The Memphis Grizzlies entered Monday night having lost two straight and four of their last six games, dropping them 2 1/2 games back of the Utah Jazz in the race for the West’s No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the opening round of the 2017 playoffs. They’d been one of the NBA’s five-worst defenses since the All-Star break, and their high-priced free-agent acquisition, starting small forward Chandler Parsons, had been struggling so mightily as he continues to work his way back from right knee surgery that even he recently had to admit, “I suck right now.”
Clearly, something needed to change. So before Monday’s meeting with the league-worst Brooklyn Nets at FedEx Forum in Memphis, head coach David Fizdale decided to shake things up … by removing shooting guard Tony Allen and power forward JaMychal Green from the starting lineup, and replacing them with rookie Andrew Harrison and veteran Brandan Wright, while Parsons stayed put in the starting five.
The Grizzlies responded to the awkward rotation reorganization with one of their worst games of the season. Memphis fell behind 10-3 to start and struggled to get stops against the third-worst offense, and after righting the ship enough to build a 12-point third-quarter lead behind the excellence of Mike Conley, they completely disintegrated down the stretch.
Led by finally-healthy-again lead guard Jeremy Lin, the always outgunned but ever-feisty Nets ripped off an 18-2 late-fourth run, highlighted by an off-the-bounce dagger 3-pointer from Lin to put Brooklyn up 10 with 1:43 to go:
— All Ball (@allballapp) March 7, 2017
That deep bomb put the nail in Memphis’ coffin, with Brooklyn going on to finish off a 122-109 victory. It was the Nets’ fourth win away from Barclays Center this season, and it was a loss that left the Grizzlies stunned — and wondering why the heck they’d just zagged so hard — after the game, according to Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
The change didn’t give Fizdale the jolt he was looking for but instead seemingly jilted players who helped the Grizzlies overachieve for most of this season.
“We’re stale. Right now we’re 14-14 since January 1. It’s my job to shake it up,” Fizdale said. “There were some good things about it and overall, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who was on the floor for us. We couldn’t guard them off the dribble. That’s the bottom line.” […]
Conley said Fizdale sought an opinion from a couple of players before writing in the shocking twist to the Grizzlies’ season-long plot of mysteries.
“He asked for our opinion and we just said ‘Do whatever is best, whatever you feel. We’re just trying to win,’” Conley said. “I thought guys handled it as good as they could. It was a shock for a lot of people involved in it. … We maybe let that distract us a little bit.”
On one hand, Fizdale has a point. The Grizzlies entered Monday just 14-13 since Jan. 1, smack dab in the middle — seventh out of 15 teams in the Western Conference, 15th out of 30 in the league overall — since the calendar flipped to 2017. With Conley and Marc Gasol running the show, Memphis had ranked No. 8 in the NBA in offensive efficiency since the beginning of January, but had experienced some slippage on the other end, sitting 19th among 30 teams in points allowed per possession over the same span.
And yet, with Memphis very clearly playing demonstrably better during that span with Parsons on the bench than with him on the floor, and with Green and Allen standing as arguably Memphis’ two best and most versatile non-Gasol defenders, seeing the Grizz open the game against Brooklyn in that particular alignment was … well, curious, to say the least.
Fizdale’s cage-rattling extended beyond the starting five and into the disbursement of minutes up and down his rotation, which had the Grizzlies looking feckless and out of sorts, especially in the fourth. The team’s clear surprise and discomfort leads you to wonder whether shaking things up is a worthwhile goal in and of itself if it all it leads to is your team looking shook. From Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins:
Toney Douglas and Harrison played 23 and 22 minutes respectively.
Zach Randolph and Allen played 16 and 17.
James Ennis didn’t get off the bench. Troy Daniels made his first appearance with 1:43 left, when the Grizzlies needed an 8-point play.
It was the weirdest set of lineups I’ve ever seen for this franchise. It was a disaster from the tip. […]
[Fizdale] benched Green, fresh off a double-double against Houston. He benched Allen, who helped forge the team.
He played Harrison and Douglas more than Z-Bo, Allen or Vince Carter. He took an unsettled lineup, and unsettled it some more.
Disruption can be good if it triggers growth. The Grizzlies themselves have proven that this year, fighting off stagnation to return to the middle of the Western Conference’s playoff pack thanks in part to several tactical and stylistic shifts — moving Randolph to the bench to make room for the quicker and more versatile Green, deputizing Conley to look to attack more often, demanding more consistent offensive aggressiveness from Gasol, etc. — that have paid dividends. It’s Fizdale who implemented those changes. One head-scratching shuffle and embarrassing loss doesn’t burn through the benefit of the doubt he’s earned to this point.
As Fizdale himself said, though, Memphis’ issues didn’t just crop up on Monday. They’ve been bubbling for some time now before reaching critical mass against Brooklyn. With only 18 games left in the season, four games now separating the Grizzlies from fourth place, and a grudge match against the rival Los Angeles Clippers — who, by the way, sit just above the Grizz in the Western standings — coming up on Thursday, the time is now for Memphis to relocate the form that’s made them one of the NBA’s toughest outs over the last half-decade.
“This is our lowest point, I think, this year,” Fizdale said after Monday’s loss. “You know, if you call this adversity, this is the most adversity we’ve probably faced […] This is the challenge, now. We always talk about it. This will reveal us. Our character. And it’ll test us, and see where we are as a team, as a collective unit, and how together we are.”
But despite Monday’s crash-and-burn debut of the new-look lineup, Fizdale says he’s committed to staying with his reconstituted rotation in search of a way out of this valley, according to Tillery:
“[We’ll stick with the new lineup for] a couple of games and see what it turns into,” Fizdale said. “If this isn’t getting it done, I’m ready to shuffle some more because that’s my job. I’m not going to be satisfied with mediocrity. Since January 1 that’s the best word I can use. We are a mediocre basketball team. That’s on me as well so I’m controlling what I can, which are minutes, lineups and all of that kind of stuff. Hopefully, it’ll have an impact over the long haul.”
And hopefully, that impact will differ drastically from the one we saw on Monday.
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