These days the Bulls haven’t done much losing, entering Friday night’s contest against the Grizzlies with a 7-2 record since the All-Star break and a five-game winning streak at the United Center.
So it was a bit of a surprise to see the Bulls lose, but it was even more rare to see Tom Thibodeau’s group beat at their own game. But that was the story, as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph out-hustled, out-rebounded and out-played the Bulls in an 85-77 win.
“They got second-chance points and hustle plays and I think that won the game for them,” said Taj Gibson, who led the Bulls with 18 points off the bench. “It was scrappy. I just felt like they kind of just used our own game against us.”
The Grizzlies aren’t your average Western Conference team. Though eight of the 10 most efficient offenses and just four of the most efficient defenses reside in the West, Dave Joerger’s group has always been a team that prides itself on defense. Led by Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and shutdown wing defender Tony Allen – a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team each of the last two seasons – the Grizzlies goal each night is to turn the game into an ugly, chippy boxing match, and then beat you down the stretch with the talent they also possess.
That’s what happened.
Though they shot 39 percent from the field and committed six turnovers in the first half, the Grizzlies’ stout defense meant they trailed by just four, 39-35, at intermission. And coming out of the break, a more aggressive team crashed the boards, attacked the basket and continued to rotate on defense to slow down a Bulls offense that topped 100 points or more in five of their last six games.
The results were telling. In the second half alone, the Grizzlies grabbed 10 offensive rebounds on 21 misses, scored 14 second-chance points and limited the Bulls to 40 percent shooting and only two offensive rebounds that resulted in two second-chance points.
The key stretch came late in the third quarter. With the Bulls leading by seven, 59-52, Gasol missed a jumper but Randolph was able to muscle his way for an offensive rebound and layup that cut the lead to five.
Later in the quarter it was Allen who grabbed a miss from Gasol, resulting in free throws that brought the deficit to one, 61-60.
And just like it is for the Bulls when they’re playing their own brand of basketball, even lesser-used reserves made a difference for the Grizzlies. On back-to-back possessions to end the third quarter, Kosta Koufos grabbed offensive rebounds – the first resulted in a Mike Miller 3-pointer that tied the game and the second was his own tip-in that gave the Grizzlies the lead – their first since late in the second quarter.
“Kosta came in, got a couple offensive rebounds, did a really good job on Taj (Gibson) in the second half,” Gasol said. “I thought that everybody who came in the game contributed, and that’s what we need every game.”
So holding the lead into the fourth quarter, the ever-resilient Bulls began their inevitable comeback, chipping away at a seven-point deficit and getting it down to as few as two points. But every time the Bulls, who hadn’t lost at home since Jan. 27, got within a score, Gasol and the Grizzlies had an answer; four times in the fourth quarter the Bulls scored to make it a one-possession game, and all four times Memphis responded with points the next trip down.
That back-and-forth, rugged style was exactly what Gasol and the Grizzlies wanted.
“We knew they always compete and they like to play tough, defensive basketball,” Gasol said of the Bulls, “and we like that, we don’t mind it at all. Thankfully we came out on top and won the game.”
So while the offense regrouped after halftime – the Grizzlies shot 50 percent in the second half – the defense that has provided the foundation for the “grit-and-grind” culture Memphis lives by each night stepped up late.
After the Bulls offense began the fourth quarter 5-for-7 from the field, in the final six minutes the Grizzlies defense limited their opponent to 1-for-9 shooting and two turnovers, scoring just two points in the final 6:37.
“We play good basketball, we played good defense, and it was a game,” said Zach Randolph, who double-doubled with 10 points and 11 rebounds. “We got stops when we needed stops. It was a great team win tonight. Everybody contributed. That’s what we do. We grit and grind.”
The Grizzlies won the rebounding battle 45-38 (and 28-14 in the decisive second half), something that seemed to disappoint Joakim Noah as he stared at a paper copy of the box score in front of his locker after the game.
Noah finished with 15 points and six assists, but his eight rebounds were his third fewest since the All-Star break.
“They outplayed us. They’re a tough team. Marc Gasol and Z-Bo (Randolph) are a handful down there,” he said. “The rebounding was a problem. Usually we win those rebounding battles.”
The Grizzlies won’t gain any ground in the Western Conference playoff race – the current No. 8 seed Dallas beat Portland – but Joerger has his team heading in the right direction. With a healthy Gasol, a team invested in playing 48 minutes of defense and a culture that on this night was able to out-tough a Tom Thibodeau-led squad on the road, the Grizzlies’ best basketball is likely ahead of them.
“We stayed in the game and starting making baskets and playing solid defense. This was a good team win. Both teams are similar – smash-mouth basketball,” he admitted. “Both teams will be sore tomorrow.”