Grizzlies Turn Up the Heat 

Memphis burns its way through the first month of the NBA season.

Marc Gasol

Larry Kuzniewski

Marc Gasol

gasol_marc.jpg

The Grizzlies came into the 2014–15 season poised to get off to a hot start, but no one expected them to be this good. At the time of this writing, they're 12–2, with one loss coming at the hands of the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors while missing five rotation players due to a stomach virus. They've got the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA and, miracle of miracles, the fifth-best offensive rating. Head coach Dave Joerger, after a rocky start in his rookie season, has the boys in Beale Street Blue firing on all cylinders, playing to their strengths and dominating teams in a way we haven't seen before.

The question, then, is: How long can they keep winning at this rate? The first 10 games of the season were against inferior teams, at least compared to some of the teams they'll face in the next 20 games: the defending NBA champion Spurs (twice), their Finals opponents, the Miami Heat, and the Golden State Warriors (the only team higher in most power rankings than the Grizzlies), to name three.

At 12–2, the team is off to the same start as it had for the 2012–13 season, when the Grizzlies played .500 ball for most of January and February, before trading Rudy Gay to Toronto and making a run to the Western Conference Finals. In this year's ultra-competitive Western Conference, a couple of months of .500 basketball might put them at the back of the playoff pack in January, something they certainly want to avoid.

There's really one big (seven-foot-tall) reason the Grizzlies are playing the way they are: Marc Gasol, in the final year of his contract, is performing at a level we've always talked about in hushed tones, barely hinted at in his previous outbursts: "If Gasol would only ..." or "If he ever figures out that he should shoot ..." and so on and so forth. It's early in the season, for sure, but Gasol's name is already coming up in MVP candidate discussions. He's scoring at a prolific rate — he just had back-to-back 30-point games against the Celtics and Clippers, the first such double of his career — and his rebounding numbers are up as well. The only thing Gasol is not doing more than he did last year is assisting, and that's because this season Gasol is taking those shots himself.

The cynical explanation is that Gasol is playing this way because it's a contract year and he wants to make himself a more lucrative free agent. The more generous explanation (and probably more accurate, given what we know about Gasol) is that Gasol has realized that he has to alter his game to take this team from "perennial playoff team" to "legitimate title contender," and that given the talent around him this year, if he can sustain his current level of play, that's exactly what the Grizzlies are: one of the best teams in the league.

I don't expect the Grizzlies to keep winning 85 percent of their games. There are too many other good teams in the league, especially in the West. There will be nights when they are tired, nights when the other team is more fired up, nights when they just can't hit the shots that are open, nights when it just isn't happening. The NBA season is long and it's littered with nights like that. But, on the flipside, this is a team that won 50 games last year, despite the injury plague that bit them from November on. A team that has won more games than anybody since Gasol returned from injury last season. If they won 50 last year, how many can they win this year?

Joerger has taken the good bones he inherited — let's not pretend Lionel Hollins didn't win with a similar (if less deep) roster — and turned them into a team that can beat any team in the league. They can play inside-out, and this season, when that's not working, Courtney Lee's hot shooting has saved the day more than once from outside, providing just enough floor spacing on offense to keep defenses honest. Beyond that, the whole team has bought into this season. They're playing like a veteran team of guys who know each other, and who are motivated to get to somewhere they haven't been before. The great thing about that for the city of Memphis? There are only two places they haven't been before: the NBA Finals and an NBA title. Opportunities like this don't come often for franchises, or cities, or teams. The Grizzlies seem determined to make their own luck, and seize what's in front of them.

They're stepping up to the occasion, and the whole basketball world has taken notice.

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