as a perfect example.
It was hard for anyone to assign much meaning to that loss to the Suns on Wednesday. The Grizzlies had a bit of an off night offensively and received no help from their bench (17 points). The fact that they were outrebounded 44-40, outscored in the paint 42-38 and on the break 14-13 seemed almost inconsequential as Rudy Gay was handed the ball with a chance to win the game. There in lies another problem which once again popped up on Friday.
Memphis is a good team with tons of talent, but when the game is on the line and the team needs someone to make a big shot, someone to be the guy, all the Grizzlies have is Gay, an unproven clutch shooter whose natural instinct is to go to the hoop. Against Phoenix he made a move toward the basket and went up for a jumper attempting to draw contact on the way, but missed and didn’t get a call. On Friday, he made a move toward the hoop, but was stripped clean by Ty Lawson. He would complain for a foul and receive nothing.
With Grizzlies lineup the way it is, they are strong defensively, good on the boards and can usually score in the paint with the best of teams thanks to Randolph and Gasol, but they are lacking a true superstar, a player that is a force to be reckoned with and can take the game by the collar down the stretch and win it almost single handedly. Gay is attempting to be that guy, but thus far has been unable to fill those shoes.
On Friday, however, they played a team with the same weakness and the difference was in the strategy. Denver’s ability to run the floor, to score in the paint and to shoot the ball efficiently gave them a distinct advantage. Memphis could take a cue from the Nuggets if they’re going to go all the way. They are currently ranked 15th in shooting percentage (although they have improved from a horrible start to the year), sixth in points in the paint and 13th in fast break points. Running the floor and shooting a higher percentage could be all they need to get over the hump.
The Grizzlies heart wasn’t to be outdone in this one, Mareese Speights and Wayne Ellington combined for 25 points off the bench, Rudy Gay leading the way with 21 as the Grizzlies forced more turnovers and played their own brand of solid defense, but it wasn’t enough this time. Is it an indication that this team isn’t up to the task of playing at the level their early season exploits set for them? Not really, but it shows the few areas they need to polish their game.
Grizzlies fans can rest assured that their team will be there in late April/May. They’ll contend with the Spurs for the division crown and they’ll be a team that beats a lot of championship caliber teams throughout the regular season. But these nights in Denver in Phoenix are a reminder that it only takes one thing going wrong, a bad night from the bench or a complete failure in the front court and the wheels can quickly come off. The Grizzlies have a chance to get to the Western Conference Finals, but they’ll have to be almost perfect to do it.