Monday, November 10, 2008

Grizzly Pandiculation, Week 2: In Which OJ Mayo Is The New Ra

When I decided to formally make the Grizz my pet team for the season, I resolved to watch two games a week and report weekly on what I've seen from the team. I figure it'll be a nice way to watch how the team develops for good or bad. Grizzly Pandiculation chronicles the Grizzlies as they progress. This is the second of those entries.


Four games on the road. A West Coast road trip which can be brutal. Coming off a big win against Golden State. Tired legs. A Sacramento team that desperately needed a win to stop the bleeding, and a Nuggets team that absolutely must win its home games to keep pace. Golden State, equally desperate to "redeem" themselves for the "embarrassing" loss to the Grizzlies a week ago. Of course the team went 1-3. Wait. The team went 1-3? They won a game? Okay, well obviously they got blown out, right?

Twenty point differential in three losses, against two playoff teams from last season, and the Denver one only got out of hand late. The Grizzlies were in each and every one of these games in the fourth quarter. This team starts three rookies. How is this possible?

But wait, it's even stranger. Rudy Gay, the best player on the team (overall) is shooting less than 40% from the field. Mike Conley? 36.4%. Kyle Lowry? 38%. Essentially they have three key players in huge slumps that they're likely to break out of. So wait, they have three players shooting terribly, they're on a four game road trip, how in the hell are they even hanging in these games?

It's simple. O.J. Mayo is Ra, the Sun God.

Mayo has been the center of light in the Grizz universe, pouring in back-to-back career highs of 31 and 33, including 26 and 20 in the first and second half of those games respectively. He's also been the stylistic embodiment of Sun Records, combining the thrill-bomb detonation of Elvis Presley's hips and country rock hybrid, Ray Orbison's cool and precise demeanor, and Johnny Cash's outlaw punk attitude. It's not just that Mayo has struck with devastating firepower, launching crossover three after crossover three (and shooting 45% from the arc this season), but he's more and more getting full control of his arsenal.

Against the Suns, in clutch time when the Grizzlies needed him most, he warmed up with perimeter shots, then went to working the mid-range J off the screen, creating turnovers and laying it in after crossing over Barbosa, and getting Dragic up in the air on a pump fake before drifting it in. He even managed the explosiveness that's been missing on a fadeaway floater. He's been unstoppable for long stretches. Trying to think about what this could lead to makes basketball fanatics weak in the knees like we're teenage girls screaming when Elvis did that weird hip thing, only without the terrifying frenzy and acne.

Mayo's leadership has also been brilliant. There's no T-Mac hesitation in his decisions ("Do I want the ball? Should I shoot? Maybe I should pass. I don't know..."), nor is there a Ricky Davis obliviousness to defensive positioning or using his teammates. He wants the ball, he's going to score, and he's doing it to win, not for glory. The look on Mayo's face isn't one of joy, it's of drive. When he loses, he's not heartbroken. He knows this is a long term project, and each game they get closer. I have yet to see Mayo upset with his teammates, only frustrated when he loses his handle late in games (as he did against the Suns), or when fouls break his rhythm. Mayo hasn't been dynamite, sublime, or mystic. He's been iconic. And it's not only possible but likely that this is only the beginning.

It would be easy to pin the Grizzlies' failures to get in the win column on his teammates, and to be sure, missing open shots is not helping. But this is not a situation of one superstar being held up by his teammates. Gay's forcing it, because there's no other option. Gay has to keep shooting. Because every now and then he starts to break out of it, before the slump kicks back in. Gay has been right to keep shooting. He's their best overall option (simply based on Mayo's fatigue and inexperience), and 80% of the time he has an advantage on his opponent. When Gay gets out of this slump, it's entirely possible that Mayo and Gay will be the kind of wing combo that's often conceptualized but rarely materializes.

Meanwhile, people are quick to rail on Conley, still. They look at the low shooting numbers, and low points, and assume he's playing terribly. But Conley is responsible for most the team's unattributed turnovers, he's leading the team in assists, and he has a lower turnover rate and ratio than Lowry.

The problem is that Conley can't finish. He's creating a lot of opportunities in transition, but Conley can't finish. In the Denver game during a key sequence, Conley assisted on the trap and got the ball to Gay in the open floor. The transition defense moved to double Gay, and Gay sent the ball a second too late to Conley. Conley had to accelerate, meaning he was unable to get the shot off. It's on Conley to finish that play, but he's just not in a situation where he's at his best in that regard. But that's something that will come.

Conversely, the team's defense is better when Conley's on the floor. But the numbers don't support this. My counter-argument would be that Conley starts and always handles the brunt of the opponent's best rotation, while Lowry is usually in play when this team seems to collectively get it's act together: The fourth quarter. But take for example tonight, when desperately needing a stop, Lowry took a step back and gave an already blisteringly hot Barbosa a wide open three. Conley has played with defensive energy that's often ignited his team. He plays better in the flow of this team's defense. He's offensively timid. But with the weapons on this squad would you rather have a player that's jacking up shot after shot too early in the shot clock (Lowry), or one that's learning how to best put his teammates in a position to win?

What's weird is this isn't bias-based like a lot of my leanings. If anything I have a natural dislike for Conley given his Big 10 background. But when I look at what this team needs, I look to Conley based on how he can develop. Wins and losses aren't important. And having a more turnover-prone guy that's willing to pull the trigger early in the shot clock rather than get Mayo or Gay the ball is not. Lowry isn't any better of a finisher at the basket than Conley, he just knows how to develop the shot before he misses, while Conley just isn't sure what to do when he gets there. When he learns to drive and kick? That could be good. I wouldn't blame them if the Grizz went in a different direction, and I think Crittenton deserves a chance to see what could happen. But I'm not prepared to say that Conley sucks or that Lowry is better for the long term chances of this team. Conley's biggest thing is he needs to develop a chemistry with Mayo immediately.

One last note regarding the guards. I love Three Shades of Blue. I would put its writers up against any team bloggers in the league. But this is madness, and not Sparta. Nevermind the Popcorn Machine's evidence that the Grizzlies essentially blew their shot at the end when they abandoned a point guard for Mayo. The end of the game illustrates a key point. It's not that Mayo's handle is weak. It's not. But the same problem that Wade has is evident. Taking the ball upcourt, particularly when in a press situation, takes too much out of him. You need someone to set the offense and get him the ball at the key, and if the double comes, be able to redistribute it at the perimeter to Gay or Gasol. Putting him at point is suicide. It's always been suicide, it will always be suicide. The kid's a natural scorer and a playmaker. That doesn't make him a point. Don't ruin a good thing by forcing him to be something he's not.

Iavaroni murdered me this week. I've been a bigger supporter of the guy than most Grizzlies fans. But you have a kid that drops 20 in a quarter. He picks up his second foul? So what? If you're going to rest him, rest him when he loses his cool or picks up his third. You're in a position where you can sacrifice distributing minutes in pursuit of, you know, scoring. That six to seven minute break where Iav sat him broke his rhythm completely, and that, combined with the defensive double adjustment, was enough to make him mortal. But that's not where the trouble stops. This Darrell Arthur obsession must stop. MUST. STOP. It's odd that just as Darko has found a niche where he's being successful. Blocking shots, playing defense, making the occasional hook shot and bringing a sense of physicality, that he's been shrunken from sight. Arthur showed some poise tonight with his 18 footer, and I love him as an energy guy off the bench. But tonight Iav threw him to the wolves against Amare. When Iav went to Darko, Darko was able to put a body on him and shake him off. But Iav never lets him in in key situations.

I don't necessarily see the value in Quinton Ross, (if you're looking for a shooter, why not give J-Critt some burn-- you've punished him long enough), but at least he's shooting well. But down the stretch, Iav should have told Ross, particularly, "If you shoot, I will kill you. Give Mayo or Gay the ball. The end."

You know who's playing really well? Hakim Warrick. I mean, yeah, Golden State was a pretty easy spot. Fight the big, long, fast, athletic 4s with a faster, more athletic, more polished, 4. But he's also embracing the 7th man spot as an opportunity to do what he does best, which is attack the rim. He's finishing strong and he works tremendously well with Gasol.

The best thing about this team, though, is its defense. Everyone's active in passing lanes. They're using their speed and length to recover and rotate, often forcing a third or even fourth pass to find the open shooter. They challenge shots, and most of the time when they foul, it's not the usual youthful exuberance gone astray. It's denying an easy bucket. There are no easy buckets against Memphis. If you want to score, you're going to have to work for it. Meanwhile, they're creating turnovers and communication is clear. You just don't see the blown assignments you see on a lot of teams. Everyone knows where they need to be and is trying to execute. And there's no quit in this team. Down 17 in the third, I told the HP crew that Memphis would close the gap in the fourth. I've come to expect it. While closing will be a problem for this team during the learning process, they just seem to surge in the fourth. A lot of teams fall into a hole and then just want to go through the motions to get out of there. If you're down, you're out. But Memphis genuinely believes that if it can fix the things it's doing wrong in this particular game, it can make things tight. And that's a win.

All in all, the kids are gassed. You can tell. They're flat out exhausted. But with the Knicks, Bucks, and Martin-less Kings in town for a week and a half home-stand with a four day rest in there, the Grizz have a great shot at getting back over .500. They're understanding who they are and working out their kinks. And the best part is against solid teams they've shown that this team is not a pushover. Like I said at the beginning of the season, they're dangerous, and they're going to end up biting a fair share of teams.

And I'm starting to really love them for it.

PS: The refs totally screwed them in that Suns game. When the always-biased home team announcers give the "well, at home, you're going to get those calls..." line, you know you've been screwjobbed. Amare clearly fouled on the lost ball, and then it was compounded on the rebound by missing that it was Grizzlies' ball. Weak sauce. Good things wins and losses don't matter for this squad, or I'd be righteously pissed off.

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