In last year's playoffs, moments before Game 6 of the first-round series between the Spurs and Grizzlies, Zach Randolph sat in the locker room at FedEx Forum and reflected on what became of the 2007 Golden State Warriors.
Randolph believed it was a given that his Grizzlies would vanquish the Spurs that night and become the first No. 8 seed to capsize a No. 1 since the Warriors in '07. He was more concerned about the next act. He saw Golden State upset Dallas four years earlier, a rollicking success, but ultimately a fleeting one. The Warriors' roster, headlined by Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, disintegrated shortly thereafter and the club hasn't made the playoffs since.
"That won't happen here," Randolph said. "This is just the start."
Memphis has been arguably the most confounding team of this shortened season, losing three in a row, winning seven straight, then losing four in a row before its overtime win over the Nuggets on Tuesday. The Grizzlies lost by 40 points to the Bulls, and two weeks later, beat them by 16. Their inconsistency is understandable. Last February, Rudy Gay suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and the Grizzlies developed an inside-out identity to feature Randolph and Marc Gasol. Then, on New Year's Day, Randolph went down with a torn MCL, and they needed Gay to create more from the perimeter. The results of Gay's turn in the spotlight have been mixed. When the Grizzlies reeled off seven wins in a row, he averaged 22 points. When they lost their fourth straight, to San Antonio on Monday, he scored one.
All teams suffer significant injuries, especially after lockouts, but this is the second straight season the Grizzlies have coped with a major blow to one of their three best players. They normally would be able to replace Randolph with Darrell Arthur, among the best backup power forwards in the NBA, but he tore his Achilles tendon in training camp. To land a power forward in the second week of the season, general manager Chris Wallace had to ship 2010 first-round pick Xavier Henry to New Orleans in a three-team deal for Philadelphia big man Marreese Speights.
"We didn't want to trade Henry," Wallace said. "But we still wanted to preserve our optimism for this season and not let it all go out the window."
For 10 years, Memphis was not much of a NBA city. The Grizzlies never won a playoff game. Attendance consistently ranked near the bottom of the league. Pau Gasol was dealt to Los Angeles. But last spring, lured by guard Tony Allen's promise of "grit, grind," Memphis turned FedEx Forum into The Grindhouse. One playoff game sold out in five minutes.
In hopes of sustaining momentum this season, the Grizzlies wallpapered local billboards with ads inspired by blues posters. During the lockout, point guard Mike Conley gathered players for two makeshift training camps at the University of Memphis, where they scrimmaged as a unit against the college team.
"We needed to see each other's faces," Conley said. "We needed to keep the chemistry we had."
Their stated goal this season was a top-four seed in the West with home-court advantage in the first round, but privately they believed they were capable of more. Their winning streak started when they got back to the grind. In light of the compressed schedule, many coaches are trying to rest their players whenever possible, but Lionel Hollins used part of shootarounds for contact practices. The strategy worked, and then it might have backfired, as the surge was followed by a skid.
All coaches are tinkering with different formulas to handle the post-lockout period, but the key is healthy players. Randolph is the soul of the Grizzlies, and without him, goals have changed. "We've just got to get to the playoffs," Conley said. If Randolph returns in March, as Wallace expects, the Grizzlies should be in a similar position as last year: the low seed no one wants to play. With Randolph and Gasol commanding double teams, Gay will benefit with open shots. Such is the scenario Memphis has been envisioning for most of the past year, but has yet to see realized.
If 1998-99 was any indication, short regular seasons breed unpredictable playoffs, with underperforming and injury-riddled teams finally discovering their way. Take the '99 Knicks, for example, who were a No. 8 seed that reached the Finals. This year, the Western Conference is a mash-up after the Thunder, and a No. 2 seed might not be much better than a No. 7. The Grizzlies still have to play well enough for the next month, sans Randolph, to qualify for the postseason. But if they do, it will be a race at the top to avoid them.