Grizzlies Sitting Pretty Heading Into Break

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

The coach was greedy because, well, when are coaches not greedy?

“I would have been happier at 20-14,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said after his team finished the first half of the season Tuesday night with an 89-76 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at FedExForum. “But at 19-15, our heads are above water and we’re in the thick of the playoff race.”

In other words, the coach knows where they might be given that forward Darrell Arthur tore his right Achilles tendon before the season and that forward Zach Randolph tore a ligament in his right knee in Chicago on New Year’s Day.

“Losing Zach was big, we all know,” said designated energizer Tony Allen. “We turned into a makeshift team again. We lost Rudy (Gay) last year. All we can do is try to hold down the fort until he gets back.”

Randolph has been on the court shooting, and his return, though not definite, is expected soon after the break.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have done much to improve the reputation of makeshift teams. They’ve got a first-time All-Star in center Marc Gasol, who is averaging 15 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.18 blocks. Gay has returned from last year’s shoulder injury to lead the team in scoring at 18.9 points. And point guard Mike Conley, whose 2.47 steals leads the league, has been rock-steady.

Going deeper, the bench delivered in the win over the 76ers by pouring in 33 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, and contributing seven assists and three blocks. So far, despite problems at back-up point guard, the bench has come through just often enough for “makeshift” to work.

“Any team is only as good as its weakest parts, and you need everybody,” Hollins said. “It may not be every night, but there’s a lot of nights you need everybody, and the guys who don’t play as many minutes, and don’t have the status, have to play well. It’s not about scoring, but going out and doing their jobs so that the other can guys can perform to the level that they need to perform at to win the game.

“I thought tonight was a classic example of that and I complimented the second unit because, for the most part, that’s what they did.”

Amazingly, the Grizzlies have gone 18-12 without Randolph; he was an All-NBA Third Team selection last season when he averaged 20.1 points and a career-best and franchise-record 12.2 rebounds. So imagine if in the midst of that horrible day in Chicago, the NBA gods had offered the Grizzlies 19-15 at the All-Star break. Would they have taken it?

“Yeah, you got to when you lose an All-Star player like that,” Conley said. “It’s scary. You don’t know how people are going to react. Everybody in this room is very happy we are where we are.”

Naturally, getting to 19-15 – as opposed to falling back to 18-16 – wasn’t easy. After leading the 76ers by 20 points at the end of the first quarter, the Grizzlies let them back in (familiar story).

“To be honest, I don’t think we ever think we’re gonna blow a team out,” Gay said.

The Grizzlies have won seven of their last nine, but the 13-point victory over the 76ers was the only game they won by more than six points.

“That’s what the game of basketball is on this level,” Hollins said. “The games have a way of going either way in the last six minutes no matter what the start is like and you just have to play it out.”

Same for the season.

The Grizzlies begin the second half with a home game against Dallas on Feb. 29 and five of the first nine games are at FedExForum. But difficult stretches loom. From March 20 through April 6, they play nine of 11 games on the road. The start of April (2-4) is especially brutal with three games in three days: at Oklahoma City, home against Golden State, at Dallas. Then a day off, then they’re at Miami, and then home against the Mavericks.

It is perhaps reason enough for some to write them off, but then that’s already been done this season.

“Give the naysayers a wink and a smile,” said guard O.J. Mayo, “and we’ll see them after the break.”