VOL. 131 | NO. 21 | Friday, January 29, 2016
The Press Box
Memphis Grizzlies Off The Grid As Record Rises
By Don Wade
When the Memphis Grizzlies rolled out to that hot start last season and carried a 39-14 record into the All-Star break, they had created legitimate national buzz – perhaps for the first time ever during the course of an NBA regular season.
Marc Gasol was the starting center for the Western Conference. A few pundits tiptoed along the always-creaky mid-season prognosticator’s limb and gave the Grizzlies a chance to come out of the West and reach the NBA Finals.
There was talk that should that happen, they were constructed in such a way as to give the likely and eventual Eastern Conference champions – the LeBron James Cavaliers – some match-up trouble.
Alas, it all faded away as the Grizzlies after the All-Star break went 16-13 to finish 55-27. They dispatched Portland in the first round of the playoffs and ultimately the Golden State Warriors squashed them on the way to the NBA title.
What all that has to do with the here and now is this: The Grizzlies are playing out this season backwards, as compared to last season. Higher expectations coming in and yet after losing at home to Charlotte on Dec. 26 they were 16-16.
Cue the Grizzlies Apocalypse.
Since then, however, they have gone 10-4 and that includes seven wins in their last nine games as they carried a 26-20 record into their Thursday, Jan. 28, home game vs. Milwaukee. The Grizzlies were sitting in the No. 5 slot in the West.
In other words, they are where they historically have been during the run of five straight playoff appearances: right in the thick of things and utterly invisible to the greater NBA universe.
“We live with it,” power forward Zach Randolph said with a grin and a shrug. “We just keep working, man. We ain’t where we want to be at playing-wise, but we’ve been playing a lot better these last couple of weeks.
“The more we win, we might get TV games or bring to light we’re still a good team.”
A couple of points here: Of those seven wins in the last nine games, only two came against probable playoff teams (Boston and Detroit). But there’s also something familiar and comforting about the Grizzlies again working completely off the grid as their record moves upward.
“With each win you build a little bit of confidence and some more chemistry,” point guard Mike Conley said. “Guys are more upbeat, the mood is different at practice. It just bodes well for success.”
This all happened, of course, amid the Grizzlies’ much-publicized identity crisis. We went from coach Dave Joerger lamenting that the team was “old” and “slow” to playing more “small ball,” which included a lineup shuffle that made bench players out of Randolph and Tony Allen.
Now, it looks as though Randolph is back in the starting lineup to stay – Jeff Green can flourish playing off the bench as he did the other night in a 30-point, 11-for-18 performance in the overtime win over Orlando – and the Grizzlies can make this hybrid offense – Jekyll & Hyde on the bad nights – work more often than not.
With forward Matt Barnes also making meaningful offensive contributions in whatever his role, the Grizzlies perhaps have more players who, conceivably, could go off on any given night.
Even so, if you’re looking at things from the offensive side first you’re looking at it all wrong. The Grizzlies average 96.8 points per game – 26th in the league. They allow an average of 99.0 points per game (an inflated figure because of some early bad losses and longer stretches in games where they now actually try to play faster).
Having said all that, they are still sixth-best in the league in points allowed. Hello, Identity.
“We’re still that defensive-minded team,” Conley said. “That’s gotta be number one. Thankfully, we’ve got some kind of resemblance (to ourselves) now.”
Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.