Somewhere hidden within last night’s 19-point rout (which wasn’t even that close) was a Memphis Grizzlies team that could actually challenge the L.A. Lakers. Like, in a playoff series. I’m serious.
You can learn a lot from a blowout, but if I’m Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, I’m focusing today’s film session on the third quarter, when the Grizzlies outscored L.A. 30-24. That was when the Grizzlies used their athleticism, rebounding, defense and a nothing-to-lose attitude while looking a lot like the Oklahoma City Thunder squad that pushed Kobe Bryant‘s team to six games in the first round of the 2010 postseason.
Rudy Gay scored 15 of his game-high 30 points in the third, going at Ron Artest and attacking the basket to get acrobatic finishes at the rim. Darrell Arthur beat Lamar Odom for rebounds and inside buckets. It was a stark contract from the first half, when the Grizzlies settled for too many outside jump shots and let the Lakers pick them apart in the triangle with patience and interior passing.
“They’re a long team and they keep you out of the middle,” Hollins told reporters after the game. “That’s what their defense tries to do. They make you shoot outside with a hand in your face. They played well, and if they shoot the ball the way they did tonight nobody is going to beat them.”
While the absence of All-Star power forward Zach Randolph was obviously a factor, the X-factor in Memphis becoming a threat to L.A. — or any other Western Conference heavyweight — is O.J. Mayo. Last night O.J. took the brunt end of Kobe’s 23-point performance, and when Memphis had the ball, Mayo was relegated to a bystander who rarely ventured inside the paint, shooting 3-for-11 and finishing with eight points.
While talented, O.J. is a work in progress. Last week, when Memphis lost its home opener to Atlanta, he was similarly invisible on offense, and the team paid for it. From the Memphis Commercial-Appeal:
Mayo couldn’t sleep that night. He stayed awake thinking about his passive performance in a depressing defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.
“I wasn’t even tired after that (Atlanta) game,” Mayo said. “I didn’t give it all I had in me, and I don’t want to feel like that ever again. From now on, I’ve got to leave it all out on the floor so I can sleep at night.”
If there was a tinge of concern about Mayo because of his slow start to the regular season after subpar shooting during exhibition play, then Griz fans can rest easy.
Mayo sure seems to have entered a comfort zone. And it’s not just that the third-year, 6-4 guard averaged 24.5 points over the past two games — both Grizzlies victories. The pep in Mayo’s step was noticeable.
He attacked defenders off the dribble, and he made a concerted effort to catch and shoot with range. He made plays for himself and teammates with active defense.
The biggest difference during that span?
Mayo averaged 19 field goal attempts after he inexplicably attempted just nine shots in the opener, in which All-Star Zach Randolph left early with a bruised tailbone.
Griz assistant coach Johnny Davis sounded the alarm. Davis sat down with Mayo and used game film to point out how he passed up shots and looked uninspired.
“He said, ‘on our team, you’re a shooter. You’re a scorer and we need you to score,'” Mayo said. “Now that Z-Bo is down, I have to be a little more aggressive. I just had to put it in my head to be more aggressive and just play hard.”
When he was dominating the high school scene, O.J. was often compared to Kobe simply because he was a guard who dominated the competiton. In the pros, there is more to the comparison. Mayo, like Kobe, isn’t the most athletic two-guard out there, but he can shoot the ball and has a scorer’s mentality. And like Kobe, he will be at his best when he masters the fundamentals of the game and his technique gets him more buckets than sheer athleticism.
If Mayo can at least become an effective foil for Kobe instead of a regular chew-toy, the Grizzlies look like a lower-seeded playoff team who can give L.A. a run. Gay has proven he’ll give Artest problems, Marc Gasol matches up well with his older brother, a healthy Randolph can get his 20-and-10 numbers against L.A.’s talented front line, and Mike Conley can get by Derek Fisher and Steve Blake to penetrate the defense. The Grizzlies’ role players are athletic enough to pose a problem the defending champs, if they’re playing the right way. Not like last night.