(Note - The ever expanding crew here at 3SoB are going the extra yard this year and have installed a road blogger. Ok, ok, so I actually moved to Houston, but for the Houston (and possibly San Antonio) road games, I will be providing a view From Behind Enemy Lines.)
For 3 quarters, the new look Grizzlies reminded me alot of the Grizzlies from last year. Helter skelter half court offense. Defensive breakdowns. Less fast break opportunities than promised. Below average free throw percentage. Poor decisions with the ball.
Then a series of highlight-reel dunks by Rudy and Hak behind a swarming defense energized the Griz and deflated the enthusiastic Houston crowd. The defense started creating and getting loose balls they weren't previously. The fast break opportunity flood gates finally opened up. And the game looked like it was going to be a satisfying Grizzly win.
This energizing sequence was punctuated not by one of Rudy's electrifying dunks and post-dunk shimmy's, but by the originator of the shimmy itself, Antonie Walker, when he dove to the floor for a loose ball and called a crucial timeout. That play, by the teams most experienced player, said alot about the mindset of the willey veteran. Walker, playing Power Forward and surprisingly Center for most of the game, looked focused and team oriented. He even took a charge at one point. I know it is only the first preseason game and the inevitable losses have yet to pile up, but Walker may turn out to be a valuable and versatile contributor off the bench this year. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Rudy Gay, the unquestioned team leader, was a barometer for the team energy level and apparent confidence. For 3 quarters Rudy Gay was in foul trouble, had trouble on offense, looked slow on defense, and all around had a bad game. But like leaders do, he didn't let that ruin his game. In the 4th quarter, it all came together, albeit without Artest in his grill, and Rudy lead the Griz in their most exciting offensive stretch of the game, one that needs to be shown to the team on the flight home tonight so they know what their identity should be. Here is the highlights of that impressive 4th quarter stretch.
--Tonie steals the ball, leading to a Kyle Lowry drive and shooting foul.
--Kyle Lowry steals the ball leading to a Rudy Gay and-1 dunk and shimmy.
--After a few more trips, Rudy aggressively forces the drive and gets a layup.
--Hak blocks a shot which leads to a spectacular Rudy alley-oop.
--Another Griz steal and long outlet pass leads to a clear path to the basket foul on a streaking Mayo.
--Rudy forces another aggressive drive to the basket, not letting himself settle for a jumpshot.
--Lowry goes backdoor on Brooks, getting him back for the previous backdoor cut by Brooks.
--OJ sinks a 3 pointer.
--Another steal and long outlet pass leads to a Hak dunk and another shimmy!
--Mayo steals the ball and on the ensuing trip down the court after a missed shot, Tonie dives on the floor for the loose ball and calls a timeout.
--Lowry follows that up with a hard drive and foul, sinking a free throw to put the Griz up 93-92.
I thought the Griz were going to win at this point. I should have known better. The momentum seemed to be in the Griz favor. They were causing timely turnovers on defense and turning them into fast break points on offense. Griz basketball as promised! But nothing really says Griz basketball at its finest than losing a close game on a last second shot. Unfortunately.
Following Lowry's game leading free throw, the Rockets called a timeout and dialed up the Griz kryptonite, aka the pick and roll. With Toine playing Center and Hak playing Power Forward, there was little help on the pick and Brooks made it past Lowry to the basket for a diving layup.
But the Griz can still score to win the game, right? Wrong. I'm not too excited about Iavaroni's play that he drew up with the game on the line. Lowry gets the inbound. Makes a difficult lateral pass to OJ Mayo who has to go 3 feet beyond the 3point line to get the ball. Mayo gets screened by Toine, who then rolls to the top of the key and gets the pass. He then turns around and hands the ball off to Rudy behind the 3 point line. Rudy launches a shot with the clock running down and misses.
That play makes me give Iavaroni an F for his game grade. Only a 1 point deficit and he dials up a play where the ball never goes below the 3 point line? What? A 1 point lead and nobody attacks the rim? No basket cut? No post up? No Lowry out of control drive? The ball doesn't get to Rudy until he has to jack up a 3? Seriously? A bunch of lateral, dangerous passes on the perimeter? That is what you do when you are running out the clock, not trying to score for the win. Iavaroni, you are not installing much confidence in this now Houston-based blogger. You might as well just told the guys to do whatever they wanted to do, it couldn't have been any worse than that junk.
But anways, here are some of my other impressions from the game:
More on Rudy
Watching warmups closely, Rudy has this sense about him. This is his team. He is the leader, the star player. Unlike before, where there was guys like Miller or Damon or Pau that played that role, Rudy is now the guy. Us Griz fans take that for granted I think. But just think back to him falling asleep on the bench during the NCAA tourney and it really is a remarkable transformation. Rudy is one of ~30 Franchise Players in the NBA. Even in warmups, he knows it and is embracing the role.
I haven't heard any word on Darko, but he wasn't at the game. JCritt was there, but didn't play. Is he hurt? Doghouse? I hope we find out something about that. Arthur didn't play either, but given his hurt hammy, that is not surprising. Arthur was the last guy off the court practicing prior to the last locker room chat before team warmups.
Buckner and Ross
The defensive duo got plenty of burn tonight, even playing next to each other. Talk about lack of offense. You can tell defense is a priority when minutes at the 2 and 3 that use to go to Miller and Navarro are now going to Buckner and Ross. Somewhere Frat is smiling. I'm not amused though, the duo stinks and makes our helter skelter offense even worse. At least they can play defense, which is something, I guess, but playing them together for extended minutes is a disaster.
Haddadi and Gasol
Walker played a lot of 2nd half minutes at Center. That should say a lot about our twin international center duo. Gasol looked decent. Slow, but got solid position rebounding and showed off a sweet 18 foot jumpshot. Haddadi on the other hand was bad. Not surprising though. Griz fans shouldn't expect much contribution from the Iranian rookie this year. Without Darko (maybe even with Darko), our front court was outmanned and overmatched, even against the Rockets 2nd string. Gasol will be our starting center at some point this year. Even if Darko is better, he will not be as steady as Gasol.
Conley looked solid. Quick. Got to the rim at will. Missed most of his layups and floaters though. Maybe dribbled a little too much. But overall, had a good game. Conley had a stretch in the 3rd when Rudy and OJ were on the bench in foul trouble where he was on fire. Impressive. But, just like last year, Kyle did enough in the 4th quarter to stay until the end during a close game. Will that be another trend this year or just a preseason quirk? My gut says the former, but most Griz fans are hoping for the latter.
Looked mediocre. Wasn't involved in the offense much. Sweet stroke on his mid range jumper. Showed flashes, but Iavaroni and the Griz have to get the ball out of Conley and Lowry's hands and into Mayo's. Wasn't quite there on defense either and it got him into foul trouble.
Shot the freaking rock nearly every time he touched it. Jeez. I like the thought of Walker off the bench, so I'm looking at Hak improving his shot selection this year rather than being benched for it.
Defense, Blocked Shots, and Kick-out 3's
Yes, the Grizzlies showed some surprisingly stout shot blocking. Particularly Hak. Can that continue? I doubt it, but lets hope. As for the defense as a whole, I was disappointed. Our pick and roll defense was still bad. We didn't rotate that well and allowed the Rockets to penetrate and kick out for numerous 3's that kept them in the game. I guess that is better than layups, but open 3 pointers can be as easy for NBA players as layups, so I'd still prefer contested outside shots rather than wide open ones.
About the Rockets Fans
I was impressed with their enthusiastic fans. Their red rowdy section was cool. Even the small preseason crowd made tons of noise. Everyone wore red. For opening night they are trying to set the record for most painted (red) faces in one place. I'm attending that game and I'll be wearing blue....hahahaha
Oh wait, I can't forget to mention Dorsey's boneheaded technical. It was awesome. He was mad at Gasol (who by the way, has all the same mannerisms of his older brother) and aggressively slapped Gasol's hands away before an inbound. Idiot. I couldn't tell if the crowd was booing Dorsey or the Refs. Bad first impression on the coaches, I'm guessing. He didn't play in the 2nd half.
My guess for the season opener...we are going to get steam rolled by the Rockets when they play Yao more and decide to force feed him the ball in the post. He could have scored 50 tonight if he wanted to. We are too weak on the inside.
UPDATE: For a different view of the game read Ron Tillery's recap from the Commercial Appeal.