By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
March 22, 2013
On Dec. 24, 2011, the New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies gave Greivis Vasquez and Quincy Pondexter a Christmas that neither man will ever forget. Just hours before the start of the NBA’s lockout-shortened 2011-12 regular season, Vasquez and Pondexter switched uniforms, in a trade between Southwest Division clubs. New Orleans picked up the point guard it badly needed in Vasquez, while Memphis added an important wing player off the bench in Pondexter.
Roughly 15 months later, as the Hornets and Grizzlies wrap up their four-game season series Friday, Vasquez and Pondexter each fill important roles for their respective clubs. In his second campaign with the Hornets, Vasquez has emerged as an NBA Most Improved Player candidate, by more than doubling his prior output in points, rebounds and assists. Meanwhile, Pondexter is headed to the playoffs for the third consecutive year of his pro career. The University of Washington product also appeared in the Western Conference postseason as a Hornets rookie in 2011.
Memphis captured two of the first three meetings with New Orleans this season, though the Hornets did register one of their finest victories of 2012-13 on Jan. 27 in Tennessee. A week prior to the Super Bowl, New Orleans prevailed 91-83 at FedEx Forum. Vasquez went just 2-for-16 from the floor, but handed out 11 assists against his former club. That’s been a theme over the three games vs. the Grizzlies; Vasquez has shot poorly (8-for-33), but is averaging 9.0 assists.
Memphis won 96-89 in its previous visit to New Orleans this season on Dec. 7, highlighted by one of the best games of Pondexter’s three-year NBA career. The reserve forward went a perfect 6-for-6 from the field (4-for-4 on three-pointers) and scored 16 points. The Grizzlies also defeated the Hornets on March 9, by a final margin of 96-85. Pondexter again reached double figures, with 13 points.
Intriguing matchup: Power forward, Anthony Davis vs. Zach Randolph
Due to both players missing portions of this season to injury, the 20-year-old Davis and the 31-year-old Randolph have only met once in 2012-13. Randolph dominated the Jan. 27 contest, piling up 20 points and 13 rebounds, but the Hornets won the game. Davis had 10 points and six rebounds, helping cap a 12-game January stretch in which New Orleans went 8-4.
When the Grizzlies traded longtime star forward Rudy Gay to Toronto in January, many NBA analysts believed it was a signal that Memphis was essentially conceding on its chances to compete for a championship this season. Gay had been a critical factor in the Grizzlies’ rise from league doormat to playoff qualifier in each of the past two seasons. As it turns out, predictions that the Grizzlies would immediately falter without Gay couldn’t have been less accurate. Memphis has continued to post wins at a steady clip, including a recent 14-1 stretch. The only Grizzlies loss during that 15-game span came at Miami, a team that has had its own incredible run of success since the All-Star break. Memphis, which plays in the NBA’s second-smallest market (New Orleans is the smallest), is now vying for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoff field.
There are many reasons behind Memphis’ turnaround over the past three seasons, but it’s reasonable to say that no transaction by the Grizzlies was as important as the acquisition of power forward Zach Randolph prior to the 2009-10 season. After bouncing around to several teams, Randolph has found a long-term home in Memphis, as the Grizzlies’ No. 1 scoring option and top rebounder. The left-hander is one of the craftiest low-post players in the NBA.
On the rise
After gradually improving over the course of his six-year NBA career, point guard Mike Conley finally appears to be receiving the credit he deserves for helping turn the Grizzlies into a high-caliber team. Conley is one of the NBA’s best one-on-one defenders at his position, ranking near the top of the steals leaders on an annual basis.
Tayshaun Prince is not as athletic as the man he replaced at small forward in the Memphis starting lineup (Gay), but he may be a better fit because of his veteran defensive presence and ability to play a complementary role on offense. The Grizzlies went 15-5 in their first 20 games after picking up Prince, who was a key member of Detroit’s 2004 NBA title team.
On the sideline
Former NBA point guard Lionel Hollins has guided Memphis to three consecutive winning seasons, after the franchise had experienced just three such campaigns in its previous 15 years. The no-nonsense head coach was a starter for the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers.
Did you know?
Current Grizzlies reserves Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless were briefly teammates on the 2010-11 Hornets, though Bayless was traded early in that season. Jarrett Jack was the primary player New Orleans obtained in that deal.
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