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VOL. 7 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 19, 2014

No Bluffing

Grizzlies defy odds by scratching, clawing way into playoffs

By Don Wade

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Each season the last home game at FedExForum is Fan Appreciation Night and a Grizzlies’ player is charged with grabbing the microphone and walking to center court to say a few words before tip-off.

This time Zach Randolph got the assignment and he started nice and casual, asking with a grin, “How y’all doing?”

Z-Bo, as he is affectionately known, then thanked the fans for their support during the season and used the word “adversity” about, oh, 10 times. Which essentially was code for a bunch of injuries, a lot of new faces in the locker room and even a new head coach after last year’s trip to the Western Conference Finals.

“We’re gonna need y’all for the postseason,” Randolph said as he signed off.

And he’s right. This season more than any other it has taken a basketball village to raise a team from a 10-15 record in December to a fourth straight playoff appearance and second consecutive 50-win season.

It also took overtime on Wednesday, April 16, for the Grizzlies to finally put down the Dallas Mavericks, 106-105, and lay claim to the seventh seed in the West. The reward: avoiding the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The challenge: playing No. 2 seed and old rival Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and, this time around, point guard Russell Westbrook.

In the Grizzlies’ locker room after the win over Dallas, someone asked Tony Allen, who was a one-man wrecking crew in the last two minutes of overtime, if it was a “relief” to have won and dodged the Spurs.

“Ain’t no relief,” Allen said of getting the Thunder in a best-of-seven series that starts on Saturday, April 19, at Oklahoma City. “They both good teams sitting up there with a lot of wins.”

If there is an enduring lesson to be learned from this unlike-any-other-Grizzlies season it is that players and coaches never look at things quite the way fans or even media do. Take the end of overtime against Dallas. The Grizzlies were down by one when point guard Mike Conley grabbed the rebound off a missed Monta Ellis jumper. There were 6.7 seconds to play.

So what do you do, Grizzlies fan? Not now, with the benefit of hindsight, but in the moment would you have called a timeout?

Grindfather Tony Allen will be key against the Thunder, probably assigned – along with Tayshaun Prince – to defend Kevin Durant.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Here’s what went through first-year coach Dave Joerger’s mind: “The floor was so broken with six seconds to go (meaning, defenders were scattered), I know he can get to the basket. … I thought it would be better to roll the dice with that then get schemed and run a play. ... I immediately just yelled, ‘Go!’ and Mike hit the rocket boosters.”

Yet when Conley reached the lane at the other end of the court there was traffic, like rush hour in L.A. traffic. Conley almost seemed to disappear for a moment. When he reappeared, Vince Carter had been whistled for a foul and Conley was going to the free-throw line to shoot two free throws with 1.1 seconds on the clock.

He made them both and afterward confessed that as much pressure as there might be on the free-throw line, he appreciates the pressure that others were under while watching him shoot those free throws.

“I love it because you know you are in control,” Conley said of being on the line. “I would hate to be a fan because you’ve got no control.”

Can you believe the Grizzlies are this bad?

Marc Gasol will be challenged by the athleticism of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, but “Big Spain” thrives as a rim protector and the team’s defensive quarterback.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Dec. 7, 2013, a day that will live infamy.

The Golden State Warriors beat the Grizzlies by 26 points at FedExForum. Worse, Joerger’s post-game press conference amounted to an indictment.

“We need to play with more energy and more joy,” the coach said.

Is there anything worse for a fan to hear than his team is playing without energy and joy?

Center Marc Gasol had gone down with a left MCL sprain in late November. In the coming days the Grizzlies would endure a five-game losing streak and in two of those games would be without Gasol and Conley.

A 16-point loss at home to OKC in a game played without Gasol and Allen started the streak, but Durant was gracious: “You have to put this thing in perspective. If Gasol was there it would really be different. Our game plan would be different.”

The third straight loss came at home to Minnesota, 101-93.

“We’ve had some wonderful non-injury times,” Joerger said looking back over recent Grizzlies history. “Seems like it’s our turn to catch that bug.”

The Lakers came in and gave the Grizzlies their fourth straight defeat overall, and their fifth consecutive home loss. Joerger spoke of how the Grizzlies had “eased into the game,” a phrase he would use way too often in the season’s first half.

After a 14-point loss at Dallas on Dec. 18, the Grizzlies were 10-15.

“It’s not only that you’re 10-15,” Joerger said, “you’re 10-15 in the West.”

The Grizzlies were compromised by injury (ultimately going 10-13 without Gasol in the lineup). They were playing with less fire and efficiency under the new coach than they had under old-school Lionel Hollins. And you couldn’t turn on sports talk radio in town without hearing much bashing of the new ownership and the front office and open speculation about which heralded college freshman – from Duke’s Jabari Parker to Kansas Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins – might look best in a Grizzlies uniform.

“There were times when things were looking bad,” Conley recalled. “Guys were doubting, ‘Are we that same team? Are we going to be able to get back to where we were last year?’”

The road back

Before the Grizzlies could get to the playoffs, they first had to get back to respectability. And the front office, led by CEO Jason Levien, had some work to do.

The team signed journeyman forward James Johnson out of the NBA Development League. At his zenith, Johnson’s dunking, shot-blocking, and always-in-overdrive style of play inspired a neck tattoo night promotion in his honor. The team traded Jerryd Bayless, who never succeeded here as a true back-up point guard, to Boston for Courtney Lee and he provided a new outside shooting threat.

Back-up center Kosta Koufos, acquired in an off-season trade, did an admirable job trying to fill the too-big shoes of Gasol; veteran Mike Miller, signed as a free agent in the off-season, rediscovered his 3-point shooting stroke and aggressiveness over the All-Star break; and rookie point guard Nick Calathes guided the Grizzlies to a 4-3 record over a critical seven-game stretch without Conley in early February.

The Grizzlies wouldn’t get over .500 and stay there until a Jan. 24 victory at Houston kicked off a six-game winning streak. By this point, Gasol was back in the fold. Conley saw progress even before then.

“I could feel it in early January,” he said. “We beat Phoenix; we won some pretty big games without Big Fella. We were playing well. Jon Leuer stepped up. Nick was playing better. We could kind of feel it turning, and then once we knew Marc was coming back it got us all excited.”

Yet there was still much work to be done. The Grizzlies closed the season on a five-game winning streak, a franchise-best 14-game home winning streak. They won at Phoenix to eliminate a 48-win Suns team from the playoffs. They defeated Dallas, surviving a 30-point night from Dirk Nowitzki.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle bemoaned losing the game and his team’s chance to get 50 wins by the “slimmest of margins,” but also recognized what had been accomplished in Memphis.

“Joerger’s done a great job,” Carlisle said. “They got off to a tough start. They had a major injury and he’s kept them going on the right path.

“Zach’s been terrific (Randolph had 27 points and 14 rebounds against Dallas). And in this recent stretch, he’s been above that. He’s had a monster year,” Carlisle said.

Randolph, in fact, ended up leading the Grizzlies in scoring (17.4 points per game) and rebounds (10.1). More important, the Grizzlies have been the top defensive team in the West since the first of the year.

Now, they come face to face with the Thunder – a team they beat in five games in the second round of the playoffs last season, but that beat them in an epic seven-game series in 2011.

Feel free to be practicing your best “we don’t bluff” stance for whenever Kendrick Perkins appears on your TV screen.

“It’s going to be which style of play is more forceful,” Joerger said. “If we can get them to play slow and in the mud, as Zach always says (that’s an advantage). If they turn it into a racehorse game, that’s going to be tough for us.”

The series will shift to The Grindhouse for Game 3 on Thursday, April 24. Last season, the Grizzlies lost the first two games in Los Angeles to the Clippers and then won four straight on the way to the best season in franchise history.

It’s a nice memory, but that’s all it is.

Nationally, no one seems to remember the Grizzlies were a step away from the NBA Finals last season. Or know that as they enter this postseason, they have gone 40-17 since they were left for dead at 10-15.

Well, no one except the folks who will be waving growl towels.

“It’s in our DNA now,” Conley said of their forever-underdogs status. “We are a scrappy team. We float under the radar for so long during the season. We’re not on national television every night. People don’t get to see us play and then by the time the playoffs come, ‘Oh yeah, the Memphis Grizzlies are pretty good.’”

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