Image via Flickr
Image via Flickr
The Grizzlies’ shockingly disappointing playoff debut on Monday against the Clippers has been as talked about as their playoff debut last season was talked about for its surprising success. Last year, Zach Randolph was the big story, his leadership looking very much like the fulfillment of a potential nearly blown in Portland and a moral redemption thanks to the kind of mercy only Memphis can show a sinner.
That city’s style of hospitality comes not only with sympathy for a devil, but a station where evil ways can transmute into raw talent; it’s where ne’er-do-wells and outcasts—lost souls, as far as the rest of America is concerned—go to find themselves. It was the perfect culture to raise Z-Bo up, to turn him from destructive bad-boy to one of the most compelling characters in the league. He was the promising leader of a new and especially apt era for Memphis basketball.
This season, it was Randolph’s injury that dictated Grizzlies headlines. At first, the main story was whether Memphis could do without him, but the question eventually became how best to reintegrate him without sacrificing the team chemistry that had coalesced in his absence. Without Randolph, the Grizzlies could display the versatility and depth that makes them competitive, star baller or no. They could show what they’re really made of: players who, much like Z-Bo, thrive in Memphis because that’s where they were welcomed.
The Grizzlies are a gang of misfits, castoffs and spare parts that, on other teams, for any number of contingent and inherent reasons, simply didn’t play right. Pau’s lesser brother becomes the fearsome Marc Gasol. The young talent Rudy Gay emerges from Randolph’s shadow with rock-steady confidence and bottomless late-game poise. Tony Allen, ever bitter about being overshadowed in Boston and carrying both injuries and criminal charges in his personal baggage, emerges the premiere perimeter defender in the league. Gil Arenas, with his own wackier, but not dissimilar, brand of baggage, is given a second shot in Memphis. Marreese Speights, benched in Philadelphia, has thrived with a gleaming vengeance as a hungry, reliable role player. And Memphis native Lester Hudson, dropped by Cleveland despite an occasionally dazzling 10-day stint there, gets picked up by the Grizzlies as a free agent just in time to capture his momentum for playoff season. The Grizzlies’ brand is recruiting these guys—some broken, some overlooked, others unwanted, or self-destructed—to Memphis like it’s the Island of Misfit Toys, where, as if by some kind of black magic, they can play—and they play really, really well—not in spite of being misfits but because of it.
Of course, this means they’re no longer misfits, because they’ve found their place. Memphis is a team where every player brings something unique and useful to the floor, and no one is cast off because of a game plan that revolves around a single star player. In the weeks leading up to Z-Bo’s return, there was even a certain amount of openly expressed anxiety since, of course, he is the Grizzlies’ de facto franchise player, and his reintegration into such a thriving cooperative dynamic would certainly mean changing that dynamic—and most likely re-ordering it around Randolph.
The fact that this was worrisome to officials in the Grizzlies camp is significant, and altogether antithetical to, say, the Knicks’ reactionary 180 turn away from D’Antoni’s carefully conducted ecosystem to a Melo-centric model in time for playoffs. Z-Bo’s return prompted Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins to comment, with clear apprehension, "We'll have to find a new identity to integrate [Randolph] into what we're doing. It's not something that I … talk about to the team. But I do think about it."
Perhaps because Randolph’s injury necessitated a gradual return to playing, his reintegration has hardly made him the conducting element of the Grizzlies’ charge. It’s only added another dimension of texture, intrigue and dynamic to their game. Z-Bo put Memphis basketball on the map. But the Grizzlies have shown themselves to be an eclectic, eccentric and ecstatically talented team, and in the run-up to the playoffs, more and more observers noticed that, holy shit, Memphis might be the biggest threat in the league.
In early April, while most basketball fans were watching the Final Four, I couldn’t look away from one of the most thrilling games of the NBA regular season, a gripping, playoff-quality competition between Memphis and Oklahoma City that the Grizzlies won, 94-88. The biggest shots that night were coming from O. J. Mayo on the perimeter, not Zach Randolph, who wasn’t even starting. The thing about the Grizzlies is that on any given night a different one of their players—starter, bench contributor, role player, whatever—could be controlling their game. Sometimes it’s Rudy Gay, who finally seems at ease with consistently taking the reigns Z-Bo held last season (the main knock on Gay throughout his time in Memphis); sometimes it’ll be Marc Gasol taking over a game with his unbreakable focus and incredible agility under the basket. At times Mike Conley looks he belongs in the ranks of the NBA's young hot point guards.
This range and depth makes Memphis an all-around threat, not to mention one of the most exciting teams in the league. However, without casting too pessimistic a line, it has to be said that the Grizzlies’ ever-shifting center of gravity is also the team’s potential weakness. Often enough it seems like the team comes out undecided about, and then organizing their game around, whoever emerges as the leading force. If the Knicks put too many eggs in Melo’s basket, the Grizzlies might be the other extreme: with too many potential leaders of sundry styles and roles on the floor, the result seems to be a diffusion of responsibility that amounts to no one player conducting the charge.
This would also seem to explain why the Grizzlies are equally as competitive in a late-season game against the mighty Thunder as they are in one against the unholy monument to dysfunction that is the Bobcats organization. The diffusion of leadership and diversity of talent in Memphis means that often everyone does just what they can—which, granted, is often a lot—but no more. Diffusing the responsibility from night to night is healthy, but within games has the kind of unchanneled effect of water seeking its own level. In this sense, the Grizzlies are a threat to themselves more than they are to anyone else; they’ll play to be competitive with anyone—the best, and the worst.
What happened on Sunday was less of an astonishing victory for the Clippers (although, of course, it was that) than it was an astonishing exercise in self-defeat by the Grizzlies themselves. They don't get lazy or complacent; they show up to do a job, and when it seems done, there's no vanity or individual furor to keep them going. This series is still theirs to lose. If they play too well, that just might happen.