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VOL. 131 | NO. 46 | Friday, March 4, 2016

Still Tough to Play, Grizzlies Blending Old And New Ways to Keep Winning

By Don Wade

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Coach George Karl’s Denver teams used to battle against this incarnation of the Memphis Grizzlies. Now, his Sacramento Kings come into FedExForum and engage in elbow-to-elbow and push-and-pull hardwood combat with the edited version of this era’s Grizzlies.

You look out onto the court now and while the value of “throw it to the hand,” get the ball power forward Zach Randolph, remains, there are all these stand-ins wearing the home team’s jersey. Two of them, guard P.J. Hairston and big man Chris “Birdman” Andersen, started in the Grizzlies’ 104-98 victory over the Kings on Wednesday, March 2.

Guard Lance Stephenson, like Hairston, acquired in a beat-the-deadline deal, played but did not miss a wide-open dunk; he did throw the most inaccurate pass in Memphis since before the football Tigers discovered Paxton Lynch.

A lot has changed for the Memphis Grizzlies in recent weeks, much of it brought about by injuries. But point guard Mike Conley remains, to use coach Dave Joerger’s word, a “settling” influence on the team. 

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Rookie Jarell Martin achieved basketball extradition from Iowa to pull down a career-high eight rebounds. And naturally, the Grizzlies re-signed the journeyman’s journeyman, Ryan Hollins, who ran around for a couple of minutes.

And still it all felt the same to Karl. Yes, the coach knows center Marc Gasol is lost for the season with a broken foot. And he noticed Tony Allen (sore knee) wasn’t out there hawking his best wing players.

But from Karl’s view, not that much has changed.

“My issue, being in Memphis, is you don’t win here unless you’re a little dirty, a little gritty, and a little physical,” Karl said after the Grizzlies completed a 3-0 sweep of the season series. “They’ve changed their mantra a little bit, but they are still grabbing and holding.

Mike Conley is a great defender, Tony Allen is a great defender (although he wasn’t able to do much from the bench), (Matt) Barnes can be a good to great defender, Lance Stephenson can be a physical defender.”

But as Grizzlies watchers know too well, the team’s knack for making any victory more difficult than it has to be has only intensified as injuries and trades have forced the Grizzlies into, well, whatever it is they are now or whatever they turn out to be on any given night.

They are more apt to score in transition now but also more likely to be out-rebounded. They’re probably going to make more turnovers with this group, but they might ultimately force more (the Kings made 25 that led to 29 Grizzlies points).

The Grizzlies, bless their find-the-hardest-path hearts, blew a 21-point first-half lead and actually found themselves trailing Sacramento by three points with 5:55 left in the game. Which was when Conley put his stamp on the night.

“I saw earlier in the game that I could have a lot of opportunities to make plays and score,” said Conley, who finished with a game-high 24 points. “I kind of took it easy in the second and third quarter (translation: he tried to get teammates involved). And then the game got a little tight in the fourth quarter and I just decided to go for my offense a little bit more.”

What a fine idea. It led to a flashy, driving, spinning layup down the lane during a key 10-0 run in the fourth and Conley scored 10 points and hit two triples in the final quarter.

So listen to Vince Carter, who lockers next to Conley, sounding just like Conley talking about Gasol: “He’s more than capable. We trust in him. We believe in him. I tell him all the time out of timeouts, be aggressive, and lead us to the Promised Land.”

“He’s very settling for us,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger.

And “settling” is a big thing now. Yes, the Grizzlies improved to 36-24 with this victory and they remain solidly in the No. 5 slot in the Western Conference. At least during this soft portion of the schedule, they are defying standings gravity.

But let’s not pretend the home stretch of this season is going to be easy. Or that everyone knows the plays right now. They don’t.

“It can get frustrating,” Conley admitted. “But you can’t let it bother you. These are the cards we were dealt.”

Besides, there is some upside – especially long-term. Younger players are having to play. And sometimes they are showing well.

Forward JaMychal Green scored a career-high 15 points against the Kings and Martin even had his coach talking: “You’re going to see a guy who is going to blossom, hopefully, into a very athletic rim-runner, a pick-and-pop guy, a guy who can shoot a little bit and can do a little bit of everything as his game grows.

“I don’t want to put pressure on him,” Joerger added, “but it’s not Summer League. We’re trying to win every single game we can … I’m going to play him because I think he helps us. Just in doses, especially, it gives him some confidence that he’s a part of what we’re trying to do here.”

And what they’re trying to do, without their best player in Gasol and best defender in Allen, is hang on as best they can. That’s the real mantra.

“They are different,” said Kings star DeMarcus Cousins, who finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds but was somewhat neutralized as everyone from the 37-year-old Andersen to the rookie Martin had enough moments of success defending him to keep him from taking over the game.

“It is still a very defensive-minded team, but their guards are more in attack mode now,” Cousins said, adding with a nod of respect, “Still a very tough team, though.”

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