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VOL. 130 | NO. 210 | Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Grizz Tip Off Season to Begin Pursuit of Another Playoffs Run

By Don Wade

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The Memphis Grizzlies had just endured a 22-60 season, a season so bad that coach Mike Fratello had been fired right after Christmas.

The familiar Memphis Grizzlies are ready to tip off a new season Wednesday, Oct. 28, when they host LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers at FedExForum.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

A season so bad that the Grizzlies didn’t win their 10th game of the season until January.

A season so bad that they didn’t win consecutive games until the last week of March.

That was the recent and miserable history that general manager Chris Wallace inherited when hired in June of 2007.

“We had to re-win the fan base,” Wallace recalled. “So I heard it all the first couple of years.”

Ah, yes, the bad old days. When Tony Barone Sr. was soldiering forward as interim coach, when Rudy Gay was a wide-eyed rookie and when Stromile Swift was the highest-jumping disappointment on planet Earth.

A long time ago. A million miles, or it seems, from today, when the contender with five straight playoff appearances will open this season on Wednesday night, Oct. 28, vs. the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.

Now, no one questions if the Grizzlies will remain in Memphis. They’re here. All-Star center Marc Gasol (and his new $113 million contract) is here for the next five years. Everyone expects tough-guy point guard Mike Conley to re-sign after this season, too.

“Even the most skeptical fan from years ago realizes we’re here to stay and we’re embedded in this community,” Wallace said.

“We’re thinking championship, we’re thinking ring.”

–Zach Randolph

So embedded, in fact, that love for the Grizzlies trumps hate for a former rival. New Grizzly Matt Barnes, who was once a despised trash can-kicking Los Angeles Clipper, has been shown nothing but Southern hospitality here – even before the season officially tips off.

“It’s crazy,” Barnes said. “People say hi to you, talk to you. I’m coming from L.A., where everyone’s stuck-up, quiet, stick to themselves, and talk bad about you.”

Yes, Memphis is nicer, more genuine and, by the way, a place where a lot basketball games can be won. Forward Jeff Green joined the Grizzlies from the Boston Celtics last season. He knows what it is to be the leading scorer on a team that loses more than it wins and it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.

“Individual stats are pretty, but you can average 25 (points) and you can be losing, 25 games under .500,” Green said. “Winning is fun. I’ve been on both sides. When you’re losing, everything you do is wrong. There’s a different vibe when you’re winning.”

The overwhelming vibe around the Grizzlies, after losing in the second round of the playoffs to Golden State, is unfinished business. That’s hardly unique. Every other team that’s not the Warriors and that didn’t win the NBA championship has the same feeling to one degree or another.

But because this team with a core that still includes Gasol, Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen reached the Western Conference Finals in 2013, there is a feeling that they’ve been close enough to have earned the right to dream.

Asked what fans’ expectations should be for the season, Randolph said: “Nothing but the best, because we’re not thinking anything less. We’re thinking championship, we’re thinking ring. That’s the way we’ve got to be thinking.”

Skeptics, of course, will point out that the Grizzlies did not forcefully address their lack of a 3-point marksman and that it could be difficult to improve when the league keeps playing faster.

Even coach Dave Joerger acknowledges that the way the Warriors play is the way a lot of teams want to play.

“Everybody’s gonna play more spread pick-and-rolls than ever,” he said. “New Orleans is gonna play the old Phoenix style, the Golden State style; they’re gonna spread it around and it just continues to go that way.”

It is not a way the Grizzlies can go – at least not for long – and their main players are all 28 or older. Given the length of the NBA season, it calls into question their less than spectacular collective athleticism and whether or not their best basketball is behind them.

In other words, is this season the last opportunity for this group to provide the fan base with the ultimate prize?

“I don’t think so,” Conley said. “As we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten better. Each year has made us smarter.

“No, I’m not dunking like I would have liked to when I was in high school, but I’ve become a much better player. And Tony Allen isn’t wind-milling down the middle of the lane, but he’s become a much more efficient player. And Marc Gasol doesn’t need to dunk; he does everything around the rim. People worry so much about athleticism, speed of the game, they forget about the angles and the little things that all of us have started to master and use to our advantage.”

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