This is the 2nd part of 3 Shades of Blue‘s recap of the season. In part 1, titled The Opening Half, we discussed the opening part of the season up to the All-Star Break. In part 2, The Race for the Playoffs, we will discuss the All-Star selection of Marc Gasol, the almost insanely difficult schedule, and the way the Grizzlies finished the season.
Memphis reached the All-Star break in amazingly good condition considering all that happened. First, Darrell Arthur was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Second, Zach Randolph partially tore his MCL. Finally, the team that was supposed to return nearly everyone was forced to make numerous roster moves at the end of camp and into the season, destroying what chemistry was left from the previous season.
Somehow, despite all these negatives, the Grizzlies managed to put together a seven game winning streak and had their 3rd All-Star selection when Marc Gasol was chosen by the coaches. Gasol, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley all played well, and the team regained their grit and grind attitude to find themselves solidly in playoff contention at the break.
Part 2: The Race for the Playoffs
Memphis entered the post All-Star game stretch with the hope of a quick return of Zach Randolph to the lineup as the schedule, already difficult with the shortened schedule, turning brutal. At 19-15, the Grizzlies were above .500 but had a tough record against the superior teams in the conference. Everyone assumed that the only way for Memphis to return to the playoffs would be if their emotional leader was in the lineup.
Unfortunately, Z-Bo wasn’t able to return for a few more weeks. Despite not having their All-Star power forward, the Grizzlies were determined to not let his absence slow their momentum.
Memphis hosted the defending World Champion Dallas Mavericks in the first game back from the break and dispatched them 96-85, showing no ill effects from the lay-off or the lack of Randolph. That game ended the month of February with the Grizzlies five games above .500 and the Grizzlies producing one of the best records at home in the league. However, the schedule in March included only 5 home games, so they could no longer rely on the home court advantage to help them.
March opened with back-to-back games at Toronto and then home against Detroit. Memphis handled both teams with ease. Then, the Grizzlies began the grind. The Grizzlies won in their return to Golden State, dominating from the start before holding off a late Warriors’ rally to stretch their winning streak to 5 games. At this point, the Grizzlies were 15-1 against sub .500 teams, an amazing record for any team.
However, the return to Phoenix again ended in disappointment as the Grizzlies win streak ended. The next night Memphis was playing a mile high at Denver. Memphis managed to prevent the loss from becoming a losing streak with a 94-91 win at an arena where Memphis rarely had success in the past.
Memphis returned home to face the Los Angeles Lakers. This would be the only time the Lakers came to Memphis this season and the game would come back to haunt the Grizzlies at the end of the season. Memphis was leading most of the game but a freak 5 point possession off of a missed call by the referees turned the momentum. Memphis struggled down the stretch again, were outshot from the free throw line 35-5, and fell in OT, giving the Lakers the season-series win and the tie-breaker in the playoffs, something that hurt the Grizzlies in the post-season.
Memphis had two more games at home before finishing the month with 6 of 7 games on the road. However, after the bitter loss to Los Angeles, the Grizzlies weren’t able to muster their normal effort and fell to the lowly Toronto Raptors despite Zach Randolph’s return to the lineup. Randolph was impressive in his first game back, but the chemistry wasn’t there with his return. His 25 points and 9 rebounds were encouraging, despite the loss.
Two nights later, the Washington Wizards came to town and nearly beat the Grizzlies as well. That game may have salvaged the season for the Grizzlies. Losing three home games in a row before taking the road for their most difficult stretch of game could have been devastating, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the Grizzlies held on to win by 5. Randolph was back in the starting lineup, and the team looked ready for the difficult schedule ahead.
Around this time, the Grizzlies made another roster move when they signed Gilbert Arenas, a player the Grizzlies became interested in after reading one of our blogs written by Lee Eric Smith.
Back on the road, the Grizzlies started poorly, losing to Sacramento and Portland before getting blown out by the Cippers in LA. The next night, the Grizzlies had to play the Lakers back at the Staples Center. The Grizzlies were 1-4 since Randolph’s return and struggling while the Lakers had been one of the best teams in the league since the All-Star break. It didn’t look good for the Grizzlies.
Looks can be deceiving however. Instead of rolling over to the Lakers, the Grizzlies came out firing. They benched Zach Randolph in favor of Mareesse Speights as the Grizzlies ran to a 56-46 halftime lead. Despite nearly losing the entire lead in the 3rd period, the Grizzlies regained their shooting touch in the fourth and escaped with a six point win. The Grizzlies had 7 players score in double figures, and Marc Gasol just missed joining the crowd with 8 points. Randolph responded well to the benching with a double-double as well.
Memphis returned home for the final time in March to play Minnesota who they once again dispatched with ease. Then the schedule really got tough. Back to back games (losing at Houston and winning in Toronto) was just the warm-up. Memphis finished the month of March with an 8-7 mark despite playing 10 of the games on the road and losing 2 of the 5 home games.
After a night off, the Grizzlies went to Oklahoma City to play the Thunder who had defeated the Grizzlies three times this season already. The Grizzlies dug in and gritted out a tough win. The next night, Memphis flew home to play the uptempo Golden State Warriors. Road weary from three road games in four nights, the Grizzlies scratched out a four point win, only to have to leave the arena and head straight to the airport for their 3 game in as many nights.
In Dallas, Memphis held a slim lead heading into the 4th, but couldn’t hold up to the grind of three games in three nights and fell to the Mavericks. Memphis got to sleep in Dallas that night before having to fly half way across the country to play the best home team in the league, the Miami Heat. Adding insult to injury, Tony Allen, the Grizzlies best perimeter defender had his lip split open by O.J. Mayo. The cut was severe enough to need stitches and cause him to miss the next few games.
Miami was sporting a 17-game home winning streak at the time. Memphis played their most complete game of the season and ran the Heat off their own court. Memphis jumped to a 13 point 1st quarter lead and extended the lead to 16 at the half. They held on, despite being outscored in the 3rd and pulled away in the fourth to win easily 97-82. It was the first time Miami trailed the entire game at home since November 11, 2010.
The next night (that’s the 7th game in 9 nights for those still counting) the Grizzlies hosted the Dallas Mavericks again. It was the 3rd game in four nights against last season’s NBA Finalists. Memphis didn’t seem impressed as they once again took an early lead and never lost it. This was the first time a team had won wire to wire in successive games against the previous season’s finalists since Indiana did the same trick back in the 80s.
Two nights later, the Grizzlies continued their high level of play with a thrashing of the LA Clippers. Blake Griffin was a non-factor in the blowout. Memphis pulled within a game of the Clippers for 4th place in standings and a possible home court advantage in the playoffs. Two nights later, the Grizzlies dispatched the Suns, claiming a small amount of revenge for the earlier road losses to the Suns.
As it turned out, this was the high point of the season for the Grizzlies. The incredibly difficult stretch of 9 games in 13 days including the only back to back to back series finished with the Grizzlies wining 7 of the games including wins over OKC, the Clippers, Dallas twice and Miami.
With the most difficult portion of the schedule behind them, the Grizzlies needed to only win the games they were supposed to win the rest of the way — and a road game in San Antonio wasn’t one that the team was expected to win. They didn’t as the Spurs continued their domination over the team that upset them in the playoffs last season. The one saving grace was that the 10-point differential didn’t tell the whole story. The Grizzlies were down only two points and had the ball with under two minutes to play but some poor shots, careless ball-handling and excellent free throw shooting by the Spurs pushed the final score up.
The season only had 8 games remaining at this point. The Grizzlies defeated Utah who was cratering after a strong early start, was upset by the Hornets in New Orleans and then ran out the regular season winning 7 consecutive games against poor competition. However the Grizzlies didn’t look dominating in any of the games. The crisp offensive execution was gone, and only some impressive plays by Randolph, Gay, Conley and Mayo down the stretch of some games kept the Grizzlies from an embarrassing loss.
The Clippers, on the other hand, dropped their final two games of the season to fall behind the Grizzlies and enable the Grizzlies to finish tied with the Lakers on the season. The overtime loss back in March however gave the Lakers the tie-breaker for playoff seeding.
Memphis concluded their regular season with the highest winning percentage ever for the franchise and the 6th most wins (41) in franchise history despite the 16 game shorter season. Their 26-7 record at home tied for 2nd best in the conference and 3rd best in the league, trailing only San Antonio and Chicago. The Grizzlies accomplished this despite their injuries and roster turnover.
Individual honors were spread among the team. Head Coach Lionel Hollins finished 4th in the league in voting for Coach of the Year, Mike Conley finished 2nd in the league in steals with Rudy Gay (6th) and Tony Allen (5th) also finishing in the top 10. Conley also finished the year in 11th place in assists. Marc Gasol was 7th in the league in blocks and 17th in rebounds.
The season has to be classified a success. It was the best regular season in franchise history. If the season had lasted 16 more games, the 50 win mark could also have been threatened, but we will never know now if that mark could have been set by this team.
However, for many fans, the playoffs would ultimately determine where this team ranked among the all-time greats in Grizzlies history. Tomorrow, we will review what happened in the playoffs as the Grizzlies were about to host their first playoff series ever.