The two top teams in the league faced off in Memphis on Monday as the Grizzlies took on the Rockets for early-season Western Conference supremacy. Both teams entered the game with identical 9-1 records but it was clear shortly after tip, the teams weren't equals. At least not on this night.
On paper, it was supposed to be a defensive battle. The Grizzlies were going to have to slow the pace and force the Rockets to beat them in the half court, where Memphis' defense excels. Accomplish that and maybe Memphis could score enough to win against a surprisingly stout Houston D.
In reality the Grizzlies, a team ranked in the bottom-five in fastbreak points at 9.3 points per game, took advantage of a particularly sloppy start by the Rockets. Memphis ran to an early lead, scoring 22 transition points in the first half on its way to a 119-93 win. Even Marc Gasol got in on the fun.
The onslaught started when the subs checked in. Bench depth, long a problem for the Grizzlies, is now one of their biggest strengths. While Tarik Black and Kostas Papanikolaou looked overmatched off the Rockets' pine, Quincy Pondexter and Kosta Koufos helped expand the Grizzlies lead with their outside shooting and defense, respectively. With no answers coming with their stars or their bench, the Rockets were so desperate for a spark they decided to go small with James Harden guarding Zach Randolph down low in an attempt to have an extra shooter on the court. But. nothing worked for Houston.
Despite their record, the Rockets are going through a tough stretch. Right after scoring only 69 points on an improbable win against the shorthanded Thunder on Sunday, Houston got thoroughly outmatched by Memphis. The Rockets miss Terrence Jones, a utility big whose versatility provides balance to the starting unit. But, their problems run deeper than that. The bench is filled with unproven talent, so anytime the starters struggle, there's no second wave of attack to bail them out. Houston will continue to be one of the best teams in the West and a dark horse contender. But, it will need to find a rotation that works and learn how to deal with adversity to be a bona fide title threat.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, look like the real thing. It's not like they have faced a murderers' row, but they have taken care of business. And this impressive home win should not be overlooked. They are healthy, they are deep, they have the chemistry, experience and finally the shooters to make some noise in the playoffs. It's early, but after losing in the first round last season, the Grizzlies might be ready to set their eyes on making the conference finals for the second time in franchise history. Or possibly go even further.
3 other things we learned
The Dallas Mavericks' offense is a buzzsaw
The Mavs were expected to be great on offense. Any team that has Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler is going to put points on the board. Add to that talent the guidance on one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Carlisle and you have the recipe for an explosive attack. But, what they have accomplished on the court has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations.
Before Monday Dallas was leading the league in offensive efficiency with a ridiculous 115 points per 100 possessions -- almost five points better than the second place Cavs. Dallas went into Charlotte to face a decent defensive team and destroyed them. At the half the Mavs had already scored 67 points and held a 24-point lead. It will be interesting to see if they can keep that scoring pace -- or anything close to it -- in upcoming games against good defensive teams like the Wizards, Rockets and Pacers. For now, the Mavs' offense remains terrifying.
The Cavs are terribly inconsistent
It was starting to look like the Cavs were figuring things out. They were on a four-game winning streak that included a gritty comeback win in Boston and the demolition of the Atlanta Hawks. So when they faced the 2-7 Nuggets on Monday it was not outlandish to expect another win. Yet, after scoring 127 points against Atlanta Cleveland could only muster 97 against Denver in an unexpected home loss.
The difference? The role players didn't show up for this one. Anderson Varejao, Shawn Marion, Joe Harris and Tristan Thompson scored a combined 40 points against Atlanta. They had 15 on Monday. It's hard for any team with elite offensive players to resist the temptation to just have those guys take the lion's share of shots. But, the Cavs need to figure out how to get the lesser guys involved if they want to achieve their full potential on the offensive end.
The Bulls find ways to win as a team
The Bulls, without Derrick Rose (hamstring) and Pau Gasol (calf), traveled to Los Angeles to face a healthy Clipper squad coming off a quality win against the Suns. And Chicago somehow escaped the Staples Center with a win. No team is as used to dealing with injuries to stars as the Bulls so it shouldn't be surprising they find ways to make up for the lack of elite talent in some of the lineups they trot out. But, it's still so fun to watch guys like Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson up their games when needed and bench players make contributions in bigger roles.
Chicago's cohesiveness and unrelenting effort made the Clippers look bad by comparison. There's something going on with the Clips, but it's hard to pinpoint what. They seem miserable out there and units that were fantastic last season are struggling now. Their talent is undeniable. As Chicago showed them, however, that's not always enough to win.
Play of the night
The Pelicans let a win slip away after leading by as many as 16 points against the Blazers. Anthony Davis was not to blame. The Brow finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks, including these two:
Davis blocked LaMarcus Aldridge's away shot, something that should not be physically possible. But, that's not all. After the ball landed on Wesley Matthews' hands, Davis recovered and blocked Matthews' shot as well before beating everyone down the floor. I'm not a big conspiracy theory guy, but are we completely sure he is human?
7 fun things
Jeff Green had a steal and breakaway dunk to put the Celtics up two with one minute left. Eric Bledsoe saw that and decided it looked fun so he had his own steal and breakaway dunk with 30 seconds to go. Why are you always copying Jeff Green, Eric Bledsoe?