HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The quietest team in the NBA just keeps on taking care of business.
Quick, without looking at the standings, which team holds down the the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference? Hint: It’s not the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Memphis Grizzlies (44-19), playing with stunning synergy and grit since swapping Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince, are 15-3 since Prince’s Feb. 1 debut, are coming off a stifling victory on the Clippers’ home court and bring a six-game win streak — on the heels of an eight-game streak — into tonight’s game of contrasting styles against the Denver Nuggets (9 p.m. ET, League Pass), the West’s fastest and hottest team with a 10-game win streak.
While many of us on this side of the aisle were against a mid-season breakup of the Grizz roster and said so, coach Lionel Hollins also wasn’t a big fan of trading Gay and messing with a pretty good formula for what was seen at the time as a cost-cutting maneuver by a new ownership group.
Hollins said so, too, with this now-famous quote: “When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget. It’s a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market.”
Only now Hollins has put the pieces together and the quiet, small-market Grizzlies appear as if on the cusp of big things.
While Gay was hailed as the Grizzlies best scorer and a go-to-guy in the clutch despite his low shooting percentages, Memphis is now — as revealed by a vast sea of analytical data available for your perusal at NBA.com/Stats — a more efficient offensive team that’s assisting on more baskets. The Grizz are utilizing their two talented big men, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, even more and benefiting from Prince’s team-oriented, pass-first mentality.
Here’s some non-analytic stats that drive the point home just the same. In the last 15 games, Memphis’ lone defeat was a tightly contested, 98-91 loss at Miami. In going 14-1 during that stretch of games, the Grizzlies have averaged 96.4 points a game, hardly a juggernaut, but more than three points a game better than before the trade.
They’ve scored 100 points or more in six of the 15 games. Before the trade it took 30 games to record their last six of scoring 100 or more. Add the scoring boost to a defense that continues to lead the league in yielding the fewest points (89.3) and ranks seventh in the field-goal percentage (43.9) and the Grizz have boosted their stock, post-trade, as a serious Western Conference contender.
As Memphis heads to Mile High tonight where the Nuggets are a devastating 28-3, it brings what could be deemed as a stronger, stingier team mentality in the form a 19-11 road record. The Grizz are 7-2 since the Prince trade, a record that includes triumphs at Brooklyn and, most recently, consecutive wins against Portland and an impressive strangling of Lob City.
The Grizzlies are three games behind No. 2 Oklahoma City (two games back in the loss column) with one game remaining against the Thunder in Memphis next Wednesday. As for the Grizzlies’ chances of holding down the No. 3 spot or even moving up, their toughest stretch to end the season just might be their road back-to-back tonight at Denver followed by a desperate Utah team on Saturday.
After that, they face the challenge of 10 road games among their final 17, but they play just eight current playoff teams.
So how good are the Grizzlies? That will be determined in the playoffs. But the fact is that they are a more efficient offensive team, one that’s in sync as a unit and one that is rolling since making the trade that few wanted to see happen.