Maybe, just maybe, this will make you feel a less panicked about the state of the Grizzlies. In beating the Grizzlies, 108-101, the other night at Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks led by as many as 30 in the first half yet saw the Grizzlies claw back to within 4 points in the final minute.
The view from the Big Apple, as articulated by the New York Times: “… the Knicks came away with perhaps their most impressive win in three months – their first victory against a .600-plus team since Jan. 3.”
So this wasn’t, from the Knicks’ perspective, just a Wednesday night at the office in a too-long NBA season. It was their sixth win in a row and it meant something that it came over a Grizzlies team that had their way with them in Memphis and that even after this defeat still stood at 47-24 (the Knicks were 44-26).
“That’s a very good team that’s going to contend in the West,” guard Raymond Felton told The Times.
Question from Memphis: Do you still believe? Can the Grizzlies contend in the West when, of late, they have treated every road game like a massive pain in the backside?
The streak of consecutive road losses reached five starting with March 15 at Denver. Then there were defeats at Utah, New Orleans, Washington and on March 27, at New York. The Denver and Utah losses are easily forgiven because they came on the back half of a four-game road trip that began with wins over Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers.
But the losses at New Orleans and Washington were marked by little effort, with Tony Allen calling the Grizzlies’ approach in both games “lackadaisical.”
Center Marc Gasol has been playing with an abdominal tear since March 6 and sat out the March 23 home victory over Boston and the game in Washington. But he unexpectedly returned to the lineup in New York, clearly seeing how woeful the Grizzlies had been on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court in the 107-94 loss to the Wizards.
So with Gasol playing hurt in New York, and Allen desperately trying to lift the team through his will – 18 points and 10 rebounds in just 26 minutes – it was stunning to see the Grizzlies collectively play without any grit, grind or self-respect in the first half.
Now, they played incredibly hard in the second half to get within 4 points at game’s end, but you can’t squeeze a game’s worth of work into just a half against a good team on the road and come away with a victory.
Are the Grizzlies tired? Probably, but what team isn’t in the waning days of the season? Have the Grizzlies endured so much change – from new ownership to the trades and finding a new chemistry – that a step backward was inevitable? Likely.
But the Grizzlies, as Allen loves to say, “hang our hat on defense” and lately the Grizzlies have played defense on reputation not genuine effort. They have surrendered more than 100 points in three straight games – a first this season – going into the Friday, March 29 home game against the high-powered Houston Rockets.
Even in the victory here over the Celtics, the Grizzlies let a 21-point lead with 7:16 left in the fourth-quarter shrink to 2 in the last 20 seconds before putting the game away at the free-throw line.
“They were smaller, that’s for sure,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the Grizzlies without Gasol. “Marc makes them great, as good as anybody in the West.”
Problem is, of late, the Grizzlies look smaller with or without Gasol every time they leave FedExForum. Smaller in purpose, focus, effort, intensity, consistency, everything. So they might want to check the calendar. The regular season is only nearing its end, not at its end.
Don Wade is a native of Kansas City and a former feature writer for The Kansas City Star and sports reporter for The Commercial Appeal. His column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News.