Posted Oct 18, 2012 11:57 AM
The philosopher Yogi Berra once had quite specific instructions on what to do when you reach a fork in the road.
So here are the Grizzlies a year later, still standing at the spot where potential could branch off into something greater, and once more trying to figure out who exactly they are.
"We're a team that is capable of getting deep in the playoffs," said point guard Mike Conley. "It's an honest goal."
"I think we are a real contender," said small forward Rudy Gay. "Why can't we be? We're a year older. We're tougher. We're smarter. We know how to play with each other. So, yeah, why not?"
"The truth is we're the same team, just trying to learn, trying to get better," said coach Lionel Hollins.
Ten months ago, on the cusp of the lockout-shortened season, the Grizzlies were everybody's favorite flavor of the month in the Western Conference. As a No. 8 seed in the 2011 playoffs, they upset the No. 1 seeded Spurs and extended the precocious Thunder to the seven-game limit in the second round. So, according to conventional wisdom, they were ready to fly.
Except Zach Randolph went down in the third game of the season with a torn MCL in his right knee and missed 37 games. Then the Grizzlies blew a 24-point lead in the last nine minutes of Game 1 in the playoffs and coughed up Game 7 at home to the Clippers and were grounded.
So the popular question is how the Grizzlies will dress up -- contender or pretender -- for the season opener on Halloween Night?
Hollins just shakes his head and grins.
"After beating San Antonio, my goal last year was just to get back to the playoffs," he said. "I wasn't thinking about numbers or wins, just how we approach the game, being more professional, having a better understanding of what we're doing, trying to think the game better."
Despite the fact that the Grizzlies have made a quantum leap in the NBA's consciousness, the core of their lineup has not played a full season together in two years. When Memphis made its Cinderella dance through the 2011 playoffs, Gay was sidelined with a separated left shoulder. Then it was Randolph watching from the sidelines.
"Last year everybody was saying that getting Rudy Gay back meant we'd go to the championship," Hollins said. "Come on."
In many ways the Grizzlies are still a young team developmentally and a flawed team when it comes to depth. In a Western Conference where the Oklahoma City bunch is learning how much better it is every day, where the Lakers are reloaded, where the Clippers are flexing and the Spurs are still the Spurs, it might be rash to simply put Memphis in the upper echelon. At least until the Grizzlies can get more out of their offense by scoring in transition and by knocking down open shots; until they find a reliable backup at point for Conley; until Randolph and Marc Gasol get their low-post games back in sync; until Gay finally takes that step up to the All-Star level that's been predicted for years.
"The expectations did get ahead of us, but even the year we beat San Antonio we were scratching and clawing for every win," Hollins said. "We didn't go out and just beat people. We're not like the Lakers, like Miami, like the Celtics when they were younger, to just go out and know they were gonna win. We had to fight from behind and get wins. It wasn't like we just went out and toyed around with teams and then got to work and beat them by 10 or 15 points. We had to fight from behind to get wins.
"I thought our nucleus being together, our consistency and continuity that we had allowed us an advantage last year over a lot of teams during the shortened season. We were able to not put anything new in and still know what we were doing, and so we were able to get going quicker. But it didn't make us all of a sudden that much better in terms of what we had."
Yet the Grizzlies finished fourth in the West to get home-court advantage and that raised the bar of expectations again, which made a 41-25 season unfulfilling when they were bounced early from the playoffs.
If they are not ready to break through now, it could be time to break them up. They are a team and a franchise that has a lot invested financially and emotionally in the core four of their lineup as they arrive at a season pivotal to their development and their future.
"Everybody doesn't know the team like I know the team," Hollins said. "I know we still have to scratch and claw for everything we get."
"Going deep in the playoffs is a legitimate goal," Conley said. "It's within our reach."
Or in how they think. After all, Yogi also said 90 percent of the game is half mental.
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