It seemed only fitting that on the night O.J. Mayo returned to Memphis with the Dallas Mavericks – averaging 20 points a game and leading the NBA in 3-point shooting – that Mike Conley would break the Grizzlies’ franchise record for career assists.
“Kind of funny how things work out,” Conley said after an 11-assist game and zooming past Jason Williams (2,069) to the top of the team’s all-time assists list.
Not so long ago an argument that was a stretch then – and would be laughable now – continued to have its vocal backers: Move Mayo to point guard, Conley’s critics said, and sit No. 11 on the bench.
Today, though Conley has much less of a chance to become an All-Star than teammates Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay – or Mayo, for that matter – it is generally accepted that Conley is the Grizzlies’ most indispensable player.
“He is the engine that makes this team go,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said.
As for Mayo, he’s finally on a different track, the right track. Now, as has been well-chronicled following the Grizzlies’ 92-82 win over the Mavs at FedExForum on Dec. 21, Mayo had a tough night. He scored but 10 points and went 3-for-11 from the floor, 1-for-4 from behind the arc. Coach Lionel Hollins employed Allen for 35 minutes – his heaviest workload of the season – and Allen put Mayo on lock-down.
Dallas Mavericks guard O.J. Mayo, right, made his return to Memphis Dec. 21, a game the Grizzlies won.
(Photo: AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Allen’s playing time was anything but a coincidence. Mayo matched a career high with 40 points in a Dec. 8 victory at Houston and outscored the Rockets’ James Harden, 16-3, in the fourth quarter. So while it’s true Mayo is getting abundant scoring opportunities because Dirk Nowitzki has been out with a knee injury, it’s also true that “Juice” has been filling up the stat sheet all over the league.
“It’s an opportunity to be aggressive,” Mayo said. “It becomes more of a responsibility, though. I like it.”
When the Mavs walked into FedExForum Mayo carried a 20.2 ppg scoring average; next was center Chris Kaman’s 14-point average. As O.J. goes, so go the Mavericks. At least for now.
“The timing was great for us,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of Mayo’s decision to sign as a free agent after four up-and-down years with the Grizzlies. “He’s getting a lot of defensive attention. He gets the best defender. He gets double-teamed. He’s having to learn about patience and discipline. He was the No. 3 or No. 4 option (in Memphis) and that was not the case.”
In Memphis, Mayo was a lot of things. A mystery, for one, because the scoring potential would rise up and show itself from time to time. But he was also asked to do two things that really didn’t suit him: play some point guard and come off the bench for Hollins never knowing how many minutes or shots he would get.
His altercation with Tony Allen on a flight over a card game wasn’t quite the big deal some made it out to be, but it was one of several episodes – including the Grizzlies’ persistent efforts to trade Mayo – that made life more challenging. By the time Mayo walked out of the locker room for the last time he was no longer the cocky kid who first arrived in Memphis. He was a pro.
His work ethic and toughness are two of the things Carlisle likes best about Mayo, adding, “He’s got an engaging personality. He’s got some great intrinsic qualities other than being a skilled basketball player … (Dirk) and O.J. will mesh well together because O.J. not only is a good scorer, but a very good cutter. He will benefit Dirk (and vice-versa).”
Said Allen: “As hard as he works, I know he’ll be a success. Many a night I would come to the gym expecting to see nobody and who would I see? O.J. Mayo.”
Mayo counts Marc Gasol and former teammate Shane Battier as guys who taught him how to be “a professional.” He says many players, Allen included, showed him work ethic and rallied behind him during tough times. Now he knows his past led to his present.
“Even when the light does not seem that big,” the former Grizzly said with a knowing smile, “continue to grind in the dark.”