Grizzlies Look to Build Momentum

By Don Wade

Their winning streak is a modest two games. But don’t tell the Grizzlies they’re the same team that they were a month ago.

Since a five-game losing streak from Dec. 11-18, the Grizzlies have gone 7-4. They have added forward James Johnson, who has injected them with energy, athleticism and an ability to contribute numbers all across a box score. They have exchanged a disappointing Jerryd Bayless for shooting guard Courtney Lee, who in the Grizzlies 108-101 victory over Atlanta Sunday, Jan. 12, at FedExForum scored 15 points in his first start since being acquired from Boston on Jan. 7.

Point guard Mike Conley has scored at least 21 points in four of his last five games and scored 30 and 31 in back-to-back games. The Grizzlies (17-19) increasingly look nothing like the team that lost to Dallas on Dec. 18 to fall to 10-15.

“We were just looking for something to go well,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said of where the team was in the midst of that five-game losing streak. “We had been putting in our work.”

But not seeing a lot from it.

“When you go through situations where you are losing, you start to second-guess things,” said veteran Mike Miller, who scored 15 points off the bench in Sunday’s win over the Hawks.

Forward James Johnson’s addition has been a part of the renewed energy for the Grizzlies as they have rebounded nicely from a five-game losing streak in December.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We lost five in a row and you start to wonder,” Joerger said. “So to get one win, to get two wins, we started believing that the world isn’t going to end and we are going to be OK and our hard work that we put in … we are going to be rewarded.”

Johnson’s arrival brought change and it was again on display in the fourth quarter of the victory over Atlanta. A 13-point Memphis lead melted under a 16-0 Atlanta run that gave the Hawks a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Joerger played the 6-9, 245-pound reserve forward the entire quarter and he scored four points with four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Conley scored eight points in the final frame and made six of his 13 assists. Miller knocked down two 3-pointers and scored eight and power forward Zach Randolph had six of his 18 points and produced another double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

The team’s improved play, Johnson said, isn’t about players getting used to “role.”

“I think everyone is playing together,” he said. “No one cares who is scoring the ball. If anyone is hot, we are just making sure we get it to that person. We just all want to win.”

And Sunday’s victory over the Hawks was something of a must-win. Consider: Atlanta’s one of just four Eastern Conference teams over .500. For the Hawks, a game at Memphis wasn’t crucial. But the Grizzlies won at home for just the ninth time in 21 games and are facing a steep climb in the Western Conference playoff race.

“It’s tough to look over there and know we’d be in the playoffs now,” Conley said of the East. “But we wouldn’t trade it. Every game means something.”

Ever since All-Star center Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury on Nov. 22, the goal has been to maintain – to stay around .500 until the Big Fella returns. The Grizzlies are close again.

“We have to take it day to day,” Johnson said. “We can’t set a goal that we can’t reach (yet). Once we get to .500, that’s a goal we can scratch off and then we get to the next one.”

The next game, of course, is Tuesday, Jan. 14, against Oklahoma City at FedExForum. Big challenge, even with the Thunder missing point guard Russell Westbrook.

“Obviously, they’re a very talented team,” Conley said. “It would be a huge win for us at home. It’d be a good statement.”