In the three weeks since franchise forward Rudy Gay was sidelined for at least a month with a partial shoulder dislocation, the Memphis Grizzlies have managed to keep their playoff hopes alive.
When the injury happened, the potential consequences were scary. Especially as the schedule spanning the proposed recovery period included at least eight games against likely playoff teams (including both East and West), and two against the NBA-best Spurs.
So far those consequences have not materialized. Following Monday’s 107-101 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies are 5-3 since Gay’s injury (not including the Philly game), with three victories coming against the previously mentioned playoff teams, and one coming against the Spurs.
The quality wins even have ESPN taking notice.
The team didn’t wilt. They barely missed a beat. And here’s why.
5) The Battier Trade / Loss of dead weight, added quality depth
Adding Battier makes the team more whole on the court, in the hearts of fans and in the locker loom. Adding Jason Williams did the exact same thing.
The positive impact of Battier and Williams has been extremely clear. On Feb. 26 against Sacramento, the Grizzlies were struggling to put away an inferior opponent at home. Battier’s presence kept the crowd’s involvement high, and Jason Williams gave coach Lionel Hollins a point guard who would run the offense with enough intensity to put the team ahead. Hollins credited Williams’ play with pulling the Grizzlies into a strong lead which they held in what became a blowout.
Additionally, the trade unloaded dead weight. Hasheem Thabeet and DeMarre Carroll were not quality, contributing members of the team. After their departure, the only Grizzly with any tenure who is not contributing is Xavier Henry, and he’s hurt.
But it wasn’t just these recent roster moves that helped…
4) Depth and Versatility at Shooting Guard
It was also one from a while ago, and one that didn’t happen. The signing of Tony Allen has been a positive for the Grizzlies all season long,and the past few games are no exception.
Add that with the awakening of Sam Young, and the fact that a non-trade seemed to be just what the doctor ordered to fix O.J. Mayo’s slump, and the Grizzlies have been three deep at the shooting guard position.
The depth isn’t lost on Hollins, who, even after acquiring Battier and Rodney Carney, has opted to start two of his three SGs in every game. So far it’s working well enough.
3) Winning Mentality
Of the positive player acquisitions mentioned so far, two, Allen and Williams, are NBA champions. Battier has the experience of having won a playoff series.
The Grizzlies just added another player with championship experience, Leon Powe. Those additions change the Grizzlies from a locker room full of players with very little playoff experience, to adding just enough guys who can let every player know exactly what is required for this team to be successful at a high level.
Hollins talks about it often. Win the Grizzlies finally beat Houston at home on January 21, he talked about how, while the team is improving, they still had a long way to go to get ‘it.’
“I told them that to get where we want to go, it’s going to take a lot more than they are giving right now, and a lot more than they are willing to give,” he said.
Now the coach has at least four more players who can echo that sentiment. But all the advice in the world won’t help unless there is…
2) Team Cohesion
Which the Grizzlies are showing they have. They play as a team. They move as a team. Wins are called “team wins.” The players in the locker room always credit the team after a win, and blame themselves after a loss.
Tony Allen informed me that he doesn’t “trash talk” when on the court. He “supports his teammates.” When Marc Gasol missed two crucial free throws against New Orleans Friday, teammates were quick to back him up and not let him face the blame.
The most obvious embodiment of this newfound unity has to be the Grizzlies more-than-week-old “playoff beards.” Hollins, Allen, Battier, Conley, GM Chris Wallace and even the Grizzlies PR staff have taken to the idea of not shaving until the team is eliminated.
Hollins said he doesn’t particularly like carrying the beard. But it’s a team effort, so he’s joining in.
“[The players] said ‘you’re either with us or against us. I don’t want to be a traitor.”
1) Rudy Gay is not the bread and butter of the Grizzlies offense
It might be hard to swallow when it’s Gay who just signed the franchise-player extension, but he is not the heart of this team. He’s the x-factor.
The heart of this team is underneath the basket – in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. In offensive rebounds, second chance points and basket drives set up by perimeter pick-and-rolls.
Gay provides great defense. He can drive the the basket and take pressure off the guys inside, but so can a lot of players. The depth of driving scorers has kept the points in the paint high, and the play of Randolph, Gasol and Darrell Arthur has helped to both score inside and keep those lanes open.
Take Monday’s win against the Thunder. The Grizzlies scored 68 of their 107 points in the paint. Zbo had 17 and Gasol had 18. A good chuck of Tony Allen and Mike Conley’s 20 points came from drives in the paint.
That’s why without Gay the Grizzlies have survived. Allen, Battier, Williams, Ish Smith for a minute, Sam Young, Darrell Arthur, Mike Conley – they have all stepped up to replace some of what was lost when Gay went down. Even Zach Randolph provided some of it with his game-winner over the Mavericks, but the concrete underneath is in the paint.
And that, more than anything, is why the Grizzlies are still alive.
Story photos by JD Meredith.