The Grizzlies have more to prove this season than ever before.
As the Grizzlies’ charter flight from Oklahoma City landed at Wilson Air Center on the evening of May 15, Rudy Gay looked out the window, grabbed his camera, and took a snapshot of the thousands of Memphis’ fans gathered to welcome the team back from their Game 7 loss to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals.
It was an improbable scene to what was an improbable season, one in which the young Grizzlies surprised the NBA world by not only making the playoffs, but by defeating perennial power and top-seed San Antonio in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the first playoff series win in team history.
Then, they took the upstart Thunder to seven games, falling one victory short of reaching the conference finals.
For Gay, who missed the team’s playoff run with a shoulder injury, the picture serves as a building block for future celebrations.
“I want to see that again,” Gay said. “Not necessarily with a loss. Maybe on Beale Street one day. We want the fans to come around us for a good reason instead of us losing and just having a good season. We expect to do more, and we’re going to do more. Next time, maybe it’ll be for a better cause.”
As far as the Grizzlies are concerned, that cause is to celebrate an NBA championship. And with their roster returning intact, the Grizzlies don’t see any reason why that can’t be sooner rather than later.
With the NBA lockout resolved and a condensed 66-game schedule in place, the Grizzlies head into the season like they have the last several – with a big chip on their shoulder. Only that chip has grown this year.
The team believes there are too many people outside of Memphis who think the 2010-11 season was a fluke.
“We’re never going to play as if we’re the top team in the league,” point guard Mike Conley said. “We’re always playing with something to prove. We have a little bit more experience, a little bit more confidence.
“But we’re still motivated. We’re not satisfied with what we did last season. We feel like we could have gone further last year, so we were disappointed, even though there was a bunch of celebrating going on.”
Gay has extra motivation, having gone down with a season-ending shoulder injury in February, therefore missing the team’s drive to its fourth playoff appearance and historic playoff run.
That led to some questioning whether the team was better off without its longest tenured player.
“We won eight out of 11 games before I got hurt,” Gay pointed out. “We were on a roll. … Who knows? All I know is I’m back and I’m ready to play basketball. All I can do is help the future. I can’t worry about the past.”
Randolph, who became the Grizzlies go-to player in the playoffs, recognizes that more is better.
“We’ve got Rudy back now,” he said. “I think that completes our team. People think it was a fluke last year. Last year, we got to the second round, game 7 with one of our best players not being there. We’ve got him back and the sky is the limit.
“As long as everybody is on the same page and we play together and understand what we’re playing for and that the ultimate goal is winning, we’re going to be alright.”
The Grizzlies went into training game looking to sign restricted free agent center Marc Gasol to new contract which would lock up their four core players joining Gay, Randolph and Conley.
The major addition to the Grizzlies this season is second round draft pick Josh Selby, a 6-2 combo guard that could provide added scoring depth. Second-year guard/forward Xavier Henry is returning after missing most of his rookie season with a knee injury.
With the Spurs, the top seed in the Western Conference last year, a year older and having traded away one of their best young players in guard George Hill, the Grizzlies top competition in the Southwest Division will come from the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
But Mavericks are without two of their playoff stars, center Tyson Chandler and backup point guard J.J. Barea, who signed with the New York Knicks and Minnesota, respectively. They also no longer have guard Caron Butler, who left for the Los Angeles Clippers.
But it’s the rivalry that started with Oklahoma City, thanks to an epic seven-game playoff series that many are looking forward to. The two will meet in FedExForum Dec. 28 in the Grizzlies home opener in the first of four matchups.
“I was talking to Kevin Durant when he came to Memphis and played in my (charity) game,” Gay said when they announced him, everybody booed him. He looked at me and said, `Are we a rivalry now?’ I said, `Well, you made that happen.’ “