As streamers fell and the Gap Band played at FedExForum Monday night, the Memphis Grizzlies, having just registered an exciting 100-97 win over the Orlando Magic, found themselves somewhere they haven't been since October — with a winning record — and yet somewhere they expected to be all along — in the thick of the NBA playoff race.
As they enter the final two-and-a-half months of the season, the Grizzlies are well positioned for the playoff run promised by owner Michael Heisley last summer. But whether the team could get to this point had been in doubt for much of this surprising, interesting, and wildly inconsistent season.
After a 4-4 start, the Grizzlies went on a five-game losing streak in mid-November. Hosting Lebron James and the Miami Heat on November 20th, with the team showing signs of internal disarray and a 4-10 start looming, Rudy Gay drove to the baseline in the final seconds and hit a buzzer-beating jumper over James.
It wasn't just a game winner. It may well have been a season saver. It was at that moment that the Grizzlies' 2010-2011 playoff campaign regained a pulse, the start of a maddening, Sisyphean journey back to contention that has seen the Grizzlies get to within two games of .500 on five separate occasions, only to slip back again each time, and to get to within one game of .500 last week only to lose a 16-point lead to the lowly New Jersey Nets in the next game.
But, over the past few days, the Grizzlies finally pushed that rock to the top of the hill — overcoming a 21-point second-half deficit to steal a road win against the Philadelphia 76ers and then coming home the next night to rough up an overmatched Washington Wizards team.
"It's nice to be back at .500. We've been scratching and clawing. Stuttering and starting and stuttering," coach Lionel Hollins said after the Wizards game, describing the team's season to this point.
And Monday night, against one of the league's elite teams, with O.J. Mayo suspended and top scorers Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay having subpar games, Hollins got contributions from all over to finally get his team back in the black: point guard Mike Conley's first career 20-plus point and 10-plus assist game; center Marc Gasol playing the Magic's Dwight Howard, the league's best center, close to even; reserves Tony Allen and Darrell Arthur making timely plays.
At 25-24, the Grizzlies are actually a game behind where they were at this point a season ago. But that was a different Western Conference, one in which it took 50 wins to qualify for the playoffs. With the middle of the West sagging a bit this season, a post-season birth is not likely to come with so steep a price tag. At the moment, that 25-24 record is good for ninth place, only one game behind the Portland Trailblazers for the conference's last playoff spot.
And this is a different Grizzlies team, one deeper, tougher, and more experienced than last year's model. Plagued with arguably the worst bench in the NBA, the 2009-2010 Grizzlies weren't set up to sustain their level of play as the season wore on. This year, with more functional depth and a more favorable late-season schedule, the end game should play out differently.
The result should bring the Grizzlies and their fans, if not their first playoff berth since 2006, at least a legitimate post-season race into the final weeks of the season.
At the outset of the season, the Grizzlies' hopes for a playoff run hinged on repeating what went right last season — namely, an effective power game built around the frontcourt duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and strong overall play from their returning starting five — while improving on the team's two primary problem areas: defense and depth.
That power game stumbled out of the gate. Gasol missed opening night with a preseason ankle injury, and Randolph joined him on the sidelines early in that game with a bruised tailbone, leading to a depressing double-digit home loss to the Atlanta Hawks to start the season.
But the duo has rounded into a reasonable facsimile of last season's dominance. The Grizzlies once again lead the NBA in points in the paint. They won't be able to duplicate last season's league-best offensive rebounding, but after a rough start they are sixth and rising in that category. And Randolph and Gasol are one of only two power forward/center combos averaging more than 30 points and 20 rebounds a game. (The other is Minnesota's Kevin Love and Darko Milicic, where Love carries most of the weight.)
After playing last summer for the Spanish national team and coming back perhaps too soon from his pre-season ankle sprain, it's taken Gasol longer to round into shape. On the season, his defense, rebounding, and scoring efficiency have all been below last season's level. But the recent signs have been encouraging. Gasol has scored in double digits in six consecutive games, his blocked-shot numbers have been on the rise, and he just put up 19 points and 8 rebounds against the league's best defensive center.
As for Randolph, he's overcome his season-opening injury to be as monstrous a scoring and rebounding machine as he's ever been. Randolph's rebound rate this season is a career high. He's set a franchise record with 14 consecutive double-doubles. And he's been named the Western Conference Player of the Week twice.
Joining Randolph as a co-alpha dog has been Rudy Gay, who hasn't made "the leap" exactly, but he has responded well to his controversial off-season contract extension with modest across-the-board improvements and by bolstering his reputation as a prime late-game option with three game-winning or overtime-forcing shots. But Gay's most significant improvements have not been related to scoring but instead have come in his areas of greatest weakness: playmaking and defense. Gay has become a more willing and effective passer, and his assist rate, while still middling, is the highest of his career. Defensively, his block and steal averages are both career highs, but he's also just been more solid overall. After being only moderately better defensively when Gay was on the floor last season, the Grizzlies have been significantly better defensively with Gay this season.
Much like Gay, point guard Mike Conley has responded to his widely criticized summer contract extension with solid rather than dramatic improvement. And, like Gay, his most important advances haven't come from scoring. Instead, Conley has solidified himself as a legitimate starter with better consistency and ball control that has united a career-high assist rate with a career-low turnover rate. (Though Conley's usually sure hand seems to get a little wobbly in the clutch.)
The one real chink in a starting unit that was among the league's best last season has been shooting guard O.J. Mayo, whose tumultuous season has included a move to the bench, a black eye at the hands of teammate Tony Allen after complaining about a gambling debt, and, most recently, a 10-game suspension for a failed drug test that found the banned supplement DHEA (available in various over-the-counter products) in his system. But even when Mayo has played, he's been far less effective on both ends of the floor, with a huge drop in his shooting accuracy and — according to both the eye and the numbers — some serious problems on the defensive end.
With less scoring production from a revolving-door shooting guard rotation and a rebounding and shooting-percentage decline from Gasol as prime culprits, the Grizzlies offense has slipped from 17th a year ago to 21st so far this season. But if the team's returning core and power offense has fallen off slightly, that decline has been more than offset by vastly improved team defense and much better depth — advances rooted in the same two "new" additions, Allen and Darrell Arthur.
A defensive specialist for the champion Boston Celtics, Allen signed a free-agent contract with the Grizzlies over the summer with an eye on a bigger role that, frankly, his limited offensive skills didn't warrant. This desire put Allen at odds with his coach, who also had to get comfortable with not only Allen's rather unconventional game but also his equally unusual personality.
For the first month and a half, it wasn't really working. Allen was averaging about 10 minutes a game, with a handful of "did not play – coach's decision" designations by his name. Allen's demeanor was sullen and disappointed. But, gradually, Allen came to accept his role, Hollins grew more comfortable with him, and Allen finally carved a regular role in the team's rotation. And then we found out what an engaged Tony Allen is like: A wildly entertaining player both on the floor and on the bench, where he became perhaps the league's most vocal and demonstrative cheerleader. A chaotic, destructive defender whose ferocity rubs off on teammates. An unpredictable "trick or treat" contributor who has fans alternately hiding their eyes and raising their arms.
Allen is the most unusual Grizzlies player since Bo Outlaw. His ability to jump into passing lanes to generate steals while still recovering to contain his man might be unparalleled league-wide. He has a knack for deft passes, swooping blocks, and thunderous dunks. He also has a knack for wobbly dribbling, missed lay-ups, dead-on-arrival jumpshots, and curious on-court decisions. He's the most entertainingly volatile Grizzlies player since Jason Williams, except Allen's energy is more positive. This is a guy who beat up a teammate over a gambling debt and still became a folk hero among fans and a rallying point for teammates.
But the former Griz player Allen evokes the most is probably James Posey, from the team's first playoff run in the 2003-2004 season, another tough wing defender who came to town on a modest free-agent deal and changed the defensive tone of the team.
Among rotation players, Allen leads the league in steals per minute, and his ball-hawking style has inspired teammates, with Gay, Conley, and Sam Young also excelling in this area. As a team, the Grizzlies lead the league in both steals and opponent turnovers, and this has helped instigate a dramatic defensive improvement, with the team leaping from 23rd in defensive efficiency last season to 11th this season.
The Grizzlies' ability to take the ball from opponents and take care of it for themselves has been one of the biggest positive changes this season, going from a +1 turnover differential last season (21st in the league) to -2.3 this season (second only to the Portland Trailblazers). Essentially, while the Grizzlies haven't been quite as effective with their scoring opportunities this season, the improved turnover differential and strong offensive rebounding have made up in quantity what the team's lacked in quality.
And the team's previously deplorable depth has probably advanced as much as the defense, with Allen and an improved Arthur giving the team two high-quality reserves — or two more than the team had a year ago.
After being thrown to the wolves as an overmatched rookie starter and then losing most of his second season to injury, Arthur has emerged this season as the player the Grizzlies always hoped he could be: A quick, active athlete, Arthur has graded out well defensively. Offensively, he's proven a deft scorer both on mid-range jumpers and around the hoop. On an isolation-heavy team, Arthur is especially helpful in that he thrives playing off others with catch-and-shoot or catch-and-finish scores.
Led by Allen and Arthur, and with reasonable contributions from second-year swingman Sam Young and rookie point guard Greivis Vasquez, the Grizzlies have decent depth for the first time in three seasons. Last season, the Grizzlies were +7.3 per 48 minutes with their primary lineup and -6.7 without them. This season, the primary lineup (Conley-Mayo-Gay-Randolph-Gasol) has fallen off slightly (+4.9), but the team's plus/minus is only barely negative with other lineups, and lineups where Allen or Young have replaced Mayo have been very positive.
Overall, the Grizzlies on-court performance this season has been better than its record. Point differential is commonly considered a better indicator of future performance than win-loss record. By that measure, the Grizzlies, at +1.1, have been better than two teams ahead of them in the standings: the 25-22 Portland Trailblazers (+0.4) and even the 29-20 Utah Jazz (+0.3). And considering the Grizzlies have put up a positive point differential against what has been a difficult, road-heavy early schedule, the indicators are very positive going forward.
ESPN.com's John Hollinger does daily NBA power rankings based on how well teams have faired against their schedules and has the Grizzlies ranked 10th after the win over the Magic. By applying past performance against the strength of a team's remaining schedule, Hollinger also does daily playoff odds, which have the Grizzlies with a 57.2 percent chance at making the playoffs, better than Portland's 42.4 percent.
But if the metrics are so strong for the Grizzlies, why have they been fighting uphill all season to get to their current 25-24 record? They've struggled some in close games, improving to 7-9 in games decided by three or less or in overtime with Monday's win over Orlando, and have gone 1-4 in overtime games. Among these are three of the most unlikely losses Griz fans have ever seen: Losing on a fullcourt buzzer beater in Sacramento, on a stolen inbounds pass at New Orleans, and on a fluky series of miscues at Phoenix.
The team has also been inconsistent, manifested in a competitive 7-7 record (with two overtime losses) against the league's eight best teams and a modest 8-5 record against the league's eight worst teams.
Another issue, as Hollins acknowledged after the win over Orlando, is that it's taken awhile for this team to come together — and given Mayo's current suspension and uncertainty over his status approaching the NBA's trade deadline, questions still remain. The Grizzlies spent a month of the season playing lackluster — and since jettisoned — veteran guard Acie Law and not playing Allen much. Four different players have started at least seven games at scoring guard.
But, in winning six of their past seven games to get above .500, the Grizzlies have gotten in a groove. And the remaining schedule is conducive to maintaining momentum. After their road-heavy start, the Grizzlies will play more home games the rest of the season than any other Western Conference team. Having taken five road trips of three games or more already, the Grizzlies don't have a trip longer than two games remaining.
An optimistic but also realistic look at what this team has done and the way the remaining schedule plays out suggests this: If Gasol continues to come around as a physical presence, the team can sort out its complicated wing rotation in a satisfactory manner, and they can avoid major injury, fans can get ready for a return of playoff basketball in Memphis this April.