Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Out of Hibernation?

It’s hard to miss a Grizzly, I’m told. An adult usually weighs about 300 to 500 kilograms in size and can stare down an opponent from the nerve-racking height of 8-to-10 feet when standing upright on its hind legs. They are among the largest mammals in North America and an encounter with one of them can turn fatal for even the best of adversaries.

And yet, the Memphis Grizzlies have managed to give us the slip.

Well, almost.

After whipping up some serious hysteria in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the 2011-2012 campaign was supposed to be the coming-of-age season for Lionel Hollins and his sleuth of Grizzlies. They were supposed to be the team snapping at the heels of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but are, instead, just about holding on to the sixth spot in the Western Conference. In fact, their current regular season scorecard of 26-21 (win percentage 0.553) has them faring a tad worse compared to their 2010-11 performance of 46-36 (0.561).

It wasn’t supposed to be this way though. All the same, it could have been far worse for the Grizzlies.

They were handicapped even before the start of the current regular season when they lost forward Darrell Arthur to a torn right Achilles tendon. Arthur, we must remember, averaged 9.1 PPG and shot at 0.497 from the field from Memphis last season. His value to Memphis was even more apparent during the Grizzlies' unexpected 13-game playoff run last spring where he averaged 7.1 points and 15.5 minutes.

Then, after a 1-2 start to the season, the Grizzlies lost power forward Zach Randolph to injury in their 64-104, blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls on New Year’s Day. That injury to Randolph was supposed to be the end of Memphis’ aspirations for Randolph alone had powered the Grizzlies past San Antonio and stretched OKC to seven games with his MVP caliber 22.2 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 0.446 field-goal percentage in the 2011 Playoffs. Without him, Memphis were sure to be doomed in as much as Arsenal Football Club might struggle without the dazzling Robin van Persie.

But Memphis survived.

With Rudy Gay shouldering much of the offense after missing the postseason last year, and first-time All-Star Marc Gasol dramatically raising his game, the Grizzlies were able to account for Randolph’s absence on the offensive end. Then, with Mike Conley leading the league in steals (2.44 per game), and Tony Allen doing an equally tenacious job on defense (1.75 SPG), Memphis put in a steady but solid 19-13 run in the months of January and February.

Yet, as NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury pointed out in his mid-season report card for the Southwest division franchise, “Even with Gasol toiling nightly and Rudy Gay stepping up his game a level, the Grizzlies simply don't have enough offense to keep pace on many nights. When Tony Allen is out all over the floor wreaking havoc and making plays, the defense has teeth. But until and unless Randolph can make a complete return, the Grizzlies are just treading water in the deep Western Conference race and will likely find themselves in the now familiar position of trying to scramble desperately for another No. 8 seed in the playoffs. That is, if they can manage to make it at all.”

The month of March, though, has forced a fresh outlook towards Memphis’ chances. Not only is Z-Bo back, but the Grizzlies’ signing of the mercurial Gilbert Arenas last week has given further depth to the Memphis roster which includes the likes of guard OJ Mayo and big man Marreese Speights in the reserves.

Scott Howard-Cooper shared this optimism by writing recently, “With Randolph as the interior threat, Gay the scoring weapon, Marc Gasol the All-Star center, Tony Allen the defensive stopper on the perimeter, Mike Conley at the point, O.J. Mayo and now Gilbert Arenas off the bench, this could get really interesting.”

Sure, there is still enough reason to doubt the Grizzlies. After all, they are 4-6 in their last 10 games. Even with Randolph back in the lineup, they have gone only 2-4 in their last six games. They are only 2-10 against the five teams that rank above them in the Western Conference standings viz. OKC, the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. But even with that kind of a lopsided stat, which one of those five teams would willingly put their hand up and seek a first-round playoff matchup with the Grizzlies instead of the lesser fancied Utah or Houston?

The North American Grizzly undergoes the process of hibernation typically until late March or April after which they leave the shelter of their dens and become more active.

With the battle for the 2012 Playoffs heating up, perhaps, we will notice the Memphis variety a whole lot more now.

All stats are after games played on March 27, 2012 (IST)