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VOL. 8 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 18, 2015

Taking Care of Business

Grizzlies aim to emerge victorious in their first-round playoff series and then upset the odds

By Don Wade

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The postseason is – take your pick – a new season, the second season, the only season that matters.

But before delving into the Grizzlies’ path in the NBA Playoffs, which starts with the Grizzlies as the 5 seed in a first-round Western Conference matchup up with 4-seed Portland Sunday night at FedExForum, a rewind is in order.

See if you remember the following as the Grizzlies returned the Core Four – Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen – after a fourth-straight trip to the postseason in 2014:

“Yeah, we’ve done some things but I don’t think the journey’s over,” Gasol said, almost by way of promise back in October. “The best is still to come.”

Randolph offered this preseason assessment: “This year we shouldn’t get off to a 5-10, 5-15 start. There shouldn’t be no way. It’s not gonna be like that this year. We’ve got the same core guys. I think this is our year.”

And true to their word, the Grizzlies’ start was frenetic: 6-0 on Nov. 7, 15-2 on Nov. 30, and 21-4 after that three-overtime win Dec. 17 at San Antonio. The notion that “this is our year” took hold early, became as rooted in the city’s psyche as the idea that barbecue is a major food group and that craft beer is a life-sustaining nectar.

The Grizzlies were 39-14 at the All-Star break and the boldest talk from the preseason didn’t sound crazy as much as like a dream worth dreaming.

“The next step is finally winning a championship,” general manager Chris Wallace said six months ago. “That is the high ground that has eluded us. That’s our only goal.”

After going 16-13 since the All-Star break and watching a pretty solid hold on the 2 seed turn into a desperate stand on the season’s last night to beat the Indiana Pacers and retain home court, no one on the outside is now using Grizzlies and championship in the same sentence. Not unless they are speaking of No. 1 seed Golden State or the San Antonio Spurs having no trouble dispensing with the Grizzlies on the way to a Western Conference title.

Now, without question, the Grizzlies’ adversities have been unevenly weighted on the back end of this season, as the team finished with a 55-27 record. Tony Allen’s hamstring. Mike Conley’s assorted nagging injuries, including the bad right foot that had him on the bench the last four games of the season. Gasol’s sprained ankle, which he played through well enough to score a career-high 33 points with 13 rebounds in the 95-83 victory over the Pacers. But more concerning is a general team malaise that has hovered over the Grizzlies more often than not since the All-Star break.

“We’ve had our lingering issues,” Conley said late in the season. “We try to fix one thing and another thing pops up. But we’ve stayed together through it all.”

Not without strife, however. Allen and reserve guard Nick Calathes got into it in practice. Players have barked at one another on the court. Randolph complained about the ball not being fed to the post with his now oft-repeated line, “throw it to the hand.” And on any given night, a critical post-game assessment from Gasol, who perhaps has the keenest sense even in victory of when the Grizzlies are getting away with loose play and when they are playing with enough precision to aim for that so-called high ground.

“It’s more about us. I’ve always said that,” Gasol said before the Grizzlies’ first-round playoff opponent and seed were known. “I don’t care who we are playing. The main thing I care about is how we play basketball. I care about what we stand for as men and as players. We have to do a better job on a daily basis.”

Coach Dave Joerger has said, more than once, that the team plays better with its back against the wall. But at times that statement has sounded more like a hope and a prayer than a steadfast belief. In the big picture, Wallace was right that a championship has eluded the franchise. But in the smaller frames that form the picture of the last 30 games, mere consistency has eluded the Grizzlies.

And the longer this has gone on, the longer the shadow of doubt has grown. Yes, even millionaire pro athletes can reach the point where they look in the mirror and wonder if they can put the ball in the hoop even though they have done so all of their lives.

“You know, when you go months where you play bad you get a bunch of different people telling you different things,” Conley said. “Why aren’t you shooting the ball well? You used to shoot 40 percent (from three), now you shoot 30 percent or whatever.

The Grizzlies are hoping to make a deep run, possibly meeting league-best record  holders Golden State, in the Western Conference Playoffs.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You get all kinds of people talking in your ear and sometimes you start believing that, ‘Maybe I do need to work on that, maybe I need to change something.’ When in all reality you just need to go to work like you normally do and it will come back to you, instead of thinking about it so much.

“We might have got caught up in that a little bit.”

Which begs the question: Can they flip the switch back to that confident overdrive setting that marked the first 50 or so games this season?

“Some people can and some people can’t,” Joerger said. “But generally when you try to do it and you don’t have a consistency behind you, it doesn’t last very long. That’s the problem with trying to turn it on and turn it off.”

It was turned back on for regular season game No. 82. At least for Gasol and Randolph, who bullied their way down the last few steps of the NBA block to ensure home-court advantage did not slip away in the final hours.

“It’s big for us, what we’ve been working for,” Randolph said. “But it’s not home-court advantage if we don’t take care of business.”

The Case for a Deep Run
Assuming everyone is at or near physical capacity, the Grizzlies are still capable of creating grit-n-grind havoc for the competition. They finished the season with a defensive rating of 99.9 (points allowed per 100 possessions), which was fourth-best in the league. When engaged and a little hacked off, they are elite defensively in the half-court.

Allen, of course, is key to this. He can lock down anyone – yes, even Golden State Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – in game-turning stretches. The Grizzlies’ offensive rating of 103.1 ranked 13th in the NBA and their net rating – the difference between offense and defense – was +3.1, 11th in the league.

That’s better balance than they’ve had in the past, if a bit behind Portland (fifth at 4.2) and way behind Golden State (first at 11.4), the likely next opponent should the Grizzlies make it out of the first round.

But the Grizzlies, in theory, also score in the intangibles that the analytics crowd won’t ever consider: a veteran roster with much playoff experience and a hunger to exceed the run to the conference finals in 2013.

Conley has a backup who can score in Beno Udrih and the bigger and longer Nick Calathes offers defense off the bench and at times good playmaking. Forward Jeff Green, acquired from Boston mid-season, ups the Grizzlies’ athletic profile, is a good defender, and much like Shane Battier once was, is a 3-point threat when shooting from his pet spot in the corner. Guard Courtney Lee finished 13th in the NBA in 3-point percentage at 40.2 percent – more than respectable.

The Grizzlies, though wounded, are still good enough to advance out of the first round and perhaps different enough in style to frustrate the Warriors and make that series more interesting than “experts” believe possible.

The Case Against a Deep Run
Although capable of elite defense and by the numbers an improved offense, the Grizzlies are a Big Chief writing tablet and a fat pencil in an age of iPads and instant everything, including offense that they just can’t generate fast enough to keep up with the Warriors, Houston Rockets and perhaps even Portland.

Their pace of play ranks 29th in the league, meaning they have fewer possessions in which to complete their offensive objectives. They make just 5.2 threes per game, which ranks 26th, and is not even half of Houston’s league-leading 11.4 threes per game.

Even Lee, a statistically accurate shooter, is part of the problem. He doesn’t shoot enough, making just 90 threes all season. On the season’s last night, he was sitting at 39.9 percent for the year. He made his first three and pushed his percentage to 40.2 – sort of like a hitter going from .299 to .300. He didn’t take another three.

Green has abilities no other Grizzly has – in franchise history only Stromile Swift could rival him for dunking prowess and Swift wasn’t nearly the player Green is – but there’s also a reason Green was available. He is a very streaky outside shooter.

The Grizzlies also seem fragile psychologically. It’s dangerous to have such early, big goals and then to be put in your place late in the season in two blowout losses to Golden State and another to Cleveland. Those teams are legit NBA title contenders.

The Verdict
So what are the Grizzlies’ odds of winning the NBA championship?

Well, the Bovada sports book has them at 28-1, or the eighth choice out of 16 to win it all. They’re a far longer bet than Cleveland and Golden State at 11-5 each and the Spurs at 7-2. But they are ahead of Portland, which with Dallas is tied for ninth choice at 40-1.

The odds are always against winning a championship, of course, and the Grizzlies’ chances don’t appear as good as they once did.

That said, the games still have to be played. One at a time, one best-of-seven series at a time. It is not a journey for the frail of body or meek of mind. It will, after all, not end until we are closer to the 4th of July than to Memorial Day.

“The whole NBA is about (repeating great effort),” Gasol said. “Tonight you win or you lose, but what are you going to do tomorrow?”

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