If NBA teams were condiments, the Grizzlies have stood on the shelf like a freshly opened bottle of ketchup for the past several years. It’s taken a whole lot of shaking and banging on the bottle to get anything out of them.
But here are the Grizzlies, six weeks into the season, flowing right along. Watch the ball move from Mike Conley at the top of the key to Rudy Gay on the wing to Zach Randolph down low for a bucket. Watch Randolph find his path to the hoop blocked and he’ll slip a neat little pass to Marc Gasol. Or Z-Bo will kick it back out to Gay without hesitation.
“I think,” said Conley, “a lot of guys who’ve been in this locker room for a while now just got tired of wasting years.”
It’s happened before in Memphis, most notably in the 2011 playoffs when the Grizzlies shocked the basketball world as a No. 8 seed, eliminating the No. 1-seeded Spurs and pushing a second round series with the Thunder to Game 7.
It usually happens in Memphis sometime well into the thick of the schedule, after the Grizzlies have laid down the shovels when they’ve tired from digging a hole.
Two seasons ago, the Grizzlies were fortunate just to make the playoffs. They were stumbling along with a 19-23 record on Jan. 19 until closing with a 27-13 kick to grab that No. 8 spot.
Last season, after they’d been picked by many to be a legitimate contender. Again they staggered at the beginning, sitting at just 12-13 on Feb. 6 until finishing 29-12 to claim the No. 4 seed, but were upset by the Clippers in the first round.
“We’ve grown mentally,” Conley said. “We understand what it takes to beat good teams and we’re applying that now and not waiting until February to start rolling. We just got our minds ready for the first game, the first part of the season, as opposed to working ourselves up to that.”
It’s easy to say that the Grizzlies have been able to pull it together this season simply because they’re all healthy. Two seasons ago, Gay missed the final 1 1/2 months of the regular season and playoffs with a dislocated shoulder. Last season, they lost Randolph to torn ligaments in the first week of the abbreviated post-lockout season and he missed 38 games.
However, it’s been more than just the good fortune of good health that has these Grizzlies looking and playing different. There’s almost a barbershop quartet’s harmony that has replaced the usual Memphis blues.
“I tell everybody it’s been a different camaraderie, a different spirit among the team in the locker room that has helped us,” said coach Lionel Hollins.
“The communication is good. The help is good. I just think it’s a conscious decision by players to embrace each other and play for each other.”
Nobody talks about it openly, but the departure of guard O.J. Mayo has made the Grizzlies’ offense and locker room happier places. For four seasons, Mayo could never find a comfortable or effective place as a starter or reserve. He also made the locker room a cliquish place that often froze out Gay and made it tougher for Conley to be the unifying quarterback and leader.
When the Grizzlies finally just let Mayo walk as a free agent last summer, it was addition by subtraction, even if one of the weak links in their attack is still the lack of reliable outside shooter.
Randolph is showing few effects from his knee surgery and is once more a ferocious inside force, rebounding (13.3 per game) at a higher clip than ever. Gasol’s scoring (15.8 ppg) and assists (4.4 apg) are both career highs. Though his shooting percentage is down, Gay (18.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) keeps buzzing around the numbers that have had him on the verge of an All-Star berth.
It is Conley who has taken the biggest step up, not just in stats but attitude. He is clearly running things on offense and the muscle he’s packed on is making him less apt to get pushed around on defense.
“Mike’s had this in him,” Hollins said. “That’s why he was the No. 4 pick in the draft (2007). He’s been working and building toward this for several years.”
Of course, the entire construction project has taken place under Hollins, who returned for his third stint as coach in January 2009 and has lifted the Grizzlies to unseen playoff heights, including that inaugural series win over San Antonio. The loss to L.A. notwithstanding, he has forced them into the elite level conversation in the Western Conference, which makes the fact that he has not been offered a contract extension both puzzling and foolish.
It is safe to say that Hollins is not happy with the situation and it’s odd coming at a time when there is so much comity around the team. Outgoing owner Michael Heisley said he didn’t want to burden the new buyer with more debt and Robert Pera, head of the new ownership group, has indicated he wants to see how things play out.
At their current pace, things could play out quite well for the Grizzlies. They’ve beaten the Thunder in OKC, whipped the defending NBA champion Heat, handed the previously unbeaten Knicks their first loss of the season and took the Spurs to overtime in San Antonio on the second game of a back-to-back.
At 13-3 heading into a back-to-back weekend set at New Orleans and home against Atlanta, this is the latest point in franchise history that Grizzlies have held the best record in the league.
“We’re another year older and we’re putting all the experience we have to good use,” Gay said. “It’s not about feeling our way along anymore and getting together later. We know what it takes. So our attitude has been, well, why wait?”