Memphiswelcomes a new coach to the bench but not a stranger. Lionel Hollins, former assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies under Hubie Brown andMike Fratello andformerVancouver Assistant Coach and Interim Head Coach whilethe Grizzlies were in Vancouver, takes the court for the first time with his team. Hollins hasplayedHead Coach before but this is the first time he is the’Permanent’ Head Coach.The Grizzlies attitude is understandably depressed in the midst ofa 9 game losing streak and losers of 15 of their last 17 games so changing the culture and mentality of the team may be a biggerjob thanimproving the record right now. The Grizzlies are a team in desperate need of a win.
Denver is a team on a mission. After a shocking trade sent Allen Iverson to Detroit and brought back Chauncey Billups the Nuggets have become a more focused and involved team. Denver is battling not only Portland and Utah for the top of the division but the rest of the league for the #2 seed in the Western Conference behind the LA Lakers.Basketball issupposed tobe a team sport and Billups has brought that attitude to the point. No longer is it AI and Melo or pray. JR Smith, Nene and others arecontributing greatly as the scoring is beingspread aroundand the defense has improved greatly as well. Utah is currently battling the Spurs for the 2nd best record in the West but can’t get too complacent in their division either. Denver has to win all of the games they should win and this has to fall into that category. George Karl knows this an won’t let his team be complacent.
Rumor has it that Lionel Hollins, the coach who Mike Bibby blossomed under, is going to try and do the same thing with Mike Conley. That means no more hooks every time he makes a bad play, more freedom to make decisions on the courtand greater freedom shooting the ball. Mike won’t have to look over at the bench every timesomething doesn’t go right. Whether or not he can blossom under this type of coaching has yet to be determined. He matches up against another high draft pick (#3) who failed in his first and second stops before reaching his potential and becoming a great PG. Billups is a clutch shooter who doesn’t attempt to force his offense on the game. Billups is also an excellent defender who can still stop fast PG’s despite his advancing years.
Shooting Guards: O.J. Mayo vs J.R. Smith
A classic battle at the 2 guard with rookie O.J. Mayo butting heads with Smith. J.R. Smith is known as a Grizz Killer for his sensational play in the past against Memphis but Mike Miller isn’t guarding Smith anymore. Mayo isn’t a great defender yet, but he is miles ahead of Miller defensively already. Mayo has run headlong into the rookie wall lately with his scoring way down of late. Mayo is shooting 37% from the field and 11.8% from the arc in his last 5 games while barely breaking 13 points a night. What’s worse is Mayo’s assists and rebounding are down as well. This isn’t just a shooting slump in other words.Since taking over in the starting lineup Smith is averaging 15 ppg and hitting 37% of his 3 pt shots. He also is hitting the boards (5.3 rpg) and dishing the ball (3.4 apg). Still Smith is streaky and if you shut down his offense the rest of his game is pretty quiet. The problem is the last two games Smith has been hot so Mayo will need to shut him down while still trying to get back to the player who scored 30 pts in Denver earlier this season.
Small Forwards: Rudy Gay vs Renaldo Balkman
Carmelo is out? He’ll probably be back for this game. After all every team seems to get healthier when they play the Grizzlies this season.Melo was quoted as saying he expects to be back Friday after the Grizz game but he also said “It doesn’t really hurt. I was surprised about that. I’m able to shoot the ball without any pain.” Rudy is probably praying Carmelo does wait one more night although Balkman is not a lot of fun either. He can’t score as easily as Carmelo butBalkman’s defense is superior as well. Balkman is a hustle player probably best suited for coming off the bench. Rudy islooking to break out of another scoring drought. His 26 points against New Jersey was the most he’s scored since December 16th.Rudy will need to force the issue on Balkman who overplays a lot and isprone to foul trouble if you can get him moving thewrong way. Chances are Rudy will be very aggressive in Hollins’ 1st game on the bench.
Power Forwards: Darrell Arthur vs Kenyon Martin
A broken down old man against an inexperienced young one, this is a matchup that reflects the problem in Memphis better than any other. Martin is starting to pick up his scoring with Melo out averaging 16 ppg in his last 43 games but he hasn’t been the strength on the boards that most people expected (11 total rebounds in the last three games). KMart was supposed to be the missing piece when Denver signed him away from New Jersey but injuries and questionable work habits hurt his development. Martin is nothing more than a glorified muscle man now and a shadow of the player he used to be. Arthur is suffering like all rookies do when thrust into a situation they aren’t mentally or physically ready to handle. Arthur has shown some life since Iavaroni left getting 10 pointsin both games and grabbing 11 rebounds total. That is a big improvement over previous efforts. The bottom line for Arthur is when he stays out of foul trouble he can contribute. The problem is staying out of foul trouble and KMart is smart enough to get a rookie in trouble.
Centers:Marc Gasol vs Nene
Nene is having the breakout season that has been predicted for many seasons. Hitting a ridiculous 60% of his FG attempts and grabbing over 8 boards a game, Nene has become one of the most effective big men in the league.A physical beast inside Nene accepts that no plays are run for him and just goes about his job of grabbing boards, blocking shots and intimidating opponents. Marc Gasol has probably been the most obviously distressed player during the recent losing streak. The Spaniard doesn’t hide his emotions on the court or off. Gasol supported Iavaroni in the papers but complained about the team’s lack of anger as the losses piled up.It will be interesting to see how he responds to the more motion oriented offense planned by Hollins. Gasol does have the bulk to keep Nene off the boardsand shouldn’t betoo slow to stay with Nene in the open court either.This should be a heavyweight battle in the paint.
Benches: Memphis vs Denver
Denver unloaded former Grizz Chucky Atkins but still have Dahntay Jones on the roster and Dahntay has looked decent since Melo went out with the hand injury. Dahtnay has improved his shooting a lot hitting 60% of his 3 pt attempts and 46% of his FG attempts. The drawback is a possible shoulder injury right when he looked to be finding a place in the league. Denver’s bench is led by Linas Kleiza at nearly 11 ppg but the scoring falls off dramatically after that. Anthony Carter andChris Andersen have had moments but not enough to make a big difference in a game. Memphis’ bench is struggling again with Lowry being moved to the bench. Kyle isn’t able to spread defenses at all with his shot and isn’t great at passing once he gets into the lane. Warrick is in a rough stretch shooting the ball as well. Quinton Ross, Marco Jaric and Darius Miles are good for an occassional bucket but shouldn’t be counted on for regular scoring. Memphis has the advantage however with the overall depth off the bench.