Hawks coach Larry Drew tried something different tonight, bringing starters Al Horford and Josh Smith off the bench while starting Kyle Korver, Damion James, Ivan Johnson, Zaza Pachulia and Jeff Teague. Drew is probably the only person who has an idea what his opening-night starting lineup will look like. I will venture a guess it won't look like this.
Nevertheless, the makeshift starting unit made quite an impression, rattling off a 13-2 start in the game's first 6:30. Ivan Johnson matched up against Zach Randolph and came out on fire, scoring 8 of the team's first 12 points. That Johnson could perform well against what is considered one of the stronger front courts in the league was not inconceivable. The last time the Hawks played against Memphis on Feb. 2nd, Ivan missed a double-double by a single rebound, albeit in a losing effort.
Memphis sports prototypical size at all positions among its starters, and I contend that starting Korver at shooting guard and Damion James at small forward enabled the Hawks to counter that size. James scored 5 points and had 4 rebounds in only 18 minutes, but these stats fail to account for his defensive impact. James posted a team-best +12 for the game. By contrast, Horford was a team-worst -13 and Smith was -11.
The Grizzlies seemed to have an easier time pounding the ball inside while Smith and Horford were on the floor. Randolph got to his spots and got open more frequently than he did while contending with Ivan's combination of strength and quick feet. For the second game in a row, Johnson got under the skin of an opposing team's backup center as Hamed Haddadi drew a technical for retaliation after a holding foul on Johnson.
Obviously, Smith and Horford are All-Star candidates at their respective positions, and I'm not suggesting a lineup change. The moral of this game's story for me is that it will be a huge advantage for the Hawks to have a stable of physical defenders that includes Pachulia, Johnson and DeShawn Stevenson, who again did not play. They could have used his defense on the wing as the Hawks' perimeter D allowed the Grizzlies to shoot 10-for-21 from 3-point range.
Neither Teague nor Lou Williams could slow Mike Conley, Jr., who errupted for 18 points and 5 assists including 5-for-5 shooting from 3-point range. By contrast, Williams had a miserable night shooting the ball, going 1-for-7. He still managed to crack double figures due to his elite talent at earning trips to the free throw line, where he shot 8-for-9.
Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson and James Anderson, the two most likely candidates to be cut to bring the roster to 15, did not play. Meanwhile the other player still battling for a roster spot, Anthony Tolliver, was again solid-if-unspectacular. He scored 7 points on 50% shooting from the field and 3-point range and had the best +/- among the reserves (-1).
In conclusion, I think this game further strengthens my previous contention that Damion James should be the opening night starter at small forward. He's presently the only natural small forward on the roster, and Korver had no chance of being able to guard Rudy Gay. The criticism of James' offensive game is completely valid (one of his missed shots was a baseline jumper that was so short it barely grazed the bottom of the backboard). But there is no denying the on/off numbers that prove his defensive impact. Through three pre-season games, Damion James is a team-best +28.