Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley: ‘Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance’

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Mike Conley, Jr. entered the NBA ranks in 2007, he was widely viewed as an unproven rookie and the son of Olympic gold and silver medalist triple jumper Mike Conley, Sr. Now in his seventh professional season for the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley, the longest-tenured player on the roster, has emerged as arguably the most underappreciated point guard in the NBA. No doubt, the 27-year-old Conley is the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that boasts the league’s best record and is a legitimate contender to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this year. During a recent exclusive interview with MemphiSport NBA Southwest Division reporter Andre Johnson, Conley spoke about the lofty expectations for this year’s team as well as assessed what has been a stellar career for the native of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Here are 11 questions for No. 11.

BOLD CONFESSION --- Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn't shy away from the notion that he's aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

BOLD CONFESSION — Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn’t shy away from the notion that he’s aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis’ second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

ANDRE: A lot has been said about the organization drafting Memphian Jarnell Stokes back in June. What’s so special about his presence on the team?
MIKE: Jarnell’s done a great job for us since Day 1. He has brought energy to our team. You know, he’s a hard-nosed worker and he wants to get better. He has two great big men to learn from in Marc (Gasol) and Zach (Randolph) and even Kosta (Koufos) and Jon (Leuer). You know, those guys have a wealth of experience and can help Jarnell. I think he’s done a great job with the minutes he’s been given. He really hasn’t been able to show much out there as he wants to. But for the most part, in his short time, he’s done a great job, knowing the plays, where to be on the floor, being in the right spots and capitalizing off that.

ANDRE: Zach Randolph decided in the offseason to return to the organization. There were many speculations as to whether he might move on, but he’s back in a Grizzlies uniform. In your estimation, how special is it having Zach back?
MIKE: It is huge. He’s the head of this ship, man. He always will be. He’s made this team what it is today. So without him, we wouldn’t be here. With him, we’re like family, so it’s awesome to have him back.

ANDRE: Did the Grizzlies get better in the offseason?
MIKE: I thought we did get better in the offseason. And not only because of (the acquisition) Vince Carter and the rookies, but a lot of guys have added a little bit more to their game. So we’re looking forward to a lot of guys stepping up and taking on different roles. They’ll have more on their plate, so hopefully that’ll improve our team and give us a chance to make a deep run.

ANDRE: Much had been said about your constant progress last year, particularly before the All-Star break. In fact, there were a lot of national media prognosticators who sensed you should have gotten serious consideration to represent the West in the All-Star Game. But because the West is so deep at that position with the Chris Pauls and Damian Lillards of the world, you weren’t selected. Do you feel at this stage in your career you’re getting the respect you deserve?
MIKE: Um…slowly. You know, it’s a journey, man. It’s been a journey for me just trying to get better every year and getting attention by adding more to my game and proving that I can play. So I think people are starting to understand my style of play and I just want to keep getting better and not worry about whether people will respect me or not. I just want to go out there and play the best basketball I can.

HUGE IMPACT --- A majority of Conley's seven NBA seasons has been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets' coach in July.

HUGE IMPACT — A majority of Conley’s seven NBA seasons have been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets’ coach in July.

ANDRE: Obviously, this team would like to finish in the top three or top four in the Western Conference standings heading into the postseason. But what are your personal expectations in this, your seventh NBA season?
MIKE: I want to be a better leader. I want to be a better leader for this team, want to be someone everybody can count on. Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance. You know, everyone wants to be an All-Star. But I’m beyond that. I just want to win. If we win, I think we’ll get the attention we deserve.

ANDRE: Now, of course, (Grizzlies head coach Dave) Joerger is back after much reshuffling in the front office in the offseason. Describe your relationship with your coach.
MIKE: It was good that Dave came back because we didn’t need a new rotation of coaches coming in. We need that stability. He’s been here pretty much my entire career and just to have him here as the head coach two years in a row will be great. After his first season, he’s going to be much better.

ANDRE: Speaking of head coaches, Lionel (former Grizzlies coach Hollins) has resurfaced in the head-coaching ranks in the league. Of course, a lot of people felt he should have landed a head coaching job last year. Lionel was very, very big on you, particularly when people said negative things about your style of play. How happy were you when he resurfaced in the NBA?
MIKE: I was very happy for him. I texted him, called him and congratulated him. It was well-deserved, man. He’s a great coach. I know they (Brooklyn Nets) got a good one and he’s looking forward to that opportunity and he’s going to make the best of it.

ANDRE: In terms of NBA point guards, you’ve made a name for yourself. Clearly, your stock has risen and people are now starting to respect your overall body of work. But who are among of the NBA point guards Mike Conley likes to watch?
MIKE: Who Mike Conley likes to watch? Well, I like to watch the ones on all 32 teams.

ANDRE: Of course, I can’t let you off the hook that easily, Mike. Tell me. Who do you like to watch the most?
MIKE: Well, every team has a great point guard. You have athletic points like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. You have some smaller points…Isaiah Thomas is a good one and plays well. Eric Bledsoe is another good one. So you have a lot of good ones. But I can tell you it’s tough to play against them. It’s not too much to watch them. But I have to deal with them on the court.

ANDRE: Is there any player on the team you hang out with on a regular basis?
MIKE: I pretty much hang out with all of them. We try to do as much together as we can. But Marc is probably the closet one I’m with.

ANDRE: Do you expect to be more vocal this year as the Grizzlies’ floor general?
MIKE: I do. I figured I’ve earned the respect to do that, just coming out and being assertive and more vocal because they believe in me running the show.

ANDRE: Here’s a bonus question, Mike. Of course, you’re an Ohio State man after having played two seasons for the Buckeyes. This is seemingly a down year for Michigan football. But I’ve got to ask you this as these schools prepare to meet in a few weeks. Ohio State or Michigan?
MIKE: Ohio State, man.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Kevin Durant on criticism in bolting Team USA: ‘I’ve put in work for my country’

DALLAS — Kevin Durant insists he hasn’t lost any sleep.

Even after the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player was criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash.

“To be honest, I really don’t care,” Durant told reporters after Friday’s shootaround in American Airlines Center. “I slept the same right after I made that decision.”
An eight-year NBA veteran, Durant withdrew from Team USA, citing “mental and physical fatigue.”

KEEP IT MOVING --- Despite being criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash. (Photo by Jim Cowert/AP)

KEEP IT MOVING — Despite being criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash. (Photo by Jim Cowert/AP)

Durant’s decision to leave the team came days after Paul George sustained an open tibia-fibula fracture. The Indiana Pacers star landed awkwardly at the base of a basket stanchion after fouling James Harden during a Las Vegas scrimmage and is expected to miss the entire 2014-15 season.

Durant’s departure followed previous withdrawals by All-Stars Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

Consequently, various media pundits questioned Durant’s timing in leaving the team, going as far as to label the 2010 FIBA World Championship MVP a “quitter.”

“If you attended camp in Las Vegas, and if you called coach (Team USA coach) Mike Krzyzewski to ask for advice on how to be a “leader” when camp resumed in Chicago, and then you blindside Coach K and every other member of the national team, you have “quit,” longtime NBA writer Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com wrote in an August 15 column.

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks on Friday refuted the criticism surrounding his star player, saying Durant’s decision to leave Team USA had “nothing to do with quitting.”

“Well, I haven’t heard anybody call him a quitter,” Brooks said. “Quitting is when you’re not playing, when you fall down and don’t get back up again. And that’s the last thing on Kevin’s mind. Kevin’s going to go down as one of the best players to ever play the game. And he’s obviously very talented and his work ethic is definitely at a high, high level. He goes into every offseason looking to add to his game on both ends (of the floor). “This year is no different. He’s gained some strength through all of the work he’s put in with our group. He’s come back. His attitude has always been great. His leadership skills have improved every year. I think he’s in a good position right now to lead us where we want to get to.”

Still, Durant, who scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting in 17 minutes in OKC’s 118-109 preseason win at Dallas Friday night, said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA.

Many, in fact, sensed the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by George’s gruesome injury.

 

While addressing the media on Friday, Durant said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA in August. Many speculated the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by Paul George’s season-ending leg injury during a scrimmage.

While addressing the media on Friday, Durant said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA in August. Many speculated the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by Paul George’s season-ending leg injury during a Las Vegas scrimmage. (Photo by C. L. Guy)

“I made the decision based on me, but it makes people uncomfortable,” Durant said. “So I understood and it comes with the whole territory when you do something like that. So I understand that. I try not to let it affect me and I’ll keep pushing. It’s one of those things where if you keep throwing rocks, it’s not going to penetrate because I know what I really do. I’ve put in work for my country.”

Since George’s injury, Durant said he often reaches out to the two-time All-Star, who appears to be recouping comfortably and haven’t ruled out a comeback this year.

During an interview last week, the 24-year-old George told Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth, “It’s very possible that I can play this season.”

“I talk to him all the time,” Durant said of George. “I call in and check on him. He looks like he’s doing extremely well. I saw him the other day walking with the boot. So that’s good to see that his recovery is coming along pretty well.”

As for the criticism that ensued amid a withdrawal from Team USA that “blindsided everyone,” according to Krzyzewski, Durant said that didn’t affect his offseason routine of doing the necessary things to ensure OKC remains a serious contender to compete for a championship.

Last year, the Thunder lost to eventual NBA champion San Antonio in six games in the Western Conference Finals.

“(The offseason) was fun,” Durant, the reigning NBA scoring champion, said. “I worked hard. I enjoyed my summer. That’s really it. I had a lot of off-the-court stuff to do. But what it really boiled down to was the court. I always make time to get out on the court.”

DreColumnAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Zach Randolph on his future with the Grizzlies: ‘I’m dedicated to this team’

Zach Randolph has been in the NBA long enough to realize that with the playoffs comes a flurry of distractions.

Among the potential perplexities the Memphis Grizzlies’ franchise player is facing on this, the last day of regular season, is whether he intends on exercising his player option for next season.

DEVOTED VET --- Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph on Wednesday said he has yet to assess whether he will exercise his player option for next season, but reiterated that he wants to "stay a Grizzly." (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

DEVOTED VET — Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph on Wednesday said he has yet to assess whether he will exercise his player option for next season, but reiterated that he wants to “stay a Grizzly.” (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Randolph, 32, who can opt out of his contract at season’s end, is in the third of a four-year, $71 million deal the former Michigan State star signed in April 2011. If Randolph returns to the Grizzlies for a sixth full season, the two-time All-Star would make around $16 million in 2014-15.

Following Wednesday morning’s shoot around as Memphis prepares to face the Dallas Mavericks in a nationally televised game at 7 p.m. CST in FedExForum, Randolph fielded questions about his future with the organization.

“No, I haven’t thought about that,” Randolph told MemphiSport when asked if he has thought about whether he will exercise his player option next year. “I’m still dedicated to this team, all day, every day.”

Selected with the 19th overall pick in 2001 by Portland, the 6-foot-9 Randolph was traded in July 2009 to the Grizzlies for Quentin Richardson and has since been the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that generated its highest winning percentage last year (.063) and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

And, after having blossomed into an All-Star caliber player with the Grizzlies following brief stints with Portland, the New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Clippers, the 13-year-veteran on Wednesday reiterated that he wants to finish his career with the organization.

“I’m a Grizzly,” Randolph, the team’s leading scorer, said. “I want to stay a Grizzly. I haven’t even thought about (next season). I’m worried about the task at hand and that’s winning in these playoffs.”

Tied with Portland for the NBA’s longest winning streak (four games), the Grizzlies solidified a fourth consecutive playoff berth with 97-91 win Monday night at Phoenix.

Just as he’s done in recent years, Randolph, who averages 17.2 points and 10 rebounds per game, has played a pivotal role in Memphis’ surge, particularly after the All-Star break.

Randolph appeared to be in playoff form when he scored a season-high 32 points on 15-of-25 shooting against the Suns, energy Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said his star big man must match if Memphis is to manufacture a deep postseason.

 

GAME CHANGER --- Randolph was a force in Monday's playoff-clinching win for Memphis when he scored a season-high 32 points in a 97-91 win at Phoenix.

GAME CHANGER — Randolph was a force in Monday’s playoff-clinching win for Memphis when he scored a season-high 32 points in a 97-91 win at Phoenix.

“That was a heckuva performance against Phoenix the other night,” Joerger said of Randolph. “He’s been such a problem for teams. You know, you have teams that want to take out of the perimeter, stretch him out, and make him play pick and roll. And with him, whether they’re putting two guys on him of whatever it may be, he’s been aggressive.”

What’s even more astounding, Joerger acknowledged, is how Randolph has steadfastly assumed the business-like approach in a year mired by distractions. In mid-December, for instance, Randolph became the subject of trade rumors in a reported deal that would have sent him to the New Orleans Pelicans for fellow big man Ryan Anderson.

Then after the Suns inquired about Randolph just days before the All-Star break, the Grizzlies reportedly turned down the offer, thus removing Randolph from the trade block.

While Randolph has publicly said he was “hurt” over being rumored to be dealt, Joerger said the Grizzlies managed to play up to their identity during a critical stretch in the season, in large part because Randolph didn’t appear fazed by such talks.

“He’s been professional about it,” Joerger said. “He’s stayed focused. He’s been the consemate teammate. Guys go to him. He’s got a lot of advice, a lot of experience. It’s been more than just what people see on the court.”

Now that Randolph is starting to field questions once again about his future with the playoffs set to start this weekend, he contends his primary focus is the monumental task that awaits the upset-minded Grizzlies.

That is, a first-round date with either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.

“That’s a part of the business man,” Randolph said of the inquiries about his future. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity…injuries, guys going down, missing a lot of games. So that’s a part of the game. You just have to overcome stuff like that, stick together, and keep fighting.”

All day, every day.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

LeBron appears ready to pass league MVP crown to OKC superstar Kevin Durant

HEADS UP --- Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night's 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has been the "most consistent player" this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HEADS UP — Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night’s 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has been the “most consistent player” this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Two world championships. Two NBA Finals MVPs. Two league MVPs.

Surely, the previous two seasons couldn’t have been any better for LeBron James, the NBA’s most celebrated player whom many have labeled the best on the planet.

However, when asked before Wednesday night’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies about this year’s MVP race, James sounded like someone who seemed inclined to deliver a concession speech for the first time in three years.

“I think KD (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) has had one heckuva season and if he’s rewarded with the MVP, that’ll be great,” James said. “I mean, it’ll be awesome for him, for his family, whose done a great thing for him. He’s played MVP-type basketball.”

Still, the 29-year-old James, who’s won the award four times in 10 NBA seasons, seemed reluctant to say whether the league’s premiere individual hardware is Durant’s to lose.

“I don’t really get caught up into what people say,” James said. “At the end of the day, they have their own votes and they’ll go from there.”

Heading into the final week of the regular season, it appears all signs point toward Durant being the heavy favorite to possess the league’s MVP award. Through 77 games, Durant undoubtedly has been the NBA’s most efficient player, averaging a league-best 32 points per game. In addition, the seven-year veteran and five-time All-Star is shooting .505 from the field, which is best in the NBA, and shooting .875 from the free throw line, second only to Golden State’s Stephon Curry (.878).

Second only to New York’s Carmelo Anthony in minutes played (38.5), Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone “King James” of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a streak that came to a halt in Tuesday night’s win at Sacramento. While Durant appeared relieved to witness the streak end, James, meanwhile, was complimentary of Durant’s display in recent months.

Asked if he felt Durant is the frontrunner for MVP, James, the NBA’s third-leading scorer said, “I would say he’s playing the most consistent basketball as far as MVP this year. I mean, he’s put up some great numbers.”

James' game-high 37 points Wednesday weren't enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami's leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

James’ game-high 37 points Wednesday weren’t enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami’s leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

 

Indiana’s Paul George, whose Pacers appear to be on a collision course to meet Miami in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, said while the winner of the MVP award is of “no concern” for him, he hinted that James still has a chance to make up ground.

 

 

“It’s up for grab,” George told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “It’s a lot of guys who are doing a great job. (Durant) is having a heckuva year.”

James’ teammate, Heat center Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was rather candid while chiming in on the league MVP race following Miami’s 107-102 loss against the Grizzlies. Bosh, in fact, believes James’ streak of consecutive MVP awards will end in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think so,” said Bosh, when asked if James has a legitimate chance of surpassing Durant in the MVP race. “I think they’ve made up their minds. But you know, no matter what happens, it’s easy for me to say it’s a trophy and you can’t win it every year.”

Although Durant will likely win this year's MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

Although Durant will likely win this year’s MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

What the Heat can accomplish as they prepare to defend back-to-back NBA titles, Bosh said, is use Durant’s likely dethroning of James as motivation, of sorts, once the playoffs commence.

“You can look for anything as motivation for sure,” Bosh said. “When you’re on top, it puts a big X on your back. So it’s not just (motivation) for LeBron, but for everyone.

You know, it’s a unique situation. I don’t know how (winning MVP feels). I never will.”

Regardless of who is named league MVP, James said his primary focus is to help the Heat accomplish the necessary things to ensure the franchise maintain the NBA’s most covenant award for a third consecutive year. In doing so, he said Miami will need a healthy Dwyane Wade back for what figures to be another intense postseason run.

Wade ran sprints on the FedExForum court roughly 90 minutes before Wednesday’s game, but sat out while he continues to recuperate from a strained left hamstring. It was the eighth consecutive game Wade has missed. In all, he has missed 27 outings this year.

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Heat a half game behind Indiana for the top spot in the East.

“It’s very important,” James said of having a healthy Wade in the lineup. “He’s one of Big Three. We’ve won two championships for the most part because we had our Big Three on the floor. When he’s out there, we’re a dynamic team.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Marc Gasol shines against Pacers despite ankle injury he suffered against Miami

HUGE CENTERPIECE --- Grizzlies center Marc Gasol gave Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert all he could muster during Saturday night's game in FedExForum. Though he was a game-time decision due to an ankle injury he suffered Friday at Miami, Gasol played a pivotal role in Memphis' 82-71 win against the top team in the Eastern division. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

HUGE CENTERPIECE — Grizzlies center Marc Gasol gave Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert all he could muster during Saturday night’s game in FedExForum. Though he was a game-time decision due to an ankle injury he suffered Friday at Miami, Gasol played a pivotal role in Memphis’ 82-71 win against the top team in the Eastern division. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

During his pregame media availability session Saturday night, Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger took all but 26 seconds to provide reporters with an update surrounding the latest injury to center Marc Gasol.

“He’s going to be a game-time decision, but we’re hoping he plays,” Joerger said. “But we’ll see how his warm-ups go and how comfortable he is.”

Though Gasol did not participate in pregame shoot around, the 7-foot-1 Spaniard underwent treatment for a Grade 1 left ankle sprain a source close to the team told MemphiSport before Saturday’s game versus the Indiana Pacers.

During pregame warm-ups, Gasol appeared unfazed by an ankle injury he suffered in the third quarter of Grizzlies’ 91-86 loss at Miami Friday. While it is unclear just how severe the injury was, the Grizzlies elected to hold Gasol out the entire fourth for precautionary reasons after he scored 14 points and managed six rebounds against the Heat.

However, the six-year veteran and reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year was in the starting lineup for Saturday’s game, wearing a protective brace around his knee.

Gasol finished with 10 points on 4–of-11 shooting in 38-plus minutes as the Grizzlies earned a gutsy win against the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers, 82-71, before an announced sellout crowd in FedExForum.

Late in the second quarter against Indiana, Gasol erased any doubts as to whether his ankle would be a concern for a Grizzlies team that entered Saturday’s contest eighth in the West and fighting for its playoffs lives.

With Memphis clinging to a nine point lead, Gasol fielded a backdoor pass from Zach Randolph, penetrated hard to the basket then converted a two-handed slam at the 2:44 mark. That play was followed by Gasol’s baseline jump hook over Indiana’s David West that increased the Grizzlies’ lead to 43-30 at the half.

Among those relieved to see Gasol return after he was limited to approximately 2 ½ quarters of action the previous night was Randolph.

“We need him,” Randolph said. “That’s our big fella. That’s our anchor. I was just praying he would be all right.”

Fortunately for the Grizzlies (41-28), who are seeking their fourth consecutive postseason berth, Gasol’s ankle injury didn’t cause him to miss a significant amount of time. For starters, Memphis got back into playoff contention, in large part because the 2012 All-Star returned to the lineup in mid-January after nearly a two-month absence. He had been efficient ever since.

Prior to suffering an MCL sprain in his left knee during a Nov. 22 loss to San Antonio, Gasol was the Grizzlies’ second-leading scoring, averaging 16 points per game. Since his return, his 13.8 points is third-best for Memphis, which went 8-2 in March with Gasol in the fold.

NO WORRIES --- Gasol erased all doubts as to whether the ankle injury he suffered in Friday's game at Miami would be a concern with this two-handed dunk late in the second quarter against Indiana.

NO WORRIES — Gasol erased all doubts as to whether the ankle injury he suffered in Friday’s game at Miami would be a concern with this two-handed dunk late in the second quarter against Indiana.

Indiana coach Frank Vogel, whose Pacers (51-19) entered Saturday’s game with a three-game lead over Miami for the top spot in the East, said having a player of Gasol’s caliber in good health is crucial at this stage in the season.

“Anytime a player like Gasol is out, it certainly weakens what they do,” Vogel said. “But certainly they’re capable of winning basketball games (without Gasol) as they’ve shown. They played a lot with him this year, so to me, there’s some familiarity there. In some ways, it’s rewarding for other guys to get a chance to step up. But anytime you have a key guy to go down, it challenges everything you’re doing.”

That Gasol’s ankle injury wasn’t serious enough to keep him out of the lineup Saturday caused the Grizzlies to breathe a collective sigh of relief with 13 regular-season games remaining.

With the Grizzlies well in command, 79-65, against the Pacers, Gasol left the game for good with 1:52 left in the fourth and was replaced by fellow big man Kosta Kufos, who started 22 games when Gasol went down in November.

“As the day went on, I was pretty confident I was going to be able to play,” Gasol told reporters afterward. “Everyone who got in the game contributed. Everybody played the right way. It was a really good win for us after a tough loss (Friday) night on the road. I thought we did a good job of coming in and playing our game.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizz Mike Miller to receive second championship ring in his return to Miami

SOUTH BEACH BOND --- Four-time league and two-time NBA Finals MVP LeBron James was among the players with whom former Miami Heat swingman Mike Miller enjoyed playing. Miller, now in his second stint with Memphis Grizzlies, returns to Miami Friday for the first time since helping the Heat win their third NBA crown last year. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

SOUTH BEACH BOND — Four-time league and two-time NBA Finals MVP LeBron James was among the players with whom former Miami Heat swingman Mike Miller enjoyed playing. Miller, now in his second stint with Memphis Grizzlies, returns to Miami Friday for the first time since helping the Heat win their third NBA crown last year. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

Mike Miller has two notable words for the Miami Heat organization when he enters American Airlines Arena for shoot around Friday morning.

“Thank you,” the Memphis Grizzlies swingman said prior to the team’s light workout Thursday afternoon at its practice facility.

To get a clear indication of why Miller is so appreciative of Heat management, look no further than what has transpired in his career in recent years. Miller’s 14 NBA seasons include three years in Miami, a stint by which the 34-year-old veteran will remember for the rest of his life.

Miller was a member of the Heat squad that has won consecutive NBA championships and is a heavy favorite to three-peat this year.

Come Friday night, moments before the Grizzlies face the Heat at 6:30 CST, Miller will receive his second championship ring.

For Miller, a former University of Florida star, while he contends that Friday’s pregame presentation likely won’t give way to him being overcome by emotions, he said acquiring his second ring will prompt him to relish the memories he established during his brief tenure at South Beach.

Signed by the Grizzlies weeks after the Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in seven games for the franchise’s third NBA title, Miller played for Miami from 2010-2013. His three seasons with the Heat are comprised of 139 appearances, including 58 postseason outings. In addition, he made 21 starts, including 17 last year during which he averaged 15.3 minutes per game.

Arguably his grandest moment in a Heat uniform came during the 2012 NBA Finals against Oklahoma City when Miller scored 23 points on the strength of an NBA Finals record seven three pointers.

Miami went on to defeat the Thunder in five games, giving Miller his first championship.

In assessing his brief stint in Miami, Miller said among the things he deemed mostly intriguing was playing alongside four-time league and two-time Finals MVP LeBron James.

“It was a lot of fun,” Miller said. “To see how hard he worked was humbling. And to be a part of what he was doing was exciting. So it was a lot of fun, made your job a lot easier. I missed that part of it for sure.”

As for collecting more championship hardware before squaring off against his former teammates, Miller said more than anything, he hopes the much-anticipated exchange will inspire a Grizzlies team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals last year.

WALKING IN MEMPHIS --- Miller reunited with Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol after signing with Memphis weeks after the Heat won the franchise's third world title. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WALKING IN MEMPHIS — Miller reunited with Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol after signing with Memphis weeks after the Heat won the franchise’s third world title. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“I think more than anything, it makes you hungry,” Miller said. “Once you get a taste of it…it’s actually worse than not winning it at all. My whole goal now is to find a way to get another one. I know it’s not going to be easy because I realize how hard it was just to get (to the NBA Finals) the last three years. And winning it was definitely hard. So it’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely a mission of mine.”

If nothing else, Miller said the Grizzlies, after coming one round short of the NBA Finals last year, should view his pregame ring presentation as motivation, of sorts, as they continue to lobby for a playoff spot for a fourth consecutive year.

“They should be,” Miller said. “I think if they’re not, there’s something wrong. I feel it’s everybody’s goal to do that. You know, making the Western Conference Finals is a heckuva accomplishment. Just having that success should put a taste in their mouths to want to win a championship. But to make it to that next step, to the (NBA) Finals is harder, and winning a championship, it’s even harder than that.”

As Miller tells it, that he’s receiving his second championship ring Friday couldn’t have come at a better time now that he’s back with the Grizzlies (40-27), who currently own the seventh spot in the West with 15 regular-season games remaining.

It’s a great timing for this because it will inspire them,” Miller said. “Like I said, it’s the whole reason everyone’s out here. It’s the whole reason we put in all the hours now, to win at any level. When you see the championship and how it affects you as a person and player can only help.”

Come Friday night, the Mitchell, South Dakota native will not only show gratitude to his former employer for three memorable years, but he will be afforded the luxury of basking in championship glory.

Once again.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

Grizzlies veteran guard Tony Allen on his reserve role: ‘Let me get in where I fit in’

Just recently, the Memphis Grizzlies were a little more than an hour away from tipoff against the Charlotte Bobcats.

In what was a mostly empty locker room, Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen — who’s usually the first player to suit up before a game – is sitting in front of his locker, his music blasting as he uttered the lyrics to one of Memphis rapper Yo Gotti’s hits.

“Man, I’m feeling Memphis today,” Allen said with a smile.  

GAME CHANGER --- Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen has thoroughly embraced his unfamiliar reserve role since his return from injury last month. So much, in fact, that Memphis is back in playoff contention in the season's latter stages. (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

GAME CHANGER — Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen has thoroughly embraced his unfamiliar reserve role since his return from injury last month. So much, in fact, that Memphis is back in playoff contention in the season’s latter stages. (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

A nine-year NBA veteran, Allen doesn’t shy away from the notion that he has absorbed a fond admiration for Memphis since he relocated to the Bluff City from Boston following the 2009-10 season.  

For starters, Allen is deemed the mastermind behind the “Grit Grind” catchphrase he coined after holding Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant in check during a February 2011 game. Three years removed from having convinced Memphians to embrace the “Grit Grind” persona that has become the franchise’s identity since his arrival to the team, Allen also continues to demonstrate the No-I-In-Team concept.

What’s mostly intriguing for a Grizzlies team that has re-established itself as a playoff contender with a 39-27 mark heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz in FedExForum is that the 32-year-old Allen has proven to display a winning attitude while harboring an altered role, one he hasn’t witnessed since he joined the team.

Having returned February 21 from a hand injury that sidelined him 21 games, Allen has been playing backup to fellow veteran Courtney Lee, who was signed by the Grizzlies Jan. 7 as part of a three-team deal.

Drafted with the 22nd overall pick in 2008, Lee has been efficient in his brief time with Memphis, averaging 12.2 points per game in 31 consecutive starts.

“It was kind of strange simply because he wasn’t playing in Boston and then came here and fit right in so well,” Allen said of Lee, who is now with his fifth NBA team. “You know, when you’re playing alongside Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol anybody can get in position and block because those guys are the horses and they pass so well and they can draw so much attention on you. He’s been playing very well and we’re going to need him to do that for the rest of the year. He’s been battled-tested. He has playoff experience. He’s a seasoned vet and a great addition for us.”

Since his return from injury, Allen has been his usual reliable self. He is one of five Grizzlies who average double figures in scoring (10.2 points) and his 1.68 steals per game is best on the team. As the self-proclaimed “Grindfather” acknowledges, his reserve role isn’t as vital as his ability to aid a Memphis team that boasts postseason aspirations.  

“It’s been an adjustment but I’m used to adapting coming from how I started here.” said Allen, who was labeled the best perimeter defender in a survey among NBA GMs two years ago. “I’ve been in this position before.”

As far as the former Oklahoma State star is concerned, he feels it is best if Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger doesn’t fix something that’s not broken.

“All I’ve got to do is go out here and do what’s best for the team and that’s give every minute to this organization, dedicate my body to the weight room, work on my craft, and help us win games,” Allen said. “It really don’t matter if I’m coming off the bench, passing out water, giving high fives…it don’t matter. I’m having fun.”

With what appears to be a healthy unit than the one that struggled mightily the first two months of the season, it’s safe to assume the Grizzlies have remodeled themselves as a resilient, balanced unit even with arguably their best defensive player occupying a reserve role.

TEAM PLAYER --- Allen, a now in his ninth NBA season, said he isn't concerned about his reserve role as much as he is about helping the Grizzlies secure a postseason berth for a fourth straight year. (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

TEAM PLAYER — Allen, now in his ninth NBA season, said he isn’t concerned about his reserve role as much as he is about helping the Grizzlies secure a postseason berth for a fourth straight year. (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

“He’s been great,” Joerger said of Allen. “He’s been active and we’re playing him a lot of minutes. I think we’re a little effective picking the matchups we want him to play and he’s done a great job of wrecking stuff and taking people out of their offense.”

Currently, Memphis, 9-5 since the All-Star break, is eighth in the Western Conference standings, meaning if the regular season the ended today, the Grizz would clinch a playoff berth for a fourth consecutive year.

Not so fast, Allen cautions.

“We’re still at the bottom,” he said. “We still haven’t done nothing. We’re in (eighth) place. We haven’t done nothing. We just played good for a month. We don’t get far playing good in a month. We’ve got to do that throughout the year. So right now, we’re at the bottom and that’s the focus, to get back into those playoffs and getting back to where we was last year and that’s the Western Conference Finals.”

Following Wednesday’s shootaround in FedExForum, Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said because Allen has adjusted comfortably to his unfamiliar role, the Grizzlies could potentially be a tough out in the postseason just as they were a year ago.

“He’s still Tony Allen,” Corbin said. “I know older guys in the league want to start, but he’s been effective for his team. He plays the same minutes in the rotation and when he comes in, he still has the edge. He’s a good defensive player and (the Grizzlies) are good as a result of his play.”

Let alone his No-I-In-Team concept.

“I’m just thankful…God put me in situation to provide for my family,” said Allen who, last summer, signed a multi-year deal with the Grizzlies and then married to his longtime girlfriend, Desiree Rodriguez, days later. “ I just came back and I said, ‘Let me get in where I fit in.’ I don’t have no reason to hold my head down about nothing…just go out here and give 110 percent and play every game like it’s my last.”

New, unfamiliar role and all.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

LeBron on his Mount Rushmore comments: ‘I don’t care what people say or think’

DALLAS — Miami Heat superstar LeBron James said before Tuesday night’s game against the Dallas Mavericks that he has no plans to watch his taped delayed interview with NBA TV last week in which he revealed his Mount Rushmore of NBA greats.

HEATED FUED --- Miami Heat star LeBron James reacted to Shawn Marion's comments Tuesday in which the Dallas Mavericks swingman (right) said James doesn't belong on the Mount Rushmore of NBA greats. Said James before Tuesday night's game at Dallas: "I don't care what Shawn Marion or anybody else says about the way I play basketball." (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

HEATED FEUD — Miami Heat star LeBron James reacted to Shawn Marion’s comments Tuesday in which the Dallas Mavericks swingman (right) said James doesn’t belong on the Mount Rushmore of NBA greats. Said James before Tuesday night’s game at Dallas: “I don’t care what Shawn Marion or anybody else says about the way I play basketball.” (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

However, when asked his reactions to Mavericks swingman Shawn Marion’s comments following shoot around Tuesday morning in which he said James doesn’t belong on pro basketball’s version of Mount Rushmore because, “There’s a lot of guys who have done a lot more than he has done,” James was forthright with reporters, saying, among other things, “I’m focused on bigger and better things.”

In a nationally-televised interview that aired Monday night, James said that by the time his career ends, he would be considered one the top four players to ever play the game and that he should have a spot on the Mount Rushmore of NBA legends. Consequently, the four-time league Most Valuable Player was asked to reveal his personal Mount Rushmore, or whom he believed was the four greatest players of all time.

James quickly uttered what he deemed the “easy three,” which included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. After pausing momentarily, he named Oscar Robertson as his fourth choice, a development that apparently offended Hall of Famer and 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell, who addressed James directly about the subject before Sunday’s All-Star Game in New Orleans. While James reiterated that his comments on NBA TV were misinterpreted, he didn’t refute his statements in which he said he would be amongst the NBA’s finest when he calls it career.

To his credit, the 29-year-old James demonstrated once again Tuesday why many have labeled him the best basketball player in the world. James scorched the Mavericks with a season-high 42 points on 16-of-23 shooting to lift the Heat to their straight win, 117-106, before 20,461 witnesses in American Airlines Center.

“I don’t care what people say or what people think,” James said in response to Marion’s comments. “That’s not my concern because I think once again it was blown out of context. But I feel like when it’s all said and done, one of my personal goals is to be one of the greatest who can ever play this game. And I won’t sell myself short, and I won’t stop and continue saying and thinking what I believe. So it doesn’t matter what Shawn Marion or anybody else says about the way I play the game of basketball.”

James addresses reporters in the locker room before Tuesday night's game against the Dallas Mavericks. Miami prevailed, 117-106, behind James' game-high 42 points.

James addresses reporters in the locker room before Tuesday night’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. Miami prevailed, 117-106, behind James’ game-high 42 points. (Photo by Andre Johnson/MemphiSport)

Asked if Marion’s remarks will serve as bulletin board material as he aims to guide the Heat to a third consecutive NBA crown, James, who is seeking his third world championship, said, “No, I don’t need bulletin board material. My bullentin material is the name on the back of my jersey and the name on the front of my jersey and the youth and kids I inspire everyday, every time I go out on the basketball court. And I witnessed that Saturday when I had my foundation event in New Orleans, when I was able to give back to the Boys and Girls Clubs with about 30 to 35 or 40 kids smiling by my presence being there.

“And I can understand my calling is much bigger than basketball,” James, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, continued. “So when everyone else is focusing on basketball, I’m focused on bigger and better things.”

Of course, the 10-time All-Star and two-time reigning league MVP couldn’t resist ending  his pregame interview session without bringing reporters to laughs by taking a jab at those who sense he doesn’t belong on the Mount Rushmore of NBA greats.

“No one can guard me one-on-one,” James said.

With a straight face.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizzlies star Zach Randolph holding his own in season mired by injuries, trade talks

The general consensus about Zach Randolph is that he is among the most admired and well-respected public figures in Memphis.

No one seemingly knows that better than Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

 

GAME CHANGER --- In what has been a challenging season mired by injuries and constant trade talks, Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph tied  franchise record for double-doubles with 189 in Saturday's 91-88 win against the Houston Rockets. The two-time All-Star finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

GAME CHANGER — In what has been a challenging season mired by injuries and constant trade talks, Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph tied franchise record for double-doubles with 189 in Saturday’s 91-88 win against the Houston Rockets. The two-time All-Star finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

“We get along very well on and off the court,” Gasol said. “We talk all the time. I mean, the man came all the way to Barcelona (Spain) to my wedding (over the summer). We’re really good friends.”

Gasol was among the first players to congratulate Randolph after the 12-year veteran reached yet another milestone in his All-Star career. Randolph tied the franchise record for career double-double (15 points and 17 rebounds) in Memphis’ decisive 99-81 win Saturday night against the Houston Rockets in FedExForum.

“Who was the other guy?” Gasol jokingly asked after the game.

The “other guy” is Gasol’s older brother, Pau Gasol, who now shares the Memphis’ double-double record with Randolph at 189 apiece. Randolph, to his credit, wasted little time demonstrating that he was primed to carve out history in front of the same fans who have come to embrace the contributions he’s made to the Grizzlies organization since he was traded to by the Los Angeles Clippers following the 2008-2009 season.

Less than five minutes into Saturday’s contest, for instance, Randolph had already accounted for seven rebounds. Then, with 7:04 remaining in the third quarter, he solidified the mark when he scored on a fastbreak layup as Houston’s Patrick Beverly was whistled for a foul.

During a 20-second timeout, the 32-year-old Randolph was mobbed by teammates, who praised him in tying Pau Gasol’s double-double mark as the crowd chanted in unison, “Z-Bo.”

While Randolph appeared blissful to have accomplished such a feat with an organization from which he has publicly said he’d liked to retire, what he deems mostly intriguing is that it transpired during a time in which the Grizzlies are starting to mirror last year’s a team that advanced to the postseason for a third consecutive year.

“We’re getting there,” Randolph told reporters, when asked have the Grizzlies have recovered from their early-season struggles. “I ain’t going to say that right now. We’ve got the big fella (Marc Gasol) back and Mike (Conley) is playing All-Star basketball. But we’re getting there.”

For more proof, look no further than the current standings in the West.

Before Marc Gasol, who missed 23 games after an MCL sprain he suffered Nov. 22, the Grizzlies were four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. After Saturday’s win against Houston that culminated a rare back-to-back versus the Rockets, Memphis, which opens a three-game road trip Tuesday starting at the Portland, is currently two games back of Dallas for the pivotal eighth spot.

That the Grizzlies, winners of nine of their last 12, had managed to hover around the .500 mark before Marc Gasol returned to the lineup was due in large part to the poise and assertiveness Randolph has exhibited in recent weeks, Memphis coach Dave Joerger said.

“He’s been terrific,” Joerger said. “He’s really carried us through a tough stretch with Marc being out and he’s really helped us find our identity without Quincy (Pondexter) and Tony (Allen). He’s been pretty steady and has helped us to compete. He’s a guy who’s always double-teamed, but creates shots for other people.

Randolph said among the reasons for the Grizzlies' surge is that center Marc Gasol (left) is back in the lineup after missing 23 games due to an MCL sprain in late November.

PEAK SEASON — Randolph said among the reasons for the Grizzlies’ surge is that center Marc Gasol (left) is back in the lineup after missing 23 games due to an MCL sprain in late November. Memphis is 6-1 since Gasol’s return.

“I’m just really proud of him because he didn’t quit and say, ‘I’ve got a bigger guy on me, somebody else needs to go get it (rebounds).’ He goes and gets it off the glass and he’s good at calling stuff out for our guards.”

Besides being a vocal presence on the court, Randolph has proven to be just as expressive and resilient, particularly pertaining to business-related matters off the court.

As early as mid-December, for instance, Randolph reportedly was being rumored to be traded by the Grizzlies, news that prompted the two-time All-Star to say that there is “no loyalty” in NBA front offices. Though Randolph admittedly was “hurt” after emerging as the subject of constant trade talks, the Marion, Ind. native assumed what he described as the “businesslike approach” until team officials ultimately announced weeks later that they had no plans of dealing Randolph, who has a $16 million player option for next year.

Given how fans and his teammates responded amid his latest achievement Saturday night, Randolph not only seemed enraptured, but he sounded like a man who has lofty aspirations of adding to what has been a memorable five-year stint with the Grizzlies.

“It feels good,” Randolph said of the double-double record. It’ll be better when I hold the record. I mean, you’ve to go out and put your all into being a part of the community and this organization. You know, this is my town, my fans. And I appreciate the fans. They’ve been great this season and we need them.”

Especially now that the surging Grizzlies are starting to exhibit the same swagger that enabled them to stage a deep playoff run last year.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Former Grizz Rudy Gay aiming to regain form since his recent trade to Sacramento

Rudy Gay arrived in Memphis late Wednesday night, hours after the Sacramento Kings’ win at Minnesota.

He was delighted to have returned to the place he still calls home.

MORE TO PROVE --- Following Friday's shootaround in FedExForum, recently-acquired Kings swingman Rudy Gay said he's adjusting comfortably in his new role for Sacramento, which is 8-9 since adding the former Grizzlies star in last month. (Photos by Rocky Widner/Getty Images)

MORE TO PROVE — Following Friday’s shootaround in FedExForum, recently-acquired Kings swingman Rudy Gay said he’s adjusting comfortably in his new role for Sacramento, which is 8-9 since adding the former Grizzlies star last month. (Photos by Rocky Widner/Getty Images)

So much, in fact, that Gay was in attendance in FedExForum for Thursday night’s game between UConn and the University of Memphis.

Sitting a couple rows behind the Huskies’ bench sporting a UConn cap, Gay described his latest visit to Memphis coupled with his alma mater’s win against the nationally-ranked Tigers as a “perfect” situation, one that seemed unlikely at the start of the season.

That’s because Gay at the time was a member of the Toronto Raptors, who acquired the 6-foot-8 swingman last January in a three-deal after he spent five-plus seasons in Memphis. As Gay tells it, joining the Raptors was seemingly a “better situation,” in large part because this season was filled with much promise after Toronto finished strong last year with an 18-18 mark after adding Gay to its roster.

However, Gay’s subpar numbers in which he shot a frigid 38.8 percent from the field coupled with his massive contract — the former UConn star is expected to earn around $17.9 million this year — prompted Raptors management to act swiftly, thus resulting in the Baltimore native becoming the centerpiece of a seven-player deal that ultimately landed him with the Kings, who play the Grizzlies here Friday night at 7 CST.

Given Gay’s rather sanguine disposition following Friday’s shootaround in FedExForum in which he often joked and laughed with reporters, it’s safe to assume the former Grizzlies franchise player is adjusting comfortably with his new team, one that has played with much energy since his unceremonious arrival to Sacramento. For starters, the Kings have managed to hover around the .500 mark since acquiring Gay Dec. 9, having won eight of 17 games although they would have to make up much ground the second half of the season in order to secure a playoff spot.

“It’s tough because so much change has happened during the season, but we’re battling through it,” Gay told reporters after Friday’s shootaround.

Among Gay’s grandest battles in his brief time in Sacramento was surviving the wrath of Kings first-year coach Michael Malone. Following a Dec. 23 home loss to New Orleans, Malone not only said the Kings were a “bad basketball team,” but Gay was among the players he publicly called out for committing a team-worst six turnovers in the 13-point defeat.

According to Gay, such criticism was warranted, as were the harsh assessments that surfaced prior to his recent trade.

Since joining Sacramento in seven-player trade Dec. 9, Gay has emerged as the Kings' second leadings scoring, averaging 20.8 per page, while shooting 52 percent from the field.

Since joining Sacramento in seven-player trade Dec. 9, Gay has emerged as the Kings’ second leadings scoring, averaging 20.8 per page, while shooting 52 percent from the field.

 

“He’s the coach,” said Gay, explaining Malone’s recent public ripping of the Kings. “I have no problems with him. He’s the coach. He wants the best for us and that’s how we approached it.”

Gay, to his credit, has since become the catalyst of a Sacramento team that is starting to hit its stride during a pivotal stretch in the season. Having started each of the 17 games since joining the team, Gay is currently the Kings’ second-leading scorer (20.8) behind DeMarcus Cousins (23.4). What’s more impressive for the Kings, winners of four of their last five, is that Gay’s field goal percentage has increased mightily since his relocation to the West Coast.

He’s shooting 52 percent from the field, which tops the rest of the Kings’ starters.

“We feel very fortunate to have him,” Malone said. “He’s a low-key kind of guy. I don’t know how much of a common influence he is, but he’s been a very good player for us. He’s been very efficient for us. Obviously, we put him out there with Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins and that gives us players who can score at a high level, an efficient level. I think he was unfairly beaten and criticized about his time in Toronto. The fact that he’s scoring 20 points a game every night, making 52 percent of his shots, and rebounding makes him a complete player. He’s an efficient player and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”

While the 27-year-old Gay has yet to say whether he will exercise his player option next season in which he is scheduled to make in the neighborhood of $19.3 million, he hinted that his primary objective moving forward is help revitalize the Kings as a relevant NBA foe, let along continue to silence the slew of naysayers who sensed his career was at a crossroads amid his recent trade to Sacramento.

So far, so good.

“I mean, the criticism…it is what it is,” Gay said. “Honestly, I wasn’t playing well. The same things they were talking about before, they’re not talking about it now.”

What better setting to profess such a dauntless declaration than the place he still calls home?

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist