Two weeks ago in this space it was asserted that, with the addition of small forward Mike Miller, the Memphis Grizzlies had assembled the makings of one of the best fast-break offenses in the NBA. But even with that prediction in print, I must confess that I didn't expect results of this magnitude this soon, especially with Miller's play hampered by a back injury.
In the 14 games heading into the All-star break, the Grizzlies went 2-12, scoring over 100 points only twice. In the 14 games since the break, heading into Tuesday night's matchup with the Knicks, they've gone 8-6 (10 of the 14 games against potential playoff teams) and have broken the century mark 10 times, topping 95 points 12 times.
A favorite pastime among Grizzlies fans since the trade seems to be checking Orlando Magic box scores and bemoaning the production of since-departed Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek. But lost amid all the grousing that the trade made Orlando better is that, even with Miller hobbled and Giricek replacement Michael Dickerson out for the season (and possibly beyond), the Grizzlies have gotten better as well. Without Gooden and Giricek's ill-conceived one-on-one forays and quick-trigger shots, the team's offense is clicking as an unselfish unit for the first time all season.
This addition by subtraction has also fostered quicker mastery of what is becoming a trademark style: a relentlessly up-tempo game in which pressing and trapping defense and shot-blocking force turnovers and the team runs at every opportunity, scoring a high percentage of its points either in transition or on the secondary break. Consider the following numbers: Over the 10-game span since the February 20th trade deadline, the Grizzlies rank tied for first in the NBA in points per game, first in field-goal percentage, second in assists, third in blocks, and second in steals.
And it's even more impressive that the Grizzlies have been able to impose this style in the face of such adversity -- not only Miller's back injury, the negative feelings surrounding Gooden and Giricek's success in Orlando, and Dickerson's demoralizing return to the injured list but the tragic death of center Lorenzen Wright's infant daughter on March 1st, which has kept him out of the lineup ever since.
Why have the Grizzlies flourished so? The personnel is built for this style of play, so it was only a matter of time before an already effective offensive team developed this kind of open-court cohesion. Jason Williams was born to play this brand of basketball, but now, for the first time in a Memphis uniform, he's surrounded by players who can run with him, catch his passes, and finish plays. Pau Gasol is already one of the best floor-running big men in the league, Wesley Person is deadly spotting up for jumpers in the open court, and Mike Miller is an ideal fit for this style.
But the wild card has been Stromile Swift, whose game, when he chooses to bring it, is also perfectly suited to this style of play. Up until the trade (which he and everyone else anticipated would include his name), Swift had regressed badly over the course of his third NBA season. But the jettisoning of Gooden and the unfortunate absence of Wright seem to have given Swift a new lease on life. Playing limited minutes on a second team that often included shot-happy rookies Mike Batiste, Giricek, and Gooden, Swift was too often a nonfactor, rarely touching the ball and, possibly as a consequence, wilting in other aspects of the game. This changing matrix of minutes and touches, as much as the psychological ramifications of seeing Gooden dealt instead of him, seems to have sparked Swift. His rebirth is as much reflected in the aggression and enthusiasm of his play as by his dramatically improved numbers.
Playing Gasol and Swift at the power slots is an unorthodox pairing, the lack of bulk only exacerbating the team's already weak interior defense. But while the Grizzlies have lost in their half-court defense, they've gained even more in their open-court offense. In back-to-back road blowouts last week, Gasol and Swift used their length and athleticism to go over, past, and around the variously small, slow, and aging front lines of Cleveland and Toronto en route to eye-popping averages of a combined 51 points per game on 73 percent shooting.
Over the course of this surge, the Grizzlies have climbed from the third-worst record in the league to sixth and counting. Some fans would tell you this is a bad thing, that the team is losing ping-pong balls every day in a draft lottery that will net high school phenom LeBron James or nothing at all. (The team's draft pick goes to Detroit to complete an earlier trade if it isn't number one overall.) I say hogwash.
The lottery is a crapshoot regardless of record and this franchise has been losing too long to go in the tank for the sake of better draft odds. At a time when most NBA bottom feeders are looking to next year, Grizzlies fans have a reason to care about right now, and this is why:
What the Grizzlies have done over the past two weeks and what they have a chance to do over the season's final 20 games is as important as a future playoff run will be. They are in the process of finally killing the franchise's much-deserved reputation as NBA laughingstock. By beating Denver, Cleveland, and Toronto by double digits in consecutive games and by moving rapidly up the standings, they are separating themselves from the league's dregs. By establishing an identity and a style of play, they are laying better groundwork for future success than they would be by jockeying for draft position.
Grizzlies fans should ignore the LeBron lottery and enjoy watching this young group of players gel into a team. At the All-star break, the Grizzlies needed to finish a seemingly unlikely 17-17 to reach the 30-win plateau. Heading into Tuesday night's game with the Knicks, the team only needed to go 9-11. At the break I said it didn't matter how many games the team won this season, and ultimately it may not. But with the team's young talent suddenly coming together, "30" seems like a number worth watching.