The Memphis Grizzlies had a tumultuous season this year, reaching heights never before achieved, but also suffering lows that hurt more than ever before.
In reviewing the season, you find a team that struggled to recreate the magic from the previous season while integrating Rudy Gay back into the lineup and dealing with the loss of Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph to leg injuries. The Grizzlies were supposed to be among the elite teams this past season in no small part to the theory that the Grizzlies were returning their team intact. When that didn’t turn out to be the case, many people felt the Grizzlies would fall into the middle of the pack at best.
Yet, the Grizzlies managed to finish tied for the 3rd best record in the conference and the 6th best record in the league. How the Grizzlies managed to do this and not sacrifice the future of the team in the process is possibly the greatest accomplishment of the team this past year.
We will be looking at the season in three parts: the opening half, the race to the end and the playoffs.
The Opening Half:
The season was delayed due to the management lockout. The Grizzlies early schedule was particularly difficult as they opened on the road in San Antonio and then played OKC at home. These were two of the teams expected to be among the elite teams in the league. The Grizzlies never really challenged the Spurs in game 1 and lost a close game to the Thunder in their home opener, a game in which Mike Conley went down with an injury.
A slow start is not unusual for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have won only 1 home opener in franchise history and have yet towin the opening game of the season since moving to Memphis. This slow start did not seem to be too detrimental despite the season-ending injury to Darrell Arthur (torn Achilles). After all, the Grizzlies had signed Dante Cunningham to replace DA’s production. Cunningham was in many ways a clone of Arthur. He had a nice jumper from 10-12 feet, was an excellent closer (highest FG% in the league from 5 feet in) and a superior defensive player. Greivis Vasquez, a little-used PG from last season, had been shipped to New Orleans in exchange for Quincy Pondexter, who was expected to back up Rudy Gay at SF. Conley’s injury was disturbing, but the team could handle themselves until he returned.
Josh Selby, the Grizzlies’ only draft pick in the 2011 draft, was not expected to factor too heavily this season as the team planned on allowing Josh to learn from the bench and in the D-League. Selby was seen as a player at least a year away from being able to contribute. Jeremy Pargo was signed from Macabi Tel Aviv to hold the fort down behind Mike Conley until Selby was ready. With Conley’s injury Selby and Pargo would both need to step up, but the Grizzlies aren’t a PG-oriented offensive team. The front line was healthy, and Conley would be back soon anyway.
Despite the injuries to Arthur and Conley, the Grizzlies seemed to be the same team that took out San Antonio and pushed OKC to the limit the previous season. The changes on the roster should be more than made up by the return of Rudy Gay after all.
Houston came to town on Dec. 30 to close out 2011 and the Grizzlies handled the Rockets by 20 points. The year ended on a high note and any concerns about the first two losses seemed to be put behind the team. Then came New Year’s Day in Chicago. Pargo (14 points and 5 assists) showed he had NBA talent, Josh Selby (9 points and 7 assists) looked good, Gasol (23 points and 8 rebounds) and Randolph (23 points and 9 rebounds) controlled the paint and Rudy, despite not shooting well, managed to grab 8 boards as well.
The Grizzlies played terrible at the start and were down 27-10 when the unthinkable happened. O.J. Mayo stumbled into Zach Randolph’s knee and the Grizzlies star went down on the court. He didn’t get right back up either. Z-Bo had partially torn the MCL in his leg. The Grizzlies were shocked as the Chicago Bulls continued to dominate the Grizzlies, eventually winning by 40 points.
For fans, all thoughts of a championship run were gone. The Grizzlies survived last season without Rudy Gay for half the year. They couldn’t repeat that success without Zach Randolph was the common assumption. Z-Bo was the reason for the team’s success last year. Even with Rudy back, how could the team replace their leader?
Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies didn’t take the same attitude. They banded together and were determined to do the best they could do. Randolph’s injury on top of Darrell Arthur’s meant other players were going to have to step up and produce. The Grizzlies, with Mike Conley back in the lineup, easily handled Sacramento and Minnesota in the next two games and fans were relieved to hear Randolph’s injury wasn’t season ending although he would be out for 6-8 weeks (it turned out to be 11 weeks).
Also, on January 4th, Chris Wallace moved to close the hole at PF by acquiring Marreese Speights from Philadelphia for a 2nd round pick, and sent Xavier Henry to New Orleans. It was a shocking move as Xavier Henry had been a lottery pick the season before. However, his career in Memphis had been clouded by mysterious injuries and his departure wasn’t seen as a terrible loss with Sam Young and O.J. Mayo capable of playing SG off the bench.
Maybe it was the good news. Maybe it was the easy wins. Maybe it was just the competition and integration of another new player, but Memphis struggled over the next week losing 3 straight games (on the road at Utah by 9 and Los Angeles by 8 and at home to OKC by 5 to start a season long home streak). It looked like the injuries were taking their toll and the season was slipping away again.
Then something strange happened. The Grizzlies found their footing and started winning games. First, they beat the Knicks by 11 points. Then, New Orleans was dispatched by 9. Chicago came to town for Martin Luther King Day and the Grizzlies got revenge, dominating from the start and building a 20 point first half lead that reached 27 points in the 3rd. However, the Grizzlies, in what would become a season-long problem, took their foot off the pedal. Chicago stormed back to within 9 points before the Grizzlies managed a 9 point run to put the game out of reach. The final score wasn’t a 40 point drubbing, but it did show how far the team had come since New Year’s Day.
The Grizzlies followed the Chicago win with 4 more wins to make it 7 wins in a row. The win streak was capped off with an amazing 4th quarter comeback at Golden State. The Warriors led by 17 points with 7:11 remaining when the Grizzlies turned up the defensive heat. Conley (9 points and 5 assists in the 4th quarter), Tony Allen (10 points, 3 rebounds and four steals in the 4th) and Mayo led the comeback as the Grizzlies went small to come all the way back and win 91-90 on a clutch Rudy Gay basket at the end.
The win streak was followed by 4 consecutive losses at the Blazers, Clippers, Suns and at home against the Spurs. The Grizzlies ended January on a high note defeating Denver 100-97 in overtime. This game was the first time Hollins’ used Mayo as the backup PG as the pair of Selby and Pargo’s struggles became to onerous for the Coach.
February started with a wicked road trip at Atlanta, OKC and Boston before returning to play San Antonio. The four games were played with only one day off as well. The Grizzlies started the trip strong blowing out Atlanta by 19 points. The next night they lost another battle with OKC before flying to Boston and getting blown out. They returned to Memphis immediately after the game to battle the Spurs in Memphis, but didn’t have enough energy left at the end of the game and lost by 5 points.
The four games in five days were against teams that finished 4th, 2nd, 5th and 1st in their respective conferences. Despite the 1-3 mark over the span of games no one felt bad to see the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt considering all but four of the games played without the inspirational leader from last season.
With only 9 games remaining before the All-Star break, the Grizzlies set to the task ahead of them and played motivated basketball. The team won 7 of the 9 games including back to back games where Rudy Gay missed the game winning shot only to have it tipped in by a teammate at the buzzer. This was the first time in NBA history that a team won back to back games on a last second tipped in shot.
The last game before the All-Star break was against Philadelphia. It was in this same game against the same opponent that Rudy Gay injured his shoulder and was lost for the season. The Grizzlies wasted no time in putting the game away dominating the first half and coasting to an easy win.
It wasn’t all clear skies despite the nice run to the break. The Grizzlies were 0-3 against San Antonio and OKC and 0-1 against the Lakers and Clippers. Those four teams sat atop the Western Conference at the time. The team knew that to make noise in the playoffs they would have to find a way to beat these teams. That extra edge was going to be Zach Randolph. Z-Bo was working out with the team at this point and the hope was he would return after the all-star break. Adding a fully recovered Randolph to the lineup was seen as the last piece needed to insure the Grizzlies would be ready to make noise again in the playoffs regardless of where they finished in the regular season playoff picture.
Of course, the most difficult stretch of the season still lay ahead of the Grizzlies.
Part 2: The Race to the Playoffs will run tomorrow.