As the shortened but grueling NBA season was winding itself down into so many ugly wins over mere Hornets, Bobcats and Cavaliers, the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay looked back and summed up the journey.
Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay, right, and guard Tony Allen will be two big factors as the team prepares for the 2012 postseason with a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers.
(Photo: AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
“We’ve played strong,” he said. “We’ve survived.”
The challenges, especially the injuries, are well-documented, so there’s no sense in rehashing all of that again. Beginning this weekend, it’s all about the postseason – win or wait till next year.
Guard O.J. Mayo is not inclined to wait. He remembers too vividly that in the Western Conference semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder the Grizzlies were on the verge of advancing another round.
“Last year we stole home court in OKC and then we gave it away in the triple-overtime (loss),” Mayo said. “That’s haunted me.”
What lies ahead this time? Well, that’s why they play the games – to find out. As the Grizzlies prepare to face the Los Angeles Clippers in a matchup of the No. 4 and 5 seeds, there are several keys to the Grizzlies advancing past the first round.
Rudy. Is it unfair to start this analysis by singling out one player? Maybe, but Gay is a 6-8 small forward averaging 19 points per game and in the words of center Marc Gasol: “His athleticism is unique. Nobody else on the team can do what he can do.”
Which is one reason he has a five-year $84 million contract.
“It’s the one thing I’ve been waiting to do my whole career,” Gay said, noting he missed the playoffs last year with a shoulder injury. “I’m anxious to get the jitters out.”
So are Grizzlies fans.
Pounding the paint. It worked in last year’s playoffs when power forward Zach Randolph became a postseason star. It worked when Randolph went down with a knee injury early this season and the Grizzlies made Gasol the go-to guy; he responded by putting up numbers that earned a spot on the Western Conference’s All-Star team.
But the Grizzlies also discovered they couldn’t rely on the paint quite as much. They adapted by often playing a faster, more free-flowing, style and sometimes that turned into getting away from their inside game.
A few games ago Gasol said they had to be careful to not become “so predictable offensively.” That comment came after Gasol took just three shots and scored six points against New Orleans. His message isn’t lost on point guard Mike Conley.
“We still want to get the ball inside, dominate the paint,” Conley said. “Teams try to make us play from the outside, not let the bigs touch the ball. At times, Marc and Zach will be featured and at times it’ll be Rudy.”
Have plenty of Juice. Mayo hasn’t started a game all season, but it doesn’t matter because he has become the fourth-quarter closer and is the team’s most dangerous 3-point shooter.
“O.J. has embraced his role to the hilt and has played outstanding,” said coach Lionel Hollins.
That role has included logging minutes at point guard, but this is a delicate balance for Hollins. The late-season signing of Memphis native Lester Hudson may allow Hollins to give Mayo maximum offensive freedom, but if there are times the choice is having Mayo run the team from the point or living with a few minutes of rookies Jeremy Pargo or Josh Selby, well, that’s no choice at all.
Defend, defend, defend. Elementary, right? But the intensity required to do it well tends to ebb and flow. When the Grizz have that intensity, “you can really see the face of this team,” Gasol said.
Especially on the wild-eyed face that is Tony Allen, who could be asked to man-up on Clippers’ explosive point guard Chris Paul (a tough matchup for Conley).
While Hollins likes to downplay the Grizzlies’ league-leading steals, opponents say the defensive energy and steals separate the Grizzlies from other teams.
“Where they get you is on the hustle points,” said Dallas guard Jason Terry.
“The thing that really carries them is their opportunity to get steals, which leads to fast-break points,” said the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
The new guys. Namely, the guys that general manager Chris Wallace brought in as the season was just getting started: forwards Dante Cunningham and Marreese Speights, and swingman Quincy Pondexter.
Speights, considered a bust with Philadelphia, has played well as a starter but is still inclined to pout when confronted with adversity. And there will be adversity. Cunningham has been the best energy source this side of Allen, and Pondexter has quietly become an effective role player.
Even holdover backup center Hamed Haddadi has contributed here and there.
So, is the roster better than last season?
“I would say maybe,” Hollins said, “but that doesn’t guarantee anything. We have to go out there and do it.”