1. Rookie Henry At Center Of Grizzlies' Surge
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Kobe Bryant against a 19-year-old rookie. Should be a piece of cake, right?
Not quite, because this is no ordinary teenager. Memphis' Xavier Henry checked the Lakers' superstar for most of Tuesday night with little help, and the result was a 9-of-25 shooting night for Kobe and a 98-96 win for the Memphis Grizzlies.
While he wasn't on the floor at the end for L.A.'s deja vu final possession -- for the second season in a row in Memphis, Kobe kicked out to Ron Artest for a 3-pointer that missed at the buzzer -- Henry was the protagonist during a stretch of 11 straight misses by Bryant midway through the game that allowed the Grizzlies to build a double-digit lead.
Henry wasn't getting double-team support, either. He was one-on-one against Bryant for much of the night and, thanks to his size and discipline, largely held his own. The effort was so good Henry's coach compared him to another player who has been known to limit Bryant.
"I remember when we interviewed [Henry] in Chicago," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said, "and I went away saying, 'That's Shane Battier all over again.' He's poised, he's mature [and] he understands the big picture of what's going on. That's what you like to see in all your players coming into the league."
The rookie from Kansas is unusually strong for his age, making him one of the rare 2s who can match up with Bryant physically and prevent him from playing over the top of the defense.
"I tried to make it tough for him," Henry said, "being strong and pushing him out a little. I'm about his size, I weigh a little bit more and I can be just as strong with him."
Although Henry hasn't been scoring much -- he had only his third double-figure (12) game of the season Tuesday -- the Grizzlies have won four of five since he took over as the starting shooting guard and O.J. Mayo became the sixth man, with two-point wins over both the Heat and Lakers.
As a result, Memphis finds itself 8-10 despite a tough early-season schedule, and that's where we get to the really interesting part of Tuesday's game. As screwy as the Grizzlies have been over the past couple of seasons, they find themselves with a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of an opening in the Western Conference hierarchy.
With Portland and Houston wracked by injuries and Phoenix's roster denuded, suddenly it appears a team with a win total in the low 40s could grab the final playoff spot in the West.
A team like, say, Memphis.
The Grizzlies won 40 games last season and boast the same starting five plus a vastly improved bench -- Mayo is now the go-to scorer with the second group, rookie Greivis Vasquez has solidified a grievous weakness at backup point guard and Darrell Arthur has provided some quality frontcourt minutes.
Furthermore, making the postseason would be a big deal for a franchise still trying to gain traction in its 10th season on Beale Street; Tuesday night's game failed to sell out, and more fans were wearing Forum blue and gold than Grizzlies blue.
Last season's surprising win total was ultimately irrelevant because it took 50 wins to qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference. This time, however, the same win total could produce far greater drama come April. And given the improvements from the bench and from Mike Conley (a season-high 28 points on 13 field goal attempts Tuesday), it's possible the Grizzlies could glide well past last season's 40-win haul and into the postseason.
"We haven't been anywhere yet," Hollins said. "We won 40 games last year, so how can we say we're a playoff team yet? Fans like to talk about that, certainly [the media likes] to talk about that, but we just have to play as hard as we can every night."
Improbably, a 19-year-old kid being groomed as a defensive stopper could be the vital piece in that mix. Henry, if he can continue his exploits from Tuesday, gives the first group an on-ball defender who doesn't need the rock and allows the second unit to have the scorer (Mayo) it so glaringly lacked last season.
"I'm young and I've got a lot to learn," Henry said, "but I'm doing the best I can."
For one night, at least, his best was good enough to stymie one of the best players in the world.
2. Lakers Not Panicking Amidst Three-Game Skid
By Dave McMenamin
Memphis guard Mike Conley picked apart the Lakers' defense with the pick-and-roll to the tune of 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting in the Grizzlies' 98-96 win Tuesday, piggybacking on L.A.'s losses to Utah and Indiana last weekend.
"I think our pick-and-roll coverage down the stretch wasn't as good as it could have been," said Kobe Bryant in his first comments after the game. "You got to try to corral them and make them take some tough shots. You got to try to stop their penetration and not let them get in the paint -- we got to do a better job at that."
Last season, in the midst of the Lakers' dropping three straight road games in Miami, Charlotte and Orlando, the team held a closed-door, air-it-out meeting to discuss -- what else -- pick-and-roll defense, and the conversation evolved into Bryant's challenging the team to ramp up its "determination" and "willfulness."
An overtime loss to the Heat followed by a 15-point drubbing by the Bobcats, after the Lakers had already played 60 games, spurred last season's meeting. Three straight losses by a total of 11 points after the first 15 games of the 2010-11 season isn't cause for dismay or even extensive discussion, but rather discovery.
"We're not going to have a team meeting or anything like that, but we need to focus," Bryant said. "We need to get ready. It's a nice challenge to have this early in the season."
Gasol remembers the low point of last season all too well. When I mentioned the three-game losing streak against "Charlotte, Orlando and I can't recall the other team," Gasol filled in my memory by firmly saying, "Miami."
"It gets us in an earlier point in the year than it did last year," Gasol said. "They're losses that shouldn't happen, but they did and we have to look ourselves in the mirror and understand, 'Why? Why did it happen and what are we willing to do in order to stop that?'"
One way to make it stop? Start stopping opposing guards from running roughshod through the lane off the pick-and-roll.
ESPNLosAngeles Lakers reporter Dave McMenamin is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime.
3. Daily Dime Live Recap
Flash back to all of Tuesday night's NBA action:
4. Stat Check: Grizzlies Fluster Bryant, Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers might have to learn that a little less Kobe Bryant may go a long way this season.
On Tuesday, Bryant scored 29 points but it took him 25 shots to get there in a 98-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. During the Lakers' current three-game losing streak, Bryant has attempted at least 20 shots in each game and has averaged 26.3 field goal attempts per game.
This season, the Lakers are 2-3 when Bryant attempts at least 25 shots in a game, compared to 11-2 when he attempts fewer than 25 shots.
5. Extreme Behavior
Tim Duncan: Has Duncan found the fountain of youth? Nope, just the Warriors' defense. Although Timmy scored just 15 points in a 118-98 win over the Warriors, the Spurs' centerpiece also added a fundamentally sound 18 rebounds and 11 assists for his first triple-double since March 14, 2003.
Brandon Roy, Blazers: After scoring 20-plus in his first two games back from injury, the Blazers' band leader had just 10 points and more turnovers (2) than assists (0) as Portland lost its fourth game in a row.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"It was like a layup drill."
-- Cavs coach Byron Scott on his team's defense after a 106-87 loss to the Celtics.
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Shaq: Don't Bet On Powder Toss
CLEVELAND -- Shaquille O'Neal has a bet riding on Thursday's Heat-Cavs game.
No, it isn't on the outcome, so no need to call the commissioner. It is on whether former teammate LeBron James will perform his trademark pregame powder toss in front of what is expected to be a historically hostile crowd in his return to Quicken Loans Arena.
"I'm anxious to see him do the powder [expletive]," O'Neal told reporters before the Celtics' 106-87 win over the Cavs on Tuesday. "We have bets he won't do it."
After the Heat's practice in Miami on Tuesday, James said he would likely stick to his routine of throwing up the power but left himself some wiggle room.
"He's done it for every game he's played," Heat teammate Dwyane Wade said, "so why change for just one game? If he doesn't throw it up, I'll throw it up for him."
O'Neal said he believes James' return to Cleveland will be far more intense than two of his own high-profile returns to former home arenas.
"My situation in Orlando was a six, my situation in L.A. was a seven," O'Neal said. "This is like a 12. ... He's a tough kid. He'll respond to it very well and have a good game."
8. Four Score
9. All Together Now
This was the stuff you were hearing: Nash was a better pick-and-roll passer with Amare Stoudemire than Felton. Nash always knew the right time to feed Stoudemire with a lob pass for a dunk, Felton didn't. Nash was a master of the 40-foot lead bounce pass that always seemed to catch Stoudemire in full stride, whereas Felton did not appear to even possess that play in his repertoire.
Well, the comparisons became a little less valid Tuesday night in what was easily the best two-man tandem game Felton and Stoudemire have played all season, a combination that led the New York Knicks to a 111-100 victory over the New Jersey Nets that put them above .500 (10-9) at the latest point in a season since January 2005, when Lenny Wilkens was the coach and the roster included Bruno Sundov, Vin Baker, Moochie Norris and Michael Sweetney.
Long time ago, eh?
"Me and Amare are just getting more comfortable with each other, just taking the flow of the offense," Felton said after scoring 21 points on 10-for-15 shooting with 10 assists for his sixth double-double of the season and his third in the past four games.