Friday, January 18, 2008

Opposing View: 1/18 at Memphis

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, we chat with Graham Kendrick of about a young Memphis squad. I also answered some questions for Graham about the Sonics.

3 Shades of Blue has done the best job blogging the Grizzlies on the Internets, including a recent theory that might explain the team's poor luck in close games this season. The Beale Street Blog provides another perspective on the Grizzlies. Also see Chris Herrington's Beyond the Arc Grizzlies blog.

Pau Gasol seems to have picked up his game lately. What's been the difference?
There’s a few factors that come into play here, beginning with health. Pau was dealing with nagging back and toe injuries through the first couple months of the season that really hampered him, but he’s shaken those off and appears to be healthy. But perhaps more than that is that he’s found his comfort zone in new head coach Marc Iavaroni’s system. Gasol mentioned just this week that he didn’t adapt to the new system as quickly as he would have liked, and the first couple of months of the season were spent trying to find his place in the offense. I also think he and Rudy Gay were trying to develop on-court chemistry in light of Gay’s explosion this season. That’s not to say there have been any issues between them, far from it. But Gasol and Gay had to figure out how to work off of each other, and they seem to be doing a much better job of that. For instance, they combined for 49 points and 21 rebounds in the team’s last game, an overtime loss to Cleveland on Tuesday. I think the numbers you see Gasol putting up this month are much more indicative of what he’ll do for the rest of the season than the numbers he put up in November and December.

Mike Conley has moved into the starting lineup in January. Are you seeing the flashes of brilliance and occasional rough patches from him to be expected of a point guard so obviously talented but also so inexperienced?
Right now the good is far outweighing the bad with Mike Conley. Perhaps one of the biggest compliments you can pay him right now is that you don’t even think about the fact he’s only 20 years old when you watch him play. When you consider that in the last four years he’s won three state titles in high school then went to the NCAA title game as a freshman starter, all of a sudden a midseason NBA game doesn’t seem so daunting. Mike’s biggest asset is his speed. He’s perfect for the up-tempo game Iavaroni has preached since his hiring, and he can get into the lane at will, where he’s adept at finishing. But on top of that, he plays in control, and has a knack for finding his teammates in the right spots at the right times. If there are any areas of concern, it’s that he’s still fairly slender, and bigger point guards can give him trouble. Furthermore, the knock on him coming out of college was a shaky shot, and while he’s been a solid shooter thus far, he needs to keep knocking them down to keep defenses from sagging and waiting for his dribble penetration. But all in all, he’s been as good as advertised.

When you look at the development of Rudy Gay between his first and second seasons, what stands out?
There’s a few things that stand out, most notably a much-improved three-point shot that’s added another dimension to his game. Gay is now hurting teams inside and out. In fact, our intrepid PR department tells me he’s the only player in the NBA who has both at least 50 three-pointers made and dunks. Along with his outside shot, another reason for his improvement is his decision-making. As a rookie last season, too often he was tentative. He’d get the ball, and would overthink everything, trying not to mess up rather than just do what came naturally to him. There was no flow to his game, it was paralysis by analysis. But this season, that’s gone. He’s much more decisive with the ball, but more importantly, that decisiveness usually produces positive results.

Who's the best shooter on the Grizzlies - Mike Miller or Juan Carlos Navarro?
That’s like asking who you prefer watching between Ichiro and Felix Hernandez, you can’t go wrong either way. Right now the edge goes to Mike Miller, who’s been consistently good all season and is making 42.9% of his three-point attempts. Navarro’s been a bit up and down this year, which is to be expected as an NBA rookie making the transition from the Spanish league, but when he’s locked in, he’s fun to watch. Despite being a little undersized for the two-guard spot at 6-3, Navarro doesn’t need much room to get his shot off because his release is so fast, and he doesn’t necessarily need to set his feet. He’s made lots of his threes on the run or off-balance, and sometimes you just have to shake your head at some of the shots he makes. Plus, and this has to count for something, his nickname of La Bomba (which is actually a reference to his patented running floater in the lane) has to be one of the best monikers in the league.

What don't we know but should about the Grizzlies?
What sticks out is an almost unbelievable record in games decided by three points or less: 1-9. It’s been amazing how this team just can’t catch a break in close games. Whether it’s been buzzer-beaters, poor execution or just bad luck, it seems like every time the Grizzlies are in a close game, something bad happens to them down the stretch. I suppose you can look at it two ways: a glass half-full person would say this is a young team hanging in and still learning how to close out games. A glass half-empty person would contend it’s a team that doesn’t know how to finish. As with most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But sooner or later you have to think the team will start pulling those close one out.