Posts Tagged ‘Dave Joerger’

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Grizzlies showing their playoff teeth

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Grizzlies storm back in Salt Lake City to topple the Jazz

This is the way you always expect Grizzlies to look. Big and scary with sharp teeth and claws.

Dangerous, too.

Pity the poor team in the upper half of the contentious Western Conference bracket that wakes up on the eve of the playoffs to find Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph lumbering hungrily into their campsite.

At just the right time, in just the right way, the Memphis blues have given way to a more ominous sound. Think more of Darth Vader‘s “Imperial March”.

That should frighten everyone from San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Houston.

“Oh, you really don’t want to run into Memphis in the first round of the playoffs,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “Not with the style they play that is so different from most other teams these days, grinding it out and beating you up. Not with Randolph and Gasol on their games. They’re a bear.”

OK, pun appreciated.

It was, of course, no joke when the Grizzlies opened the season looking like they were in competition with the Lakers in a nose-dive competition to the bottom. Not with Gasol and eventually Tony Allen hobbled. Not when everyone in the locker room and on the court was trying to get adjusted to the coaching change and the style tweaks from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger. There were rumors that Randolph was on the trading block.

Back then, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole in the standings as deep as the No. 12 spot, yet now are at No. 7 and quite possibly climbing higher. They are just one game behind No. 6 Golden State and 1 1/2 games behind No. 5 Portland.

After last night’s 91-87 win at Utah, the Grizzlies have the best record (28-9) in the NBA since Jan. 10 and are positioning themselves maybe even make a return trip to the West finals.

Salt Lake City was the first stop on a critical five-game road trip that will also go through Golden State, Portland, Denver and Minnesota and go a long way toward determining where the Grizzlies wind up in the playoff chase.

“It’s the biggest trip of the year,” point guard Mike Conley told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “It’s going to test us a lot mentally and physically. We don’t overlook anybody. We just have to play our basketball and worry about making the plays we make, and not adjusting to what other teams do. We’re going to be ready for battle.”

Playing the Grizzlies of recent vintage has always been like a fight, with the scratch marks, bruises and scars left behind as proof. With Gasol now healthy and back in the middle to offer serious rim protection, the Grizzlies boast the No. 2-rated defense in the league since his return on Jan. 14. With Allen back and scrapping out on the wing, they are Grizzlies who can take a game — and an opponent — in their paws and squeeze the life out of them.

Memphis has won 11 of last 14 games with the only losses coming on the road at Miami, Brooklyn and Toronto. The Grizzlies have been taking care of business at home in the “Grind House,” defeating the teams they’re supposed to and outright devouring the awful ones.

“It shows our focus is at an all-time high,” Conley said. “Playing against good teams over the last few weeks has got our minds in a playoff mode and our sense of urgency back. We’re playing with a higher standard.”

While the return of Gasol has been credited the most for turning the season around and getting them back to their old snarling defensive ways, the Grizzlies are also are somewhat different and better on the offensive end. Memphis still ranks dead last in 3-point shots attempted and made, but the Grizzlies’ success rate from behind the arc (35.6) has crept closer to the middle of the pack (18th). Their overall field goal percentage (46.3) ranks eighth, making offense less of the teeth-gnashing affair it has been. The additions of Mike Miller, Courtney Lee and Jon Leuer have provided much needed outside shooting and given Conley more options to direct the ball. Miller hit three key jumpers, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the comeback at Utah.

And then there is Conley, who continues to get overlooked among a crowded Western Conference crop of point guards when the spots on the All-Star teams are handed out. He’s upped his scoring to a career-best 17.1 points as he continues to hand out an average half dozen assists each game. His PER (20.1) is just outside the top 25 in the league. He’s grown steadily through seven NBA seasons to become a veteran leader of an offense and concentrating less on making steals to play solid team defense at the other end.

Toss in a bench that also has Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos and the Grizzlies have a deeper, more balanced roster than even the team that went on the long playoff run a year ago.

For a season that could have gone over the edge, the Grizzlies have pulled themselves back up to the level of real threat in the playoffs to one of the so-called elite teams at the top.

“This is a crucial stretch of the season,” said Randolph at the start of the trip. “These five games can determine where we end up.”

And which team in the West gets a big and unexpected headache in the first round.


VIDEO: Inside Stuff’s crew talks about the Grizzlies’ comeback in the standings

Morning shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook bangs knee; Durant scores 51 | Gasol leaves in walking boot | Knicks make it eight straight | Nash dishes 11 dimes | Bynum out indefinitely


VIDEO: Closer look at Durant’s 51-point performance

No. 1: Westbrook gets scare, Durant scores 51 — In a wild game at Toronto, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook left in the third quarter after banging knees with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. It was Westbrook’s right knee, the one he’s had three surgeries on since initially tearing the meniscus in the first round of last year’s playoffs. He immediately reacted to the pain and slammed his palm on the floor. He was assisted off the floor as the Thunder held their breath. More will be known as Westbrook is re-evaluated in Oklahoma City today. The Thunder won the game in dramatic fashion, 119-118, in double overtime. Kevin Durant capped a remarkable night with his seventh 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds to go, giving him 51 points. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman has the details:

The official word is a right knee sprain, and the plan is to re-evaluate him Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Although Westbrook didn’t return to the Thunder’s thrilling 119-118 double-overtime victory over the Raptors, he was in great spirits after the game and said he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He left the Air Canada Centre walking just fine, without crutches or even a knee brace, just a routine black sleeve hidden under his pants.

And judging by Westbrook’s demeanor and that of his teammates and coach Scott Brooks, the injury didn’t appear to be serious.

“I feel good, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m pain-free. I’m just going to, (Saturday), get it looked at and go from there.”

The injury occurred with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.

Westbrook made a slight jab-step beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. As Westbrook held his left foot in place as his pivot, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently bumped into Westbrook’s right knee while closing out.

Westbrook’s knee bent inward, and he immediately called a timeout, slamming the ball to the court upon doing so.

“You’ve been hurt before, you kind of get nervous like I did,” Westbrook said of his reaction.

After briefly attempting to walk off whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling, Westbrook was helped to the locker room by Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet and trainer Joe Sharpe. He remained in the dressing room for the duration of the game as the Thunder battled back from an eight-point deficit inside the final minute of double overtime.

Kevin Durant hit the game-winner, a 3-pointer from 31 feet with 1.7 seconds remaining. He then forced Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan into contested fadeaway from the right baseline. It fell short as the clock hit zero.

Durant finished with a game-high 51 points, his second 50-point game this season, and added 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“We couldn’t go another overtime,” Durant said. “So I had to live with whatever happened.”

***


VIDEO: Gasol injured in Grizzlies’ loss in Miami

No. 2: Gasol sprains left ankle — Midway through the third quarter, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol hobbled off the floor with a sprained left ankle and left the American Airlines Arena floor in a walking boot. It was a double whammy for the Grizzlies, one of the hottest teams in the NBA since Jan. 1. Not only must they wait and wonder about the health of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, they lost a lead they had held for most of the game as the Heat pulled out the victory. More will be known on the severity of Gasol’s injury, but one thing is certain — Memphis needs its big man in the final month of the regular season to ensure it makes the playoffs, let alone have a chance to return to the Western Conference finals. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:

Memphis’ bigger issue seemed to be executing without Gasol.

The 7-footer left with 6:34 left in the third period. He was hurt earlier on a non-contact play. Gasol appeared to roll his ankle as he turned to run. Gasol left the arena wearing a walking boot and he’ll be re-evaluated Saturday before the Griz face the Indiana Pacers for the second game of a back-to-back.

“It made it tough, but we tried to play small and stretch them out,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “I thought we did a good job of getting it to Zach. He had a heck of a game.”

Gasol had been a force, too, and not just because of his 14 points and six rebounds.

“We were using him to make the second and third pass,” [Mike] Conley said. “He was playing point forward. The whole scheme went through him.”

The game was knotted at 68 entering the fourth quarter after both teams exchanged large scoring runs in the third. Memphis allowed a 12-point advantage to disappear in the final few minutes of the third.

***

No. 3: Knicks keep playoff push alive — The Knicks handed the Philadelphia 76ers their 23rd consecutive loss, but the bigger news was that New York kept its playoff hopes alive despite already having 40 losses as the calendar turns to spring. But that’s the beauty of the Eastern Conference, folks. And with the Atlanta Hawks losing, the Knicks moved within three games of the eighth and final playoff spot. And guess what? New York’s upcoming schedule offers even more hope with games against the hobbled Cavaliers and Lakers followed by the Kings. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News has the story:

With new team president Phil Jackson returning to his California home following his triumphant Garden return two nights earlier, the bench nearly coughed up a 17-point lead in a game the Knicks had controlled with five minutes left. But [Mike] Woodson turned back to his first unit in the final 30 seconds, and the Knicks just barely did what they had to do to survive and advance Friday night against a team that now has dropped 23 straight games, holding on for their season-best eighth straight win, 93-92, over the dreadful Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.

“We didn’t have no choice at that point. I felt like we had a very comfortable lead. It happened. Them guys never quit,” [Carmelo] Anthony said about having to return to the game after it looked like his night was finished. “You could just see the lead dwindling, possession by possession. You go from up (17) and you look up and we’re only up two with a couple of seconds on the clock, so hopefully we didn’t have to come up with a prayer.”

***

No. 4: Nash shines in return — Maybe 40-year-old Steve Nash has something left after all. Fighting injuries all season, the two-time MVP made yet another return Friday night just a week after being declared done for the season. The Los Angeles Lakers still lost to the Washington Wizards, but the aging wizard for L.A. put on quite a show, dishing out a season-high 11 assists to go with five points, four rebounds and three steals in 19 minutes. He came off the bench for the first time since March 9, 2000 with Dallas, snapping a stretch of 975 consecutive starts, reports Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

“Just to feel good and feel like you can make a play for your teammates and put pressure on the other team and move freely,” Nash said. “It’s why I love this game and that’s why I’ve kept fighting and trying to work in case I got another opportunity.”

Nash said he came out of the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his back but remained hopeful he could play Sunday against the Orlando Magic. Lakers guard Xavier Henry also hurt his left wrist and said he would have an MRI exam on Saturday after X-rays were negative.

Nash made his first appearance since Feb. 11, when he suffered a recurrence of the nerve irritation in his back that has limited him to 11 games this season. There was concern in that Nash might never play another NBA game.

Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters March 13 that Nash would not return this season because it didn’t make sense for him to push his 40-year-old body with so few games left.

Then Jordan Farmar strained his right groin in practice Monday, opening the door for Nash.
After entering the game to warm applause late in the first quarter, Nash quickly found Hill for a jump hook and made a couple of behind-the-back passes on the way to collecting five assists in his first six minutes.

D’Antoni said Nash probably would continue to come off the bench unless he “gets to a certain point and gets that good” because of limited practice time and the Lakers wanting to be cautious with his body.

Nash has one more season and $9.7 million left on his contract but could be waived by Sept. 1, allowing the Lakers to spread out his salary over three seasons.

He would prefer to prove over the next month that he’s ready to play one more.

***

No. 5:  Swelling puts Bynum on ice — If the Indiana Pacers truly signed big man Andrew Bynum to keep him away from the Miami Heat, well the Heat’s training staff will probably be sending a thank-you card. Experiencing continued swelling and soreness in his right knee, Bynum will be out indefinitely, the team announced Friday. Bynum signed with the Pacers on Feb. 1, but has played in just two games. On a strange note, although not so much when it comes to Bynum, he reportedly got his hair cut at halftime of Friday’s game against Chicago. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more on Bynum’s injury status:

Bynum has played in two games with the Pacers, averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in just under 18 minutes per game.

Though the Pacers expected to play Bynum in short spurts, last Saturday he reached 20 minutes against the Detroit Pistons. Since then, Bynum has been on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, Bynum, who did not participate in practice, said after the session that his swollen right knee needed to be drained.

“This one is a lot more concerning for me because it caused me a lot more fluid,” Bynum said.

Now days later, Pacers coach Frank Vogel answered “no” when asked if there had been any progress with Bynum’s knee since the return from Detroit.

“There’s still swelling,” Vogel said on Friday. “I really don’t have anything new. Other than it’s swollen right now, we’ll give you an update when we’re ready to.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Heat present Mike Miller his 2013 championship ring as Grizzlies visit Miami … Tony Parker says he will play five or six more years with Spurs then play for French team he owns … Andre Miller says Nuggets made him out to be the bad guyKevin Garnett is unsure of return from back spasms … Bobcats ask Charlotte for $34.1 million to improve arena.

Space, Speed And 3s Is The NBA Way


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down why 3-point shooters like Kyle Korver are valuable

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin McHale insists there’s little difference between how he coaches his Houston Rockets today and how his Boston Celtics played 30 years ago.

“We do play the same,” the towering Hall of Fame power forward said. “It was a different game, but we ran up and down, we shot a lot of shots in the first six, seven seconds of the shot clock because we ran it down, threw it in the post and shot it. Look at the early ’80s, we were averaging 115, 116, 117 points. You usually don’t get that by walking it up and down.”

The 1983-84 champion Celtics averaged 112.1 ppg, yet in those glorious run-and-gun, team-oriented days, all that scoring ranked just seventh in a 23-team league. Imagine the offensive explosion then had those teams known what we know now about that strange 3-point arc.

“We all looked at it,” said McHale, a rookie the season after the NBA implemented the arc, “and thought, ‘Why the hell do they have a line way out here?’ “

A low-post machine, McHale attempted 157 3-pointers in his career. Larry Bird took 194 of the 393 taken by the 1985-86 champion Celtics. In the first 49 games this season, the Rockets’ tandem of James Harden and Chandler Parsons have combined for 463. The Rockets have launched 1,279.

Last year they shot it from everywhere and at any time, 2,369 in all, second-most only to the New York Knicks, who set the all-time record with 2,371 attempts. New York also made 891, the most all-time.

Today’s game is different. It has shifted 180 degrees from the plodding, back-it-down offenses spanned in the 1990s and does draw back more to the freewheeling 1980s, only with a new set of philosophies. Today’s offensive style is dictated by a slew of predominant words and phrases: Analytics. Pace. Ball movement. Spacing. Speed. Stretch-4. Small ball. Drive-and-kick. Corner 3.

Do-it-all point guards are at a premium. Floor-spacing, sweet-shooting big men are coveted. Three-point shooting is king.

“I’m not surprised because statistically everybody is going to that kind of metrics,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who introduced the league to this stream of unconventional offensive tactics when he took over the Phoenix Suns more than a decade ago.

“We did it before, but I think you can measure even more now, and I think that shows you if you want to win, that’s the way you should go. And then Miami tops it off by winning two championships by doing it.”

West among best at quick way to play

Many of D’Antoni’s concepts, considered radical at the time, are commonplace now to varying degrees in nearly every NBA coach’s playbook. They are prevalent especially among Western Conference clubs powered by dynamic, often ultra-athletic point guards — from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to Damian Lillard to Stephen Curry — who play fast, penetrate, pass and shoot from distance. The Heat, of course, are led by de facto point guard LeBron James.

“Without penetration you don’t get those uncontested 3s, so you have to have people who penetrate and create shots for other people,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s how it happens. Without the penetration it would all be contested, percentages would go down and people wouldn’t be shooting very well. But most of them are uncontested.”

Nine of the league’s top 10 teams in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) and 12 of the top 16 play in the West. The top five teams in 3-point attempts, and nine of the top 12, also play in the West, the far superior conference this season.

When the Memphis Grizzlies meet the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinals won by Memphis, it will again be a battle of contrasting styles. OKC, even without their injured three-time All-Star Westbrook, is athletic and fast. The Thunder pushes the pace, currently ranking seventh in the league, averaging 97.84 possessions per 48 minutes.

The Grizzlies boast talented point guard Mike Conley, but run their sets through skilled, low-post big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They rely on those interior size mismatches (and gritty defense) to compete in an expanding era of fastbreaking, 3-point-shooting, “small-ball” lineups in which a power forward serves as a center and a traditional small forward plays the “4″ and “stretches” the floor.

Memphis, although moving the ball with more vigor and shooting slightly more 3s during their January hot streak, is the conventional NBA offense that has been made unconventional.

The need for 3s

Memphis’ management team is heavy into analytic data, and first-year coach Dave Joerger was eager to quicken Memphis’ offensive pace, but it hasn’t happened. They rank last in the league in pace, averaging 92.15 possessions. They’re also last in 3-point attempts (14.3 per game) and 3-pointers made (5.1 per game).

Houston has outscored Memphis from beyond the arc by a staggering 618 points; Golden State and Portland, tied for No. 1 with 450 made 3s, by 651. Memphis and last-place Utah, 24th in made 3-pointers, are the only teams in the West that average fewer than 100 points per game.

“It’s almost like if you don’t shoot 3s you can’t win,” Popovich said. “So many players are good at it, shots get off so quickly and are so numerous that it’s a huge part of what almost everybody does. It’s just tough to score and to win without making 3s.”

Desperate for it, Memphis traded slump-ridden Jerryd Bayless to Boston for Courtney Lee, who has provided a jolt, knocking down 44.1 percent of his 3-point shots. He, along with Gasol’s return from injury, helped spark Memphis to 11 wins in its last 13 games and a return to playoff contention.

The Grizzlies recently beat Houston twice in back-to-back games. They limited the Rockets to 87 and 81 points despite taking 40 fewer 3-pointers and being outscored by 36 points from beyond the arc. But can the Grizzlies survive with size over speed and scoring 2-pointers instead of 3s?

“I don’t know whether we can or we can’t,” Joerger said. “The league is being ruled by playmakers, shooting and IQ right now. Teams are playing multiple — forget about shooters — they’re playing multiple playmakers now. A lot of centers are, let’s just say, fairly strictly pick and rim-run, and [you] play four [players] around those guys and stretch it out, and then let guys just play against a [defensive] close-out.”

Time marches on … and pace picks up

D’Antoni says Don Nelson‘s Mavs in the early and mid-2000s, with Steve Nash as point guard, were first to empower the “stretch-4.” Nelson didn’t try to turn 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki into a back-to-the-basket player. He granted him free range to shoot 3s.

Popovich recognized the coming wave earlier than most through those early battles against Dirk and then D’Antoni’s Suns.

“San Antonio has been a top 3-point shooting team for probably seven, eight or nine years now,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, whose “Flow” offense, led by smart, selfless players and talented passers and shooters, produced the 2011 championship. “They jumped on it early on and other teams have followed suit.”

The Spurs won three championships with stifling defense and methodical halfcourt execution in the mid-2000s. But Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford knew they had to evolve around their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker with a roster based on pace and perimeter shooting. On their way to the 2013 Finals, San Antonio ranked sixth in pace, seventh in 3-pointers made and fifth in 3-point percentage.

In his typical gruffness, Popovich said of the style, “I hate it; if you want to win, you got to do it.”

In 2002-03, the Spurs attempted 1,270 3-pointers en route to their first title. Each year after their 3-point attempts increased. They shot 1,561 in 2006-07, the year of their third title. Last season they shot a franchise-record 1,764, which they might surpass this season.

“It was gradual, I remember that,” Ginobili said. “When I got here [in 2002-03], it [the offense] was very slow. Every possession had to feed the post and play from there. But then it slowly started to shift to a faster pace. At the beginning, he [Popovich] wanted it, but we were just not used to it, so that’s why it took a couple years until we really started doing it.”

Back in Houston, the Rockets keep running and spreading the floor even with the addition of traditional-type center Dwight Howard. Their pace (97.94) ranks seventh in the league, down slightly from last season, as is their 3-point attempts (26.1, almost three fewer a game), because of the ability, and necessity, to feed Howard in the post.

Meanwhile, everybody else continues to pick up the pace. The Rockets were No. 1 in the league last season at 98.64 possessions per 48 minutes. Now five teams average at least 99 and Philadelphia is over 102. Twelve teams average at least 97. In 1996-97, the first year advanced statistics were recorded, only two teams finished with more than 93 possessions per game.

What does the future hold? The Rockets’ NBA Development League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, are launching 3′s at a stunning — or alarming, depending on your perspective — rate of 48.5 per game. Fourteen of the 17 teams are operating at a pace of 100 possessions or better per game.

Yet leave it to Howard, with four career 3-pointers to his name, to lend some perspective to all these supersonic numbers.

“Once the playoffs start, it’s a halfcourt game and you’ve got to be able to execute in the halfcourt on offense,” Howard said. “We have to learn how to do both — be able to play fast, get up and down the court, get some easy shots. But we also got to learn how to slow it down and get a good shot every time.”

Perhaps some things never change.

Gasol, Lee Put Grizzlies Back In Race


VIDEO: Grizzlies sweep back-to-back games over Rockets

In a pair of back-to-back games over the weekend, Dwight Howard got the message. With a couple of pushes, some shoves, an elbow or two in the small of his back, even a try at a wrestling takedown.

Marc Gasol is back. And so, it seems, are the Grizzlies as a factor in the Western Conference playoff race.

While there is still plenty of ground for Gasol to cover to get back to form after missing 1 1/2 months and 23 games with a sprained MCL, things are finally getting into shape in Memphis.

With consecutive wins over Howard and the Rockets, the Grizzlies are now just two games out of the No. 8 spot in the playoff race as they start a quick three-game road trip tonight in Portland (10 ET, League Pass) and continues through Sacramento and Minnesota.

Since the start of 2014, the Grizzlies have won nine of 12 games, are 5-1 since Gasol returned to the lineup on Jan. 14 and 7-2 since they acquired Courtney Lee from Boston.

Gasol, of course, gives the Grizzlies back their physicality and ruggedness on the interior by teaming with Zach Randolph. He and Z-Bo are able to protect the rim as effectively as any tandem of bigs in the league and score in the low post. In addition, Gasol’s role of traffic cop and his passing ability opens things up on the perimeter.

That’s an area where Lee has helped. Though Memphis still ranks at the bottom of the league in 3-pointers taken and made, shooting guard Lee has provided another option on the wing and has been effective.

“I’ve been super comfortable from day one,” he said. “When I came in the coaches told me to play my game and shots have been falling. Everybody that’s playing is on the same page of playing the right way.”

Lee is shooting 55.6 from the field since joining the Grizzlies and sunk his teeth in on defense. In the back-to-back set against the Rockets, he kept James Harden in check.

“Courtney’s been a big addition for us,” said point guard Mike Conley. “He adds some scoring, he adds some defense, athleticism. He has a high basketball IQ and he’s been able to pick up things fairly quickly. I think that’s what’s helped us these last couple of weeks.

“Courtney was a huge, huge piece. People overlook him. But it’s key that he’s able to stretch the court for us. With me, him, Mike Miller out there, it gives Zach and Marc more space. Having a lot of guys that could space the court, we didn’t have that going on before. And he can definitely lock up defensively.”

Even through their struggles this season, the Grizzlies have been able to make the most of road trips. Before Gasol injured his knee, they swept a four-game November swing against the Lakers, Kings, Clippers and Warriors. Then with Gasol out, they began turning things around at the start of the new year by taking two out of three at Phoenix, Denver and Detroit.

That’s when Ed Davis and James Johnson became part of the rotation and significant contributors with Gasol, Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter sidelined by injury. Pondexter (broken bone in foot) is lost for the season and Allen (ligament damage hand) is getting closer to returning.

The question for coach Dave Joerger is what he’ll do with the starting lineup when Allen is ready. There is no question that the Grizzlies would like to have his grinding defense back, but Lee has been a big addition. The solution might be to let Allen come off the bench until he’s fully back in game shape, then slide him into the 3-spot to replace Tayshaun Prince, keeping Lee’s offense on the floor.

“Our confidence is high,” Lee said. “We feel good about what’s going on and how we’re playing. It seems like time will only make us better.”

Currently sitting at 22-20, the task that might have looked a bit daunting a month ago now seems within reach. To reach the 45-win level it took to grab the No. 8 seed in the West a year ago, Memphis would have to finish up 23-17 and neither the No. 7 seed Suns or No. 8 Mavericks seem capable of putting up an insurmountable roadblock. So if a healthy bunch of Grizzlies can claw in at the bottom, it could mean somebody in the upper half of the contentious playoff bracket is in for a bruising first-round fight against a team that advanced to the conference finals last season.

“It definitely is there for us to take advantage,” Conley said. “We still have a lot of the season left. We understood once Marc got hurt, if we could just keep this thing afloat, keep us close and somewhat in the picture, then we he got back we would be able to make a run. Now we’re in position. We have a long way to go, but I’d say we’re happy now with where we’re at.”

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Players only meeting works for Kings | Conley at crunch time in Memphis | Teletovic pokes LeBron | Blazers not one of the Bynum 8

No. 1: Kings players-only meeting works wonders – Three straight wins in most places isn’t worth going crazy over, not during the marathon that is an 82-game NBA season. In Sacramento, however, it’s definitely going to raise eyebrows. A players-only meeting has worked wonders for the Kings, who routed Cleveland Sunday to polish off their season-best win streak. Is this potentially a turning point for a Kings team that has dealt with adversity and distractions for months now? Time will tell. But as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee notes, an epic beatdown of the Cavaliers is a good place to start:

The victory margin equaled a 44-point win over Denver on Dec. 12, 1992, and trailed only a 56-point win over Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1993 and a 58-point victory over Dallas on Dec. 29, 1992.

The Kings led by 46 points, their biggest advantage of the season, and tallied season highs in points, 3-pointers (15) and blocked shots (eight).

Defensively, the Kings (13-22) held Cleveland to 11 points in the third quarter and 30 points in the second half, both season lows by a Sacramento opponent. The 80 points were also a season low, bettering the 83 the Kings gave up against Orlando on Friday.

In the third quarter, the Cavaliers (13-24) made only four shots and shot 20 percent, both season lows for a Kings opponent.

“This young team is growing and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Rudy Gay said. “We can become a really good team. It takes hard work and we’re working hard, and coach has been great. As long as we keep going on that same path, we should be a good team.”

The defensive numbers are what pleased coach Michael Malone. After allowing 32 points in the first quarter, the Kings began to defend better, leading to the dominant second half.

“Consistency is a word we’ve used a lot,” Malone said. “It’s something we haven’t shown we can (accomplish) most of the season, but in our last three games I think the defense has been consistent, the communication has been consistent, the effort’s been there. We had breakdowns without a doubt, but our breakdowns are happening less often at the moment, and that’s a step in the right direction.”



VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas wins his duel with Kyrie Irving and his Kings get the win

***

No. 2: Conley is the man at crunch time for Grizzlies – Whether you realize it or not, Mike Conley has become a stabilizing force for the a Memphis Grizzlies team that sorely needed one. Even with the likes of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen on the roster, the young point guard emerged from a humbling start to his career to evolve into the sort of floor leader that pushes the pile the way he did against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night.  Conley is on a tear right now that suggests he might be ready for even bigger and better things, writes Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal:

Conley continued arguably the most productive week of his NBA career in leading the Griz with 21 points, 13 assists and four steals. He posted 30 or more points in each of the two previous games.

The Griz blew a 13-point lead with Conley on the bench. The Hawks began connecting on 3-pointers and used a 16-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to wrestle away the momentum and take an 80-77 lead.

The game was tied at 77 when Conley returned to replace rookie reserve Nick Calathes with 10:38 left. About 20 seconds later, Conley whipped a pass to James Johnson out of a pick-and-roll and Johnson finished the play with an emphatic slam dunk. The basket was the start of a 16-4 run that allowed the Griz to regain the lead for good.

Conley set up Courtney Lee and Mike Miller for 3-pointers, Zach Randolph for a point-blank shot, and created his own scoring opportunities by zipping past defenders and into the paint.

“Once (the Hawks) started making a little bit of a run, from the bench, I noticed that we weren’t getting to the paint,” said Conley, who had eight points and six and six assists in the final period. “We weren’t getting to the rim, to the free throw line or making plays at the rim. It shows our aggressiveness when we are going in-and-out of the paint. We got just little bit too lax in that stage of the game. I just wanted to come in and act on that.”

Conley is averaging 27.3 points in his last three games, which have resulted in an overtime loss to San Antonio and wins over Phoenix and Atlanta.

“He has really taken responsibility, not for running the team but really as a leader for the team and defining whether we are successful or not,” [Grizzlies coach Dave] Joerger said. “He has taken the steps to say, ‘I’m going to be up front, and not pushing from within. I’m not going to be facilitating. I’m going to be out front and be a leader and those who follow will follow and those who don’t will get left behind.’ He is so much more assertive in his approach and our guys feed off of that.”

***

No. 3: Teletovic pokes the LeBron bearIn the event that the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets meet in the postseason (yes, still months away but work with us here), Mirza Teletovic might want to be careful with his poking of LeBron James. He’s still having a little fun at LeBron’s expense in the aftermath of their dust-up during the Nets win over the Heat last weeek in that TNT showdown. His good hard foul on LeBron, when he went around the neck to prevent an uninterrupted layup attempt, prompted plenty of bickering and back and forth about not only the foul and LeBron’s immediate reaction. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald went so far as to suggest that LeBron’s long-term response will have an impact in the playoffs:

Teletovic went high around James’ neck, yes, but it appeared on replay that Teletovic was only trying to prevent James from completing a three-point play. Teletovic didn’t grab James, but James took exception and lunged at Teletovic following the play. Michael Beasley and others restrained James while Nets players rushed in to hold back Teletovic, who reacted to the sequence by flashing a smile.

“Not a basketball play” was James’ constant complaint during the 2013 playoffs, especially during the series against the Chicago Bulls. Bulls center Nazr Mohammed was ejected during Game 3 for shoving James to the ground during a fast break.

For years, the postseason scouting report on James has called for opponents to rough up the MVP in the hopes of knocking him off his game.

Although hard fouls are nothing new for James, Teletovic defended himself after the game and then had a little fun with the incident on Twitter.

“It was just a foul,” Teletovic said. “I just tried to make a foul, and he was coming down the court. He shouldn’t be reacting like that. It’s just basketball.”

Teletovic then did something he might come to regret. The European needled James on Twitter when he posted a screen shot of the scuffle and wrote, “Five in a row…Go @BrooklynNets :) lol ;)” Teletovic then changed the background of his Twitter page to a large picture of the incident.

https://twitter.com/Teletovic33/status/421920903006789632


VIDEO: Mirza Teletovic and LeBron James scuffle

***

No. 4: Count the Trail Blazers out of the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes – The Andrew Bynum 8 — the reported eight teams interested in pursuing the big man’s services for the remainder of this season — does not include that surprise outfit in Portland. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Trail Blazers, true contenders this season in a loaded Western Conference playoff chase, have not registered any legitimate interest in Bynum:

The Portland Trail Blazers could use an extra big man on their bench, but if they did decide to make a play for one between now and the trade deadline, it won’t be for center Andrew Bynum.

CSNNW.com was informed by a well-placed league source that Portland is not one of the reported eight teams interested in Bynum. Another source backed it up saying, “Portland has not inquired” about the services of the 7-foot free agent Bynum.

This revelation isn’t much of a surprise.

There are a couple of reasons why Portland opted not to take such a risk: the concern regarding Bynum’s character and how he would fit inside a locker room that has gelled seamlessly, had to have been a huge road block. Bynum has had his share of knee problems, a road Portland is reluctant to travel down.

The other obstacle is Portland is already carrying 15, the maximum amount of players allowed on a roster. If they were thinking of adding a player such as Bynum, someone would have to be released.

And being that every Trail Blazer on the roster has a guaranteed contract for this season, if Portland did decided to waive a player to make room for a free agent, they would have to eat the contract of that released player.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner claims there might be film of Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game … Deron Williams will not make the trip to London with the Brooklyn Nets … Lakers on the verge of getting injured shooting guard (Xavier Henry not Kobe Bryant) back this week … Speaking of the Lakers, GM Mitch Kupchak says “taking” is never discussed in Lakerland.

ICYMI of The Night: Who, you ask, is Jeff Ayres? He would be the former Jeff Pendergraph of the San Antonio Spurs, the same man you here getting his Dunk of the Night on in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:


VIDEO: Ayres throws it down over the Timberwolves

Heat Rising On Coaching Hot Seats

This is the time of year when the holidays are past, decorations packed away and the chill of winter sets in.

Unless you’re the coach of a struggling NBA team. It’s the time of the season when the heat starts to build and then roar like the inside of a fireplace and somebody gets burned.

By Jan. 18 last year, when the struggling Suns cut loose Alvin Gentry, four NBA coaches had been fired. Gentry followed Mike Brown, Avery Johnson and Scott Skiles out the door and that was just a warm-up to the off-season purge that eventually brought 13 new coaches into the 2013-14 season.

Now as the midway point in the schedule approaches, the temperature is getting hot at the bottom of the standings and there are more than a few coaches feeling the heat:

Jason Kidd, Brooklyn Nets

Record: 11-21

Thermometer reading: Boiling.

Team owner Mikhail Prokorov and general manager Billy King thought it was a simple task to throw out gobs of money to fill up a roster with old men and then get a future Hall of Fame point guard to trade in his jersey for a jacket and clipboard. But Kidd has seemed less interested in doing the necessary on-the-job training dating back to his first game ever in charge on the sidelines when he was taking in-game phone calls during his Orlando Summer League debut. He dumped Lawrence Frank as his right hand man and is becoming more withdrawn, except when ripping his team for the media. Just when it seems that his team has tuned him out, they win at OKC. It only makes the entire flop of a start more disappointing.


VIDEO: Go inside the Nets’ huddle with Jason Kidd

Mike Woodson, New York Knicks

Record: 10-21

Thermometer reading: Sizzling.

Despite the fact that owner James Dolan has told the team that no major changes are forthcoming and Woodson’s job is safe, check back in another month just before the trade deadline. Carmelo Anthony is healed and says he’s back in the lineup for the whole run through the Texas triangle that began with a shocking win in San Antonio. But ‘Melo has already called the Knicks the laughingstock of the league and there is no indication that the bad jokes will stop anytime soon. Hard to believe Woodson could survive another gaffe like the uncalled timeout against the Wizards. Because it’s New York — and that’s supposed to be synonymous with championships (even though there hasn’t actually been one since 1973) — Woodson will have to take the fall if it becomes apparent that the Knicks won’t even make the playoffs in the no good, horrible, very bad Eastern Conference.


VIDEO: Woodson still thinks the Knicks can win the Atlantic Division

Tyrone Corbin, Utah Jazz

Record: 11-24

Thermometer reading: Slow boil.

The Jazz franchise and the owning Miller family are not prone to making quick, emotional decisions. That’s probably a big reason that Corbin even made it through the bloody 2013 offseason when change was the norm. With his long time ties to the organization, he was moved into the job when Jerry Sloan quit in 2011 and was expected to be a smooth hand on the tiller as the Utah jockeyed for a low playoff berth. That job has changed dramatically with Utah’s full-on youth movement and it’s up to Corbin to show that he’s the man who can lead the turnabout. So far, it’s not working. He keeps playing veterans Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams and doesn’t have the young nucleus of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks carving out any kind of identity. Without a contract extension, the hand-writing has been on the wall since the beginning of the season. But if the Jazz keep in free fall, GM Dennis Lindsey may have to pull the switch sooner.


VIDEO: Tyrone Corbin talks about Utah’s victory over the Milwaukee Bucks

Mike D’Antoni, Los Angeles Lakers

Record: 13-19

Temperature reading: Slow boil.

There’s not a hotter seat in the league than coach of the Lakers … unless your name is Phil Jackson. It’s all about the legacy and all those past Lakers championship banners that Doc Rivers had covered up when he took the job with the Clippers. Unless you’re on the verge of hanging up another banner, nobody is going to be happy. And it’s never a good thing when your coach admits after a listless loss at home to the lowly Sixers that he doesn’t really know why his team often plays with a lack of energy or interest. Yes, he’s been without Kobe Bryant for all but six games and the Lakers have enough other injuries (Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar) to fill an ER. But if the Lakers are hopelessly buried — and who says that hasn’t already happened? — by the time Kobe is ready for his second comeback, a head could to roll.


VIDEO: How will Kobe Bryant’s injury affect the Lakers long-term outlook?

Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards

Record: 14-15

Temperature reading: Warm.

It’s about the end of the line for second and third chances and any more excuses for Wittman. Even though he’s had to go for a stretch without Bradley Beal, Wittman has had a healthy and productive John Wall doing all that he can from the season opener. The front office helped him out in the middle by unloading the infirmed Emeka Okafor for Marcin Gortat. The response has been a steady coming together of a team making a run at the .500 mark. It’s really quite simple: the Wizards have to make the playoffs and any dramatic swoon in the coming weeks could make Wittman an in-season casualty.


VIDEO: NBA Action takes a closer look at the Wizards’ season

Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 11-21

Temperature reading: Simmering

The Cavs’ old boss was brought back to return a sense of familiarity and stability to a franchise hoping for progress with its young talent to even make a certain native Ohioan (aka LeBron James) look at Cleveland again when he becomes a free agent this summer. Instead, Brown has not found a way to prevent Kyrie Irving from becoming a ball-hog in the eyes of some of his teammates. The Cavs were supposed to be making a run as a real playoff team rather than bickering like the Real Housewives of Cleveland. That’s no way to recruit LeBron or keep your job.


VIDEO: The Starters crew discusses the Cavs’ fallout with Andrew Bynum

Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 14-17

Temperature reading: Cool.

The Grizzlies have lost their teeth, their identity and the intimidating factor of playing at the Grind House. They’re 7-11 at home and even the absence of the injured Marc Gasol should not excuse that. But let’s face it. Team owner Robert Pera and his crew forced Lionel Hollins out the door and hand-picked Joerger as their man. If they gave him the boot so quickly, they’d really be admitting they blew it. So he’s safe for now.


VIDEO: Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger discusses the team’s loss to Chicago

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

We’re making a list, checking it twice. On Christmas Eve, it’s time to remember who’s been naughty or nice in the first two months of the 2013-14 season:

Naughty — Nets — There isn’t enough coal in Newcastle to fill up the deservingly drooping stocking that hangs over a forlorn and underachieving mantle in Brooklyn. Why would anyone think it would make sense to trade for 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry as part of $102 million-payroll and put the whole thing in the hands of a guy who had never coached a game in his life? Then Jason Kidd gets extra naughty by intentionally spilling a drink when he doesn’t have a timeout against the Lakers. They have a mediocre offense and the 29th-rated defense. Now they lose Brook Lopez to a broken foot. So it won’t be a Happy New Year either, Billy King.

Nice — LaMarcus Aldridge — From Damian Lillard to Nicolas Batum to Robin Lopez to coach Terry Stotts, there are many contributors to the rousing start to the season by the surprising Trail Blazers with the best record in the league. But no one has done more to elevate his game and his team to the elite level than Aldridge. He labored faithfully through seven seasons with a roster that virtually fell apart around his ears, listened to so much talk of trades and has come back to deliver a magnificent season that has him firmly in the MVP conversation.

Naughty — Knicks — Remember when they used to play basketball in New York? The Manhattan edition of the NBA can’t shoot, doesn’t rebound and Carmelo Anthony is saying the Knicks’ troubles are all in their heads. Would that be the heads of the players and the coach who can’t think to call a timeout in the final seconds to set up a shot? If things don’t turn around fast, Mike Woodson’s going to be the fall guy even though there have been enough injuries to fill an ER and the myth of the Knicks as true playoff contenders entering the season was no more real than a team of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh across the sky.

Nice — Suns — If you went to a Las Vegas sports book during training camp and plopped down a sizable lump of cash on the Suns to beat the over/under prediction of 21.5 wins, you’d probably be only a week or two away from returning to book a penthouse suite with your winnings. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek has his club riding the backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic with a rotating cast of other contributors to a 17-10 record and a spot right in the thick of the tough Western Conference playoff race. When the Spurs were in town last week, the entire Phoenix roster had played the same number of NBA games in their careers combined as 37-year-old Tim Duncan.

Naughty — Ricky Rubio — Sure, it’s fun to sit in front of the big screen TV and keep hitting the rewind button on the DVR to replay all of those behind-the-back, no-look, over-the-shoulder, through-the-opponent’s-legs, thread-the-needle, oh-my-gosh, how-did-he-do-that, head-on-a-swivel, slicker-than-a-greased eel passes that get his teammates easy layups and dunks. But come on, two years plus into your NBA career, you’ve got to be able to knock down a wide open jump shot when teams give them to you. Which they do and which you don’t. Which is a big part of the reason why your Timberwolves are healthy and still underperforming.

Nice — Kevin Love — After missing 91 games over the past two seasons to injury, Love’s return to good health and a nightly spot in the lineup has been a sight sweeter than sugar plums dancing in the Timberwolves’ heads. How does a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points and pull down 20 rebounds get better? He becomes a better passer, nearly doubling his assists to 4.2 per game. Outside of The King down in South Beach, there’s just nobody in the league you can count on more every night.

Naughty — Grizzlies — There are more excuses than places to hear the blues in Memphis. But the bottom line is that even before Marc Gasol was sidelined with a knee injury, the Grizzlies were going south. They simply haven’t bought into new coach Dave Joerger, still can’t shoot from the perimeter and Zach Randolph seems to have lost his inspiration. The Grind House was a fun place while it lasted.

Nice — LeBron James — Maybe the only thing that stops him from winning MVP No. 5 — and third in a row — is boredom. Not his. Ours. He’ll never completely win over the entire public the way Michael Jordan did simply because of the times in which we live. The age of social media allows critics to throw stones and pick nits. There has simply never been anyone this big and this strong and this fast and this complete with still such a large part of the meat of his career ahead of him.

Naughty — Westbrook critics — Now that Russell Westbrook has recovered from two surgeries, returned to the Thunder lineup and shown not the slightest loss of his swagger, is there anyone who still thinks Kevin Durant and the OKC franchise would be better off without him?

Nice —Kendrick the Bouncer — It had to bring a smile to the face — if not a tear to the eye — of every old school scrapper who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and just gone after it when Kendrick Perkins unceremoniously ran Joakim Noah out of the Thunder locker room. That’s enough of the 21st century touchy-feely, we’re-all-buddies atmosphere that persists these days. Not enough get-outta-my-face growling between rivals. A team’s locker room is its castle and the only thing that could have made it better is if Perk dumped him into a moat.

Naughty — Omer Asik — Let’s see. For two seasons in Chicago you were averaging just 13 minutes per game and getting relative peanuts. The Rockets signed you to a free agent contract that pays $25 million over three years and last season you started all 82 games and averaged a double-double. That’s nice. But then they signed All-Star Dwight Howard in July. He’s much, much better. You’re still getting your $25 million. Didn’t you read the line about you better not pout? So we’re making our list, checking it twice and — ho-ho-ho — you’re definitely on it.

More Excuses Than Answers For Grizzlies

It's been a rough go for Mike Conley and the Memphis Grizzlies. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s been a rough go for Mike Conley and the Memphis Grizzlies. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

It would be easy to blame all of the Grizzlies’ problems on the absence of center Marc Gasol, who is out with a sprained left knee.

It would be popular to blame them on CEO Jason Levien, who shoved Lionel Hollins, the best coach in franchise history, out the door and put David Joerger onto the hot seat.

It would be fun, just for old times sake, to blame Rudy Gay, who is already two teams down the road from his days as traditional whipping boy in Memphis.

Truth is, the Grizzlies have collectively been nothing but hound dogs since opening night of the 2013-14 season, showing little inclination to play with any of their former bark or bite.

“I wish I could pinpoint it,” said point guard Mike Conley. “I don’t want to make excuses for having a new coach or losing a coach. Obviously losing a guy that’s been here four or five years, it’s going to be tough on a lot of people. But us as players, we had to come back ready to play and with the mindset of wanting to get further than we did last year. Honestly, we didn’t do that, and so, here we are.”

That is sitting in last place in the Southwest Division, rubbing elbows with the Jazz and Kings at the bottom of the Western Conference standings instead of battling with playoff contenders.

The Grizzlies still labor to score points, especially from the perimeter. The No. 2 rated defense that used to have sharp claws and gave up 100.2 points per 100 possessions a year ago, is now ranked 24th in the NBA. In the last half-dozen games they have not guarded the 3-point line, allowing opponents to shoot 43.7 percent behind the arc. They often look clueless and toothless, even at home at the FedExForum, their beloved Grind House, where they’ll take a 5-9 record into tonight’s game against the Lakers (8 ET, League Pass).

“Really, I think we’ve got to establish our identity,” Conley said. “We have lost that in a sense. That’s defensively being a team that goes out and grinds out wins and finds a way to win. We’ve got to get back to that old motto of stopping each individual person, taking it upon ourselves to go out there and play defense and work hard.”

Though troubles have been magnified with seven losses in 10 games since Gasol was injured on Nov. 22, the Grizzlies were hardly ferocious before that. In opening the season a middling 7-6, the Grizz lost at home to the Pelicans and Raptors. After losing Gasol, they’ve lost at home to a Rockets team playing without James Harden and to the Nets minus Deron Williams and Paul Pierce. They lost on Friday night to the Pelicans without Anthony Davis.

“We started off slow because we were just thinking too much,” Conley said. “We were thinking too much about the new offense, the management changes, whatever it may be. There was just a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with what we were doing on the court. We needed to zone out and we started playing well for about a week or so and then the big fella got hurt and injuries started playing a role. It’s just been an up and down season so far and we’ve got to find a way bring everything in.”

The Grizzlies show little cohesion or conviction with what they are trying to do on the court. The latest round of rumors that they’re trying to move power forward Zach Randolph’s big salary may also be enervating. Though he has 13 double-doubles on the season and Memphis is 7-0 when he leads the team in scoring, Z-Bo’s production has dropped off lately. Without Gasol to attract attention inside, defenses are swarming Randolph in the paint and over the past 10 games he’s made half of his shots just once.

Conley has had to become much more of a distributor in the offense without Gasol passing out of the post and his assists are up. But it has cut into his offense on a team that has precious little to spare.

It’s created an atmosphere at home like a balloon with a slow leak. The Grind House has often become an echo chamber of empty seats in a town where the hard-earned fan loyalty of recent playoff success does not run deep.

“It’s been tough for us to show up at the Grind House and not deliver,” Conley said. “That’s an area where we have to improve. We’ve got to understand that having a bad year or a bad month or two can sway fans one way or another in Memphis. What we built can go away fast.

“You can’t just come back and say you’re a Western Conference finals team. I think that’s what we have to realize. We have to go out there and work back up to that point. I do think still we’re capable of getting ourselves back into that shape. But as of today, we’re just not that same team.”

Sound The Early Alarm For These Teams

Despite the anguish that occurs each time LeBron James misses two shots in a row or his team loses back to back, nobody is really worrying about the Heat. The Larry O’Brien Trophy still travels through Miami. We figure the Bulls will get everything sorted out whenever Derrick Rose becomes totally comfortable back out on the floor. Golden State will be entertaining and dangerous as long as Stephen Curry stays healthy. The Spurs will grind on. The Thunder will roar. Those are the stories for the long haul.

Then there are the teams that even two weeks into the season might as well have a fire pole and a Dalmatian inside their home arenas, because the alarm bells are already ringing:

Utah Jazz: It was always going to be a transition year in Utah as the team cleared out Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and made a full commitment to the youth movement. But with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks finally getting their shot, the transition was not supposed to be a crash all the way into the basement. The Jazz have been missing first-round Draft pick Trey Burke (broken finger) at the point, but that’s hardly an excuse for their rarely even competing. They just completed a winless four-game road trip where they trailed Brooklyn by 26, Boston by 25, Chicago by 29 and Toronto by 38. This is the worst offensive team in the league by any measure — points (86.9), rating (90.4) and shooting percentage (40.1) — and are barely better on defense, ranking fourth from the bottom. They give up layups, dunks and wide-open 3s. It’s the worst start to a season since the Jazz moved to Utah in 1979 and if there aren’t at least signs of this bunch becoming regularly competitive, this always-patient franchise could push coach Tyrone Corbin out the door.


VIDEO: Jazz radio play-by-play man David Locke on Utah’s winless start

New York Knicks: What’s more embarrassing: Losing by 31 points at home to a Spurs team that might as well have been floating on its back while sipping an umbrella drink in the third quarter? Or having team owner James Dolan make a bold guarantee that the Knicks would win their next game over the thoroughly mediocre 3-3 Hawks? Really? We’re at the promising-our-guys-will-show-up-and-remember-to-tie-their-sneakers point in the season already? Look, when you go “all-in” with your pile of old chips last season and once more get only as far as the East semifinals, the talk of being a championship contender is just so much self-deluding smoke. Yes, J.R. Smith is back after missing the first five games of the season due to suspension under the league’s substance abuse policy, but center Tyson Chandler is out four to six weeks with a broken leg. The highest paid player on the roster, Amar’e Stoudemire, can’t help a lick and is more dead weight with another $23 million owed next season. Their best player, Carmelo Anthony, is shooting a career-low 41.3 percent from the field, and calls the Knicks play “embarrassing.” Coach Mike Woodson called the effort against the Spurs “unacceptable.” Get ready for Woodson to pay the price is it doesn’t change quick. Never mind beating out Indiana, Miami, Chicago and Brooklyn for one of the top four seeds in the East. The bigger question is how the Knicks do it after next season and beyond?


VIDEO: Knicks coach Mike Woodson blasts team’s effort in loss to Spurs

Los Angeles Lakers: After #bearhunt and #blackout, maybe Kobe Bryant’s next hashtag on Twitter should be the not-so-cryptic #lottery. It is one thing to hope — maybe even expect — the ultra-competitive Black Mamba to not only return to the Lakers lineup from Achilles’ tendon surgery sometime in the next month or two, but to do so at All-Star form at 35 years old. But it is more than a bit unrealistic to think he’ll be able to do much more than simply pull this purple and gold limousine out of the ditch. Anybody who’s given just a glance this season already knew the Lakers didn’t play anything resembling defense (as a 47-point first quarter against Minnesota on Sunday night proved). The hobbling Steve Nash (back) is out at least two weeks. Coach Mike D’Antoni is fiddling desperately with lineups and combinations. They got their only road win of the season when old buddy Dwight Howard gift wrapped it by clanking seven missed free throws in the fourth quarter. When Pau Gasol has to body up and play defense for a full game in the middle, it leaves him sapped on offense. Knowing Bryant, he’ll come galloping back in at full speed and do everything he can to keep his team on the periphery of the playoff race. Even if he beats the odds and succeeds, the Lakers are going nowhere next spring. If the intent is to re-sign Kobe going forward, it would be better off to get him fully healthy for the rebuilt roster in 2014-15.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant on his rehab progress, return date plans and more

Brooklyn Nets: Oh, nobody’s saying it’s time to write off owner Mikhail Prokorov’s big, expensive plaything just two months into the season. But this is a team and a whopping payroll that wasn’t assembled to show patience and slow growth. With geezers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce holding down key spots, the Nets have a window of two seasons at most — and maybe even just this one — to make a real Finals bid. The vital cog in the whole machine is point guard Deron Williams, who has been unable to get back to the level where he was one of the league’s top three at his position in his Utah days. His numbers looked good on Saturday night against the Pacers, but down the stretch he committed a big turnover, then a foolish foul on a George Hill 3-pointer. He looks like anything but the strong quarterback this team needs. Brooklyn stumbles late and can’t close games. Garnett is saying that he’s got to take charge of the team and that’s not practical with the limited minutes he’ll play, no matter his Hall of Fame resume. At 2-4, the Nets can’t afford to dig themselves too deep a hole in the race at the top of the East with Indiana, Miami and Chicago and need some urgency to their game.


VIDEO: Nets forward Paul Pierce talks about life in Brooklyn

Memphis Grizzlies: We know former coach Lionel Hollins got to clean out his desk when he left the FedExForum, but couldn’t a security guard or somebody have stopped him from taking the defense? You can talk about Memphis’ need for a consistent perimeter scorer, solid backup guard or anything else. But the reason the Grizzlies are below .500 (3-4) is they’ve lost their claws and their identity, the part that made them the Grizzlies and carried them to the 2013 Western Conference finals. They’ve gone from the second-rated defense in the league last season to 21st. They’ve fallen from among the leagues in steals and forced turnovers to ranking in the bottom third in the league in both categories. They’re simply being outscrapped, outhustled, outworked. That rarely happened under Hollins and it’s becoming too much of an early trait under new coach Dave Joerger. “We have to get it together,” said Grind House founder Tony Allen, “and get it together soon.” The alarm bells are ringing.


VIDEO: Grizzlies put up little fight in road loss to undefeated Pacers