The NBA is a league of ebb and flow. The salary cap does what it can to keep a level playing field where the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a team landing a marquee free agent is location (Steve Francis) and weighing the relative importance of money versus the opportunity to win a championship.
But what are the other options for a team that doesn’t land a top free agent? They could be so bad for so long that over the years they get lottery pick after lottery pick until their team resembles a college allstar team sprinkled with international studs and cheap veteran glue guys. A team could also trade away their best player in his prime in the hopes that in the menagerie of unknown potential they received as compensation, someone will pan out.
Enter the Memphis Grizzlies-sans Pau but with Marc, dueling exciting young players in Gay and Mayo, and with those solid veteran glue guys in Jamaal Tinsely and Zach Randolph.
Sometimes you just get lucky. Randolph and Tinsley have had their attitudes knocked in the past for their lack of team-first mentality. However, everything I hear out of Memphis says that Randolph is a model citizen. Let’s also not forget that Tinsley chose Memphis over playing for a contender before he decided to extricate himself from the NBA discard pile.
Still, despite all things coming up Memphis lately, you wouldn’t think the Grizz would really pose any threat to halt the C’s win streak. If anything, you’d assume that you would get a team similar to the OKC Thunder- a team that hangs around for three quarter before the Celtics’ savvy stretches the lead comfortably.
Such was not the case last night.
It was a five point game for the majority of the game. The Celtics would go on a little run, flexing that veteran muscle, and come out five points ahead only to have the Grizzlies come back and hit two quick jump shots. The Memphis offense really piqued my interest with their rarely-rattled demeanor and their ability to be both bad and good on alternating possessions.
The Celtics would get up by five and then Rondo would try to do too much (like that cross court pass to KG in transition) and the Grizzlies would come down the court and hit a jumper before the Celts could fully set their defense up. You would think forcing a team to take jumpers in transition would work in the Celtics favor but no such luck. The Grizzlies can really put the ball in the hole. Each starter finished the game in double-figures although no one played less than 35 minutes, and the Grizz got an extra push from strong play out of two of their rookies: Hasheem Thabeet and Sam Young.
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought Thabeet was a terrible pick. By terrible I mean that he’d never even amount to a player capable of having a game like he did last night: 2 points, 4 blocks, 8 rebounds, in 18 minutes. Really a solid night. A couple of his blocks had Thabeet coming over from the week side, which is always exciting, and a couple were gimme’s with Thabeet essentially roofing anyone under the basket…
Memphis’ other rookie that played exceptionally well was Sam Young. If you’ve read me before, you know that I love college basketball. I relish in less-heralded players coming out of the draft. I love second round picks that make all the teams that passed up on them look foolish (Glen Davis, Leon Powe, DeJuan Blair, etc.). That’s why I loved watching Sam Young play last night-despite nearly giving me a heart attack. For a stretch last night, Sam Young played like he did at Pitt and could not be guarded. He took the ball strong and fearlessly to the basket, making tough lay ups high off the glass- lay ups rookies just don’t attempt, let alone make. He also worked hard off the ball, at one point trying to set a pick on Paul Pierce only to be leveled in the process. Years from now, Young might be sitting off to the right side of some camera with the “Beyond the Glory” interviewer asking him about his “welcome to the NBA moment” and I’d be surprised if it was anything but, “Paul Pierce knocking me on my [keester].”
I think Young respected that. He had little to complain about, as he was playing his way into more playing time. I’ve often wondered what would happen if rookies, that were the best players on their respective college teams, played like they were the best player again. Now I at least know what Sam Young can do.
I can’t mention Pierce knocking down Young without expressing some concern with this team’s ability to get frustrated and show it. Everyone knows what ‘Sheed does (although he remained quiet last night with only a few “Ball Don’t Lies”) but Garnett seemed to get frustrated as well. Specifically, when he got called for a foul diving for a loose ball Mike Conley had smothered up (for the record, it was a foul) and getting into a little pushing and shoving match (that went uncalled) with Zach Randolph. Garnett will do these things from time to time, but it isually doesn’t adversely affect his play. Kendrick Perkins, on the other hand, doesn’t like be frustrated last night, and his play showed it. For some reason (hometown refs?), Perk wasn’t getting the same respect as Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph. Both players use their bulk to establish position and execute their offensive moves. That’s fine, as long as both players get the same calls. Perk got called for a few fouls defending Gasol downlow which were a little mind-boggling (not to go all Tommy Heinsohn on you). If you’re going to let the big guys bang than let them bang. If not, then don’t let either of them do it. Situations get real hairy when a ref will make judgement calls when a player is essentially playing the same way. For example, if Zach Randolph flailing his arms and making his own contact on a shot attempt is a foul, then Perk doing the same thing is one too. I don’t like it either but if you’re going to call the first one, you’ve already made you bed and now you have to sleep in it.
The worst part about Perk getting frustrated was how he verbalized it. There were a few points in the game where I was really surprised he didn’t get T’d up, which made me draw a conclusion about him. Perkins, to me, is the loud-mouthed friend you have that gets things riled up and then waits for someone to hold him back. That’s all he wants. He won’t try to break out of your grasp like Nazr Muhammad. He just wants someone to grab him and say “not worth it.” He needs to reel it in, for the sake of the team. And maybe he did that tonight. He didn’t get a tech’, he didn’t get any warnings, but these things have a tendency to build up and come out at an inopportune time.
While the game was very close throughout, I never felt like the C’s had a chance of losing. Don’t call it hubris, because I usually feel if the game is close, the C’s have a great chance of losing. Zach described it best in his bullets: “But damn if Boston didn’t make a big play every time they needed one.” It’s true. Even before Ray’s dagger, the Celts made every play they needed to keep the Grizzlies at bay. Unfortunately, big plays by big stars begets big minutes for the starters. But last night was as good a night as the C’s could possibly ask for to have to play their starters a lot of minutes. To be fair, Pierce was the only player to play too much, logging 41. KG played where he should play with 33 minutes and Ray was a little high with 37. Despite the close game, I loved Doc relying on his bench for extended periods of time to keep it close. It seems like Eddie is really finding his stroke. He’s shooting the ball so well, I almost want to see him play with the starters with Ray or Paul bringing the ball up the court. He’s bound to get more open looks or get open looks for Ray or Paul.
Doc even relied on Tony Allen for 15 minutes. Which, at times felt like an eternity, but other times seemed like a good move. It’s well documented that TA is very frustrating to watch. First he’ll drive in the lane with three guys on him but then he’ll chase down and loose rebound and play really good defense on Rudy Gay. If TA can play defense, he’s on the court even when ‘Quis comes back.
All in all, I’d say the Celts learned some things about themselves and about the Memphis Grizzlies. I’d go as far to say playing teams with high potential can be harder than playing the teams you know are good. Rondo knows how to defend Chris Paul but he can’t count on Mike Conley making jumpers. Paul Pierce knows how to D up Artest but what happens when Rudy Gay shows him something he hasn’t seen before? Ray knows how to play Kobe, but when O.J. Mayo is on, he doesn’t miss.
I’ll end this recap on a quick Lester Hudson note. According to Eric Dickerson last night, Hudson’s going to be sent down to the D-League, a move I’m sure he’s not happy about. Last night was a homecoming for him and a) he didn’t get in the game, and b) everyone found out he’s going to the D-League. For a guy on a one year contract, that is scary. For the Celtics, it could mean a return for Bill Walker, which is always good news.
*Quick Pick-Up Game Anecdote: A few weeks ago I was playing against some High School kids at the gym and I came over for a weak-side block attempt I thought for sure I was going to get. You know when you play against people that don’t jump and you can just lay in wait until they bring the ball up. Well unfortunately for me, this one such kid got the ball off just in time before I came over. When you think you’re going to get a big block, you savor the opportunity. Instead of just extending my hand up, I jumped as high I as I could and just barely whiffed at the ball before my momentum made me crash to the floor. After I dusted myself off, the kid came up to me and expressed what a relief it was to just get the shot off while his friend described the proximity of my hand and the ball with phrases like, “fraction of an inch” and “so close.” So how is this related? That High School kid was Paul Pierce. Okay no it wasn’t, but I tried to “Thabeet” a kid and he ended up “Pierce-ing” me.