Commentary

Memphis Grizzlies: Big men, big win

Originally Published: November 17, 2012
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Small-ball might be all the rage around the league, but there's something to be said for just pounding the daylights out of people with size, too. Friday night showed why, as Memphis pounded the smaller Knicks into their first loss of the season, 105-95, and as a result own the best record in basketball for the first time in franchise history.

Going into the game it seemed the power forward spot would be the fulcrum for tonight's battle, and that proved to be the case. With Memphis playing big with mighty Zach Randolph at the 4, and the Knicks going smaller with high-scoring Carmelo Anthony, it was a question of whose mismatch would prevail first.

[+] EnlargeRudy Gay
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesRudy Gay had 17 points and four blocks in the Grizzlies' seventh straight victory.

Memphis had the better answer, putting small forward Rudy Gay on Anthony and hiding Z-Bo on erratic-shooting Ronnie Brewer.

"We didn't know who Zach was going to guard," admitted coach Lionel Hollins, "but we knew Rudy would guard Melo."

Randolph acquitted himself nicely on the perimeter, taking shifts against Brewer, Jason Kidd and Steve Novak over the course of the game without serious breakdowns, and as a result the Griz had a major advantage at the other end. He led the way at that end, with 20 points and 15 rebounds, while burly 7-footer Marc Gasol added 24. Perhaps just as importantly, they earned 20 free throws between them.

The size disadvantage didn't hurt the Knicks much in the first half, a wildly entertaining affair that ended with the Griz up by five -- punctuated by some ebullient trash talk from a rejuvenated Rasheed Wallace to the Memphis bench.

But after the break, the Grizzlies wore on the Knicks both physically and mentally. Memphis pressed its size advantage by hammering New York with post-ups for Randolph and Gasol, drawing the fourth foul on both Anthony and center Tyson Chandler and then a fifth on Chandler after Knicks coach Mike Woodson gambled and left him in the game.

While the fouls mounted, the rest of the game quickly unraveled for New York. A team that won all season with sharp ball movement and shooting, the Knicks began going one-on-one and hoisting long 2s off the dribble indiscriminately on offense and focusing more on the refs than the game. During a 19-1 Memphis run, Anthony, Rasheed Wallace, and coach Mike Woodson all picked up technicals in a span of just over four minutes, and J.R. Smith threw in a flagrant. Faster than you could say Elvis, the Grizzlies had a 21-point lead.

The Knicks' loss ends an impressive run of their own, as New York had won five of its first six games by double figures en route to being the league's last unbeaten team, despite the fact they'd been outrebounded in every game.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the 3s would stop falling -- they were just 5-of-19 after shooting 42.8 percent entering the contest -- but more disconcerting was their backsliding to the ball-stopping, one-on-one ways of last year's squad. J.R. Smith, off to a scintillating start this season, and Anthony were the guiltiest parties, but there were few heroes on this night, as New York finished with just 18 assists.

"We got stagnant and sluggish and didn't move the ball like we had been doing, " said Woodson. "I think I will do things a little differently next time we play them."

For Memphis, the significance of this win -- its seventh straight -- was further vindication of its big-ball style. Already this week the Griz won convincingly against the league's other leading small-ball practitioner, Miami, and in between they knocked off defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City. More impressively, the three victims had combined to win 15 straight games before the Griz bumped off each.

"It's who's going to squeal first," said Hollins of the big-small question. "And the key is not to squeal before you get stuck."

Indeed, in all three games the Grizzlies were able to stay with their big lineup for most of the contest -- although they did flinch and play small when Kevin Durant was at the 4 for Oklahoma City -- and in each they combined improved shooting with their usual low-post power to prevail.

Of course, they're only eight games through an 82-game schedule, and much work remains for Memphis, starting Saturday against pesky Charlotte.

"Now what?" said Hollins. "Can we hold onto it [Saturday] night?"

But for one night, at least, the Memphis Grizzlies are in unchartered waters atop the NBA landscape. And in a small-ball world, it's their big-ball style that put them there.