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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Bickerstaff steers Grizzlies toward stretch run improvement after tumultuous start

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Perhaps J.B. Bickerstaff’s most impressive characteristics as he’s navigated the Grizzlies through a difficult season have been his unwavering demeanor, precise preparation and ability to clearly and effectively communicate his message on a nightly basis.

That was until a crack recently surfaced.

As the Grizzlies approached the midway point of the season, Bickerstaff was asked what he’s learned most about himself in the two months since he was promoted to interim head coach after David Fizdale was dismissed Nov. 27 during an eventual 11-game losing streak.

What followed was five solid seconds of stammering as Bickerstaff searched for an answer.

He then paused and joked: “Does that clear it up?”

That’s understandable.

When the games come this relentlessly, when the ongoing injury and recovery status of key players is this delicate, when the constantly shifting rotation and development strategy is this fluid, there’s little time – if any – to meaningfully reflect on the process or any personal progress.

The sole purpose and focus now is that you wake up every morning and you go to work. No matter what has happened the night before, no matter what challenges are coming, you don’t have a choice. You wake up, you go to work, then you go home and try to be a parent. That’s my priority.
-- J.B. Bickerstaff

“I honestly haven’t had any chance to think about it,” Bickerstaff eventually surmised. “The sole purpose and focus now is that you wake up every morning and you go to work. No matter what has happened the night before, no matter what challenges are coming, you don’t have a choice. You wake up, you go to work, then you go home and try to be a parent. That’s my priority.”

Neither Bickerstaff’s priorities nor his workmanlike grind have shifted as he’s settled into the lead seat on the Grizzlies’ bench. And largely because of that, there’s been modest improvement from the Grizzlies, who are in the midst of their best stretch since their 7-4 start three weeks into the season.

Memphis (14-28) still faces a daunting challenge to recover from one of the NBA’s worst records, but enters Wednesday’s visit from the Knicks having gone 5-5 over the past 10 games after losing 17 of its previous 19 contests. Consistency, however, has been like kryptonite for the Grizzlies. They’ve still not won back-to-back games since late October, although they have won three of their last four at home.

But this current three-game homestand at FedExForum represents the best chance to build some semblance of momentum. The Grizzlies are coming off their most balanced offensive effort of the season. They matched a franchise record with eight players scoring in double figures during Monday’s 123-114 victory over the Lakers at the 16th Annual MLK Celebration Game.

The win for many in the locker room – albeit against a Lakers team playing without marquee stars Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram – signified a bit of a new beginning for the Grizzlies. By their account, they’re 1-0 in the second half of the 82-game season schedule and close out the week at home against the sub-.500 Knicks (20-24) on Wednesday and Kings (13-30) on Friday before Saturday’s road game against the Pelicans (22-20). In other words, this week marks a fresh start and renewed opportunity for a team that hopes to regroup and shake off the cobwebs from a disastrous first half of the season.

It starts with one game, one step, one mindset at a time.

“Be positive,” veteran center Marc Gasol said of the basic approach. “Obviously, it’s hard. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s a frustrating process so far. But you have to work yourself out of it, rely on your teammates, have them rely on you and play together. We’re going to be a better team if we play together. For stretches, we’ve shown that and guys can feel it. Just trust the next guy and keep doing it.”

There are legitimate questions about the team’s direction at this stage of the season. The Grizzlies were off Tuesday, but entered Tuesday night’s NBA slate sitting 7 ½ games out of what would be the eighth and final playoff seed in the West. From that distance, even the most optimistic view of the Grizzlies would require severe squinting to see the playoff picture zoom into focus.

Is an eighth consecutive postseason trip impossible for the Grizzlies? No.

But improbable? Yes. Still, that outlook isn’t shared among those most invested in this season.

The Feb. 8 trade deadline is also three weeks away, and the Grizzlies must decide whether to cash in the expiring and attractive contracts of players such as Tyreke Evans and Brandan Wright for future assets that would help toward retooling for next season.

But Bickerstaff and his players insist they aren’t even looking that far ahead. The vision involves first making the most of what remains in January. A victory over the Knicks would improve Memphis to 3-3 in a month that closes out with six of the remaining eight January games played at FedExForum.

Evans, who finished a rebound short of a triple-double with 15 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds Monday, said Bickerstaff’s consistent approach helps keep everyone locked in on the task at hand instead of being sidetracked by bigger-picture developments. In an interim role for the second time in his career, Bickerstaff, 38, is also auditioning for his first full-time job as an NBA head coach.

“I can tell you one thing, (Bickerstaff) hasn’t given up on this,” Evans said. “And he doesn’t feel like a substitute teacher, either. He came in willing to make us work, pushes us every day. He’s preparing us and we know that when we’re in here to work, we’re in here to work.”

And that work-through-mistakes mindset won’t stop for Bickerstaff – not even long enough to gauge his own incremental progress along the way. No, the Grizzlies may not have enough time or the benefit of sustained health to completely turn around their season.

But Bickerstaff has helped them turn a corner, at least.

At the midway point, that’s headed in a better direction.

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