Grizz Bigs Taking Advantage of Opportunity

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

Not so long ago, forward Ed Davis entering a Grizzlies game cued a barrage of negative tweets and even a few scattered boos.

Ed Davis has had the opportunity to show his true value to the team in the extra minutes he’s been able to play since center Marc Gasol was injured, as well as the recent absence of power forward Zach Randolph.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Some were directed at Davis for what, at the time, had been a portfolio of poor play. Some were directed at Grizzlies management because, as the popular narrative went, they were desperate for Davis to play and play well because he was considered the biggest piece of the Rudy Gay trade.

But since Marc Gasol left the Nov. 22 game against San Antonio with a sprained left MCL, it’s become clear that Davis and others must play more and that the Grizzlies will have to live with the highs and the lows.

The Grizzlies’ 110-91 victory over Phoenix on Tuesday, Dec.3, marked the Grizzlies’ fourth full game without Gasol. It was also the Grizzlies’ second game without power forward Zach Randolph (ingrown toenail).

The first effort without both big men was historic, marking the first time in a regular season game the Grizzlies played without them since Randolph joined the team for the 2009-2010 season. It also didn’t go very well as the Grizzlies lost to the Brooklyn Nets, so far this season one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the NBA.

A lackluster first half against the Suns that saw Memphis trail by eight going into the third quarter warned of another loss and raised anew concerns about survival without Gasol and Randolph, or even just minus Gasol. And then the Grizzlies scored 64 second-half points. When the game was done, Davis, forward Jon Leuer and center Kosta Koufos, who has been starting in place of Gasol, had combined for 58 points and 33 rebounds.

If the Grizzlies were searching for an identity at the start of the season under first-year coach Dave Joerger – and they were – and if they seemed to rediscover themselves when they swept a four-game West Coast road swing – and they did by feeding Gasol and Randolph in the paint – then these injuries have forced the most chameleon-like change yet.

“Obviously, Marc and Z-Bo are starters and all-stars,” said Davis, who had a season-best 21 points and 12 rebounds vs. Phoenix as the Grizz scored 56 points in the paint. “We all have to take it up – first guy to last guy on the bench. You can’t replace Marc or replace Z-Bo, but we all can do things that they do.”

Koufos, who started last season in Denver, had 11 or more rebounds in each of his first four starts in place of Gasol. Twice, he has had a double-double.

“2K, with Marc being out, he’s done a wonderful job,” guard Jerryd Bayless said.

Leuer, who when playing well steps into the role of crowd favorite – especially when dunking – scored a career-high 23 points against the Suns and fell one rebound (9) short of a double-double while also making a career-best three blocks.

“Jon did a lot of good things besides just make shots,” Joerger said. “I thought he guarded pretty well in the second half.”

Now, obviously, what Davis, Leuer and Koufos did against the Suns represents one game. Against a team that likes to stand outside the arc and hoist threes, against a team without much real inside presence.

Still, it showed a way for the Grizzlies to endure until Gasol returns (and that’s still several weeks away). Point guard Mike Conley dished out 14 assists in the Suns game and in the first four full games without Gasol he had 43 assists with just four turnovers. Gasol was, as Conley likes to say, the other point guard and was good for 4.3 assists per game.

Yet the Grizzlies need Conley to score, too. He leads the team with 18.3 points per game. His 7.6 drives a game (per rank 10th in the league and his 86.9 touches rank sixth in the NBA.

“He’s our playmaker and he makes the game easier for all of us with the ability to penetrate,” Leuer said. “We play off him. And the more we can knock down shots and stretch the floor, and finish shots (at the rim), that’s going to be make his job a lot easier.”

Which is just what happened against the Suns.

“I trust those guys,” Conley said. “I want to give them that present, that dime, when they work so hard to get open.”

Beyond that, Joerger praised Koufos, Davis and Leuer for screening “really hard. Mike didn’t look as tired as he normally does because we put our bodies on people and got him open.”

So the Grizzlies’ identity is changing again as they try to find the best way to make sure their floor general can continue to run the offense without Gasol and possibly without Randolph, too.

“With those two guys out, it’s a difference, a change,” Bayless said. “There’s really no good part, but the kinda good part is it gives other people an opportunity.”