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Weekend Focus: A Fighting chance

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – The photo serves a painfully significant purpose.

It’s housed deep in the gallery of JaMychal Green’s cell phone, but not stashed quite far enough to ever be forgotten. It’s one of the very few remnants that carries meaning from last season’s dreadful, injury-riddled limp into the playoffs for the Grizzlies and that merciless, first-round sweep by San Antonio.

Memphis was without floor leader Mike Conley because of an Achilles injury, without franchise center Marc Gasol due to foot surgery, without midseason sparkplug Mario Chalmers and others victimized by various ailments. It all left the Grizzlies without any real hope when that series with the Spurs began last April. Four games later, it ultimately left Green with an unintentionally symbolic white towel draped over his head as he contemplated the crushing reality for his prideful but pounded group of Grizzlies.

“We knew we didn’t have a good chance, but there’s still nothing that makes you sick like that feeling when the season is finally over,” Green recalled. “Someone snapped a picture of me just sitting there in shock, with a towel around my head. Someone sent it to me, and I kept it all this time. I’ve looked at that picture in my phone this year from time to time to motivate me. I don’t want to feel that way again, so we have a chance to go out and change that. This time we’re healthier, so they better watch out for us.”

The opponent is the same. So are the seedings for the No. 2 Spurs and No. 7 Grizzlies. But there’s one reason above any other Memphis enters its opening-round rematch with a legit puncher’s chance to rattle the NBA postseason landscape. This time, the Grizzlies are going in as the real, actual, Grizzlies.

That’s because this time, Conley is coming off a career season in scoring and isn’t in street clothes stylishly matching designer jeans with a walking boot. This time, Gasol has stretched his game out to the three-point line and isn’t confined to pacing the sidelines and locker room for moral support. This time, the Grizzlies have four games of empirical evidence from an evenly-matched regular-season series against a Spurs team that had tortured them more than any other opponent in recent years.

The playoffs are a different animal, the saying goes. And that’s true. But that theory doesn’t necessarily or completely apply to two teams that have spent the past month hammering one another as if the much more were at stake. The Grizzlies and Spurs split the season series 2-2, with Memphis taking the first two before falling by seven in the third matchup and losing in overtime in the last one. The final three meetings were all crammed into a stretch of 18 days, from mid-March to early April.

That level of familiarity would only breed even more discomfort between Southwest Division rivals who have endured a long and lopsided history together. The Spurs have been hell bent on destroying the Grizzlies since Zach Randolph ripped them to shreds in the 2011 postseason, when eighth-seeded Memphis stunned the top-seeded Spurs 4-2 in the first round.

Gregg Popovich refused to be haunted by residual ZBo nightmares. Perhaps that explains how the Spurs, counting the playoffs, won 24 of the next 28 meetings with Memphis entering this season. But Conley insisted the Grizzlies are no longer psychologically shackled by San Antonio’s lockdown.

Instead, the Grizzlies are buoyed by the boost of relative health.

“They had our number mentally for so many years after that upset we gave them in 2011,” Conley said. “I think getting the wins we got this year, playing the way we played against them, really helped our confidence, really helped the way we’ve viewed the situation. We’re confident going in and know we have to steal one down there to get past them.”

The Grizzlies go in mentally free mainly because their best bodies are physically available for the playoffs. Ultimately, that was the top priority in David Fizdale’s first season as the Memphis coach – to deliver his team to the most meaningful part of the season as intact as possible.

It was hardly easy, considering Conley missed three weeks after fracturing vertebrae in his back in November, marquee free-agent signee Chandler Parsons was shut down in early March for the season with knee issues and Gasol was sidelined into April for five games with a strained left foot. Yet, with the exception of Parsons, the Grizzlies survived.

That process required the use of 25 different starting lineups for a team that entered the April 12 regular-season finale against Dallas with 153 total games missed to injuries. By comparison, the Grizzlies used 28 starting lineups last season and endured 293 total games missed because of injury absences.

“That has been my most difficult challenge, no doubt about it,” Fizdale said of the constant juggling of the rotation that started in training camp and never ceased. “The fluctuation in the roster and different guys I had coming in and out of the rotation, getting in a game shape, managing minutes, going from a young team to older team and now to a different sort of mix of it all, that’s impacted the consistency.”

Although the Grizzlies have played to wild extremes much of this season, their most consistent performances have come against the Spurs, with the two teams posting nearly identical statistics overall through the four games. Memphis has outscored San Antonio by an aggregate of 372-362, and was the only Western Conference team to hold the Spurs below 100 in every matchup. San Antonio’s 90.5 points a game against Memphis was nearly 15 points lower than its season scoring average.

Those numbers had the Grizzlies encouraged about their defense and depth entering the playoffs. It’s simply a stark contrast from where things stood a year ago. That was when, after losing the first two games of the series by a combined 58 points, former Grizzlies swingman Matt Barnes said Memphis was “coming to a gunfight with spoons” as compared to the firepower of the 67-win Spurs.

Green, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Tony Allen are the lone holdovers who participated in that series and maintain the scars to prove it.

“We just wanted to go out there, shoot for the fence, play carefree and see what happens,” Carter said of the difference between then and now. “Now, it’s not like we have to dummy down anything. We can have our complete offense, we can try to make meaningful adjustments, the whole nine. We know we have a chance to compete this year, and people will give us a chance. We know who we are and what we have. We can compete with the best teams, and we’ve proved that all year.”

Allen detailed how everyone persevered.

That meant coping with nagging knee soreness for much of the season for Allen, who missed a handful of games to prioritize treatment and recovery. Conley and Gasol entered the season on minutes’ restrictions as they worked their way into peak form from last year’s season-ending injuries. Randolph accepted a sixth-man role and fewer minutes, yet led the NBA in double-doubles off the bench.

“Every year, there’s been a concern about somebody going down,” said Allen, whose Grizzlies have made the playoffs all seven seasons he’s been on the roster. “Last year, everybody knows what happened. The year before that, when we played the Warriors in the second round, I had that hamstring and Mike basically broke his face. But you look at us now, and we feel great going into the playoffs. Mike feels great with all he’s been through, and we’ve got Big Spain healthy, too. The sky’s the limit.”

At the very least, the sky hasn’t already fallen before the playoffs start.

“We were all very eager to get back again this year, so you could tell that we were excited for another chance against the Spurs with our guys in the lineup,” Conley said. “It’s very important for our team to have, should I say, only one or two guys down right now instead of five or six or 10. Our big guns are moving well and playing. So we’re confident.”

The longtime Grizzlies’ core is also cognizant that this could be its last, best shot intact. The Spurs are the only team in the West with a streak longer than the seven consecutive playoff appearances the Grizzlies have made with Conley, Gasol, Randolph and Allen collectively anchoring the franchise.

While Conley, 29, and Gasol, 32, still have multiple seasons remaining on max salary contracts, both Randolph, 35, and Allen, 35, are in the final season of their deals, and are headed to free agency in July.

“This might be the last ride for us, so we’ve got to make the best of it right now,” Randolph said. “We’ve been down this road before with a team we’ve battled several times. We know what we’re facing. Coach Pop, in my eyes, is the greatest coach of all times. He’s like a machine out there. It’s going to be our strengths versus their strengths, and we’ll see ultimately who wins the battle.”

Should Memphis pull off another 2011-style upset, Green can update the photo gallery in his phone.

“We’ve got all our key vets now,” Green said. “It should be a different story.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.