By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Dec 23 2011 9:42AM
It was silly, really, to even think about it.
Just because the Grizzlies won their first playoff series in franchise without him, didn't mean they were going to unload Rudy Gay.
"He's our starting small forward," said coach Lionel Hollins.
End of discussion.
The Grizzlies' small forward helplessly sat on the bench and agonizingly looked on all through the playoff run.
"I won't hide it. It was a tough experience to go through emotionally and professionally," Gay said. "It hurt so, so bad. I've never had that kind of feeling ever before. It was the longest stretch that I've ever been not playing since the start of my basketball career.
"But looking back, now that it's over, it was probably a good thing to have happen. It made me hungrier. I'm kind of glad that it happened now, when I'm still young. Now I can grow from it and get better as a player."
There were times when you could look to the Memphis bench during the shocking upset of the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the first round and see Gay cheering as madly as any other fan inside the "Grind House." His enthusiasm only grew during the epic seven-game battle with the Thunder in the second round. But so did the emptiness inside of him, especially when he began hearing talk that he might have become expendable.
"It's a business, no doubt," Gay said. "On the court, it's all about playing basketball and having fun. But I've always understood that there's a business side too that can be pretty cold. All that I could do in that situation was try to ignore the rumors and the talk that you hear and concentrate on getting healthy and coming back as an even better player than I was before and finding my spot to fit in."
The truth is that Gay's fit should be as comfortable as a custom-tailored suit. Despite their success, there were times during the playoffs when the Grizzlies needed someone to be able to score consistently from behind the 3-point line. His length and athleticism, along with his ability to shoot, make him a perfect complement to the inside games of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. What Hollins wants Gay to do now is to be more aggressive and better at defending, rebounding and setting up his teammates to score.
"Those are all things that I've heard in my earlier years in the league and have tried to work on to improve," Gay said. "What I've really been looking forward to is just getting back onto the court."
Things have definitely changed since Gay underwent surgery on his dislocated left shoulder in February. Back then, the Grizzlies were still trying to find their way to becoming a playoff team. Now they are a group that was one win away from reaching the Western Conference finals and now, for the first time ever, will carry the burden of expectations into a season.
"Bring it on," Gay said. "I love that. It's the next step in the process of becoming a contender. We were a game away from making the conference finals. We have the talent. We have the ability. We're young and we're going to get better.
"It's a different kind of situation for us to be in now that teams know we've had some success. People were paying attention to those playoffs. It's not like we're going to sneak up on anybody. But I think this is something that we're ready for. We earned respect around the league with what happened last year. Now we have to maintain it."
Gay has no concerns about meshing his game with the scoring force of Randolph around the basket.
"Z-Bo is going to get his, no matter what," Gay said. "We're both competitors. We'll make each other better."
It was silly, really, to even think about the alternative.
1. Continue to pound away at opponents on the inside with the 1-2 low-post punch of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They wore the Spurs out in the playoffs.
2. Build on last season's momentum, get off to a quick start for a change and turn "The Grind House" into a loud, screaming asset.
3. Keep Mike Conley climbing the ladder of improvement that has quietly turned him into one of the league's underrated and overlooked point guards.
1. The Grizzlies should become more potent offensively with either the return of Rudy Gay to the lineup or whomever they can reel in with a trade.
2. No matter how many offensive weapons are available, they key is to follow Tony Allen's junkyard dog attitude at the defensive end.
3. Coach Lionel Hollins isn't in the business to make friends or make headlines, but his no-nonsense approach finally has Memphis getting respect.
LAST YEAR: 46-36, 4th in Southwest
FINISH: Lost in Western Conference semifinals
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
MIKE CONLEY, POINT GUARD
13.7 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 6.5 APG
Memphis rewarded him with an extension early last season and he delivered on that payday. A smart defender who has become a reliable floor general.
TONY ALLEN, SHOOTING GUARD
8.9 PPG | 2.7 RPG | 1.4 APG
Started 23 games down the stretch for Memphis (it went 15-8 in that span) and provided solid defense on the wings in the postseason.
RUDY GAY, SMALL FORWARD
19.8 PPG | 6.2 RPG | 2.8 APG
Memphis' playoff hopes looked glum when Gay (shoulder) was lost for the season in February. How will he fit in with the Grizz after they had a playoff run without him?
ZACH RANDOLPH, POWER FORWARD
20.1 PPG | 12.0 RPG | 2.2 APG
"Z-Bo" has undergone a career transformation in Memphis and has blossomed into one of the league's true go-to guys in the post. He came up big time and again in the playoffs.
MARC GASOL, CENTER
11.7 PPG | 7.0 RPG 7.0 | 2.5 APG
Gasol posted six playoff double-doubles, nearly half of his total in that category for the season (14). The big man is the perfect compliment to Zach Randolph.
|O.J. Mayo||6-4||210||G||A capable scorer, Mayo has the tendency to lose focus at times.|
|Darrell Arthur||6-9||235||F||Arthur posted a solid nine ppg in 20 mpg last season, not small change.|
|Greivis Vasquez||6-6||211||G||Played big minutes during the playoff run, earning Hollins' trust.|
ADDED: G Josh Selby, G Jeremy Pargo
LOST: F Shane Battier, G Ish Smith
ZACH RANDOLPH, F
After stepping up to become double-double man in points and rebounds every night, getting All-Star recognition for the first time in his career and a whopping new contract, Z-Bo has to clean up his off-court act and become the full-time leader the Grizzlies need for the franchise to take the next step forward.
Anderson Varejao fights for the rebound and comes down awkwardly on his left leg and would sustain a leg injury.
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