Surprising victories shoot Grizzlies to top of NBA

November 26, 2012

If someone had predicted in the summer that the Memphis Grizzlies would be atop the NBA standings at the end of November, they would have been ridiculed endlessly. The notion was so ridiculous that no one entertained the idea let alone vocalized it.

But here we are, nearly a month into the regular season, and the rugged Grizzlies are leading the league with a 9-2 record, hot off a victory against the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers. The young squad has performed with high energy and lively ball movement, and their impressive performance has surprised many.

The Grizzlies’ star player Rudy Gay has contributed much to his team’s success. Averaging 20 points and nearly six rebounds per game the crafty small forward has proven reliable, sinking clutch shots in the end of games to seal victories. So far, Gay has shown that he can compete with the league’s best. On Nov. 11, he posted 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists against LeBron James and the Miami Heat; three days later, he dropped 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists against the Oklahoma City Thunder despite being hounded by Kevin Durant.

Gay has served Memphis well throughout the years, but there has always been a sense that there was something holding him back. This season, with more talent to support him, Gay has the perfect opportunity to break out and become an elite player. By continuing to score high and excel both offensively and defensively, Gay may be able to achieve superstar status and help maintain his team’s winning position.

Memphis’ frontline also accounts for much of the team’s success. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol form the best big-man duo in the NBA, overshadowing even Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol — two Lakers who have struggled to develop chemistry. Randolph and Gasol complement each other almost perfectly. Randolph has a solid post game, while Gasol defends the rim and passes superbly, and both guys are elite rebounders and competent shooters.

Many young squads have issues on the defensive end, but the Grizzlies’ defense has proven its worth against championship-
caliber teams. Memphis ranks seventh in the NBA in opponents’ points allowed. Mike Conley and Tony Allen average nearly two steals each per game, and their quick hands and reflexes have troubled many guards. Gasol and Randolph also provide a formidable frontline with solid post defense and shot-blocking ability.

Given the teams’ track record so far, the main question is: Will the Grizzlies’ unprecedented success continue? They will most likely not finish the regular season atop the Western Conference but rather end the regular season somewhere in the middle of the playoff pack, perhaps as the fourth or fifth seed.

The team’s most glaring issue is its bench. Head coach Lionel Hollins plays every bench player less than 20 minutes each game, despite having Josh Selby, who shot 64 percent from 3-point range in his first five games, and Hamed Haddadi, a 7’2” big man with potential.

Memphis can very feasibly win the first round of the playoffs, but seeing the squad advance any further is unlikely. Nevertheless, they should be applauded for surprising most fans and performing with high intensity on both ends of the court, as their work ethic will propel them in the future while the younger players grow and develop.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition. Karthik Ramakrishnan is a staff writer. Email him at features@nyunews.com.

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