As I write this, the Memphis Grizzlies have just put the finishing touches on a rather convincing 104-86 victory over the defending champion Miami Heat. “All I Do Is Win” blares from the speakers, confetti rains down, Wayne Ellington gives a post-game mic check (more on that in a second), and thousands of Memphis fans will no doubt soon be spilling into the bars lining Beale Street, raving about how this is “the Grizz’s year”.
And regardless of how many beers they’ll no doubt have consumed, they may just be right.
The Grizz have started the season on a 5-1 rampage, winning by an average of 12.6 points all against fringe-to-certain playoff teams. Their lone whiff came in an opening-night playoff grudge match against the Clippers, who are quite possibly the only team in the West playing better than Memphis right now.
Several keys have ignited this burst out of the gate, and it starts with Zach Randolph. Last season was far from ideal for Z-Bo, who spent most of the lockout putting on weight, tore his MCL a week into last season, spent two more months putting on weight, then was rushed back for the disaster that was Memphis’ 2012 First Round. Not only does Randolph look 25-30 pounds lighter, but is playing with an unseen hunger; he’s more energetic on defense, atop the NBA in rebounding, and putting this team on his back when it was wondered all offseason who would step up and lead.
Z-Bo’s focus on defense highlights another lethal Grizzlies’ asset: their tenacity when protecting the hoop. Tony Allen leads a frenetic crusade that pressures ballhandlers, squeezes passing lanes, and rarely leaves a shot uncontested, especially in the paint.
Memphis is particularly long on defense with Marc Gasol in the high post, and can force very uncomfortable shots in a lot of sets. The defensive chemistry on this team has improved greatly, not only in on-court cohesion, but in consistent effort from the entire squad.
Quincy Pondexter and Mareese Speights are providing massive contributions off the bench, stifling opposing second units while scoring capably and making Grizz fans forget about Darrell Arthur’s latest injury.
This fluid roster composition being totally attributed to OJ Mayo’s absence is a stretch, but there’s no denying that Memphis’ bench looks – and has been producing – much steadier without the combustible who-guard (as in not a two-guard, but can you call him a point?) alternating between brilliance and horror while disengaging the rest of the team. Jerryd Bayless finally appears to have found shoes that fit in the NBA (those of a backup point guard on a good team he can learn from), emceeing a balanced bench attack that even once-written-off Wayne Ellington is suddenly flourishing in.
Sure it’s only one game, but in raining 25 on the defending champs off of 7-11 from long range, Ellington showed glimpses of being the lethal 3-point threat the Grizzlies covet; one that can keep defenses honest in transition, space the floor in the halfcourt and punish teams who try to double their big men.
But until that threat develops consistently, the Grizz have done a solid job of balancing their inside/outside game; capitalizing on Rudy Gay’s perimeter threat, while not disrupting the rhythm of their post presence that had brought success during his injury.
There’s been a balanced, unselfish scoring effort put forth by Gay, Randolph, and particularly Gasol – in this sense, a distant strain from his brother – who is content banging in the post and drawing coverage to make an extra pass, and gives his all whether he gets 13 shots (like he did on opening night against LA) or 6 (like he did vs. Miami, but dished out as many dimes). His willingness and ability to make plays for others from the pivot speaks much more than the raw quantification of over 5 assists/game, good for first among NBA centers by a wide margin. Gasol’s far from an isolated example however; the entire team looks on point, clicking together with an air of swagger unseen last year.
It seems like a trite sports cliché, but the Memphis Grizzlies are just playing like they want it right now. They’re running the kind of passionate, unselfish, relentless game we’re used to seeing from the best teams in April and May. Seems weird since we’re barely a week into the season, but maybe this is the kind of motivation that can only be spawned from blowing a 27-point lead in the 4th quarter of a playoff game in front of your own fans; from harvesting the disappointment from that historic collapse all summer, and being determined to rebound and never let it happen again.
The Miami victory was an affirming one for Memphis; after they clawed back against Utah and handed the Bucks their first loss of the season by the 2nd quarter, the Grizzlies had a chance to hunt some fearsome prey, and made an efficient kill. They won’t have much time to enjoy the spoils, as OKC, Denver, the suddenly-really-good Knicks, and who-knows-what-they’ll-be-by-next-Friday Lakers await, the back stretch of a tough opening schedule.
But these Grizzlies are a tough bunch. Every early indication points to last season being behind them, and with Zach Randolph epitomizing their renewed hunger, the NBA should be on Grizzly Watch.