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Give us back the Naismith Cup, Tel Aviv!

Ahh yes, the long forgotten Naismith Cup. Back when the Memphis Grizzlies played in Vancouver, where there are actually bears, this match-up was an annual showcase of professional basketball in Canada. That is, if you can call what the Grizzlies put on the floor in those days a professional team. I know, a Raptors site really shouldn’t be throwing stones at other hapless (former) franchises.

As it is, this “rivalry” has lost all semblance of meaning or importance, as the Naismith Cup hasn’t been awarded since 2005 when Maccabi Tel Aviv won it…and apparently took it back to Israel. Seriously, why did we “defend” the Naismith Cup against an Israeli professional team? Anyway, with the Cup gone across the Atlantic, we’re left searching for minor discussion points against a foe we used to be able to look at as an “it could be worse” comparison.

->Jose Calderon gets to play against countryman Marc Gasol…
->It could have been a battle between top picks from the 2006 Draft, but Andrea Bargnani (#1 pick) won’t be in action to face Rudy gay (#7 pick).
->Will DeMar continue his streak of aggressive play, having cleanly bounced back from a minor tiff with Coach Casey?

There really aren’t a lot of key storyline points, so let’s get right into breaking down the match-up on the floor. The Grizzlies are a formidable opponent, a 20-15 outfit missing their biggest interior scoring threat (Zach Randolph) for all but 4 games this year. The Grizz occupy the 7th spot in the Western Conference, and every game for them can be considered critical with the logjam of nearly even competition from 3rd to 13th (only 7 games separate these teams, although “nearly even” might be a bit generous for some of them). The Grizz fly into town after a day off, so fatigue shouldn’t play too large a factor.

Meanwhile, the Raps return home after a pair of road games (loss to Houston, win against New Orleans), also fresh from an off-day. The Raps sit at 11-24, 12th in the East, and in that odd purgatory of the standings where they’ve already lost a realistic shot at the top lottery odds (they are somehow 6 games up on the last-place Bobcats), but have no shot at the playoffs (6.5 games back of the Knicks for 8th), not that a playoff trip would be in any way a helpful step for this franchise.

Instead, we’re left in the NBA’s Bermuda Triangle, looking to develop younger players, evaluate for the future, and try to remain semi-competitive to balance the need for reinforcement victories and a high draft pick. Of course, you’ve heard this all before, ad nauseum. At least there is the trade deadline (March 15) to focus a small amount of our attention on, but after that it’s going to be a bleak 6 weeks (at which point it’s the playoffs, and time for draft conjecture!!).

Friday, March 02, 2012
Grizzlies @ Raptors
Off Eff 21st 27th
Def Eff 10th 16th
Power Rtg 12th (101.78) 24th (95.73)
Power Rtg Predict Memphis -2.5
Pace 14th 24th
Reb (O-Reb) 9th (4th) 16th (23rd)
Ast 24th 12th
TO 16th 24th
Steals 1st 26th
3FG Attempt 30th 19th
FT Attempt 13th 21st

For tonight, the Grizzlies hold the advantage in most categories, not the least of which will be owning the two best players on the court (Gay and Gasol). They’re a balanced offensive attack that does it’s damage primarily on 2-point field goals, which may be to Toronto’s advantage. The Raps will need to keep from over-fouling, as they’re wont to do, since the Grizz are above-average at getting to the line. The Memphis D is above-average as well, lead by Gasol’s interior presence and Tony Allen’s top-tier perimeter defense.

Trick or Treat Tony could be a key factor throughout, as he frequents the free throw line and has a penchant for locking down wing scorers. That said, he also has a reputation for only really locking down on the league’s best scorers, so it’s possible DeRozan can fly below his radar and work quietly into the teens. More likely, though, is DeRozan being given fits on the perimeter, with his only chance of a strong showing being to attack early and often. The Grizzlies are thin on the wings, so getting Allen (or Gay, though he rarely applies himself defensively and won’t need to against James Johnson) into foul trouble is a key to success.

The point guard battle could be of some interest, as Conley is firmly below the top tier of guards, but still quick and explosive enough to exploit Jose off the dribble. Calderon could counter with a strong game of his own though, as Conley is more of a “cheat” defender looking to force turnovers than actually shut down a player. Calderon has been at his best of late, but this will be yet another litmus test to see just where on the point guard hierarchy he falls. For any Western Conference teams looking at him as a potential addition, this will be a must-scout game to see how he handles a likely playoff foe.

On the inside is where the Grizzlies normally have their primary advantage. They’re the league’s 4th best offensive rebounding team, with Gasol, Gay, Mareese Speights, Allen, and Dante Cunningham all averaging better than one per game. It’s a clear team-wide philosophy to crash the offensive glass, so the onus will be on the Raps wings to box out as well. In theory, a team crashing the boards so hard should allow the Raptors some transition buckets, but this requires a strong defensive rebounding effort to execute.

That said, the Raptors are, shockingly, the league’s best defensive rebounding team, grabbing 75.7% of opponent misfires. I knew they had improved in this regard, but my jaw just dropped when I looked this up. Although no player (other than the inactive Bargs) averages over 5 per contest, the combined efforts of Ed Davis, Aaron Gray, Amir Johnson, and Linas Kleiza and James Johnson on the wings (two of the league’s better rebounders for the small forward position) have added up. So again, if the Raps can try to leverage this strength and neutralize this strength of the Grizzlies, transition opportunities should be plentiful.

With all of that said, Marc Gasol is an efficiency machine and won’t be handled by any Raptor big. While he’s just an average creator for himself, he’s one of the best passing bigs in the game. If the Grizz made a concerted effort to pump up his usage rate (just 17.5%, the main culprit in his above-average but not elite PER for centers), Gasol could have a big game. Casey will likely counter with plenty of Gray and Jamaal Magloire to try and body him up. While it may be semi-effective defensively, it also frees Gasol up to guard Ed or Amir, letting the defensively-challenged Speights to slack off on Gray/Magloire. Ed and Amir need to work to attack Speights every chance they get, even if they aren’t the best at creating their own offense.

I’m getting a little long in the tooth here for a game that means next to nothing, so allow me to summarize my key points:
*Gay and Mayo will likely score plenty. JJ will be tasked with containing Gay, while Bayless could pick up the Allen/Mayo assignment, giving them frequent trips to the stripe.
*Allen will get frustrated when DeRozan starts off hot and lock him down for the second half.
*Gasol will put up, at minimum, 20-10 and keep any of our bigs from cracking 15.
*Ed will have a repeat of Tuesday’s strong rebounding effort and grab 12 boards, 11 defensive, helping provide the Raptors and advantage in the transition game.
*Jose and Conley will trade buckets with neither emerging the clear victor.

I’m taking the Grizzlies by 7, although the Raps have played three great games when I’ve been in attendance (T-Wolves, Lakers, Knicks) so maybe I’ll be treated to another tight one. I’m in Section 111, as always, so feel free to come tell me I suck if you’re in attendance. Have a good weekend everyone.