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VOL. 132 | NO. 245 | Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Don Wade

Don Wade

Grizzlies Not Just Losing Games, But Respect

By Don Wade

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Another horrific loss, another long counseling session at Marc Gasol’s locker with Gasol simultaneously playing the parts of frustrated team psychologist and exasperated patient.

This time, he talked more than 12 minutes. At the end of it, after he had tried to explain to us and to himself how the Grizzlies had just lost by 25 points to a mediocre Miami Heat team, the media masses walked away.

I lingered a moment and quietly asked Gasol if he had spoken to Zach Randolph recently. Gasol nodded.

Things are pointing in the wrong direction for the Memphis Grizzlies, who were criticized for their lack of effort in the fourth quarter in a 25-point loss to the Miami Heat on Monday, Dec. 11, their 15th loss in 16 games. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

“Obviously they’re not in the best position either,” he said of Randolph’s Sacramento Kings. “We talk more about family and stuff, but he always tells me to keep my head up, keep being positive, things like that. He knows I’m gonna do that.”

One wonders if the “stuff,” at least some of the time, is the good old days. For as fun as the seven-year playoff run was for fans, Z-Bo and Big Spain lived it. They worked their craft shoulder-to-shoulder, each understanding his comrade’s strengths and weaknesses as well as his own.

Different skill sets. Different personalities. Same drive to win and willingness to sacrifice where necessary.

These days, as Ben McLemore tries to get his and bricks a 360-dunk, Gasol’s and Randolph’s approach during the glory days seems downright quaint.

Before last summer, fans fretted about the coming dissolution of Grit & Grind. It was no secret that management was ready to move on from Randolph and Tony Allen.

Both in their mid-30s, they were not the players they once had been. Advancing age wasn’t going to make them any faster going forward and wasn’t going to help the Grizzlies keep up in the small-ball, pace-and-space NBA of today.

So, accepting the realities of time wasn’t necessarily a bad decision. Allen barely plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. Randolph’s Sacramento Kings are standing side-by-side with Gasol’s Grizzlies in the bottoms of the Western Conference.

But what the Grizzlies are going through now – and Monday’s loss to Miami was their fourth straight, their 15th in the last 16 games – is more than the turning of the calendar page.

The way they’re losing now, either blowing leads of 17 or 20 points or laying down like dogs as they did against the Heat in the fourth quarter, is an insult to the proud team culture that was built and now crumbles a little more each day.

Matt Barnes was hated as a rival Los Angeles Clipper. But fans found a way to appreciate Barnes as a Grizzly. During the 2015-16 season, when the team used 28 different players and was held together with electrician’s tape, Barnes summed up the first-round playoff series against the 67-win San Antonio Spurs: “We’re coming to a gunfight with spoons.”

But the point is, those Grizzlies tried anyway – however vainly. Barnes announced his retirement from the NBA Monday. Here’s guessing he could have offered more fight than what most of the Grizzlies showed in the fourth quarter against the Heat when the Grizzlies allowed Miami to shoot almost 80 percent from the floor.

“The effort wasn’t there,” said Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “To a man, the responsibility that we have to our teammates, to the organization, to the fans … we didn’t give the fans what they deserve tonight. We didn’t give the organization what they deserve tonight. And we didn’t give one another what we deserve.

“We didn’t pay that any respect tonight. We didn’t give all that we could. It was disappointing to say the least.”

Bickerstaff, by the way, is 1-7 since taking over for the fired David Fizdale. Whatever the problems between Fizdale and Gasol – well-documented and substantial – the problems are bigger and go deeper than a coach.

As has been said in this space before, the absence of point guard Mike Conley (still out with a sore Achilles) cannot be overstated. The play on the court is disjointed without him. Team camaraderie is now just about non-existent.

His return won’t solve all of those issues, but Conley’s presence would help everyone – including his buddy Marc Gasol.

Beyond that, the Grizzlies are limited in the courses of action they can take. The ownership is in flux, which would make firing general manager Chris Wallace nothing more than a PR move; nobody is going to take the GM’s job without ownership clarity.

Tyreke Evans, putting up his best numbers in years and working on a one-year contract, is the one significant trade asset the Grizzlies have if they want to give Gasol, Conley and Chandler Parsons another shot next season.

But any trades most likely come near the deadline. That’s weeks and weeks away. Until then, the Grizzlies have to keep playing. The more they lose, the better their chances to get a good lottery pick in the next draft. That’s the theory.

Of course, the lottery is called the lottery for a reason. And this franchise’s track record suggests that even if they get a high lottery pick it’s very possible to blow it.

So until those matters sort themselves out – from the ownership situation on down – there are only the games and the pride that Gasol, Conley, Randolph and Allen – and yes, even Matt Barnes – tried to uphold night after night.

If nothing else, those Grizzlies would usually give their all on the defensive end while slogging ahead in the mud on offense.

“We always had a mindset here that you can have a tough night offensively,” Gasol said, “but if we don’t score, you don’t score. When you play defense together, basketball has a way of taking care of you on the other end.”

After Gasol mentioned he wasn’t sleeping well at night, I asked him if he believed other players on this team were as bothered by all this losing as he is.

“I couldn’t tell you that,” he said. “Everybody has to look in the mirror and as a man you have to take it personally because wearing this jersey means a lot.”

As Gasol spoke, no other players were at their lockers. It was as though he was on an island. He may not be quite the player he once was, but he’s still a top-tier center and more than that, Marc Gasol respects the name “Grizzlies” on his jersey and what the previous seven years of being a playoff team has meant.

So does Zach Randolph, even as he plays for a similarly bad team out in Sacramento.

Even crazy Matt Barnes respected the jersey.

Is it really too much to ask the same of the Ben McLemores of the world?

The answer, sadly, is yes.

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