A lot can be said of the Memphis Grizzlies so far this season; most of which is good. After all, their 13-3 record over a month into the season still stands as the NBA’s best, which has included not-so-dramatic wins over a number of elite teams, and a narrow loss to the Spurs, who essentially paid $250,000 to have a shot at beating them.
Zach Randolph has just been a complete monster this year, answering media queries like “will he ever bounce back?” by suddenly holding court in the early MVP debate. He’s leaner, hungier, nastier, and is the perfect leader for this team of once-wayward overachievers.
Mike Conley has steadily grown into his contract, and is playing more confidently than ever this year, flowing more seamlessly between attacker and distributor roles, while having the presence to take – and make – big shots in the clutch. He’s shooting career bests across the board, and especially his sudden long-range threat has kept defenses from collapsing on the Grizz interior as freely.
Marc Gasol’s wizardry as a passer is suddenly coming to light amidst this Memphis success; he leads all non-guards who don’t wear #6 for the Miami Heat in assists so far and provides an excellent second playmaker in the Grizzlies’ pass-heavy inside-out offense. He’s a beastly defensive presence, plays hard every night whether he gets touches or not, and would rip the face off of anyone who told him to put his “big boy pants” on.
The bench has been brilliant; headlined by Quincy Pondexter coming out of absolutely nowhere as a dark horse Sixth Man candidate, and bolstered by Darrell Arthur’s recent return, what was once a weak unit that betrayed the team’s talented starters is turning into one of their points of advantage, playing with seldom-seen intensity and cohesiveness.
Lionel Hollins – he of the Western Coach of the Month – has this team playing above the sum of their parts relatively consistently, adjusting lineups well, keeping his players motivated and fighting back from deficits numerous times:
Their Tuesday night win over Phoenix can be added to a list of come-from-behind wins over the Jazz, Rockets, Cavs and Raptors where Memphis has come out playing visibly below their potential as a team before getting it together, taking control down the stretch, and snaring the W.
This is where the bad – slight as it is for the Grizz thus far – comes into play.
The mercurial tendency the Grizzlies have developed – playing their best against top opposition while randomly approaching lesser teams like Sunday morning YMCA runs – came to a head vs. Phoenix, as Memphis fell behind well into the double-digits against a reeling and rebuilding Suns squad in front of the GrindHouse crowd.
They were missing defensive switches like clockwork, turning the ball over at very inopportune times and bricking everything outside of eight feet when they actually got a shot off.
They needed overtime and a near-career night from Z-Bo to escape with a victory; the type of description you’d rather hear about a Western Finals slugfest than an early-December game against a bonafide lottery team, but if the Grizzlies don’t shake these slow starts, they won’t survive into late May.
These aren’t particularly good teams that Memphis is fighting back against; these are the ones they’re supposed to be beating. They stumbled out of gate against the Nuggets at home a couple weeks back, and Denver disrupted Memphis’ rhythm enough to hold off numerous runs. It can only be expected that given similar opportunities, other Western playoff teams – especially a familiar foe during a seven-game series – would pounce and be much less willing to relent.
Memphis has looked very dangerous against the top of its schedule, but these scattered near-losses bring slight concern to an otherwise outstanding start. Phoenix was not winning that game on Tuesday night; Memphis was losing it, as was much the case against Denver before them. The better the team, the more pressure the situation, the harder it is to flip the switch and suddenly take a game back over. It may seem nit-picky, but – like it or not – Memphis’ start has put them in realm of the NBA’s elite, so this stuff matters. They’ll have to be playing their best ball consistently to beat a team like the Thunder (who’ve shaken off their early post-Harden jitters and are looking very legit), and maybe the Grizzlies will learn first-hand this year what overachieving can do to expectations. Or they could just ask Jeremy Lin.
The Grizzlies, resilient as they are, have shown that they won’t lie down without a fight, which has to be encouraging for their fans. But as they continue to defend the West’s top spot, the margins for these types of lapses will have to shrink instead of grow if they hope to follow up on what the first month has promised.
Hopefully for Memphis, Tuesday night was the sign of a turning point; another good thing to say about a season where the bad has been hard to find.