3 Shades of Blue is taking an in-depth look at the season that was for the Memphis Grizzlies. Part 1 dealt with the Summer of 2010, the Z-Bo problems in Indy, the draft, summer league and the rookie contract squabbles. In part 2 we will look back at the beginning of the season. From the Media Day back in October all the way until the New Year.
October: Media Day, Training Camp and Pre-Season Basketball
The 2010-11 season kicked off with Media Day back in Early October. Media Day is traditionally a time when the front office, coaches and players look forward to the season and talk about the search for improvement from the previous season. Memphis had made a 16 game improvement from the previous season but failed to make the playoffs. This was also the beginning of the 3rd year of the Three Year plan Michael Heisley announced after trading for O J Mayo on draft night so everyone was expecting the playoffs this season in Memphis.
After the summer of discontent, everyone from the front office to the players and especially the fans were ready to start seeing how much better the team was going to be this season.
First to the microphone was Chris Wallace. Wallace talked about what the team needed to do to succeed this season. The previous season’s team had stood toe to toe with the best in the league. The Grizzlies had beaten Boston, the Lakers, San Antonio and Dallas to name a few. The talent to reach the playoffs was there. The team needed to eliminate the losing streaks if they wanted to make the playoffs. In the 2009-10 season the Grizzlies had endured a 7 game home losing streak for instance. To take the next step the team needed to eliminate long losing streaks and they had to protect their home court.
“We have to smooth out the valleys. Instead of going 2-8 in rough patches, hopefully you go 4-6 and not have the prolonged losing streaks. We had a seven-game losing streak at home” said Wallace. “One of the big keys to the season is when you get in a rut, can you get out quicker than you did before. There will be good times throughout the season. But you have to try not to fall too far when you do stumble. You have to get back up and you’ll be fine. If you do that, you’ll be pushing at the door for the playoffs.”
The message was clear. The team needed to focus on maturing together. Wallace was convinced, as he told 3 Shades of Blue during the summer, that the Grizzlies were going to be a much improved team simply by maturation and chemistry. Throw in the addition of Tony Allen, a veteran who had won a title with Boston, and you have the pieces together for a great run but the team needs to focus on every game and not let bad nights become bad streaks.
There were some lighter moments at Media Day as well. Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay shared the stage and bantered back and forth about Rudy’s gold medal performance in the World Championships. It was all in good nature and their rapport showed how truly well they get along. Zach Randolph discussed his omission from the national team and mentioned he would have liked to be considered.
Then it was off to work. Unlike the previous season the Grizzlies held training camp in Memphis and this allowed players to sleep in their own beds instead of a motel. They had access to first class facilities at FedEx Forum as well. The year before the front office felt a training camp away from Memphis would build team chemistry. It did. This season the front office decided the better training facilities were more important than team bonding with so many returning players.
The pre-season was encouraging too. Despite Greivis Vasquez missing the first two weeks while recovering from his surgery, the team came out of the pre-season with a perfect 8-0 record including wins on the road at Atlanta, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Detroit. Teams that have gone undefeated in the pre-season have a high rate of success in reaching the playoffs so the wind was at the Grizzlies back heading into opening night.
Then the unthinkable happened. Marc Gasol suffered a class 2 high ankle sprain in the final practice before the regular season after landing on Hasheem Thabeet’s foot. The Grizzlies had been relatively injury free the previous season. The bench had been terrible and so a loss of such a vital player at the beginning of the year was upsetting to fans hoping to see the team take a big step forward in the coming year.
The Regular Season Begins
Opening night is always exciting for a team. That is unless you are the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies had won only one previous opening night in franchise history and never in Memphis. It didn’t look to be an easy end of the streak either with Marc Gasol missing the game and the Atlanta Hawks, one of the better Eastern Conference teams, coming to town.
As it turned out it was worse than could have been imagined. In the second quarter Zach Randolph was jumping for a rebound when Al Horford lost his balance, fell into Zach’s lower legs and Zach crashed hard on his lower back suffering a contusion that would force him to miss the next four games. With both Gasol and Randolph missing the team fell out of sorts and lost 119-104. It was an auspicious beginning after the pre-season excitement. Both Gasol and Randolph missing an indeterminate amount of games could knock the Grizzlies out of the playoff race before the season even began.
However, as would become the Grizzlies calling card this season, the team didn’t give up. At Dallas the Grizzlies saw Marc Gasol return to action, grab 15 rebounds, score 10 points including the game deciding free throw and lead the Grizzlies to a surprising win against one of the best home court teams in the league 91-90. The win was the first for the Grizzlies in Dallas in over 5 seasons. Mike Conley had 4 steals in the game, Rudy Gay combined a 21 point scoring effort with 8 rebounds and 3 steals and Darrell Arthur showed he had put last season’s injury woes behind him with a 14 pt. game.
Mike Heisley surprised everyone again a few night later when he extended Conley’s contract. Most pundits claimed the contract was too large and one went sofar as to say itwould cripple the franchise financially. The $40 million guaranteed over five years with bonuses raising at high as $45 million is not excessive for a starting PG in the NBA but for a player that had never shown the ability to handle the job it raised eyebrows.
November opened with a tough four game West Coast road trip. The Lakers were too good, Golden State squeaked out a win at home and the Grizzlies literally threw away the game in Phoenix after Rudy Gay made a free throw he tried to miss. Zach Randolph did return for the game but was obviously hobbled by his lower back. I know that sounds weird but it is also true. The Grizzlies were now facing one of those long losing streaks that Chris Wallace mentioned on Media Day. Great teams stop the losses before they become streaks. Memphis went to Sacramento and gutted out a hard fought game to stop the losing streak at 3.
The Grizzlies returned home and defeated the Suns making their record on the season 4-4. Then for the first time the wheels came off the cart. Five consecutive losses including an ugly loss to Washington sent the faithful reeling. The season was on the brink of collapsing with Miami coming to Memphis in the next game. Something needed to be done and done fast to stop the bleeding. The Grizzlies were now 2-8 in their last 10 games and were 2-5 at home. This was exactly what Chris Wallace warnedcouldn’t happenfor the Grizzlies to make the playoffson Media Day.
And Lionel Hollins did something about it. Hollins benched Zach Randolph and O J Mayo for showing up late to shoot-around before the game. The team held the Heat close and after Rudy Gay elevated over LeBron James to hit the game winning shot the streak was over. Zach Randolph returned to the starting lineup in the next game but Hollins kept Mayo on the bench feeling that his offensive ability would be of better service to the team coming off the bench. Lottery pick Xavier Henry remained in the starting lineup after his performance against Miami. The Grizzlies won the next two home games but suffered another setback at Cleveland, one of the worst teams in the league. The Grizzlies had one last game to play in November and it was a tough one.
The L A Lakers came to the FedEx Forum with one of the best records in basketball and had a player being talked about as an MVP candidate in none other than former Grizz Pau Gasol. The Grizzlies battled hard and took the won 98-96 as Mike Conley took charge down the stretch scoring a season high 28 points and Rudy Gay blocked Ron Artest’s desperation three at the buzzer for the win.Conley’s play in this game and over the first month of the season soimpressed people that none other than Matt Moore himself wrote Conley an apologyfor what he had written earlier.
The Grizzlies ended the difficult November month with a new starter in Xavier Henry, victories over the Heat, Mavs and Lakers but still below .500 on the season at 8-10 on the season. December’s schedule was supposed to be easier so the team was hoping to make a move up the standings at this time.
The month opened with a road trip to Atlanta. The Grizzlies hadn’t beaten the Hawks since the last game of the 2008-09 season and this game was no different. Xavier Henry looked like a rookie scoring 2 pts. in the 25 minutes while Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby shredded the Grizzlies from the perimeter and while the Grizzlies fought hard to the end it wasn’t enough as the fell 112-109.Lossesat Houston, Denver and Utah followed.
Just over afourth of the way through the season with a record of 8-14it felt likethe playoffdream was starting to slip away when the Grizzlies traveled to Phoenix. It was in Phoenix just a month earlier when the Grizzlies let a win in Phoenix slip away at the end of the game. This time things were going to end differently however. The Grizzlies trailed by three points with less than a second to go with the ball. Rudy Gay, the goat of the first Phoenix game, broke open along the baseline, received the pass from Mike Conley, lofted a shot over Josh Childress that was nothing but net as the final horn sounded. In overtime the Grizzlies put the Suns away 12-6. The losing streak was over and this time the Grizzlies parlayed thewin into a four game winning streak.
Standing at 12-14 theGrizzlies only needed a strong finish to the year to be right back in the driver’s seatfor the playoffs but a blowout loss at Houston and an overtime heart-breaker lossat San Antonio put the Grizzliesfour games below .500 with four games remaininguntil the new year. A tough loss at home to lowly New Jersey spread the losingstreak to three games heading into the Christmasbreak.After Christmas the Grizzlies beat Indianapolis and Toronto before heading on the road to play Sacramento to end the 2010 part of the schedule.
Memphis led for most of the game in Sacramento until the very end when a furious Sacramento comeback highlighted by Tyreke Evans’ three-quarter court shot at the buzzer ended the game. The loss left Memphis 14-18 on the season. The Grizzlies had impressivewins against Miami,at Dallas, the Lakers and had suffered overtime lossesatSan Antonio and Phoenix. The team was out of the playoff picture if the playoffs had started on January 1st. Of course the playoffs don’t start on January 1st. The story of how the Grizzlies resurrected themselves from the poor start to the fantastic finish in part 3 of the series.