The Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets have both leaned heavily on their starters to build playoff-caliber resumes in the Western Conference this season, but on Sunday night at the Pepsi Center those 10 men got outshined by their backups. Nuggets starters Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Nene combined for a paltry 28 points on 37.1 percent shooting, while the Grizzlies' lead quintet danced that same dance with 45 points on 41.9 percent accuracy. The bench players outscored and generally outperformed the starting five on both teams as the reserves conspired to make the contest watchable and exciting. O.J. Mayo led all players with 22 points and eight assists and bested Corey Brewer's 16-point, six-rebound performance as Memphis picked up an important 94-91 road win.
Danilo Gallinari flashed some tricky ball-handling and heady passing early on, but finished without a single point on 0-for-5 shooting in 21 minutes of action. (By the way, in the linked highlight the Nuggets' color commentator calls Quincy Pondexter "Poindexter" by accident, so that's fun.) However, the following information is not so fun: Gallo is now 5-for-25 in four games since returning from the chip fracture in his left foot he suffered on Feb. 6 against the Rockets. Ty Lawson managed to play even worse than Gallinari. He coughed up more turnovers (6) than any other player on the team and otherwise added just five points and four assists. Several hours after the game, the Nuggets announced another Ty Lawson injury -- he apparently suffered a sprained ankle in the second quarter and that X-rays after the contest were negative. Rookie first-round pick Kenneth Faried is the only starter who deserves a pass, and that's because he pulled off thunderous dunk for the first basket of the game and then cleanly blocked Rudy Gay's tomahawk attempt in the second quarter.
Grizzlies starters helped their team a bit more, but most of that value came from Mike Conley and Tony Allen. Conley put in 13 points and seven assists, while Allen played great defense and augmented that with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting. Rudy Gay? An unhealthy 3-for-13 shooting for seven points and more turnovers (3) than assists (2). Marc Gasol (seven points, four rebounds, five fouls) failed to make much of an impact too, at least outside of his defense on Nene.
The Nuggets grabbed a 53-50 first half lead through a barrage of layups and dunks from Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, Nene and Faried and posted 34 points in the paint during the first half. Memphis played sloppy ball but survived the onslaught with contributions from their bench mob: seven points from Mayo, six from Dante Cunningham, four from Quincy Pondexter and five from Hamed Haddadi on a combined 64.3 percent shooting. Memphis tightened up their interior defense in the second half -- the Nuggets only scored 18 more points in the paint on 9-for-27 shooting -- and seized upon the poor shooting from Denver by turning to Mayo and the reserves.
Mayo had one of those games. His shot selection left something to be desired at times, and he committed six turnovers, but nearly everything he shot went in the basket and he did more than enough creating to offset the careless mistakes. A 9-for-14 shooting performance from a perimeter player is bound to include a mix of luck and skill, so the handful of fading and off-balance shots from Mayo that paid off can't be held against him. George Karl saw Mayo's comfort and confidence, and even tried subbing out Ty Lawson in the closing moments of the game to put the longer Brewer on him, but that tactic didn't work either.
The Nuggets quickly lost their halftime advantage during a disastrous third quarter that featured lowlights like 5-for-16 shooting and eight turnovers, but the bench somehow produced 50 percent accuracy and only committed one turnover to keep the team alive for a potential comeback in the final quarter. Mayo hit all of his shots in the quarter and added four assists, then he closed out the game in the fourth with six of the final eight points for the Grizzlies.
Corey Brewer and Andre Miller did everything in their power to turn the tide for the Nuggets, but to no avail. They joined forces to net 13 of the final 19 points, but two key mistakes down the stretch prevented any comeback bid. George Karl elected to go to an offense-defense substitution pattern down 91-88 with 1:19 left in the game and it backfired completely. He subbed out Ty Lawson for Corey Brewer, as Andre Miller cut the lead to two with a free throw for a defensive matchup where Afflalo could matchup on Conley and Brew could check Mayo. Except he didn't check Mayo at all.
As Conley penetrated to the baseline on pinch post action with Marc Gasol during the ensuing Memphis possession, he emerged on the right side and passed to an open Pondexter on the wing. From there it was one pump fake, one dribble, one extra pass and one less defensive rotation than necessary. Pondexter found Mayo at the top of the key for a wide open three as Brewer rotated towards the wing, and Ovinton J'Anthony calmly drained that shot to establish a commanding 94-89 lead with just 57 seconds on the clock. Brewer got subbed out on offense, but came back into the game on Nene free throws, crashed the boards for an offensive rebound, earned his own foul shots and split his pair of attempts to get the team within three again. Then, with a chance to tie, Andre Miller failed to handle an Afflalo perimeter pass with under five seconds left and Mike Conley stole away Denver's the last opportunity to extend the game.
With the win, Memphis improved to 24-16 overall and 9-11 on the road, while Denver fell to 23-19 and just 12-10 at the Pepsi Center this season.