Memphis is playing their 3rd road game in 4 days after scrapping with division foes while shorthanded. That is the bad news. The good news is that they are playing a team that is younger, more volatile and definitely more unpredictable than the Grizzlies. Memphis has been needing more interior players with Stro sick and Darko injured. That will be the case again as Atlanta throws Al Horford against the Grizzlies but Marvin Williams isn't any bigger than Rudy Gay so Rudy won't be physically out-matched at the four. The problem in this match up for the Grizzlies are Atlanta's perimeter players. How will Navarro and Miller contain Joe Johnson and Josh Smith?
Atlanta is young and inconsistent. Some nights the combination of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Al Horford and Acie Law look incredible. Other nights they look horrible. The Hawks have more athletic talent than almost any other team in the league but the talent hasn't resulted in wins. The reason is that the team is so young that they don't know how to win in the league. And there isn't anyone on the roster that seems able to teach them either. Joe Johnson, the player Chris Wallace traded away from Boston not so many years ago, is the closest thing to a leader on the team and this man left Phoenix for Atlanta because he wanted to be a star more than be a piece of a possible championship team.
Crunch Time Woes
The Griz have yet to win a game this year decided by 3 points or less (0 for 6). That hurts. And by my count, 11 of the 19 games this year were essentially anyone's game with ~2 minutes to play in the 4th. The Griz are 4-7 in those games. With the key being not to need a last second shot to win or leave time for the other team to have a last second shot to win. This week alone the Griz have lost two games on last second shots. What surely can't be a good sign, Joe Johnson beat the Twolves this week on a last second shot. I don't know about you, but I have very little confidence in the Griz successfully executing in crunch time. And I don't think the responsibility falls all on the players. If you go back and look at the play-by-play in most of those close games, we routinely have a bad offensive possession coming out of a timeout. That is likely in part due to our rookie head coach (who surprisingly has never, to my knowledge, been a head coach at any level before this season....he is the ultimate rookie head coach...it may take him more time than I expect to have successful crunch time game planning).
Zack's Blatantly Obvious Keys to Victory
1.) Better perimeter defense.
2.) Better, crisper passes on offense.
3.) Do a better job of preventing second chance points for the Hawks.
Point Guards: Damon Stoudamire vs Anthony Johnson
Anthony Johnson wasn't supposed to be starting for Atlanta. Damon Stoudamire wasn't supposed to be starting for the Grizzlies this late in the season. Well maybe Damon starting but definitely not increasing his minutes every night. Johnson has performed well in his role of distributor but he isn't going to hurt you most nights on offense. His job is to get the offense started and get out of the way. He understands this and does his job. Damon has been stepping up of late and becoming another long range threat for the Grizzlies. They need that threat now with the interior so thin because of injuries.
Shooting Guards: Juan Carlos Navarro vs Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson is shooting terrible right now. He's made 65 of his last 171 shots. One has to wonder if winning is something that remotely concerns JJ. He obviously believes he can shoot himself out of this slump that has him hitting only 40% of his FG Attempts and below 30% of his 3pt attempts. Navarro isn't known as a great defender and if JJ posts him he will need some help. Navarro is sneaky good as a shooter but JJ can play some defense when he wants to. If JJ is hot then this is a serious mismatch. I don't know why but doesn't it seem Memphis is the cure for most teams shooting problems this year?
Small Forwards: Mike Miller vs Josh Smith
This is when Grizzlies fans really start hoping Darko is capable of playing. Or at least Stro because this match up is really frightening athletically. Josh Smith is capable of making great athletes look silly. He's also capable of making a lot of silly plays. Josh can do almost anything with a ball on a court. The problem is that he believes he can do everything and he can't. Once he learns that his athletic ability does have limitations and he doesn't have to try to do everything he could become one of the best players in the league. Until then he is just a talented player who doesn't seem to know how to play the team game. Miller is all about team often to the chagrin of Grizz fans who wish he would try and be more selfish. He has one of the sweetest shots in the game, can get past defenders who only guard against the long ball and rebounds as well as any one his size in the league. Miller is slow of foot however and can't jump half as high as Smith. The key here is for Mike to play off Smith and not let him drive since Smith's outside game is suspect.
Power Forwards: Rudy Gay vs Marvin Williams
Rudy Gay vs Marvin Williams is a match up of two of the most talented players from the class of 2008. Marvin spent one season in UNC before turning pro while Rudy spent two at UConn. The both are having breakout seasons this year with Marvin Williams averaging 15.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.8 apg and shooting 48.7% from the floor. Rudy is averaging 18.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.4 apg and shooting 47.1% from the floor. If anything differentiates these players it is that Rudy is a better perimeter scorer. This is a battle of future stars in the league and should be exciting to watch. Too bad that Rudy will be playing his 3rd game in 4 days while Atlanta has been at home this week waiting on the Grizzlies.
Centers: Pau Gasol vs Al Horford
Al Horford was the player most Grizzlies fans were willing to settle for in the last draft. The 6-10, 245 pound bruiser was the perfect compliment to svelte Pau Gasol and would legitimize the Grizzlies front line. Unfortunately the Grizz didn't get a shot at Horford, Durant or Oden and instead took Michael Conley. that pick could still turn out well for the Grizzlies but watching Al Horford will still hurt somewhat. Horford has been everything expected averaging 10.6 rpg and 8.8 ppg in his rookie year. Gasol has been less than what you expect but his game has been improving of late. Gasol will be a tough stop for Horford but expect Williams and Smith to be helping out down low a lot and daring our perimeter scorers to beat them. The thing is that Gasol is excellent at passing out of trouble.
Benches: Memphis vs Atlanta
Atlanta's bench is being run thin just like the Grizzlies due to injury. Josh Childress has joined ZaZa Pachulia and Tyrone Lue on the list while Memphis has darko Milicic, Stromile Swift and Michael Conley all down at the moment. This game won't likely be determined by either team's bench unless one of those six names returns to action. Memphis still has Kyle Lowry but his star has begun to fade of late, Casey Jacobsen can fill in but hasn't shown anyone why he was signed this summer and Andre Brown gives a ton of effort even if he is short on results. Atlanta has Salim Stoudamire, former #5 draft pick Sheldon Williams and Acie Law but their production has been sporadic at best.
Update I (12:30 am, 12.08.07 by Zack) - Health an Issue
All of a sudden, we have been struck by a string of health issues. Stro has missed 2 games with a stomach virus and now Damon missed the Friday night Hornets game with the same flu bug. I hope more players don't come down with it too. That left Lowry as the only healthy PG, which isn't a preferable situation despite the fact it allowed Lowry to start his first game. Darko returned against Hornets and played major minutes. It is apparent that his ankle isn't 100%. Darko is proving to be a warrior to push through the pain. Even Miller left the Hornets game momentarily with an apparent injury issue, but returned shortly. The health of the Griz players will be key tonight. We will try to get a new post up before the game if there is again a surprising injury scratch like last night with Damon.
Other Pre-game Sites/Relevant Commentary:
Atlanta Hawks Preview
Hawks - Impending Firestorm
Hawks - Sekou Smith
The Fanhouse (Tom Ziller): Hawks broken, not broke
Got a Prediction? Leave it in the Comments.