If last season culminated with the unanticipated “Believe Memphis” playoff run, then this Grizzlies season has been full of opportunities for concern and panic – your basic building blocks for widespread disbelief.
The Memphis Grizzlies hope to duplicate the excitement from last year’s playoff run with a second-straight year of postseason basketball about to get under way at FedExForum.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
The Grizz lost Darrell Arthur to an Achilles injury before the season started. Then they began the New Year in Chicago with Zach Randolph hurting his knee. They even came out flat on opening night in San Antonio after the end of the NBA lockout. And as the season turned toward the home stretch, they lost six of eight – call it March Badness – and even suffered a home loss to an abysmal Toronto Raptors team.
“There were a lot of questions,” said point guard Mike Conley.
“A very challenging season from the beginning,” said general manager Chris Wallace.
Which made the Grizzlies’ playoff-clinching 103-91 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday, April 18, all the sweeter – even if reaction inside the FedExForum, and the team’s locker room, was restrained.
The game drew a light crowd, much of which left early as the Grizzlies shook off a lackluster first half and one-point halftime deficit to pull away with a 37-12 third quarter fueled by defense that created turnovers and easy baskets.
Or maybe the modest showing from the Grit & Grind faithful was because it was a Wednesday night. Or maybe it’s a sign that fans, like the Grizzlies, have reached the point that just making the playoffs again was expected. An achievement, yes. Cause for a party, no.
“We’re excited, but not satisfied,” Conley said.
“Last year we were just happy to be there and we were down a man (Rudy Gay was out with a shoulder injury),” said guard O.J. Mayo. “We didn’t expect that much success; it caught us by surprise. This year it’s a different focus, like we’re supposed to be there.”
Last year’s success – beating No. 1 seed San Antonio in the first round and pushing the Thunder to a Game 7 in Oklahoma City – took the franchise to unprecedented heights. In three previous playoff appearances – 2004-2006 – the Grizzlies failed to even win a game.
“We didn’t want to be a one-and-done kind of group,” Coach Lionel Hollins said of clinching another playoff berth. “As I told the team, it’s a wide-open season. There are three or four teams that have had (great seasons) as far as records go, but I don’t know that anybody has been dominating.
“As I said to the team, `why not us win the championship?’”
It’s a lot to think, much less say out aloud, but the sentiment went over well.
“When he said it, it kind of reminded you, `hey, we’ve done some good things,’” Conley said.
Such as winning 12 of their last 16. They stood at 37-25 after beating the Hornets. And among those 12 wins were road victories at Oklahoma City and Miami, and in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
But is it really wide-open?
“I don’t think anybody wants to see this Memphis team as a 6 or a 5 seed,” the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki said after the Grizzlies beat Dallas here, 94-89, on April 7. “They’re deep, they’re physical, and they have shot-makers.”
And wouldn’t you know that they are only as deep as they are because of the injuries suffered by Arthur and Randolph? In a span of about two weeks in late December and early January, Wallace signed forward Dante Cunningham and, in separate deals, traded for swingman Quincy Pondexter and power forward Marreese Speights. Later, he signed former all-star Gilbert Arenas.
All have made their contributions, but Speights was especially crucial while Randolph was out and has continued to start with Randolph playing off the bench. Speights’ success has been a small miracle considering he arrived from Philadelphia with zero confidence.
“The coaches did a great job building him back up, pumping air in him,” Wallace said. “I shudder to think where we’d be without those guys. We’re a different team than we were last year and I think we’re a better team. And Rudy’s a main reason why. You’ve got a clean-up hitter offensive player playing as well as he has in his career. He can create something out of nothing when the shot clock is running down.”
A year ago Gay was on the team, but in his street clothes he felt more like a civilian.
“It was good to be there and experience it, but I might as well have bought a ticket,” he said.
This year, the question is what tickets for what games and where? What seed will the Grizzlies get and will they face the Clippers, the Lakers or someone else?
“Whoever you play is gonna be pretty damn good,” Wallace said. “Nobody you face is a play-in team like in the NCAA Tournament.”
And this team wouldn’t have it any other way.