Entering Sunday’s face-off, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies occupied the same segment of the NBA landscape. That they were two dogs sharing the same patch of brown grass on the outside of not just the Western Conference’s elite, but also the conference’s competent.
But tiers change quickly and emphatically in the NBA. This wasn’t the same Grizzlies team that the Warriors faced earlier in the year; but it was the same Warriors team.
The two teams first met on November 19, when Golden State surprisingly rolled to a 19-point victory, earning just their third victory in 15 games. The loss dropped Memphis to 5-9. They rematched a few weeks later, with a victory rising the still-dismal Grizzlies to just 7-16, while dropping the Warriors to 5-20.
Sunday was the third and final matchup of the year between the two. If the combination of the holiday season and Golden State’s borderline-unwatchable play had kept you from keeping a close eye on the NBA, you may not have realized that Memphis has been slowly but surely climbing up the stairs and out of the basement.
They entered Sunday’s contest winners of four straight (including a 26-point road victory over the Los Angeles Clippers). They left it winners of five straight, winners of seven of their last eleven games, and lone occupants of the eighth and final seed in the West.
Suddenly, they - the one team no pundit predicted to contend for even the periphery of the playoffs - are good. And on Sunday, they proved not only their ascension to the West’s capable tier, but the Warriors stagnancy at the bottom.
Golden State received a boost from point guard D’Angelo Russell, who returned to action after a six-game absence due to a shoulder contusion. Russell picked up right where he left off, splashing in 34 points to go with 7 rebounds and 4 assists.
It was enough to keep Golden State cruising at Memphis’ speed for 24 minutes, and it was a one-point game at halftime. But in the third quarter, the Grizzlies shifted into a gear that the Warriors engine simply doesn’t have. The young Grizzlies outpaced the equally young Dubs 35-17 in the third frame, and by the time the final period began, the score was academic.
Center Jonas Valanciunas presented a problem that neither newly-minted starter Omari Spellman, nor the displaced Willie Cauley-Stein could handle. With nothing to lose, coach Steve Kerr threw a hail mary in the form of 19-year old Alen Smailagic on the assignment; the results were predictable. One was left to wonder how the indefinitely-sidelined Kevon Looney, or the recently-waived Marquese Chriss might have fared.
When all was said and done, Valanciunas had 31 points on a hyper-efficient 13-17 shooting, plus 19 rebounds, 9 of which came on the offensive end. The Grizzlies outrebounded the Warriors 60-47, with an 18-12 advantage on the offensive glass. That, more than anything, was the reason for the 20-point discrepancy between scoreboards when the final buzzer sounded.
Apart from Russell’s emphatic return, there were bright spots for the Warriors. But as has been the case for most of the year, those bright spots were dimmed by less palatable sides.
Draymond Green, despite his highly-Draymondian filler line of 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks, took a mere 5 shots, netting only 3 points. He reminded of his all-around brilliance and savantish defense, while enforcing the narrative that he is no longer a productive scoring option.
Eric Paschall netted the rare quadruple-nickel, with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals, but his efficiency (5-12 shooting) and defense were reminders that the rookie is still a ways away from contributing to a high-level team.
Perhaps the least-blemished bright spot came from fellow rookie Jordan Poole, who received a sturdy chunk of minutes due to Damion Lee’s unavailability (Lee, who is out of days on his two-way deal, is still in the process of finalizing his guaranteed contract with the Warriors). Poole entered the contest a dismal 34-144 from beyond the arc. A 4-9 night from distance won’t do much to boost those percentages, but it sure was good to see.
All in all, the 122-102 loss was a harsh, albeit cathartic reminder that the Warriors - with a mere nine wins at the season’s halfway mark - are still trudging about in the basement, even as their fellow dwellers pack up their belongings and head upstairs. The Grizzlies have made that rise quietly and subtly; so quietly and subtly that it passed many by.
The Warriors ascent will be starker. It just won’t happen until October.