Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol figured he might as well remind power forward Zach Randolph it was time to go back on the road.
After all, it had been two weeks since the Grizzlies last boarded the team plane.
“Hey Z-Bo, don’t be late for the team flight,” the 7-1 Spaniard jokingly told Randolph as he left the locker room after Friday’s game against Detroit in FedExForum. “I don’t want to have to call and remind you.”
Randolph, taking questions from reporters, seemed to relish that Gasol passed along a vital memo.
“I got you big fella,” Randolph said. “I’ll be there.”
Gasol and Randolph’s brief exchange, by all accounts, was indicative of the solid chemistry that has enabled the Grizzlies to manufacture the NBA’s best record after their longest homestand of the season. Memphis, which took a 12-2 mark into Saturday’s early-season Western Conference showdown at San Antonio, compiled a 4-1 record during its five-game homestand. The Grizzlies’ only blemish during that stretch came in a 97-92 loss to Denver to begin the series, a game that wasn’t decided until the waning moments.
“You can’t never believe the hype when we win some games and the national media is calling wanting to interview you,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said after the defeat to Denver snapped Memphis’ franchise-best eight-game winning streak. “There’s a responsibility that comes with winning. You can’t do much talking in between games.”
Whether Hollins’ suggestion was a direct message to his players after their setback against the Nuggets remains a mystery. Still, the Grizzlies responded superbly, reeling off four consecutive wins to close out their home stretch. That begs the question: What did we learn about this team after a pivotal homestand performance that Hollins hopes is a sign of things to come?
The Grizzlies are legitimate title contenders
Sure, it is still early in the NBA’s first full season in two years. But if the playoffs began today, the Grizzlies would be a tough out for any opposition.
Among the reasons is that the Grizzlies have managed a number of key, gut-checking wins that could benefit them mightily come the postseason. Besides a lopsided home win December 11 over reigning NBA champion Miami and a colossal come-from-behind road triumph three nights later against NBA finals runner-up Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies latest homestand included a resounding victory over a new-look Los Angeles Lakers squad has underachieved and was forced to make a coaching change five games into the season.
That the Grizzlies’ early-season victories against championship-caliber opponents ultimately catapulted them atop the league standings served as an eye-opener, or sorts, for Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
“Memphis is a great team,” Bryant said. “They’re playing with the belief that they could win and come out of the West.
What’s even more astounding for a Memphis team that held a one-game lead over Miami for the league’s best record before Saturday’s 99-95 overtime loss at the Spurs is that the Grizzlies extended their undefeated streak to 7-0 versus Eastern Conference opponents after Friday’s win over the Pistons. Five of those wins against the East have come at FedExForum, where the Grizzlies have been mostly resilient, having won 14 straight before the loss to Denver.
Memphis hosts the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at 7.
“We had a great month,” said Gasol, alluding to the Grizzlies’ 12-1 mark in November. “We had a great homestand. We still got a lot of room to grow.”
Randolph is slimmer and healthier than ever
On a number of occasions during the preseason, Randolph said he believes this will be his best year of an NBA stint that spans 12 seasons. Now we know why.
Randolph, who wouldn’t say specifically how much weight he lost in the offseason, appears to be a more mobile and versatile — not to mention vocal — player, given he’s having a viable presence on both ends of the floor. So much, in fact, that the 6-foot-9 Randolph owns an NBA-best 12 double-doubles, numbers, that, fortunately for the Grizzlies, are reminiscent of his postseason display two years ago when Randolph avaraged better than 22 points and 10 rebounds (in 13 playoff games) in leading Memphis to the Western Conference semifinals. That Randolph insists he is the best shape of his career means there will be less pressure on reserve big man Marreese Speights to produce big numbers. Speights, who was signed by the Grizzlies days after Randolph sustained a torn MCL the first week of the season at Chicago last year, has started 54 of 60 regular season games for Memphis. Although his presence benefited the Grizzlies’ late-season surge that included them solidifying the West’s No. 4-seed for the playoffs, Speights’ numbers never reflected that of Randolph’s.
“Health is very important in this league,” Hollins said. “(Randolph)has been playing. You can’t do what you do when you’re not out there. Usually what happens when a person is out is you have to adapt to a different identity. That’s why chemistry is so important.”
As Mike Conley goes, so does the Grizzlies
Despite all of the criticism Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley encountered early in his career, it is evident the Grizzlies’ success this year will depend largely on his ability to stay healthy and orchestrate the pick and roll offense. If nothing else, such was the case when Memphis welcomed Cleveland to FedExForum for its third of a five-game homestand.
For the first time this season, the Grizzlies were without Conley, whom Hollins dubbed the “floor general,” and it was obvious they were affected by his absence.
With Conley battling flu-like symptoms, the Grizzlies found it virtually difficult settling into its usual-reliable pick and roll and it nearly resulted in what would have been a devastating setback against an undersized, inexperienced Cavs team that brought a 3-10 record into the game.
The Grizzlies, whose offense appeared stagnant from the outset, registered their lowest scoring output of the season in an 84-78 win and didn’t effectively seal their second straight win until Jarryd Bayless’ two free throws with 13.8 seconds remaining produced the game’s final margin. Consequently, the Grizzlies’ narrow escape prompted Hollins to call out Conley’s critics during his postgame news conference.
“I’ve got to give a shout out to Mike Conley and all the haters of Mike Conley,” Hollins said. “He’s one of the most valuable players we have on this team. He’s not a flashy guy, not a big scorer, not a big name, but helps make us go and we missed him big time.”
The supporting cast is supportive
So much for the departed O. J. Mayo.
Grizzlies forward Darrell Arthur saw action in last week’s game against Toronto for the first time since he tore his ACL last year. But long before Arthur’s much-anticipated return, Memphis was getting valiant contributions from a bench many sensed would endure a dropoff after Mayo — one of the NBA’s premiere sixth men last year — signed as a free agent with Dallas in the offseason. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
That’s because Speights, Quincy Pondexter, Wayne Ellington, and Bayless, among others, have demonstrated they could make the most of their minutes whenever Hollins deems it essential to give his starters a breather.
“We’re getting a lot of time off as far as our bench,” said Gay, “because they are playing so well.”
The only question, at least now that the longest home stretch of the season is over, is whether the consistency from the reserves can be sustained. Ellington who recently enjoyed his Grizzlies coming-out-party with a career-high 25-point outburst against the Heat, certainly thinks so.
“I have to think we have some guys who are really stepping up,” Ellington said. “Everybody had been saying our bench is inexperienced and our bench will be our weakness. I had been hearing that a few times on TV. We’ve just got to stay within our team concept and do our jobs to the best of our abilities and try not to get outside of that.”
So far, so good for a team that is making a strong case it could very well emerge as a tough out come the postseason.