Before the 2011-2012 NBA season started, the Memphis Grizzlies held 30-1 Vegas odds to emerge out of a loaded West as conference champions. Why Memphis was held in such humble esteem by the sharps after a 2011 postseason that saw them beat the one-seeded Spurs and push 2012 favorite Oklahoma City to a deciding seventh game in the conference semis is anyone’s guess, but my friend and I were thrilled. We were going to make bank off these hungry and vicious Grizzlies, finally healthy after playing without long-presumed best player Rudy Gay for the very playoffs that had them the talk of the NBA last Spring.
Then Darrell Arthur was lost for the season right before it began, and my friend and I wavered. Memphis’ biggest advantage, we thought, was their interior trio of Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol-Arthur and how they could play any combination of the two to match any style and exploit any mismatch. It speaks volumes of how highly we thought/think of Arthur – a clear reserve behind Z-Bo/Gasol that averaged just 20.1 minutes per game in 2011 – that his loss caused us to chicken out. After all, I’m an extremely reluctant gambler but was more than ready to go down swinging with the 2012 Grizzlies, simply because they deserved far more preseason respect than those 30-1 odds suggested. But better than that, I was convinced we – and by proxy the Grizz, obviously – had a great shot at winning. This team was that good in the playoffs and would be even better at full strength with a healthy, 2010 World Championships version of Gay adding even more defense, taking pressure off the interior on the other end, and providing that all-important late game one-on-one scorer.
The Grizzlies weren’t easy money because nothing is assured in the NBA – not to mention those same Thunder, Spurs, and championship-defending Mavericks were out there – but they were definitely worthy of a courageous bet. Plus, I’ve got a cousin in Memphis and thought it would be fun to have a rooting interest for a particular team. So we were going to put down far more money than we should have, and win or lose I knew we’d be proud we did it.
We didn’t bet at all, obviously, and it’s coming back to bite us just as we should have known it would. This was the same Memphis team, after all, that withstood the absence of Gay – a better and more valuable piece than Arthur – to come thisclose to the Finals, and the same group led spearheaded by on both ends by an improving monster like Gasol. Moving some parts around and compensating for the loss of a reserve, Arthur, should be easy for these guys, and what they did without Gay was as good an indication as any of that fact.
But when Memphis started the season 1-3 and lost Randolph to a serious if not season-ending knee injury, I immediately and contentedly sent my friend a “Jesus, good thing we didn’t go all-in on the Grizz!” text. No Arthur and no Z-Bo surely meant no playoffs for the Grizzlies this season, let alone a Finals berth that they were supposedly longshots to achieve even at full strength.
Of course, I’m regrettably happy to say that today – with the Grizzlies at 33-23 and with legitimate hopes for a three seed – more than ever we were both right and wrong about Memphis. Because they’ve got as good a shot as anyone in to represent a packed Western Conference in June’s Finals despite the season-long loss of Arthur and 10-week absence of Randolph. And the terrifying part for the rest of the is that they’ve still yet to hit their full-strength 2012 stride.
Randolph returned from injury in mid-March, yes, but he’s hardly played like his dominant self that wreaked havoc on the 2011 playoffs. He’s averaging just 11.5 points on 43.9% shooting and 7.5 rebounds per game since his return, and doing so (for the time being, at least) in an off-the-bench role that’s seen him play just 26.2 minutes a night.
Maybe of greater importance is the lack of synergy between he and Gay, who, remember, wasn’t there for Z-Bo’s success during last Spring’s run. They’ve been Memphis’ second least productive on-court pair in terms of +/- per minute, outscoring opponents by just nine points in their 352 minutes and 36 seconds of time on the court together. This supports all those who suggested during Memphis’ playoff success that they were better without the sometimes shot-happy Gay, because there was a clear pecking order and style for the Grizzlies offense. They were playing through Randolph and Gasol first, second, and third, only deviating from that plan when things broke down or O.J. Mayo took an ill-advised long two. Today’s numbers indicate that system is in flux with Gay on the floor, but one suspects they’ll be able to figure it out over the next two weeks before the postseason begins. If they do – and this team’s all-for-one mentality and the coaching of Hollins suggests they will – the Grizzlies will be even more dangerous than they are right now while playing with Randolph-lite and and an ineffective union between he and Gay.
Because not even that has kept the streaking Grizz from reeling off eight wins in their last 10 games, including last week’s towering road wins in Oklahoma City and Miami. No team in the NBA has beaten those powers away from home this season, but Memphis shoved them aside in the span of four days and followed it up with victories against Dallas and the Clippers at FedExForum to complete what is by far the league’s most impressive week of 2012.
This team, clearly, is the legitimate threat my friend and I thought and Vegas doubted they were back in December. That we, the media, and the rest of the league were so eager to write them off due to injuries is something I – as a writer, gambler, and fan of the NBA – now know never to do again.
Because the mentality and mantra of some groups always prevails, and these Memphis Grizzlies embody that better than any team in recent memory. So in a few weeks when they’re gritting and grinding in a playoff series they seem doomed to lose, remember the adversity they’ve faced and conquered as postseason surprises in 2011 and disrespected, injured warriors in 2012. I sure will, and won’t be shocked or even disappointed when my pockets aren’t as deep as they could have when the Finals finally roll around in June.