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VOL. 8 | NO. 7 | Saturday, February 07, 2015

Dream Season

Playing with an ‘edge,’ Memphis Grizzlies just might be a legit NBA title contender

By Don Wade

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The Grizzlies had just defeated the rival Oklahoma City Thunder before a loud sellout crowd in The Grindhouse and Jerry “The King” Lawler had defended his Memphis championship wrestling belt, albeit with an assist from the Grizzlies’ crack game operations staff.

It was a party of a night, a crazy night when afterward in the locker room Zach Randolph was asked who would he have been had he been a pro wrestler.

“The Undertaker,” Z-Bo decided after some deliberation, and that seemed appropriate enough given that he just dropped 21 points and 18 rebounds on OKC in an 85-74 victory.

The Thunder, of course, were the ones that ended the Grizzlies’ season last spring in a first-round playoff series when Z-Bo was suspended for Game 7 by the NBA after grappling with the Thunder’s Steven Adams, who clearly missed his calling as a villain who gets a chair busted over his head.

After the recent game with OKC, someone noticed that one of those instantly popular Grizzlies wrestling belts that the team had given away to fans was stashed in point guard Mike Conley’s locker.

“Are you gonna wear it?” somebody asked.

“Nah, man, we ain’t won nothing yet,” Conley said with a smile.

And so without spoiling the night’s happy vibe the Grizzlies’ ever-calm floor general injected just enough sobriety into the mix of what has been a giddy season, an already almost unbelievable season.

Remember the great moments already enjoyed this season?

How about winning in three overtimes at San Antonio? Or rallying from a 26-point deficit against Sacramento to win on a Courtney Lee buzzer-beater? Or stopping Golden State’s 16-game winning streak? Or having center Marc Gasol voted to start the All-Star Game? And most recently, that can’t-happen comeback at Phoenix that included some heroics from the newest Grizzly, Jeff Green, and ended on a walk-off block by Gasol?

That, by the way, is just the short highlight reel.

After a while, you catch yourself imagining Z-Bo borrowing mascot Grizz’s cape with the big “G” on it and in an NBA battle royal throwing everyone over the ropes who stands in the Grizzlies’ path to a title belt, everyone from the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan to the L.A. Clippers’ Blake Griffin to Golden State’s backcourt – Stephen Curry in one hand, Klay Thompson in the other … heave-ho, fellas, now you’re the Splat Brothers.

Alas, there is no staging an NBA championship. Ric Flair was in the house for wrestling night and even slapped some skin with Z-Bo as part of the fun. But there is too much NBA season left for Memphians to let out a collective “Woo!”

What the Grizzlies have done so far is play really well and capture a city’s heart and imagination months before the playoffs begin. Know how coach Dave Joerger forever talks about the need to “play with force?” Well, the Grizzlies have forced the national narrative of this NBA season to include them.

No, they still are not as central to the main plot as what LeBron James had for breakfast, as Kobe Bryant’s latest injury, as Kevin Durant’s mopey face, as the on-going crisis that is the New York Knicks, as Damian Lillard’s All-Star snub or as the preternatural jump shots of Splash Brothers Curry and Thompson.

But finally – finally – the Grizzlies are on the national radar.

The other night, for instance, the Western Conference standings flashed on television screens all over this great land and the Warriors had a 1 before their name and the Grizzlies had a 2.

The defending NBA champion Spurs were in the picture, but all the way down there in the seventh playoff spot where, at least in theory, they cannot continue to drink from the Fountain of Youth.

The Thunder, who had just had that very unpleasant experience at FedExForum, were on the outside looking in – three games behind Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff berth.

This was on Tuesday, Feb. 3, and the host of ESPN’s NBA Coast to Coast asked former NBA players Tim Legler and Chauncey Billups to make their picks for the team mostly likely to come out of the West and reach the NBA Finals. The guys showed off great verticals in an effort to climb aboard the only bandwagon driven by a large blue bear.

“Watch out for the Memphis Grizzlies. They could be the team most built for the playoffs,” Legler said.

“They have an identity,” Billups added.

Of course, in the next breath, Billups offered the disclaimer: “But there is stiff competition.”

So don’t cue the parade on Beale Street yet. Just keep your calendar open.

A Chip on Their Grit-and-Grind Shoulders

The NBA regular season still has about 70 business days left. And it takes three rounds of playoffs to win the wild, wild West and make prophets out of Legler, Billups and TNT’s Charles Barkley.

The “G” in Grizzlies still does not stand for Glamorous. They are still not sleek and fast. Definitely a little faster and more athletic after trading for Green in January, but their identity is essentially the same as it was in December when they defeated the Warriors here and the Grizzlies were still invisible.

“It ain’t just about them; we’re pretty good, too,” said the Grizzlies’ minister of defense, Tony Allen. “They’ve got the Splash Brothers but we’ve got the Blues Brothers (Gasol and Randolph).”

Go back a little farther, to the annual NBA General Managers Survey before the season, and the Grizzlies were about as anonymous as a team could be that had made the playoffs four straight years and reached the Western Conference Finals in 2013.

Asked in the survey what team would win the West, the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Spurs (55.6 percent), gave the Thunder a decent chance (29.6 percent), the Clippers something of a chance (11.1 percent) and the Warriors a slim chance (3.7 percent). The Grizzlies? No votes, no chance.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“The Memphis Grizzlies? Never heard of them,” Conley said then when informed of the poll results. “Never heard of anybody on their team. That’s who we are.”

It is still who they are to the extent that the Western Conference coaches did not select Conley and Randolph as All-Star reserves, at least not initially. An injury or two might open the door for one of them, but the snub remains.

“We’ve got a team that deserves two All-Stars no matter who you pick,” Conley said.

“I’d rather win a championship than (be an) All-Star any day,” said Randolph, who twice has made the team with the Grizzlies.

Earlier this season, Clippers coach Doc Rivers noted not only that the slimmed-down Gasol was playing “with an edge,” but that it was true of the entire team.

“They all have that edge,” Rivers said as the Grizzlies jumped out to a 15-2 start that included a 16-point win over the Clippers at FedExForum. “You can feel it when you watch them on tape.”

After the Grizzlies had blasted the Houston Rockets 119-93, coach Kevin McHale was even blunter: “They beat the hell out of us.”

The Grizzlies are built to beat the hell out of opponents.

“We’re in an era where the game is played more from the outside in and the 3-point ball has grown in importance,” said Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace. “We’re like a football team that has a strong running attack and a great offensive line in an era of spread offenses.”

On the Dallas Mavericks’ first trip to Memphis this season, the Grizzlies beat them 114-105 and as Gasol was shooting free throws to put the finishing touches on his 30-point night, fans began chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P.”

Randolph – “Mr. Double-Double,” as Green now calls him – scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds – nine of them offensive boards – in that same game.

“It’s almost like they miss layups on purpose just to get it back,” Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons said.

Even after the Mavericks beat the Grizzlies here on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the most impressive victory of their season to that point, there was a beat-up-feeling afterward.

“Big boys on the glass, Conley’s tough, they’re a really, really good team,” forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “Adding Green gives them another scoring punch out there. And it’s a tough building. This is as loud as it gets on both ends of the floor.”

A Title Match for the Grizzlies?

If there are doubts, they belong to outsiders. Internally, there are cautions. And gatekeepers, if you will, of The Edge.

Many Grizzlies players can fill this role in a given moment, but the three people who are unwavering in this are the second-year coach, the All-Star center, and the underappreciated point guard.

“We played our brand. We defended,” Joerger said after the Grizzlies held Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder to a measly 74 points as neither so-called superstar scored more than 15 points.

“We have to keep raising the bar,” Gasol said. “We cannot be satisfied.”

The Grizzlies are not scared when they look around the jungle full of predators that is the Western Conference. But you would have to be naïve to not realize how deep the conference is and that if the Thunder manage to supplant the Suns in the eighth spot, a case can be made for each team having the capability to reach the NBA Finals.

“They will be a playoff team,” Randolph predicted of OKC.

Joerger’s not about to say one team worries him more than another, but he has spoken of the re-tooled Rockets, led by MVP candidate James Harden, in something close to awe: “Dynamite team. They’re loaded.”

The theory for the Grizzlies advancing is that after years of being a defensive team that always “dragged you into the mud” on offense, they can now show more offensive versatility without losing they’re one-of-a-kind identity. They’re not a prolific 3-point shooting team (their 5.5 threes per game ranks 28th), but Lee is second only to Atlanta’s Kyle Korver in made 3-point field goal percentage and Conley is also over 40 percent from deep. They are legitimate threats when open and help create space in the paint for Gasol and Randolph.

Going into their Wednesday, Feb. 4, game at Utah, the Grizzlies were 36-12, on a seven-game winning streak and ranked first in the NBA in points allowed, at 96.1 per game, and 11th in points scored at 101.3 points per game.

That’s defending your brand on one end and expanding your game on the other.

“Their defense, when they’re set up, they’re as good as anybody,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Offensively, they’re running really good stuff with multiple options.”

That’s called having balance. It’s also a sign that the surprise is gone.

“Teams are giving us their best shots,” Conley said. “People aren’t overlooking us, doubting what we can do. They know what we can do.”

And the Grizzlies, in the dream scenario, know what they can do, too. But if it is to happen, Gasol believes how you finish a game against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers matters, too, somehow figures into the equation of whether you’ll be good enough and tough enough in those many micro moments of a game and a season that determine if you have a real chance to be the last team standing.

“Our goal is to strive to be good and play in June … and all those big words that we say,” Gasol said. “We have to execute every play no matter the score, no matter the opponent. We have to worry about us and be who we have to be, no matter who is in front of us.”

For to not do that will be to have regrets, to forever look back and realize that this was the time they could have been a contender.

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