SEVENTEEN games into this young season, the Grizzlies have managed four wins. A closer look at those victories reveals the anatomy of a typical (if there can be such a thing) Memphis win.
The Heart: defense. No surprise here. After allowing 102 points to Phoenix on November 23rd, the Grizzlies held their next five opponents to only 90.2 points per game. The result? Three wins out of five. On the season (including Monday's embarrassing 32-point loss to Orlando) the team has allowed opponents 98.3 points per game. Defense wins in this league. Ask the 15-1 Lakers, who hold opponents to a ridiculously low 40 percent shooting.
The Hands: Jason Williams. As goes the streaky point guard, so goes the Grizzlies' chance for a win. Williams has averaged 20.5 points per game in Grizzlies wins, with 12 assists and only 2.5 turnovers. Compare that to his season average of 14.8 points, 8.5 assists, and 3.6 turnovers. Any team that wants to win on a consistent basis needs a steady point guard to call the shots -- and execute them. Of course, it doesn't hurt when your point guard also pours in 40 points or so, as Williams did against Houston.
The Legs: rookie forwards Pau Gasol and Shane Battier. The two newcomers are among the league's top rookie scorers and Gasol is turning heads with his skills, though he's still raw. Everyone conceded that these two could contribute later on, but no one expected this kind of production this soon. Gasol is averaging 15.5 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks, with a 52 percent shooting average. Battier is knocking in 14.2 points per game with 4.8 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc (and 45 percent otherwise). The two young guys are giving the squad a demonstrative fire and are key to building a winning tradition.
The Back: Lorenzen Wright has taken on Atlas' load. The undersized center battles hard every night and is teaching Gasol and Battier a bit about how to handle the rigors of the NBA. In the process, Wright is putting up career numbers in scoring and rebounding. Wright is the first to celebrate a good play or cuss a bad one -- and the first to cuss a teammate who screws up. He might not score 30 a night, but Wright does the dirty work -- rebounding and defense.
The Brains: Sidney Lowe. The Grizzlies' head coach is rightfully fired up about his team's play of late, and he should take a bit of the credit. In the wins, Lowe has somehow controlled Williams' erratic tendencies, convinced Gasol to stand up for himself, and -- most impressively -- made the team play some defense. Lowe coached the Griz to a franchise high for wins last year and then helped GM Billy Knight pull in Battier, Gasol, Wright, and Williams. Any wins this squad picks up should point directly back to him.
The Lungs, as in a breath of fresh air: backup guards Brevin Knight and Rodney Buford have been essential to Grizzlies' wins. Knight runs the half-court offense as effectively as Williams and protects the basketball better (1.87 turnovers a game). Buford is athletic and can score in bunches, as his 21 points against Sacramento attest. Buford is not as consistent a scoring threat as the injured Michael Dickerson, but he can score.
The Achilles Heel: injuries, youth, and turnovers. The starting shooting guard (and the team's leading scorer) when the season began was Dickerson, who has been unable to play since his stress fracture. The team needs his consistent scoring ability if it is to win more than the occasional game. Forward Stromile Swift is just now overcoming a hyperextended elbow. At full strength, his athleticism and size will help the Griz in the low-post.
This team is young. The Grizzlies' primary rotation -- Gasol, Battier, Dickerson, Williams, Wright, Knight, Buford, and Swift -- average only 2.4 years of NBA experience. They are still learning to cope with the physical nature of the league and the wearing 80-game schedule. A winning NBA team has all the parts working at once. This squad has shown that coordination only a few times this season, but the parts are all there.
By Frank Murtaugh
The University of Memphis begins this season's Act Two against Ole Miss Friday night in Oxford. When the ESPN trucks show up, it's usually a good sign that the big boys are here to play. The national sports network will air the next three Tiger games, starting with Ole Miss then following with the Tiger-Tennessee battle at The Pyramid (December 15th) and the Tiger-Temple affair in Philadelphia (December 20th). As disappointing as the Tigers' showing in Kansas City was -- losses to nationally ranked Iowa and Alabama have shoved Memphis' ranking down about 10 slots -- sweeping these three games in the glare of the national spotlight could serve as the springboard to this team's run for glory. It's a second act that will say a lot about just how good this team can be.
During an eight-game winning streak last January, Coach John Calipari often spoke of having done his squad a "disservice" by scheduling the likes of Temple, Stanford, and Utah all before the 1st of December (in other words, during Act One). This year's opening act, which included -- count 'em --Wofford, Old Dominion, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, Christian Brothers, and Eastern Kentucky, was a 180-degree turn. While the lopsided scores may not have made for much drama, they have certainly given Calipari the chance to evaluate his six first-year players and how they mix with veterans Kelly Wise, Scooter McFadgon, and Earl Barron.
He has repeatedly said his primary focus during these blowouts is to see who "keeps playing." Let up, even against a CBU Buccaneer, and you'll find your fanny planted on the pine. Calipari recognizes the depth of this team and has made clear that if a player doesn't carry his load -- particularly on the defensive end and in the transition game -- there is someone on the bench who will. The Rebels, Vols, and Owls offer the kind of three-game test that will separate the Tigers from, well, the kittens in blue and gray.
The guess here is that starting Friday night, Tiger Nation will see Dajuan Wagner -- ESPN analyst Dick Vitale's preeminent "diaper dandy" -- take the helm of this ship, for better or worse. With a national story on his Memphis run popping up every week, the time is clearly now for Wagner to make a difference on the college stage.
The Tiger staff has urged its lone senior, Wise, to be the spirit of this team. It's made sure McFadgon and newcomers Chris Massie, Antonio Burks, and Anthony Rice each get their share of minutes and shots. With each passing game, though, they appear all the more to be a supporting cast. Wagner -- with all of eight college games on his resumé -- is the man this bunch is counting on to win games. The kid gloves come off this week.
The stage -- regardless of which act -- is a place for stars. Wagner is averaging 23.1 points per game. Remarkable for a freshman, he's paced the Tigers in scoring in seven of their eight games. He went for more than 20 against both the Hawkeyes and Tide, the U of M's only real tests to date. Now it's on to Act Two (which will conclude January 2nd with another nationally televised game against Arkansas). The setting has been established. We know the characters' names. It's time for stars to shine.