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VOL. 127 | NO. 63 | Friday, March 30, 2012

Grizz Have Become NBA’s Chameleons

By Don Wade

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Ideally, there is never any mystery about the name of your best player or the name of your second-best player: see Chicago Bulls and 1) Michael Jordan; 2) Scottie Pippen; and 3) Everybody Else.

Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo goes to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love during a game this week. “Guys are sacrificing their game to make this work,” Mayo said of Memphis’ ability to adapt to different lineups.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

But for the Grizzlies in this ever-changing 2011-2012 season, nothing is set. One night your best player is Rudy Gay or Marc Gasol and the next it’s Dante Cunningham or Marreese Speights.

Cunningham, a springy but undersized “big man” at 6-8 and 230, played one minute in the March 25 win in Los Angeles over the Lakers. Two nights later at FedExForum, he starts for the injured Gasol (sore ankle) and gives his team a season-high 13 points and 14 rebounds in 40 minutes in a 93-86 win over Minnesota that raised the Grizzlies’ record to 27-21 with 18 games left in this shortened, intense, regular season.

“That’s why they have 12 players on the roster,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “Everybody is important to the team. Everyone has a role.”

Even little-used center Hamed Haddadi, who at 7-2 and 265 was a better fit in the rotation than Cunningham against the bigger Lakers. How did Haddadi respond? With a season-best 10 points and six rebounds in 13 memorable minutes (as memorable Haddadi moments go).

Kinda makes you want to see what Phil Jackson could have done with this bunch, doesn’t it? How would he have liked playing much of the season without an injured Zach Randolph? How would Dr. Phil liked having to prescribe a new offense? And then trying to re-integrate last year’s best player back into the offense when he’s not yet in condition and the offense has succeeded playing a more free-flowing, less structured, style?

Not exactly the same as shooting MJ or Kobe a look that says “Take over.”

Everyone on the Grizzlies has been asked to adapt, change, adjust and then do it all over again. Guard O.J. Mayo is often asked to do this within the same game – play scorer off the bench, play point guard, take the toughest on-ball perimeter defensive assignment, take being replaced when you’d rather still be on the court … take all of it.

“We’re a talented team,” Mayo said. “The toughest thing is trying to make everyone happy. Coach Hollins has had this thing rocking since day one. So if he has something to say, do it 110 percent and I promise it’ll work out.

“Guys are sacrificing their game to make this work.”

Randolph being a prime example. When Hollins re-inserted him into the starting lineup, the team seemed to lose a step. And no wonder. Randolph is not yet in good enough game shape to be the player who dominated in last season’s playoffs. So Z-Bo went back to playing off the bench, Speights returned to the starting lineup, and all’s well.

“It’s a process,” Randolph said. “But I think I’ve got enough time (before the playoffs) to get back to the old me.”

Not that anyone is just assuming playoffs. The Western Conference standings look like a line at the DMV.

“It is ridiculous how close it is,” said Gay. “If you slip up for a week, you could be out of contention.”

And the Grizzlies’ schedule looks like it was made out by all the teams chasing them. Up next: a three-game road trip starting Friday, March 30, at Houston, with stops in Milwaukee and Oklahoma City before a home game against Golden State on April 3 that marks the middle of three games in three nights: at OKC, here against the Warriors and April 4 at Dallas. Then an off day, April 6 at Miami, and April 7 at home against Dallas.

That’s a stretch of seven games in nine days so set up for a “slip” that it might as well be played on a banana peel.

But the Grizzlies at their best and most cohesive are equipped to handle this, assuming Gasol’s injury is no big deal and Conley’s sprained ankle (he still finished the Minnesota game) is not something more serious.

“They’re just solid,” said Minnesota coach Rick Adelman. “They move the ball and they all share it and I think the success they had last year in the playoffs has a lot to do with that. They trust each other. Lionel does a great job. He’s really developed a nice personality for this team.”

Or maybe it should be “personalities.” They play with what they have on a given night and, when they’re right, let the pecking order fall where it may.

Hollins says he tries to coach them like they’re all “regular” players without regard to reputation or stature. But when he’s most proud of them, he can’t resist calling them “warriors.” A bit of hyperbole for millionaire basketball players, yes, but you get the point.

The Grizzlies often become what they need to become. They’re armored basketball chameleons, forever adapting to their surroundings and defending their place in it.

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