Grizzlies Making Key Strides

By Don Wade

Last Saturday, Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale was looking back at his team’s 88-87 loss at home to the Grizzlies the previous night.

Zach Randolph was a rebounding machine in the Grizzlies recent win over the Houston Rockets at FedExForum, finishing with 17. He also tied Pau Gasol’s franchise record for double-doubles with 189.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The teams were about to play again at FedExForum, a quirk in the schedule that essentially created a 24-hour two-game series.

“They imposed their will on us,” McHale said of the game in Houston, in which forward Chandler Parsons’ NBA record-setting second half – 10 threes – wasn’t enough to overcome the Grizzlies’ physicality.

McHale didn’t know it, but things were about to get much worse.

On Saturday night, the Grizzlies went beyond imposing their will on the Rockets, to downright bullying them. In a 99-81 win – the Grizzlies’ seventh in their last eight games – they dominated the team that supposedly has the game’s best center and that some people had as a trendy pick to to reach the NBA Finals. Dwight Howard finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, while the Grizzlies owned the glass, 52-38, and outscored Houston in the paint 56-32.

Had this been a mini-playoff series, the Rockets would have been grounded.

Forward Zach Randolph finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds in Saturday’s game for his 189th career double-double as a Grizzly, tying Pau Gasol’s franchise record; Randolph only needed 300 games while Pau required 476. Fitting.

The Grizzlies are now 22-20 and about to embark a three-game road trip and a stretch where they play six of their next eight on the road. The question is if the Grizzlies can now be expected to impose their will most nights?

“We are playing our way, and that’s physical basketball, 48 minutes, grit-and-grind,” Randolph said.

So, the old Grizzlies are back?

“We’re as close as we’ve been,” point guard Mike Conley said. “We’re not all the way there, but we’re making huge strides.”

Those strides began with a Dec. 21 win at New York that snapped a five-game losing streak. Since then, the Grizz are 12-5 and have not lost back-to-back games. Not coincidentally, the game at New York was just forward James Johnson’s third with the team since being signed out of the NBA Developmental League. Johnson’s energy, athleticism and ability to impact games in multiple ways – he had 12 points, eight assists, four rebounds and four steals in the Saturday victory over the Rockets – has been a game-changer.

“We are ready to win,” Johnson said. “We prepare like we want to win. We are traveling like we want to win and everyone is holding each other accountable.”

Center Marc Gasol’s return – Memphis is 5-1 since he came back from a knee injury that sidelined him for 23 games – has raised the accountability bar. He scored but six points with five boards against the Rockets Saturday, but nonetheless helped set the tone.

“He’s Defensive Player of the Year for a reason,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “He quarterbacks our whole defense. He gives Zach a lot of support. He helps our guards a lot. We’re able to jump into a different coverage because of his IQ.”

Gasol dismissed the notion that he is the “anchor” of the defense, but he does take serious the idea of the team working hard at defending each and every possession.

“You’re not going to keep teams from scoring,” he said, “but we need to make them work for their shots. We don’t have the firepower to average 110 points. We have to hold teams in the 80s, in the 90s.”

The trade that brought shooting guard Courtney Lee to the Grizzlies also has been a huge boost. In seven starts, Lee has scored fewer than 15 points just once. He’s a solid defender and a legit 3-point shooter.

“Courtney, James, those guys have contributed in a big way,” Conley said. “Courtney’s been taking the right shots, making the right plays. He’s not going to chuck it if he’s double-teamed. He makes the extra pass. He’s a good basketball player. And James is the same way.”

Johnson says he’s just trying to live up to the example being set.

“It starts with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph,” Johnson said. “When you see those two banging down there, playing physical, making hard fouls, getting fouled hard, it is just easy to follow.”