THE BEARS AT THE BREAK With the NBA All-Star Game this Sunday, the time seems right for some observations on the 2004-05 Memphis Grizzlies . . . and what awaits over the season’s final months.

Hubie knew what he was doing. Merely seven months after receiving his 2004 Coach of the Year trophy, Hubie Brown departed the Memphis bench for the ABC broadcast booth. But his system lives on. With a former Brown protege -- Mike Fratello -- trading in his own television gig for the Griz clipboard, Memphis fans have witnessed the same kind of frenetic, every-player-in-the-pool approach to attacking and wearing down more talent-laden rosters, night after night. Having inherited a 5-11 team, Fratello has coached the Grizzlies to a 25-11 mark through Sunday, and has done so while coping with injuries to Pau Gasol, James Posey, Bonzi Wells, and Earl Watson . . . all key returnees from Brown’s 10-man potion of a year ago.

A great month is just that, nothing more. Grizzly loyalists may be excused for an outbreak of giddiness as January turned to February. The first month of 2005 was the second-best in franchise history, Memphis winning 12 of 15 games and launching themselves firmly into a playoff free-for-all in the powerful Western Conference (a performance that earned Fratello Western Conference Coach of the Month honors). But how many “big wins” can be counted among that January dozen? Beating Minnesota on the road on New Year’s Day might count, though the Timberwolves have struggled all season to meet their standard of 2003-04. Ditto for the team Memphis beat almost a week later, the Pistons. The Grizzlies whipped mighty Phoenix on the 19th . . . but the Suns played without MVP-to-be, Steve Nash. Add up the rest and you have wins over the Jazz (twice), Bobcats, Rockets, Magic, Hawks, Hornets (twice), and Bucks. All teams a contender must beat, but all teams that make it hard to measure their opponent’s true worth. Mark these three dates down for a better take on where the Grizzlies are going: February 26, April 16 and 18. Three games against the San Antonio Spurs, the team that swept Memphis out of last year’s playoffs and the midseason favorite to win the 2005 NBA title.

Sharing the wealth has its virtues. Memphis and Phoenix played again on February 1, and this time it was the Grizzlies who took the floor without their headliner. Despite Pau Gasol’s absence and 12 assists from Nash, the Suns went cloudy at FedExForum, losing only their 11th game of the season. Twenty NBA teams were in action that night, and the Grizzlies were the only one to have seven players score in double figures. Life in the NBA gets much easier when you have more scoring options than there are positions on the floor.

Is Jerry West still in the building? When the all-everything Hall of Famer arrived in Memphis three years ago, could you have imagined him fitting so quietly into the flow of an NBA campaign? Other than bringing Brian Cardinal to town last summer, West has done little -- on the surface -- worth celebrating for this club. He deserves proper credit for finding the right successor to Brown, and for not getting too itchy with his trade finger as the likes of Stromile Swift, Earl Watson, and Jason Williams continue to help win games. I’ve seen West regularly amid the crowd at University of Memphis games, perhaps a sign of Mr. Logo’s full engagement with Bluff City hoops.

Hats off to the Grizzlies’ Lorenzen Wright, who recently played his 552nd NBA game, moving past Elliot Perry into second place among former University of Memphis players. Anfernee Hardaway is number one, of course, with 672 games through Sunday. Larry Kenon (503 games) and Vincent Askew (467) round out the top five.

Looking toward the playoffs, eight is a verrrrrry bad number for the Griz. Even with nine weeks yet to play, the Western Conference playoffs are coming into focus. Barring a Tim Duncan injury, San Antonio will be the top seed, with Phoenix and Seattle occupying the second and third spots as division champs. Dallas and Sacramento will fight it out to see who is fourth and fifth before facing each other for the fourth straight postseason. All of this means Memphis needs to grab a sixth or seventh seed, a position that would have them facing the Suns or Sonics in the first round (compelling matchups, both) and not seeing the Spurs until the conference finals. An eighth seed will mean a four-game (maybe five) spanking at the hands of San Antonio. (If the season ended today, the once-mighty Lakers -- with two more losses than Memphis -- would be the eighth seed.

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