Lately there has been much discussion about Dave Joerger’s rotations and the lack of playing time that James Johnson has been given over the past few games. Many fans are simply confused by Coach Joerger not playing him which was definitely evident against both Johnson and Ed Davis’ former team the Toronto Raptors, a game that resulted in a Grizz loss, 99-86. A game where the team seemed to need an instant burst of energy as well as more athleticism to counteract a lot of the things that the Raptors like to do as well. Fans have also spent a lot of time outside of watching Grizzlies games, keeping up with the scores of the opposing teams that are also in the playoff race surrounding the Grizz, including the Suns, Mavs, Warriors and recently even the Blazers. This has been extremely frustrating at times especially when the only team that seems to be on our side as far as Taking Care of Grizzness for us has been our arch-rivals the Los Angeles Clippers who have beaten both the Suns and Warriors in recent weeks. Even though these two things have been hot topics in Grizz Nation, as well as things that many deem to be important to our playoff run, in this edition of Noise From The Sain Asylum, I take a look at what I feel is the only key factor to our playoff success – the overall production of both Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
During the magical playoff run of 2011, Zach Randolph was simply unhuman. He was hitting fade-aways from all over the court, getting countless rebounds and tip ins and in the meantime captivating a local fanbase, as well as single-handedly carrying us within one game of the Western Conference Finals. He was Super Zbo. A blue-collar player in a blue-collar town. The Spurs had no answer for him. He frustrated Antonio McDyess to a boiling point, Tim Duncan wanted no part of him and Gregg Popovich didn’t even give Dejuan Blair and Tiago Splitter a shot at him. But, unfortunately those days are over for Zbo. Even though on occasion he is still able to rekindle some of the mojo that lead to Kevin Durant saying that he was the best Power Forward in the league, most of the times Zach’s double nights are more so of the 14 and 11 variety as opposed to the massive 28 and 18 performances that he could pump out almost routinely. The NBA has also clearly showed that Zbo’s “Bully Ball” style of play just flat-out will no longer garner foul calls which is clearly evident in the amount of contact that Zbo receives in the paint with no whistle to reward him for his efforts. Randolph, who still averages 17 pts. and 10 rebounds, is currently the second leading scorer on the team, but its evident that the days of him being our best player and go to man down the stretch are fading, and the focus of the offense is transitioning more to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
Marc and Mike are clearly more than just Grizzly majority owner Robert Pera’s favorite dinner buddies, which has slowly but clearly been shown during the Grizzlies stretch of success after Marc Gasol’s return earlier this year from a knee injury. We have seen less and less Zach Randolph isolation plays and more and more two-man game between our All Star big and Mike Conley, who is having the best statistical season of his career. This was evident against the Pelicans when ZBo was used as a decoy as Conley split a double team for a game-winning floater. In years past and even previous games this season, that play would have definitely been for Randolph and often would result in either a blocked shot or a no call foul. It’s clear that the future of the franchise in both Conley and Gasol and from listening to trade rumors it appears that those two are the only ones that we have not even heard whispers about and are clearly off the table for discussion. They are both still fairly young and Gasol is the reigning defensive player of the year. A stat that clearly points to Gasol’s importance and impact on our wins is our lofty 22-8 record since he has returned. We have gone from a team where the playoffs seemed out of reach, to back in the top eight with the closing stretch of games upon us. And what an import final stretch this will be. It’s one where our two big guns have to empty their chambers and not leave anything in reserve that needs to be left on the floor. This in my opinion will determine our fate over the final 16 games left in the regular season.
Marc and Mike have to be big for us. They can’t come out looking to defer to other players on the team as well as to each other. They will have to be the aggressors on both ends of the floor. Nothing frustrates me more than when Conley plays against lesser guards and plays like he is afraid to dominate them. All too often the Brian Roberts of the world seem to have big games against Mike Conley, who was awarded All NBA Defensive 2nd Team last year. And for another game Kyle Lowry came for his head as to show our organization that he still believes that we made the wrong choice. Mike just can’t be that player for us in the games coming up. I hope that I have seen the last 6 or 8 point game and we start seeing the player that was giving us at least his average 17 ppg and when needed could carry us to victory with 30+ plus point efforts. The player that many considered to be an all-star snub has been a shell of that player since returning from his ankle injury suffered earlier against the Minnesota. Their have even being stretches of play where it’s been evident that Nick Calathes was giving us more that Conley especially during the latest loss to the Raptors where Calathes was key to many successful scoring runs. Marc also has to step up his game and no longer be afraid to be the best player on the court. Gasol has often been heralded as the best big man in the league and honestly I don’t think it’s too much to ask for him to play that way all of the time. Too often Marc gets the ball on the low block and it’s obvious that simply scoring the ball is not even an option for him. I’ve seen plays where Marc was single-covered in the post and kicked out the ball to players like Allen and Prince instead of using his size, strength and skill to score points in the paint and high post. Marc has an elite ability to score from a variety of unorthodox shots and hooks that I like to call “nerf shots” that he is able to get off almost at will. Even thought he is also an elite passer, when its evident that the team is struggling to score I really wish that Big Spain would look more to score than to be a distributor. The Grizzlies can’t afford for Marc to have many more invisible games or games with decent production that don’t directly contribute to us winning.
This year’s team has changed and transitioned before our eyes this season. The coaching style, the offensive philosophy and even the roster has received a face-lift since the team that was swept from the Western Conference Finals last season and there has been a changing of the guard as far as who is the focus of the offense on this team. Even though Zach Randolph is still the dominate alpha dog on this team, his bark is starting to be more than his actually bite. Even though outside sources like other teams that are in the playoff hunt with us losing or not while we scoreboard watch exist, as well as concerns about our rotations and bench depth, the fate of this team rests on our two franchise players Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. This team will ultimately go only as far as they are able to take us and for all of Grizz Nation’s sake, I hope that they are prepared to carry a heavy load.