By Rob Mahoney
Something had to give when the rolling Miami Heat collided with the thriving Memphis Grizzlies, as both contenders put significant winning streaks on the line in their nationally televised matchup. The result was a hotly contested game without any semblance of offensive continuity.
The Grizzlies, by stylistic choice, execute defensively to the point of wearing down their opponents, and on Friday the Heat responded with a gutsy defensive showing of their own. Miami's latest victory was fundamentally different from most of their recent wins, but a 98-91 defensive triumph pushed its streak to 13 games and ended the Grizzlies' at eight.
• It's very indicative of LeBron James' overall brilliance that we could diagnose an 18-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound performance as a struggle, but the Grizzlies really did make it tougher on James than most any opponent could. James, coming off an inconceivably efficient month in which he shot 64.1 percent from the field in 13 games, was limited to 4-of-14 against Memphis, his worst shooting outing of the season and his first time under 50 percent in 15 games.
Tayshaun Prince played terrific defense on the ball, but what really limited LeBron was the looming help of Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies' big men shaded to protect the rim from James' onslaught at just the right spots and angles, effectively deterring drives without giving up many high-value shots.
That's an incredible feat, possible in part because the Grizzlies' size prevented the Heat from going small as frequently as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra surely would have liked. LeBron's potential is fully unleashed when Miami is able to surround him with floor-spacing shooters, but pitting Shane Battier against a behemoth like Randolph invites a painful mismatch. Spoelstra was ultimately able to manage the balance between big, defensive-minded lineups and smaller, more flexible ones rather wonderfully, and in the process gave James the opportunity to enforce his will by way of attrition alone. No matter how good the defense, LeBron carries with him a second-to-second potential to overwhelm, and when the fourth quarter rolled around James contributed -- by score or assist -- on 23 of the Heat's final 31 points, including a crucial three-pointer that put Miami ahead 93-89 with 24 seconds left.
The Grizzlies have ample claim to a moral victory as far as those things go, but a course-holding performance from Dwyane Wade (22 points on 16 shots, eight assists), four three-pointers in five attempts from Battier, the timely arrival of James and smart execution allowed the Heat to match Memphis' effort and then some.
• Miami's defensive focus during its winning streak has varied from possession to possession, but Friday's showing presented a rather cogent overall performance. It helped that Wade was able to sneak away from a limited offensive player in Tony Allen to poke and prod at whichever Grizzly had the ball in position to score, but the Heat showed some of their latent potential for on-a-string defensive rotations throughout the lineup.
As a result, Miami allowed only a 45.5 effective field goal percentage (which factors in the added value of three-pointers) -- the kind of performance that ranks below even the Grizzlies' abysmal season average, and falls right in line with the mark of the league's worst-shooting team (the illustrious Charlotte Bobcats). Couple that with Memphis' depressed offensive rebounding numbers, and the Grizz seemed to lack the firepower and sheer number of scoring opportunities necessary to take full advantage of their corresponding defensive success. That's not uncommon for Memphis, but sound defensive performances complete with tidy work on the glass have been more rare for the Heat than one might expect.
• Randolph (14 points, 6-of-16 shooting, nine rebounds) tweaked his left ankle on the first possession of the game, and for a few minutes he looked absolutely miserable in hobbling up and down the court. Randolph has never been anything resembling explosive (at his quickest, one could classify his movements as sputtering), but he seemed labored just by the process of making it from end to end at half-speed. His discomfort was most noticeable when he went up for a shot at the rim and -- to Randolph's great surprise -- got no lift, shorting an uncontested two-footer on the near side of the rim. It seemed like it would only be a matter of time before Randolph packed it in for the night, but he fought through the pain and Memphis coach Lionel Hollins wisely kept him on the floor to prevent his ankle from fully locking up. Randolph unsurprisingly ended up being one of the key reasons why the Grizzlies were able to claw their way through a competitive game, and this wound as an impressive display from one of the league's preeminent tough guys. It'll likely be overlooked because of the Grizzlies' loss, but let the record show that Randolph limped his way to an admirable -- if especially floor-bound -- outing.