Monday, May 5, 2014

First Reflections: A Brief Look Back at the 2013-14 Grizzlies

Posted By on Mon, May 5, 2014 at 11:18 AM

Mike Conley took a major leap forward despite the Grizzlies injury-addled year.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley took a major leap forward despite the Grizzlies' injury-addled year.

Now that the season is really over—the players have given their final media interviews and met with the coaching staff and front office for exit interviews—we can start to get some distance from and perspective on what the Grizzlies were this year.

They were a mess, but they were a really entertaining, hard-working mess.

Coming into the first season under rookie coach Dave Joerger, there was a lot of talk about picking up the pace, about installing some new motion-oriented stuff into the Griz playbook. About not relying so much on isolation scoring, especially in the post. For whatever reason, when they actually tried to run it in the regular season, it didn't work—whether the players revolted, or they were just over-thinking it because they were worried about who to pass to, or whether they just weren't the right group of guys to run the stuff, it didn't happen. By the time the Grizzlies got to the middle/end of November, heading out on a 4-game road trip to California, they were in a hole, the stars (other than Mike Conley) looked like they'd checked out, and everything was coming to pieces.

And then they went on the road, got back to playing inside-out basketball—I think it was Tony Allen who said they "started running plays from last year"—and won all four games, games against the Warriors, Kings, Lakers, and Clippers, the dreaded Early Season California Trip that has damaged the records of so many past Griz teams. Coming back from the road trip, everything seemed to be back on track...

...until Marc Gasol went down with a grade 2 sprain of his MCL.

The moment that happened, those of us sitting behind our laptops at the scorers' table exchanged some "We're screwed" glances, and started writing articles about how the Grizzlies could probably get a good lottery pick if they packed it in for the season—but that if somehow they could hang around .500 until Gasol returned, they might have a chance of still making the playoffs.

Which is exactly what they did. The injuries continued to pile up, though. Tony Allen went down with a wrist/hand injury that would cause him to miss more games than Gasol. Zach Randolph missed games with a bad ingrown toenail. Tayshaun Prince had too many injuries to name because he was playing without any conditioning whatsoever thanks to a severe illness during the preseason. Quincy Pondexter was lost for the year in December with a stress fracture in his foot. Shockingly, the only Grizzly to play in all 82 games was Mike Miller, whose health has been something of an issues since the last time he wore a Grizzlies uniform.

Things were happening besides injuries, though: the roster started to evolve. Jerryd Bayless was traded for Courtney Lee. James Johnson was added from the D-League after good seasons with Chicago and Toronto but a bad one with Sacramento. Nick Calathes was installed as the backup point guard and allowed to rack up minutes. Because of the injuries, Kosta Koufos started and Jon Leuer and Ed Davis backed him up. Everyone got to play and everyone contributed. There were nights when it didn't work, of course—one particularly rough blowout at FedExForum by the Thunder comes to mind—but somehow, it mostly did. The Griz had a top-10 offense for a while, after Ed Davis spent a week beating up on inferior teams.

Once Gasol got back, the race was on—and the Grizzlies were ridiculous, winning something like 70% of the games in which Mike Conley and Marc Gasol both played (a higher percentage than last season when those two played together, and last year's team won 56 games). There were still times, though, when it seemed like it wasn't going to be enough. Dallas never got worse. Phoenix never got worse. It seemed like the Grizzlies were going to pull off an improbably feat and win 50 games and still not be good enough to make the playoffs.

We all know how that went. The Griz closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak, including wins over the Heat, Suns, and Mavericks, and ended up the seventh seed, where they played the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third time in four postseasons. These two teams have played nineteen playoff games against each other since April of 2011, and almost all of them have been instant classics, with seven overtimes and one unforgettable 3OT. This year was no different, the first series in NBA history with four straight overtime games. By Game 7, though, the deck was stacked against them, missing too many guys and facing a team with the best player in the NBA (this regular season, anyway) and his top-20 player, wildcard sidekick. Once Durant and Westbrook started regressing to the mean—which, in this series, meant shooting the lights out no matter how well the shot was contested—it wasn't meant to be.

But at the same time, if they hadn't gotten off to a slow start, maybe they'd have ended up with the sixth seed. If they'd taken care of business on the road the last week of the season and beaten Portland and Golden State, the 5 seed was within reach. This year had more "what if"s than any Griz season of the recent era—so many things could have gone slightly differently and changed the complexion of the whole year.

It was a year that proved this team really is "All Heart, Grit, Grind" while at the same time making us wonder if maybe it wouldn't be more fun to watch a team that played with a little more fluidity. A year that proved Zach Randolph can still be a go-to 20-10 guy when he's healthy but made us wonder how much longer that would be the case. A year that proved Mike Conley can be an All Star, 30-point-scoring menace to opposing defenses, but made us wonder whether someone would have to be removed from the roster to give him the space necessary to do that consistently.

Lots of questions, lots of forks in the road, and in the end, a tough group of players who take so much pride in what they do—and in the city they do it for—that they refused to stop fighting until the last buzzer sounded. We're going to be talking about this season for a while, whether it was the last run for this core of four or not. There were too many things wrong with it; too many victories won by sheer effort and assertion of physical will; too many Neck Tattoo Giveaway Nights while the heel Clippers were in town; too many wins and too many overtimes for it to be forgotten.

Follow Kevin Lipe at Beyond the Arc, the Flyer's Grizzlies blog, and at 

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