MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- With a cup of coffee in hand, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger leaned against a blue wall in the underbelly of FedExForum and discussed the sluggishness of running in mud. In a little less than two hours his Grizzlies tipped off against the Los Angeles Lakers, a team lacking both ambition and healthy talent, yet Joerger spoke abhorrently about the past before turning his attention to the present.
Four days earlier, in the second game of a back-to-back, his team withered on the road against an opponent Charlotte that was certainly beatable if not expectedly so. Bereft of effort and intensity, the Grizzles stumbled. And in a stretch as vital as this one, every loss is pain-inducing.
"We should be foaming at the mouth," Joerger said before Wednesday's game. "That did not feel good on Saturday."
What followed in the next few hours made Joerger feel better, though not entirely satisfied. Two quarters of crisp, energized basketball with balanced scoring and trademark unselfishness gave way to overpassing and a lull in attention, the result two contrasting halves that shriveled a 22-point lead to just three in the closing seconds. Yet Memphis prevailed, clinging to a 108-103 win over Los Angeles that was as important to the team's psyche as its record (32-24).
"Interesting game," Joerger said to begin his press conference. "It started out well."
Within minutes of taking the floor against the hapless Lakers, any lingering discontent from the loss to the Bobcats had vanished. Beautiful half-court sets were coupled with deflections, steals and layups, and the weekend's dejection was displaced by a 20-point first-half lead. Through two quarters the Grizzlies set season highs for points in a half (65), field goals in a half (28) and assists in a half (19).
So improved was the Memphis offense that on multiple occasions Joerger barked commands from the sideline and had them executed perfectly moments later, as if in a walk-through. When James Johnson caught an inbounds pass on the left wing, Joerger yelled "Go, go!" So Johnson sliced to the basket and drew a foul.
Later, when Courtney Lee loitered with the ball and the shot clock wound down, Joerger ordered him to "shoot it!" So Lee rounded the corner and banked in a runner midway through the third.
For a while, it was the type of performance the Grizzlies needed against a team it was supposed to beat, setting the stage for Friday's showdown with Oklahoma City.
"It feels good to see the ball go in," Joerger said. "I thought we had a chance to score 125, 130 with the way we were going."
That notion quickly faded late in the third quarter. Memphis regressed into the doldrums of Charlotte, losing 10 points off its lead and overpassing to convolute the offense. What was a grind-it-out Grizzlies special - the Lakers managed only 46 first-half points - escalated into a Laker-preferred track meet, and for a moment a ghastly loss seemed possible.
But there to resurrect the Grizzlies was Johnson, the free-agent phenom whose presence by now feels integral. Johnson controlled the first seven minutes of the final quarter, scoring six points and feeding Tony Allen for a layup with a beautiful scooping pass that elicited an "Oh my goodness" from one member of press row. An emphatic block on a Marshon Brooks jump shot was tacked on for good measure.
"The energy that that group provides is tremendous," Joerger said. "I mean the two of them out there (Johnson and Allen) just wreck stuff. And it's awesome."
Los Angeles conjured a flurry of 3-pointers in the final minutes to inject one final dose of worry, but a desperation heave by Wesley Johnson clanged off the rim to seal a win. The crowd exhaled and the players rejoiced.
Memphis had emerged from the mud.
That's what he said
"First half, we dominated. We played the way we wanted to play. In the second half, they started scoring a lot more and a lot quicker." - Marc Gasol
By the numbers
53.6: 3-point shooting percentage of the Lakers on Wednesday. Los Angeles made 15 of its 28 attempts from beyond the arc.
7: Points for Mike Conley, his lowest output since Dec. 23.
6: Memphis players with three or more assists.