The Grizzlies entered Quicken Loans Arena on Monday about as shorthanded as can be. They've been without injured starting center/heartbeat Marc Gasol for a while now, but Dave Joerger's club also went into its road meeting with the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers without starters Mike Conley (sore left foot), Zach Randolph (sore knee), Matt Barnes (sore hamstring) and Chris
"Birdman" "Birdzilla" "Grizzilla" Andersen (left shoulder subluxation). That seemed like very bad news, considering the last time these two teams played, Cleveland incinerated Memphis by 30.
But then, this isn't the same team. Despite rolling eight deep just one night after losing to one of the NBA's worst teams, the weird-ass new Grizzlies managed to be an absolute nightmare for one of its best, taking the fight straight to the defending Eastern champs and coming away with a shocking 106-103 win.
Memphis jumped all over the Cavaliers from the opening tip, leaping out to an 11-4 lead after 3 1/2 minutes and letting it be known early that they might have been outmanned, but they weren't outgunned. They kept the pressure on throughout, forcing Cleveland into a season-high 25 turnovers that led to 30 points. They refused to buckle even when the Cavs finally woke up and made a fourth-quarter push behind 14 points by Kyrie Irving, whose steal of a Lance Stephenson pass led to a driving layup that gave Cleveland a 98-97 lead with 2:43 remaining.
The Grizz answered, with under-the-radar big man JaMychal Green knocking in an elbow jumper to regain the lead with 1:22 left. James responded by freight-training through the open court and spinning his way to a dazzling finish that put Cleveland back on top with 45 seconds remaining.
Mario Chalmers waltzed right around Irving at the top of the key, gained the lane, rose up before the defense could collapse on him and lofted a seven-foot floater that splashed through the net, giving Memphis a 101-100 lead with 25.4 seconds left.
On the ensuing Cavs possession, defensive ace Tony Allen — making his return to the lineup after an eight-game absence to rest an ailing knee — took the assignment on James, tying him up on his move to the basket to force a jump ball:
Again, the Grizzlies' odds didn't seem good. Again, the Grizzlies put in the work to render probabilities useless.
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"I was just trying to be ready for the challenge," Allen said during an interview with NBA TV after the game. "Obviously, I knew the ball was going to him, and I was just trying to compete at that moment. Luckily, I got the tip."
Allen beat James to the ball, and Stephenson sold out to stretch over the top of Matthew Dellavedova and tip it to Vince Carter, giving Memphis possession with a one-point lead and 16.2 seconds. From there, the foul game was on, and Cleveland made a significant error, with Dellavedova fouling Carter away from the play before the ball was inbounded ...
... giving the Grizzlies one free throw (which Chalmers made) and the ball back, meaning the Cavs just gave away a chance at keeping it a one-score game. Memphis took advantage, with Carter making four free throws down the stretch (including two after a not-so-nice foul by LeBron) by making enough free throws to leave them ahead at the final buzzer after Irving's last-ditch effort at a game-tying triple came up short.
"We're all in this league for a reason," said James, who paced Cleveland with 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists, after the game, according to Tom Withers of The Associated Press. "We didn't respect them tonight and they beat us."
And while Irving, who added 27 points, five assists and four steals, noted the disruptive effect of learning shortly before tip that Memphis would be without its top guns:
... it's not like Joerger made a tactical decision not to suit up the star players for whom Cleveland prepared. He didn't have them, so the Grizzlies looked elsewhere, and got results.
"Once we found the news that those guys wasn't playing, we knew we was going to have to do it collectively," Allen said during his NBA TV chat. "No one man can take up for those guys that were out, so we told ourselves we were going to play hard, play together, keep that 'one team, one goal' mindset, and luckily, we got out of here with a win."
Green, a 6-foot-9 Alabama product who earned a spot in Memphis' rotation this season, attacked the glass and showed a feathery touch, scoring 16 points with 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks — a well-stuffed stat line matched this season only by Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Stephenson, wild as he can be, scored 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished three assists, and was frequently huge in the fourth quarter when Memphis needed somebody to be able to ignite an offensive possession.
Chalmers continued to prove a starter-caliber understudy for Conley, scoring 17 points with seven assists, four rebounds, four steals and some much-needed late-game sneer. The 39-year-old Carter punished Cleveland defenders out of the low post, kept the ball moving and worked on defense, chipping in 15 points, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks off the pine.
And then there was Allen, "The Grindfather," the evening's lone available holdover from the Grizzlies' glory days, who was put in the not-suited-to-his-skills position of having to carry the scoring load ... and who did:
The 34-year-old All-Defensive stalwart poured in 26 points — his highest total in more than five years, and a tie for the third-highest-scoring outing of his career — with five steals, putting him over 1,000 in his larcenous career, and four assists in 34 minutes. He was opportunistic, aggressive and confident, determinedly bulling his way to the basket against Cleveland's perimeter defenders and finishing strong on the interior.
More than that, though, he was defiant. From his very first basket — a loud fast-break dunk created by a Chalmers steal — Allen seemed intent on making his presence felt, on making sure the Cavaliers knew they weren't about to get a free pass to a 45th win, on forcing LeBron and the boys to deal with eight snarling dudes hell-bent on making them feel uncomfortable all night long.
After hearing a season full of eulogies for the brilliantly brutal identity that's made Memphis so special over the last few years, Allen offered a perfectly simple reply:
What, you thought the Grizzlies-as-you-knew-them were dead just because they hadn't beaten an elite team all year and they were missing like half their dudes? Nah. As long as Tony Allen draws breath and wears Beale Street blue, it'll always be "all about grit grind," which means nights like Monday — conventional-wisdom-flouting, logic-defying nights — remain possible. The Cavaliers forgot that. The rest of us shouldn't.
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