Back at full strength, Grizzlies down Clippers

BY foxsports • February 22, 2014

MEMPHIS -- There are fouls and there are fouls in a Clippers-Grizzlies game. Nothing is normal when these two meet. That proved true again Friday in Memphis' 102-96 win at FedExForum. New Grizzly James Johnson got his first taste of one of the NBA's fiercest new rivalries in a game with playoff intensity.

"Normally you see guys you know during the warm-up lines and shake their hand. There was none of that," Johnson said, then laughed. "A lot of stares, a lot of eyebrow raising."

Here are three observations and one alley oop you can't get enough of.

1. Picture of health pleases rowdy crowd.

No two teams have met more over the last three seasons plus the playoffs. In the 23rd meeting of that temper-filled span, Memphis (31-23) continued its new role as the most frightening No. 9 seed in the NBA.

For the first time since Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol started together on opening night, those five played together again.

It felt like old times. Randolph (21 points, 11 rebounds) and Gasol (17/10) had double-doubles. Memphis swatted nine shots, four by Gasol.

But, the Grizzlies are still a game out of eighth place in the West.

This one, predictably, had its share of intensity and the Clippers (37-20) got the biggest share of the free throws.

They missed one more free throw (16) than Memphis shot (15). Memphis coach Dave Joerger joked his way around that postgame question.

"It was interesting," he said, before a wink at the question. "Zach was really good tonight in the post."

Blake Griffin scored 28. Jamal Crawford 23, but Joerger is smiling. This isn't the team that had the NBA jumping off the bandwagon when Gasol and Conley were in suits on the end of the bench. Since January 5, the Grizzlies have the best winning percentage in the NBA, 17-5.

Joerger has newfound health and newfound wealth. He says the next two games will determine how much of that wealth fits into the eight-and-a-half man rotation he wants to play. Eleven guys played Friday, his bench outscoring the Clippers 43-7, 15 from Johnson, 13 from Mike Miller. The Clipper bench averages 30.

"I thought it was Tony Allen as much as James Johnson. And Mike Miller," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought it was those three. James made shots, but Tony disrupted us."

The sprains seem healed and ...

2. And ... the Grindfather is back.

Allen returned from a sprained wrist for the first time in 21 games. Tuesday, he ran out of shootaround without talking to the media -- who wanted to talk about his name popping up in trade talks.

That didn't happen, but it might have caused a riot, judging by the reaction at his return. He didn't start and curiously came in with 2.1 seconds left in the first quarter, to a standing eruption of the 17,963 on hand. 

"That was big for me, the best sixth man in the world," Allen said. "I kinda had butterflies in my stomach when they did that."

Memphis' defensive leader immediately knocked down an inbounds pass to open the second quarter. They erupted again on his first bucket, right before a steal he got to Johnson for an explosive slam. The D-E-F-E-N-S-E chants started.

Allen was right back in his element, once looking for an alley oop. When Conley didn't throw the pass, he looked into the stands as if to ask why. Tied in the third quarter and the shot clock running down, Allen leaned into Chris Paul and took a 3-pointer that would make a pure shooter gasp. It fatefully went in. He opened the fourth quarter by driving the lane for a seven-point lead. Later, his two in the lane was the Grizzlies' 50th of 60 points in the paint. He hit the deck after a loose ball -- that he got -- and fittingly, blocked Jamal Crawford's 3-pointer to end the game.

3. Grit, Grind and Did James Johnson just do that?

Down-low, double-double Memphis has added some flare to its grit and grind. Joerger celebrated his birthday Friday. But he got his birthday present in December when Johnson was called up from the D-League.

Johnson and Allen are starting to attract nicknames, Chaos Brothers among them, for their shared intensity. Their defense produced offense. Johnson sang the "Welcome Back Kotter" intro to Allen on his way out of the shower.

"They're both athletic. My preference would be not to play them at the two and the three with two bigs," Joerger said. "I think there's going to be about 19 dudes standing in the paint, trying to play Mike Miller with them."

Johnson was immediately a fan favorite. He turned 27 on Thursday and Memphis gave away neck tattoos Friday in his honor. One of his 30-something tattoos is his premature-son Naymin's name across his neck. He also quickly became the king of a newly-minted stat, the blocked 3-pointer, in which he has a league-high 16.

He nearly had No. 17 in the second quarter, right before a thundering spike block of Willie Green. Johnson pointed to the tattoo after the block. But then came the lightning. 

Stuck in traffic in the lane, Johnson lobbed himself his own alley oop off the backboard. Twitter exploded.

"I pump-faked," Johnson said. "I noticed the lane was clear and I just used instinct."

Joerger said he doesn't mind the trickery, if it goes in.

"I tried one of those in practice and my team ran a couple lines," Johnson said, then laughed. "Luckily that was running through my head."

Johnson had three slams, four boards, three assists and a block in 17 minutes. 

Those minutes are likely to increase as Joerger figures out his not-so-bad problem of too many players.

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