x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Grizzlies finding their bite again after rough start to season

Return of Marc Gasol from injury propels Memphis back into play-off picture

From left, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and the Memphis Grizzlies are returning to the form that saw them reach the Western Conference finals last season. Joe Murphy / Getty Images
From left, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and the Memphis Grizzlies are returning to the form that saw them reach the Western Conference finals last season. Joe Murphy / Getty Images

Lost amid the glut of quality teams crowding out the Western Conference play-off picture is the fact one team that was expected to be in the thick of it is missing entirely.

The San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat NBA Finals last year was one of the most memorable ever, the Western Conference finals less so.

But before the Spurs nearly beat the Heat, they had to get past the pesky Memphis Grizzlies. The same Grizzlies who then went missing for the first two months of this season. The same Grizzlies who finally came out of hibernation in January.

After starting out 13-17, they went 9-3 this month, with an impressive back-to-back sweep over Houston on Friday and Saturday.

It is easy to explain why they slumped at the start of the year. Most glaringly, at the end of November, they lost Spanish centre Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

By one advanced measure, Gasol was the sixth-most valuable player in the NBA last year. That’s just tough production to duplicate. From November 22, when he was injured, to January 14, the Grizzlies went 10-14.

Second, they have had a tough schedule. Half of their games so far have been against top-eight teams (21) in the West. Of their next 40, just 13 will come against that same group.

In their first 42 games, they also played only 12 times against the lesser Eastern Conference. They will get 18 of those matchups in their next 40.

Take away Gasol, throw in a tough schedule, and it is actually to the Grizzlies’ credit they are hanging around at 22-20, just a game-and-a-half behind the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth Western play-off spot.

If anything, this might actually be a better team than the one that went to the Western Conference finals last year.

Much of the team’s offence last year revolved around the inefficient Rudy Gay. Now, he is gone and his scoring burden has been redistributed to Mike Conley, who has taken on a larger offensive role and been one of the best guards in the league; Zach Randolph, scoring a bit more than last year, and the recently acquired Courtney Lee.

Lee, the shooting guard brought over from the Boston Celtics, in particular, has given Memphis a jolt, with 15.3 points per game on 55.6 per cent shooting in nine contests since the trade.

The defensive-minded Tonny Allen is even playing some of the best offence of his career.

They have a deeper bench than last year, too, with Ed Davis, Jon Leuer and Kosta Koufos forming a very solid reserve frontcourt.

Conley could use a true backup, and the Grizzlies’ wing rotation, consisting of the empty husks where Tayshaun Prince and Mike Miller used to be, is a mess. But if they can find even modest solutions for those two areas, they might actually be one of the more complete teams on paper in the West.

And come play-off time, the rest of the league will remember why they were Western Conference finalists just eight months ago.

jraymond@thenational.ae