Rudy Gay injured his shoulder last season on Feb. 15 in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Through 56 games with Gay as the primary scorer and leader on the team, Memphis was 30-26. In the last 26 games without him, the Grizzlies went 16-10 – not much of a difference.
So far this season, it has been hard to tell how having Gay back in the lineup will work with the Grizzlies’ hard-nosed mentality. Gay is considered to be a ball-stopper on offense, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most superstars are just that because they perform best with the ball in their hands.
However, Memphis hung its hat last season on not having one of those types of players and instead relying on team production over individual performance. The Grizzlies defeated San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs last year using a dominating inside game. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph each averaged a double-double and more than 39 minutes per game.
How does Gay fit into the Grizzlies gameplan? Right now, that question is the elephant in the Memphis locker room. Did Memphis win 9-of-11 games last March and April and then go on to a playoff series victory in spite of not having Gay in the lineup? Did his injury inspire his teammates to work harder? Or, did his absence allow a team to coalesce into a better working machine?
They are questions worth asking, especially if the Grizzlies continue to struggle early this season. It’s not so much that they are losing games, but how their offense looks on the court. Gay has taken 42 total shots in the first two games, including 24 two nights ago against the Thunder. To be fair, Randolph took 20 of his own and also got to the free throw line eight more times than Gay.
As seen during last year’s playoff series with the Spurs, Randolph was the unquestionable go-to man on the floor when the team needed a bucket. He was the energy guy, the player inspiring his teammates and willing a city to a much-needed victory.
This season, when the game is on the line and Memphis needs a bucket, who gets the shot? Grizzlies’ fans saw a glimpse of that last night against the Thunder. Randolph hit shots to give Memphis its only leads at 66-65 and 76-75 and also hit a long three-pointer to narrow the deficit to 96-95 late in the game. Gay also had his chance to prove himself as the team’s superstar, nailing a 17-foot jumper over Kevin Durant to bring the Grizzlies within 92-90 with 58.6 seconds to play.
Down the stretch, Gay and Randolph seemed content to defer to one another and let the open man be the go-to man (to steal a phrase from Memphis Tigers coach Josh Pastner). Hopefully, the duo can continue to work together like that down the stretch as the season continues.
Even with all of the criticism, figuring out how to work a superstar into your lineup is a nice problem to have. In fact, many teams in the NBA would love to have that problem. I think the Grizzlies will get better and more acclimated to having Gay back as each game passes. Gay being back in the lineup isn’t the only major change, and it takes time for teams to adjust to new rotations.
Preston McClellan covers the Grizzlies for MemphiSport. Follow him on Twitter @p_mcclellan.
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