1. The Grizzlies used to be a team you looked at on the upcoming schedule and count as a win. As the Spurs found out recently, overlooking them is a mistake. Do you see the Grizzlies surprising the Spurs again?
I hate to predict individual games but I think the Grizzlies have as good a chance as they ever have had to get out of San Antonio with a victory. First the Grizzlies are playing the best basketball the team has ever played before. Zach Randolph is an All-Star, Marc Gasol had to receive some consideration at the Center position and Rudy Gay at small forward make the Grizzlies front line as formidable as any in the league. O J Mayo is becoming a well rounded player in the league capable of scoring 30 or more points and also getting double figure assists on any given night. A rare accomplishment for a SG. The Grizzlies one weakness is Point Guard and even at that position the Grizzlies are improving as Mike Conley is becoming a much better floor general and scorer.
Perhaps the reason I am most hopeful in tonight's game is the general poor condition of the Spurs however. Tony Parker is out for this game. Richard Jefferson has struggled all season with back issues. TIm Duncan, while still one of my favorite players in the league, has been showing some effects of his long career in the league and the center position seems unsettled right now as is the SG role. Until Michael Finley returns, Parker is healthy and someone is decided on as the full time starting center San Antonio is not the team they are capable of being. That bodes well for the Grizzlies.
The problem is that despite these issues San Antonio has a deep and talented bench. Memphis' bench consists of a player who has been out of the league for a year and a half and who missed training camp plus 3 rookies. Each of the rookies is capable of having a good game but none can be counted on to produce in every game. It's just the nature of rookies in the NBA and the dreaded rookie wall is looming as well.
Can the Grizzlies win? Absolutely but I can't say I expect the Spurs to fall twice in a row to the Grizzlies.
2. With 48 games under their belts this season, what is your mini review of the Grizzlies at midseason? Have they met or past expectations and why?
I think anyone who doesn't admit the Grizzlies have surpassed expectations is fooling themselves. First, the team is in 7th place in the Western Conference and 3rd place in the division. Who could have suspected such an outcome from a team that won 24 games last season in total and only added three rookies from what was perceived to be a weak draft and a player who was cast out of the last three cities he played in? However I was optimistic about this team heading into the season.
The most important thing to remember when reviewing the Grizzlies first half and comparing it to the pre-season predictions are a few noticeable absences from expectations which have helped bolster the team. First is the absence of Allen Iverson. While a huge fan favorite, Allen Iverson was a terrible fit in Memphis. His actions almost from the start were a distraction to a young team needing leadership . Iverson come into camp out of shape. When he got healthy he immediately demanded to start despite doing nothing to earn the position. He then left the team after three games played and continued to cause distractions while away from the team. The slow start can be directly attributable to his actions. However his actions had a peculiar effect on the team. Instead of destroying the psyche of the team it actually emboldened it. The players gathered behind the coach and themselves and decided to bond together as a group against all outside distractions. In many ways Iverson's actions forced the team to grow up and trust one another.
This brought in the second surprise. Zach Randolph became a leader. Faced with a team desperate for veteran leadership Zach stood up and became the player so many people thought he would never become. Randolph was not the focal point of the team those first nine games but became the focus with hard work and discipline, two traits previously unseen in his actions. Perhaps he finally matured or perhaps he was forced into the role but whatever the reason Randolph stopped taking so many bad shots, became a team player instead of an individual and put the team on his back by showing them how to be a professional and give effort every moment on the court regardless of the situation. No one could have suspected that Randolph, who has fought with teammates in Portland, opponents in LA and the public everywhere he has played would suddenly mature into a team leader who has been nothing but a model citizen in Memphis.
The final absence from expectations has been the team's health. The Grizzlies starting five is their strength and so far they have been fortunate to avoid any long term injuries. That has not been the case in the past. Mike Conley missed time in both of his first two seasons with varied injuries. O J Mayo, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay have been healthy in their careers but have logged a ton of minutes. Zach Randolph has been injury prone his entire career. Can the team's core players remain healthy all season? What will happen if Randolph, Gasol or Gay miss significant time? A fully healthy team was not expected and that has helped the team tremendously in their development as a unit.
So the team has outperformed expectations because of the absence of Allen Iverson's attitude, Zach Randolph's immaturity and any long term injuries. It is difficult to say which has been more important to the development of the team. It is not unreasonable to say that all of these absences have had a huge impact on the success of the team.
3. Zach Randolph was key in the last win against the Spurs. Halfway through his first season in Memphis, how would you rate his performance and do you think he's found a home in Memphis?
Rating Zach's performance is easy. He has been everything the front office hoped for and more. The only player in the Western Conference currently averaging 20 pts and 10 rebounds a game, Randolph has elevated himself into a premier player in the NBA rivaling Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol as the premier power forwards in the league. He has taken the young players under his wing by setting examples on the court and providing leadership and tutoring off it. It isn't difficult to say that he has been the most valuable player on his team in the league this year. The Grizzlies would never be contending in the West if not for Randolph's leadership. It is difficult to say that Randolph's new found maturity will last. After all it has only been 44 games. However I do believe Randolph is a different player now. I had the good fortune of meeting Randolph at the airport when he arrived in Memphis and right away I saw a player in excellent shape and with a different attitude than I expected. Randolph told me then that he wanted to be a different player. He wanted to put behind him his sordid past and reputation and start fresh. He obviously succeeded so far. Will this continue to be the case? We can only hope so. Memphis is a far different city than New York or LA but it's not that different from Portland where his career began. Obviously Memphis hopes that the new Randolph will continue to lead the team in the future. He is contractually bound to Memphis until the summer of 2011 so he will have time to really put down roots in Memphis.
The other problem is Memphis is a small town. Their owner is conscious of the bottom line and with younger players like Mayo, Gay and Gasol needing to be locked up long term over the next 18 months will there be enough money available to keep Randolph, who will be approaching 30 when his contract is do to expire, in Memphis? 4. Last game, Memphis' defenders found a way to limit Richard Jefferson to just 3 points/ With Tony Parker pout and Jefferson likely to get more touches, what will Memphis do to try to make him a non-factor again. Jefferson wasn't shut down as much as he didn't work to get the ball. He didn't seem able to or wanting to be involved. It may be his back or it could have been just a general off night. One thing is certain. It wasn't Rudy Gay's suffocating defense. Rudy will force Jefferson to play a lot on defense. How that effects his offense will have to be seen. I don't expect Jefferson to be held to three points again but he may struggle to stop Rudy and still make an impact on the offensive end.
Jefferson has been a major enigma to me this season. I thought his acquisition would put the Spurs in contention with the Lakers for the conference crown. I thought his game would fit in perfectly with the Spurs. However he has struggled to find his role on the team and the continued petty injuries has slowed that development down. The Spurs need Jefferson to be a viable offensive force to return to the top of the conference especially considering Manu's age and Parkers foot problems. Can he do this? I don't know. He hasn't been the same player since Jason Kidd stopped passing him the ball. Perhaps he is one of those players that looked better than he was because his point guard was so great. I didn't think so but his production seems to imply that.
5. What is your key matchup of the game? Who wins that and what is your prediction for the game?
Well naturally Duncan-Randolph is the premier matchup of the game, Jefferson-Gay should create highlight film dunks, Mayo and Manu some beautiful plays but to me the KEY matchup will be George Hill and Mike Conley. Hardly front page news but Conley needs to dominate Hill for the Grizzlies to have a chance. If Hill comes in and outplays Conley then the Spurs veterans plus the hometown crowd will make it extremely difficult for the Grizzlies to steal a win.
Hill is another late round gem plucked by the Spurs. He has good size for a PG as I stated in my pre-game report. He's not too tall to struggle with smaller, faster PG's and not too small to be a defensive liability against bigger PG's looking to post him up. He has a nice shot and looks very composed with the ball. I think he will be a handful for Conley to contain. However, the Grizzlies front line will require Hill to double down often and that should give Conley some nice looks on the perimeter and some lanes to penetrate. Conley is the best 3 pt shooter in the league for January and is among the best shooters in the league overall. His shooting has made it difficult for teams to ignore him and that helps the front line operate. If Conley can use his speed to harass Hill into mistakes and is hitting his outside shot then Memphis will have a distinct advantage at this very important position.
That's asking a lot but that is why they play the game.