When Zach Randolph went down in the Grizzlies 5th game of the season, I suspect I had the same feeling that many Grizzlies fans did; complete and utter panic. It was bad enough that the Grizzlies were 1-4, and had just been humiliated by 40 points against the Bulls, now they were without their best player, the man who had led them within an inch of the Western finals the year before. After all the preseason hype about the Grizzlies being a contender, it felt like the team was hanging by a thread, and they would be lucky to even capture a playoff spot.
Of course, we all knew how that worked out: the team turned things around, and now looks like a serious threat to the elite teams in the west. But when looking at how they got there, the contributions Marreese Speights – the man who took Z-Bo’s spot in the lineup – cannot be ignored.
I’ll admit, it took some time for me to warm to the guy. All I could think about was the simple fact that the wasn’t Zach Randolph. In fact, in one of the first games I watched him play (I think it was against the ), I even began referring to him as “not Z-Bo”, the same way Indianapolis Colts fans probably referred to the three-headed beast of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky as “Not Peyton Manning” for much of the 2011 NFL season.
But while that fan base would be mired in hell for an entire season, my views on Speights quickly began to turn, as I recognized just how much he was helping the team. The exact turning point came on the MLK day game against the Bulls, when he put up a solid 16 point 12 rebound effort in 34 minutes, and helped lead the Grizzlies to a blowout win over the bulls. Was this really the same guy who had bricked all of his shots just two games earlier? It was stunning to watch, and the fact that it came against the team who had annihilated the Grizzlies by 40 points just two weeks earlier made it even sweeter.
As time went on, it would become abundantly clear that Speights’ performance in that game was no fluke. After a slow start, Speights’ game picked up considerably after the all-star break, and he began reaching double figures more and more often. He’s not the kind of player who’s going to put up amazing numbers on a nightly basis, but when the team needs him, he can come through. When Gay or Gasol are having off nights, he seems to have no problem picking up the slack, even if you can’t expect him to score 18 points a night.
The most interesting part of the Speights saga came when Randolph returned to lineup. Obviously, in spite of Speights many strengths, he’s not the elite-level player that Randolph, and surely it was only a matter of time until he’d be taking his place with the second unit. A funny thing happened, though; this team seemed to be better with Speights in the starting lineup. Obviously, that had a lot to do with Randolph not quite being in basketball shape, but it was also because the team had developed a lot chemistry with Speights, and there was no reason to not keep a good thing going.
My guess is this can’t last long. Once the playoffs start, Z-Bo will probably be returned to the starting lineup, simply because he has the rare ability to take over games single-handedly by sheer force of will. Still, it’s amazing what Speights, a player who didn’t look like anything special when the Grizzlies first acquired him have been able to do. Randolph deserves a lot of credit, too, for accepting his temporarily role off the bench without making a fuss, and gradually getting himself into shape. Both men have handled the situation well, and the tea, has been better off for it.
No matter what happens from here on out, I’ll be grateful for what Speights has given the team. If he makes a big contribution in the playoffs, and if he decides to stay with the grizzlies when he becomes a free agent this year, I’ll be very happy. But if neither of those things happen, I’ll still be grateful for all the work Marreese Speights did in keeping the 2011-12 Grizzlies season alive. If he hadn’t stepped up, God knows where they’d be.