Larry Drew was afraid it would happen.
The Hawks coach even issued a warning to his team, but it didn’t help.
Drew feared a letdown against the Grizzlies after his team’s recently completed 4-1 road trip had them tied for first in the Southeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference.
The letdown came in a big way Thursday night in a 96-77 loss at Philips Arena.
“They are a team that is scrappy,” Drew said before the game. “They’ve got guys that just get after it. Those types of teams in the past have been problems for us.”
The Hawks held a seven-point lead early in the first quarter. It was gone before the end of the opening quarter. By halftime, the Hawks trailed by 10, 53-43.
The culprit was turnovers. The Hawks committed eight in the first half that led to 14 points. The Grizzlies lead the NBA in steals at 10.48 per game, nearly matching that total in the first half. Rudy Gay became the Grizzlies’ all-time leader in steals with three steals in the first half as he surpassed Shane Battier (523).
The Hawks finished with 15 turnovers that led to 19 Grizzlies points.
“It may be one of those games where it’s going to be ugly,” Drew had said. “If it’s ugly basketball, then we have to play ugly basketball. We have to be ready to get down in the dirt and play with this team because they are going to make you play that way.”
It was ugly — but not the way Drew intended.
The Hawks (16-7) had a three-game win streak snapped and lost for only the second time at home this season. After winning their previous two games by 22 and 23 points respectively, they were on the losing end of a blowout.
Gay led the Grizzlies with a game-high 21 points. Tony Allen (18), O.J. Mayo (18), Mike Conley (15) and Marc Gasol (11) all finished in double figures.
Smith finished with 11 points for the Hawks, who lost to the Grizzlies for the first time in five meetings. Joe Johnson added 10.
The Hawks have held opponents to an NBA-low 19.5 points per game in the first quarter this season. The Grizzlies surpassed that by taking a 21-19 lead. They went on an 18-7 run to end the second quarter to take a double-digit lead into intermission.
The Grizzlies scored the first four points of the second half, the last two on a steal and a layup by Conley that had the Hawks’ Zaza Pachulia and Josh Smith exchanging words during a timeout. The start was part of a 24-8 Grizzlies run, as the Hawks missed their first seven shots, to grow the lead to 26 points at 77-51.
It got worse as the Grizzlies led by as many as 30 points.
“You have to guard against mental letdown,” Drew said. “I told the guys, history says this is one of those games where you come out very methodical, very lethargic, given the road trip, given gone 10 days, the travel. That first game back after a road trip like that, we have to defy history tonight.”
On this night, history hurt.
The Hawks lost center Jason Collins to a left elbow injury in the first quarter. Collins was injured diving for a loose ball when his arm was pinned by the Grizzlies’ Dante Cunningham. He went to the locker room, where he was diagnosed with a sprained elbow and did not return.
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