MikeCheck: After faltering on trip, Grizzlies' 3-game homestand crucial for getting Conley, Gasol consistently on track
MEMPHIS – The supporting cast is revamped, the defensive mindset is restored and the quest to be a playoff contender in the West is renewed.
Yet, one hard truth remains the same for Memphis.
The Grizzlies simply won't build the early momentum they need to go very far this season if Mike Conley and Marc Gasol aren't clearly leading the way. And relatively soon. Sample sizes matter in the NBA, and it can be a foolish exercise to place too much – or too little – emphasis on anything less than a month into the season. But these are times when habits are formed and a team's mindset and approach take root.
Right now, Conley and Gasol are on shaky ground. And they're pressing to find their footing entering a three-game homestand that starts Wednesday against the surging Denver Nuggets (9-1).
After another promising start to a road trip, the Grizzlies (5-4) limped home Tuesday having dropped games on consecutive nights, largely because their two catalysts struggled down the stretch to assert themselves on either end of the court. Gasol and Conley combined for only 10 shot attempts and were nearly non-existent in the second half of Monday’s 117-101 loss at Golden State.
The previous night, the problem wasn’t a lack of aggressiveness. It was their inability to consistently execute, with Gasol and Conley shooting a combined 5-for-29 from the field as the Grizzlies squandered a double-digit lead in a 102-100 loss to the Suns. Memphis opened the trip with an impressive win at Utah on Friday and then dropped both ends of the back-to-back set to finish 1-2.
It was a similar script from two weeks ago, when the Grizzlies opened a two-game trip by beating the Jazz and then faltering in the second half two nights later in Sacramento. The reality is that Conley and Gasol have been playing to the extremes throughout the season’s first month and are still trying to find their way within an offense that’s been a bit of an oxymoron so far.
The recent voyage was a microcosm of some larger issues that have factored in the team’s uneven start. On one hand, coach J.B. Bickerstaff and lead assistant Chad Forcier are trying to establish an offense predicated on floor spacing, ball movement, cutting and balance intended to ease the early burden on the 33-year-old Gasol and as Conley works his way back into NBA game condition after missing 70 games last season.
To that end, there's been progress. Exhibit A would be Shelvin Mack, who is averaging 15.4 points and nearly five assists on 65.1 percent shooting from the field and 62.5 percent on threes the past five games. Exhibit B would be Garrett Temple, whose playmaking, three-point shooting and perimeter defense have the ninth-year veteran off to the most productive start of his career by far.
The trip also ended with rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. and second-year forward Dillon Brooks making tremendous strides in both confidence and continuity. Yet on the other hand, there remain an uneasiness and lack of rhythm with the two players the entire structure was designed to complement.
Bickerstaff hasn’t heisted to play Mack and Jackson either alongside or ahead of Conley and Gasol, particularly when they’ve been fatigued or ineffective for stretches. But the Grizzlies right now are straddling a thin line, one between relying too heavily on the two franchise anchors and moving too quickly away from them in games.
Gasol has mastered the art of passive-aggressive production. It’s difficult to find much fault in a player who frequently flirts with triple-doubles, most recently collecting 10 rebounds, nine assists and eight points against the Warriors. But he was also a minus-16 in plus/minus rating in Golden State. He took only two shots against a defense that lacked the size and savvy to bother him, especially after the Warriors lost defensive stalwart Draymond Green to an injury midway through the game.
“Not a night goes by that we are okay with that,” Bickerstaff said in reference to Gasol’s lack of assertiveness in spots and the team’s inability to get him the ball in more comfortable areas. “We have to do better in that situation.”
Meanwhile, Conley is scoring at nearly a career-high level while shooting career-worst percentages from the field. It doesn’t quite add up. Conley shot 50 percent or better in one game this season – when he attempted a season-low eight shots Monday. The Grizzlies are 3-0 when Conley has at least seven assists, but 2-4 when he has five or fewer.
So does Memphis need to prioritize Conley the finisher?
Or Conley the facilitator?
It’s all about putting it together for four quarters, every night, every game consistently. And we have a shot to be good team.Mike Conley
Losing on the road to the two-time defending champions on the second night of a back-to-back set is neither the end of the world nor the start of any cause for panic with the process. The loss to the Suns, however, is the one that stings and resonates from the trip.
The Grizzlies don’t have much margin for error. They certainly can’t afford to give away double-digit leads late in games against seemingly inferior teams like the Suns and Kings. You don’t get those back. Those are the games that separate this team from being a very encouraging and resilient 7-2 to an injury-riddled 5-4, flailing to stay above water. The schedule doesn’t ease up, either.
Monday started a stretch in which the Grizzlies also play the Nuggets, Sixers, Jazz and Bucks. That’s five teams that entered Tuesday with a combined 37-14 record. With that slate looming, the Grizzlies will either fast track the process or completely stall their progress.
“We’re pretty happy with where we’re at, with where we have come this early in the season,” Conley said, pointing specifically to a Memphis defense ranked among the NBA’s top-10 in multiple categories. “Now it’s all about putting it together for four quarters, every night, every game consistently. And we have a shot to be good team.”
Today, the Grizzlies sit eighth in the West standings. That’s ideal real estate for the time being.
Staying in that vicinity will require Conley and Gasol to consistently stake their ground.
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