'Grit, grind' Grizzlies stay true to moniker with comeback win
OAKLAND, Calif. -- There was a Portland-bound plane to catch late Monday night, so the proud and blissful Memphis Grizzlies couldn't talk all night about how they found that fighting spirit again. No matter how badly they wanted to.
Tony Allen, the emotional leader who gave the rallying cry during the 20-point comeback against Golden State and looked ready to shed tears of joy after the 91-90 win over the Warriors, was admittedly moved by the moment. Rudy Gay smiled wide as he explained the way his team perseveres, while Mike Conley laughed about how he wouldn't be able to sleep that night because of sheer excitement. His concern wasn't shared by grinning big man Marc Gasol, who recommended Tylenol PM to the group as a fail-safe antidote to their own elation.
Teams simply don't do this every day -- especially when they're trailing by 18 points early in the fourth quarter, especially when another road game awaits them, and especially when games that come before the regular-season's midway point just don't mean this much to most teams. But the gritty Grizzlies make a habit out of embracing the unexpected and unenviable, from the loss of Gay and their surprising playoff run last season, to the losses of forwards Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur this season.
So Allen and the Grizzlies willed their way to a seventh straight win that was nothing like the six that came before it, delivering a remarkable fourth quarter in which they outscored the Warriors 39-22 and had an astounding eight steals (four from Allen). They're breaking new ground now, sitting atop the Southwest Division at the latest point in a season than ever before (the previous mark was four games in for both the Vancouver and Memphis Grizzlies) after starting 3-6 and losing to Chicago by 40 points on New Year's Day when Randolph tore the medial collateral ligament.
"It's a great bonding win when you come out and get a win like this, having so much adversity throughout the course of the game," coach Lionel Hollins said. "It makes you a tighter team. It makes you believe in what you're doing."
Belief is on the rise again in Memphis. And as the latest box score sunk into the icy abyss where Allen soaked his feet afterward, he didn't have to analyze the blurry stats in the tub to know what this effort meant.
"You know what -- I can't even [lie]," he said. "My teammates -- it's a great group of guys. And I just think once they got the confidence and trust amongst each other. ... I think we can just about beat anybody when everybody's playing with their thinking cap on and with great confidence and togetherness."
Even without Randolph, the All-Star forward who signed a four-year, $71 million extension in April but is months away from a possible return.
Even without a key reserve in Arthur, whose season ended with torn ACL in mid-December. And even with Gay, the franchise centerpiece whose absence from the No. 8 Grizzlies' playoff series upset over top-seeded San Antonio and a seven-game series against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Semifinals raised all sorts of legitimate questions about his ability to fit into this new, defensive-minded style.
The re-integration of Gay, who had season-ending shoulder surgery last February, is merely one of the many ways in which the Grizzlies have reinvented themselves once again. The sixth-year small forward has received high praise for the way in which he has made this work. He is scoring as always (team-high 18.9 points per game), but also understanding the importance of staying aggressive offensively (translation: attack rather than settle for jumpers) and engaged defensively.
"I think I'm a better person [after his injury]," said Gay, who signed a five-year, $82 million deal in the summer of 2010. "I think I'm more polished. What I went through was something made me sit back and think about how I can affect the game better -- me watching our team and knowing exactly what I need.
"Now I'm more capable of doing that. I spent a whole lot of time just being mad and being depressed and not playing. And then it kind of came to me and I realized how I can be effective, and the way I can be effective is to learn as much as I can so I can add that to my game."
But it's been about more than plugging one piece of the core in for another. It's been about the very thing that forged their comeback, when the Grizzlies were once again faced with the sort of fight-or-flight choice that has shaped so much of their recent history: refusing to give up or give in no matter the circumstances.
"[Giving up is] not who we are and that's not what we stand for," said Gasol, who recently signed a four-year deal worth approximately $58 million and is averaging career-highs in points (15.2 per game), rebounds (10.6), and blocks (2.5). "We live or die with who we are, and to give up is not our style."
Added point guard Mike Conley, who had 20 points, nine assists and five turnovers against Golden State: "That's just not who we are. We play hard until the end, and we'll sit down when the clock reads '0:00.'"
There may not be any quality time left for Randolph this season, a possibly reality that Hollins acknowledged before the game. While Randolph is projected to return in March, Hollins -- who has restructured his team's offensive style out of necessity to become more perimeter oriented -- said bringing him back into the fold late in the season won't be easy.
"Anything is possible, but I don't believe that somebody with that kind of injury can come back in a shorter period of time than what they're talking about and be ready to produce," Hollins said. "You've got to heal, and then you've got to get in shape, and then you've got to start playing basketball again. The amount of time we're talking -- we're talking 35-40 games missed -- and it's really hard once the team has changed so dramatically for a person to come back in and be the same person.
"If it happens, I'll be happy. If he comes back, I'll be happy. But I don't think about those things. My thing is, 'I'll worry about it when we get to that bridge.'"
Taking it head on, as always.
"Quitting is the easy way out," Gasol said. "We don't have that in our DNA.
"It's a lot different [without Randolph]. Trust me. There's no other player like that. I've never played with one, and I will never play with another one like Zach. But it is what it is. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We're going to make the best of it, and try to win basketball games."
Even if it means coming back from 20 points to do so.
"I can't even think right now," said an ecstatic Allen. "I don't even remember how we [beat the Warriors], for real. I know we didn't give up."