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VOL. 8 | NO. 44 | Saturday, October 24, 2015

Together Again

With core parts still in place, Grizzlies begin push for the most special season yet

By Don Wade

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To look ahead to next season, we must first go back to last season. To that heady time when the Grizzlies held a 2-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals.

In the wake of the Grizzlies’ Game 3 99-89 victory before a raucous FedExForum crowd, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was left to talk about the lessons a young team has to learn in the playoffs.

(AP Photos/Brandon Dill)

“It’s the only way to figure it out,” Kerr said, “to go through the pain of losing a game like tonight.”

Meanwhile, all of Memphis allowed itself to dream crazy dreams. Even not-yet-a-Grizzly-and-still-a-hated-L.A. Clipper Matt Barnes was envisioning the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals.

“I thought we were gonna be playing them,” Barnes said.

The Clippers, you may recall, were up 3-1 on the Houston Rockets only to lose three straight and the series. The Grizzlies also lost three straight and the series to the Warriors, who went on to win the NBA title.

Leading a series does not necessarily mean winning a series, but it’s worth remembering that the Grizzlies changed the temperature in the greater NBA room. After Game 3, the aptly named fan website goldenstateofmind.com asked this question in a headline:

“Is it time to panic?”

Some 581 fans, or 37 percent, voted “Yes, the Warriors have no answers.” The rest were all on the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge … OK, not really, but panic is an easy commodity in the fickle postseason.

Doubt also is readily available – year-round, in fact – but in the postseason the margin for error is much smaller. Get hot at the right time, avoid key injuries while your opponent encounters one or more physical setbacks and, well, there are ways to surprise. Or at least ways to get fan websites to use the word panic in a headline.

“It’s easy to use excuses for us,” point guard Mike Conley said. “But the way we see it, especially in the Western Conference, you gotta have some luck and we were unlucky at that time.

“How many times am I gonna break my face? Hopefully, just one. That stuff doesn’t happen very often. And Tony Allen (hamstring), when we were up 2-1; a bunch of stuff didn’t go our way. We go up 3-1, it could be a different story.”

Keeping the core together

There also could be a different story had controlling owner Robert Pera and the Grizzlies not stepped up with a five-year, $113 million max contract to retain center Marc Gasol. A victory for Memphis and small markets everywhere.

“I’m glad he liked Memphis,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said when the Rockets were in Memphis for a preseason game. “They paid him a lot, too. He didn’t come back for free; did I miss that part?”

No doubt the sarcastic McHale would have preferred to see Gasol go to the Eastern Conference. Now, with Big Spain back in a Memphis uniform, there is great optimism about the team being able to sign Conley, who becomes a free agent this summer.

“I love the city,” Conley said, echoing Gasol a year ago. “My thoughts are this season and the team. Free agency will take care of itself.”

The Grizzlies are aiming for a sixth straight trip to the postseason and Conley, Gasol, power forward Zach Randolph and swingman Tony Allen were key parts of the five previous rides, the longest one coming in 2013 under then-coach Lionel Hollins when they went through the Clippers and an Oklahoma City team missing point guard Russell Westbrook before getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals.

Three times in the last five seasons, the Grizzlies have won at least one round in the playoffs. Conley’s masked-man performance in the Game 2 victory at Golden State is the latest lore, and collectively the core players now have something in abundance they once didn’t: experience – good, bad, lucky, unlucky, all of it.

“There’s nothing they haven’t seen,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace.

They also might lead the league in continuity and chemistry – non-Texas division.

Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright were added to the Grizzlies' roster in the offseason. With a mix of young talent that includes JaMychal Green and Russ Smith, the moves help deepen the bench and should allow coach Dave Joerger to manage precious starter minutes.

(AP Photos/Brandon Dill)

“Never have any problems,” Randolph said. “Everybody get along. Mike, Marc, me, TA, just good guys. It shows a lot about the organization, too, the loyalty to players. I know we ain’t San Antonio, but it’s like a San Antonio. So it’s a good thing.”

Such a good thing that at Media Day in late September, Allen grew tired of repeated questions about the Core Four’s time together and how much longer it might last.

“What y’all trying to do, break us up?” Allen asked.

Behind the front office’s closed doors, however, the break-up question had to be asked. The answer, from all appearances, is that the team’s leaders believe this group is worth at least another shot, and perhaps more.

When the Grizzlies acquired Barnes and added athletic big man Brandan Wright, coach Dave Joerger said they were doubling-down on “nasty.”

The rest of the NBA does not play the Grizzlies’ “grit-and-grind” style of emphasizing defense, big-post players, a slower pace of play, and judicious 3-point attempts. And yes, the Grizzlies’ style comes with peril (more on that in a moment), but it also comes with payoff.

“This is who we are, and this is what we’re good at,” Joerger said. “So we’re kinda everybody’s knuckleball.”

And for a time, when it mattered most, the Warriors couldn’t hit it.

“We try to force people to play the way we do,” Conley said. “When we do that, we feel we always have a chance to win no matter who it is. That’s what gives us confidence when we go into these playoff series playing a No. 1 seed. If we can get them to play our style, we know we’re the best at doing that.”

So, how do they get better – and not worse?

The much-coveted knockdown free agent 3-point shooter did not walk through the Grizzlies’ door. Thus, the company line is the same as it has ever been:

Improvement can, and will, come from within. Wallace says Conley gets better each year as a 3-point shooter, but the numbers could tell you what you’re going to get: Conley has made from 105 to 107 3-pointers in each of the last three seasons. He is a 38.6 percent shooter from long range for his career.

He is pretty good, not great.

Courtney Lee, who may or may not start at shooting guard, has shot right at 40 percent in four different seasons of his NBA career but is a career 38.5 percent shooter from 3-point range. Perhaps being in a contract year will motivate him to pull the trigger more often.

The team loves to tout forward Jeff Green’s north-of-40 percent 3-point shooting from the corners, but he’s a 34.2 percent shooter from distance for his career. Green, too, is in a contract year.

Barnes offers tough defense with better long-range shooting (33.8 percent) than Allen, and second-year guard Jordan Adams might eventually help in this area. But the Grizzlies’ best opportunity to play differently likely will come from increased interior athleticism when Wright and forward JaMychal Green are on the floor together, perhaps with Jeff Green and Barnes or Allen, and the blur that is second-year point guard Russ Smith.

“They should be able to spread the floor a little more,” Joerger said of a quicker second unit with shifting parts. “I don’t know that we will play faster. The big thing for us is easy baskets. We play such a low-possession game, that giving up an easy basket or getting an easy basket is like a basket and a half for us. That group may be able to do some things the other group does not.”

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Also much anticipated: Allen and Barnes playing defense together in a game that counts, say against the Warriors with 3-point threats Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“(Tony) is just a smaller, quicker version of me,” Barnes said. “We talked in the summer about him switching on Steph and me taking Klay. They haven’t had that option in the past. He’s always had to guard one of those guys and the other one was kinda left.”

So, yes, there are ways to envision the Grizzlies getting a little better – albeit by staying in their well-defined lane and playing at a higher level.

But there is concern about their collective staying power. Randolph is 34, Allen is 33, Gasol is 30 but has extra miles from international competition, and Conley is 28 but already has played eight NBA seasons.

Even before the facial fracture last year, Conley was battered by nagging foot, ankle and wrist injuries. Which is why the day before training camp started, Conley admitted: “I told my wife last night, `This is as good as my body’s gonna feel all year. Right now, at this point.”

Presumably, however, a healthy Conley will show no significant signs of decline. Same for Gasol. But Allen and Randolph have reached the point where regression might be inevitable. Beyond them, Barnes is 35 and Vince Carter, who didn’t live up to billing as a 3-point shooter off the bench last season, is 38.

Managing minutes will matter, although that’s easier said than done. Z-Bo does not come off the floor easily.

“Once he gets fully lathered he’s like, `What, now?’” Joerger said.

Randolph says he knows the time is coming when he will need more rest. He doesn’t believe that time is now.

“I’m still in my prime,” he said.

Pushing hard, aiming high

Last season, a favorable early schedule helped the Grizzlies race out to a hot start. When they defeated the Warriors and Spurs (the 3OT game) on back-to-back nights in mid-December, they were 21-4. This season’s early schedule is tougher.

But like Wallace said, nothing they haven’t already seen. The Grizzlies, then, will lean on the comfort of their continuity.

“We’ve basically grown up in this league together, had our successes together, had our failures together,” Conley said of the Core Four. “We’ve seen everybody at their worst, at their best. It’s easy to be alongside these guys.”

Which is not to say there is any intent on easing into the season.

“We know the time is now,” said Carter.

“We have to step a little bit into the unknown. If we want to try and be elite and win it all, it’s a territory we really haven’t been in,” Gasol said, adding, “Push, push, push, sacrifice every day, a little bit harder.”

Gasol, by signing that big contract, essentially committed the rest of his professional basketball life to this team, to the goal of doing something special here as opposed to anywhere else.

So Craig Brewer’s short film, “Marc Gasol of Memphis,” proved to be less of a marketing ploy to keep the game’s best center than a reflection of why Gasol would choose to stay where older brother Pau was the NBA Rookie of the Year playing in The Pyramid.

Back then, of course, Marc was just an oversized and under-conditioned high school player at Lausanne Collegiate School.

Now? He’s the face of the franchise, not to mention the corn maze by the Agricenter.

“How together the city and team is, it’s amazing,” Gasol said. “When I came back later on, Calipari was in town so it was only college (basketball) and no Grizzlies and we get maybe 2,000 people in stands. Now, we got a great thing going. And we want to make the fans proud, honestly.”

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