VOL. 9 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 24, 2016
By Don Wade
First came the ho-hum start that left open the possibility the Grizzlies’ harshest critics might be right: This season could be the fast-forwarded beginning of an end, a sad narrative that could leave the Grizzlies on the outside of the postseason after a thrilling six-year run.
So, at 4-4 and heading out on a four-game road trip, there was concern. The Grizzlies would play at Milwaukee first and that was – in this age of instant overreaction – pegged as something close to a must-win. When the Grizzlies lost to the Bucks, Twitter timelines rushed past judgment to, well, the NBA apocalypse.
But it was the way his team lost that raised the ire of first-year coach David Fizdale. He had trained for this job at Miami during the Heat’s championship era under coach Erik Spoelstra and team president and Basketball Hall-of-Famer Pat Riley. And so the next day as the Grizzlies practiced in Utah, Fizdale gave eloquence a holiday and his players a personal gift as he opened up a can from his private stash of whoop-ass.
“I had a ‘Riley Rant,’” Fizdale said. “And I had a ‘Riley practice.’ I think I got their attention when it comes to how we’re going to defend.”
Through games of Dec. 18, the Grizzlies were 18-11 and had the best defensive rating in the NBA at 99.3, were fifth in opponents’ effective field goal percentage at 48.8 and seventh in steals at 8.6 per game.
Coaches change, seasons change, but as Tony Allen probably says even in his sleep: “We hang our hat on the defensive end.”
So defensive order was restored. As time went on and the Grizzlies played without point guard Mike Conly (lower back injury), forwards Chandler Parsons (sore knee) and James Ennis (sore calf), and power forward Zach Randolph (bereavement leave), Fizdale dubbed his scrappy, undermanned team the “Nasty Nine.”
At one point, the Grizzlies were even 12-0 in so-called super-clutch games when the score was within three points in the last minute of regulation or overtime.
“We’re getting that chemistry down,” forward JaMychal Green said after an 88-86 win over Portland. “We know how good our defense is. Defense wins games. So when it comes down to those clutch minutes, we don’t panic. We just get stops.”
The Grizzlies were 4-5 at the time of the Riley Rant. They beat the Jazz the next night and then continued the resurgence with a 111-107 victory over the Clippers that included rookie point guard Andrew Harrison running down Chris Paul from behind to block a sure layup and center Marc Gasol using his new weapon, the 3-point shot, to game-winning effect as he nailed a triple from the corner with 14 seconds left to play.
Even better for the sports highlights shows and the internet, Big Spain went into a Conor McGregor strut that the MMA star himself would struggle to match.
“The Spanish McGregor Walk, that’s what we call it,” said Conley.
It was a giddy moment. And also the team’s first real test of the season in a playoff-like atmosphere. The Grizzlies ran off six straight wins and at 10-5 everyone was feeling better.
But then came heart-crushing news: Randolph’s mother had passed away. Mae Randolph came to many of the games at The Grindhouse, cheered for her son harder than anybody, and was part of the greater Grizz family.
“She gave the biggest hugs, wouldn’t let go,” Conley said. “She was a beautiful, strong person. When it happened and I called Z, we cried on the phone together.”
More adversity came the Grizzlies’ way on Nov. 28 at FedExForum when Conley went down in a game against Charlotte. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with a fracture in his lower back.
Off-season free agent signee Chandler Parsons (four years and more than $94 million) had only played six games and already was back on the shelf, too. And as of Dec. 18, Parsons had not returned to action but was said to be getting close.
One night after Conley was hurt, the Grizzlies played at Toronto. In a season in which management, Fizdale and Gasol himself had acknowledged he would be sat down for rest after off-season foot injury, there was some thought that Gasol would not play this game. Hey, it figured to be a loss anyway.
For the record, the Grizzlies did lose to the Raptors. But Gasol played and the implication was that neither Gasol nor Fizdale believed it was the right time to concede anything – not just 24 hours after losing Conley.
As Fizdale would say much later, “A lot of people wanted us to roll up and die when everybody went down.”
They didn’t. In fact, the Grizzlies won six straight for the second time this season, the last of those victories a seemingly impossible 110-89 win over Golden State at FedExForum. It marked the Warriors’ lowest point total of the season. Stephen Curry went 3 of 11 from 3-point range and Klay Thompson was 0 of 3. The Splash Brothers couldn’t have hit water if they’d fallen off a Mississippi River barge.
Gasol had 19 points with eight rebounds and six assists. Allen also scored 19 points. Green posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds and Randolph had 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench. The Memphis collective had been better than Golden State’s almost blinding star power.
The Warriors’ Kevin Durant admitted straight up that the Grizzlies’ physically “dictated the game.” Coach Steve Kerr said of the Grizzlies: “They earned everything.”
Gasol, of course, wasn’t caught up in any of it.
“Basketball’s a pretty simple sport,” he said. “Anything can happen if you do the right things.”
Growing, and resting, Gasol
Gasol’s reward for leading the Grizzlies to victory over the Warriors and on a six-game winning streak, minus Conley, was a mandated game off three nights later at Cleveland. It made some sense. The Cavaliers, after all, would be at FedExForum the next night.
Cleveland beat the Grizzlies 103-86 without Gasol as Kevin Love scored a game-high 29 points. Then Love, LeBron James and point guard Kyrie Irving didn’t even come to Memphis so they could rest.
Gasol played, put up a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, and the Grizzlies led Cleveland by 25 points in the fourth quarter before winning 93-85. You win one, you lose won, and you give your star center a night of maintenance.
But that wasn’t how Gasol saw it, providing rich details of his anguish watching his teammates on TV the previous night as they had competed in vain without him.
“It’s quite (painful),” he said, noting that he was drinking a glass of red wine as he tried to stay calm. “I put in on mute. Nothing bad about Pete (Pranica) and Brevin (Knight), but I just look at the game and suffer and get sweaty and get angry. Try not to talk too much. Then comes dinner and I’m not talking through dinner. It’s not fun, not fun at all.”
Gasol, however, had agreed to sitting down for a few games during the season.
“I still don’t like to rest,” he said. “But you have a lot of guys spending a lot of time looking at the games, looking at the data, so you gotta trust it. They know better than I know.
“I know it’s for my best interests, for the team’s best interests. (But) obviously when I play we have a little better chance of winning.”
So Gasol’s minutes will be a story moving forward. Same as his evolution as a 3-point shooter. Through his first 27 games this season, he was 41 of 90 for 45.6 percent. Prior to this season, he had been 12 of 66 over eight years for 18.2 percent.
Fizdale also made him a captain before the season in an effort to amplify Gasol’s role as a leader.
“I watched a lot of film and I noticed his emotions took him out of games for big stretches,” Fizdale said. “I wanted to challenge him to get outside of himself and to look at his teammates and help his teammates in moments like that.”
Playing, Coaching, Rooting with Pain
Conley, too, had been in the midst of a career year before the back injury. He was playing with more confidence, enjoying the freedom Fizdale gave him to score more and shoot from distance with impunity.
“By far the best he’s played,” Kerr said. “I think he was a lock for the All-Star Game.”
Conley returned to action on Friday, Dec. 16, on the occasion of former Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger’s return to Memphis as coach of the Sacramento Kings. In his pregame scrum with local media, he said the right things if sometimes in his get-under-your-skin CDJ way.
“They’re doing great. I’m happy for them,” Joerger said. “They’re winning close games. A lot of things are the same. The pace is still slow, Mike and Marc do their thing. Zach is still a stud. Tony is still the best defender on the perimeter in the last 20 years in the NBA since Bruce Bowen, and they’ve been together a long time.”
And then Joerger’s Kings went out and took the game. They played harder, so much so that after the Grizzlies suffered a 96-92 loss, Fizdale said: “Our effort was pathetic.”
So was their shooting, and Fizdale took advantage of the occasion to pound the obvious: “We shoot bad every night. Let’s be real about it.”
As if to prove his point, the Grizzlies shot even worse two days later in losing 82-73 at home to Utah: 30.1 percent from the floor, and a 2-for-23 clang fest from 3-point range.
Thus, some of yesterday’s problems are still today’s and tomorrow’s problems. Through games of Dec. 18, the Grizzlies ranked last in the league in field goal percentage at 41.4 percent. Their 3-point shooting ranked 29th out of 30 teams at 32.1 percent. They were also 28th in fast-break points at 9.5 per game.
And so if it seemed almost incalculable that the Grizzlies could go on a long winning streak and beat the Warriors without Conley, it has been odd – if not totally unexpected – to see regression upon his return, to see Conley and Gasol not in harmony, but out of sync on the court.
Young players, such as Harrison, Green, rookie guard Troy Williams, hot-and-cold 3-point shooter Troy Daniels, and forward Jarell Martin have made their contributions. Also, their mistakes. Which was why the Grizzlies brought in veteran combo guard Toney Douglas under the league’s injury hardship waiver; he played pretty well but since was let go as Conley returned.
So, another adjustment is in order and the team doesn’t want to make a wrong decision on a young player. That’s why 2016 first-round draft pick and guard Wade Baldwin got another D-League assignment. He’s shown too much raw talent to discard him just because he’s clearly not ready for a consistent role on a team aiming for a seventh straight trip to the postseason.
As for Conley, his first two games back in the lineup indicated a combination of rust and play-inhibiting pain. So Fizdale & Co. were trying to process this new set of challenges: recalibrating the rotation and the offense as the starting point guard works his way back into being himself.
“He won’t tell you guys, but he’s fighting through a lot,” Fizdale said. “He won’t take pain medicine.”
At times, Grizzlies fans will want to reach for a little pain medicine themselves. It is the nature of the NBA beast. For the league has a way of providing humility and frustration. Remember, even the Warriors at full-strength got a dose courtesy of the Grizzlies.
So yes, the Grizzlies will take more medicine before the season is through. When, and for what, well, that’s why they play the games.
“A constant challenge,” Fizdale said. “But nothing that other teams aren’t going through. It is a good challenge for me as a young coach. Some of our struggles are on me, trying to figure out which combinations work together, what pieces are out, and what pieces are coming back.
“So I take full responsibility for that and I will continue to work through this to figure out which combinations work the best,” he said. “We’ll continue to grow.”
While sharing the pain along the way.