Two years ago, Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph returned from a torn MCL in his right knee and essentially finished out the season on one leg.
In other words, Randolph walked – or hobbled – in the high tops that center Marc Gasol now wears as he plays with a brace on his left knee after returning to the court following an MCL sprain that kept him out of 23 games.
“Oh, man, you’re not 100 percent,” Randolph said. “You don’t just hop back out there and be yourself. You’re not gonna be yourself. But his 70 or 75 percent is better than a lot of guys’ 100 percent.”
Mike Conley and the Grizzlies have been fighting through injuries all season. As they opened the final 30-game stretch of the season with a win against the New York Knicks, there is hope the team is close to full strength.
(AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
It is this season’s equation: three-quarters of an All-Star or near All-Star in the case of point guard Mike Conley, who is coming back from a sprained ankle, adds up to more than 100 percent of the alternatives.
Through the Tuesday, Feb. 18, victory over New York, the Grizzlies were 30-23 and in ninth place in the Western Conference standings. Quite a feat given they had lost 102 player games to injury and that every starter has missed time.
It has been quite the introduction to NBA reality for first-year head coach Dave Joerger. In fact, he had to reach back to 2004 and his minor-league coaching days with the Dakota Wizards to find a season that was similar.
“We had 23 guys wear a uniform and five of them played from start to finish,” Joerger said. “So we had 18 different guys in and out of uniform. We had seven guys called up (to the NBA) that year, we had injuries, we had guys go overseas, and we changed our system several times throughout the course of the year.”
Which is exactly what Joerger has had to do in Memphis. As he explains it, he sort of goes into a stream of consciousness. But then that’s what it has been like, with no time to catch your breath.
“Having to change styles, using Jon (Leuer) as a stretch four, using Zach as a five, is he playing with Kosta (Koufos) or is he playing with Marc? It’s just been one thing after the next,” Joerger said. “I don’t think a lot of our guys’ injuries are going to heal over the next 30 games. You go with whatever you can go with.”
There have been so many different lineups and combinations, plus the trade for guard Courtney Lee and signing forward James Johnson out of the NBA Development League, that even Grizzlies TV play-by-play man Pete Pranica has had to make adjustments as he tries to anticipate where players will be on the court in a given situation.
“Rather than focus on combinations, you focus on individual players and what they bring to the table,” Pranica said. “In the case of a James Johnson, he leads the league in blocked 3-point shots so you know to look for that.”
The recent All-Star break came at a great time for the Grizzlies. It gave Conley several days of rest after missing seven games with a sprained ankle. It gave Gasol time after aggravating his knee injury just before the break. And it gave veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, who turns 34 on Feb. 28, a chance to put his feet up.
“My legs feel a lot better,” Prince said, in explaining why he could play 39 minutes against the Knicks and chase after Carmelo Anthony all night. “When you get up in age, nagging injuries can last throughout the year.”
It also doesn’t help when opponents know you’re wounded.
“You can’t move as good laterally, so they attack you, push on you, bump your knee a little bit,” Randolph said. “You know how it goes.”
Conley not only has to adjust to his ankle’s limitations, but to this diminished version of Gasol.
“I’m used to him being able to go one-on-one and do a couple of different things for himself,” Conley said. “Now he wants me to score more, he wants me to be aggressive at the rim to open things up for him. There’s some tentative nature in him right now. For him to go out there with the knee injury he’s going to be worried and not as confident because of the way his knee feels.”
Guard Tony Allen has been out more than a month with a sprained wrist. When he returns, Pranica at least will know what to look for – well, within the realm of all things Tony.
“Tony’s pretty unpredictable,” Pranica said, adding with a smile, “Particularly when he’s trying to go for a layup and draw contact.”