MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Three Takeaways from an optimistic trip as Grizz regroup for opportunistic January
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – The Grizzlies wrapped up a five-game Western Conference road trip with a 2-3 record, and entered the New Year having alternated wins and losses over their past seven games.
Yes, that’s progress.
Although the Grizzlies haven’t exactly turned their season around, at least the hemorrhaging from a brutal stretch in late November and December has ceased. The past two weeks for Memphis (12-26) has been about turning a corner toward stability and consistency.
Work remains. Plenty of it, in fact.
But the Grizzlies retreat home for the most opportunistic month of their schedule. They face the Wizards on Friday for the first of nine January games at FedExForum. And eight of Memphis’ 12 games this month are against opponents that entered Thursday either at or below the .500 mark.
The Grizzlies are at a proverbial fork in the road. January represents an extended line of demarcation.
“We have a goal in mind,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after Thursday’s practice.
The outcome of these next few weeks will determine whether Memphis creeps back into the playoff picture and push for an eighth straight postseason appearance, or steers toward an active February trade deadline and, ultimately, the draft lottery intent on collecting assets.
Amid the transition, let’s examine three key takeaways from the Grizzlies’ recent trip.
1. New Year, Same Gasol Grind
Even as the Grizzlies returned home Wednesday ahead of only the Lakers in the west standings, team captain Marc Gasol said the message from the front-office continues to focus on salvaging the season.
Last month, Gasol told a group of Memphis-based reporters that he wanted no part of any outlook to shift toward the lottery and plan for next season. Gasol, who turns 33 this month, reiterated that sentiment in Los Angeles during an interview with Grind City Media.
"I haven’t heard anything different than that; I guess the next couple of weeks we’ll see,” Gasol said. “I would assume (we’re still competing for the playoffs). The schedule gets a little easier. It looks like we might (eventually) have Mike (Conley) back, who pretty much missed half the season. So we’ll see what’s there. In my mind, I can’t think about that stuff because it doesn’t help me with my day-to-day.”
Gasol said his only focus involves trying to help his team win the next game. The Grizzlies have modestly progressed from bad to competitively inconsistent. The next step, Gasol said, is to learn from mistakes from the previous game and apply those corrections in the next outing.
Offensively, Memphis has made strides and averaged 112 points over a five-game stretch after scoring just 92.3 points a game the previous 18 contests. The Grizzlies have also made 37 threes the past three games and have seen their assists increase and turnovers decrease over the past five games.
The trip ended on a down note after Memphis missed 15 of 16 threes in the second half and allowed the Clippers to shoot 54.9 percent from the field and take over with a 15-0 run into the fourth quarter.
The ebbs and flows of the season test Gasol’s patience as the lone Grizz to play and start all 38 games.
“I’m managing it as best I can,” Gasol said. “Obviously, it doesn’t always work. There are going to be better days and there are going to be worse days. But to me, it’s all about coming back the next day with a renewed mindset and letting everything that happens just end that night and move on to the next game. That’s been my mindset. It’s been hard. It’s been hard to sleep some nights.”
Through the ups and downs, Gasol has been on board with Bickerstaff’s approach.
“He’s done a tremendous job of holding guys accountable and teaching things the right way,” Gasol said of Bickerstaff, who took over after David Fizdale was dismissed on Nov. 27. “Whether it’s myself or the youngest player on the team, he’s on them. He’s honest. He doesn’t have to be mean; he just tells you what you’re supposed to be doing and what your job is.”
2. Tyreke’s Turnaround
Among the silver linings in a tough season for the Grizzlies has been the reemergence of combo guard Tyreke Evans, who leads the team in scoring and assists and is second in total rebounds and free throws.
Evans is on the verge of starting for the 19th time in 38 appearances heading into Friday’s game. At this rate, the eight-year veteran is on pace to play his way out of consideration for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award should he remain a starter.
But Evans is making a strong case for league’s Most Improved Player. Sustained health, opportunity and a drastically-improved shooting stroke have Evans performing lately at his most efficient and effective levels since he was 2009-10 Rookie of the Year.
Now two years removed from a stretch in which he endured three knee surgeries in a span of 10 months, Evans averaged 21.7 points, 5.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds in December. He shot 45.3 percent overall, a career-best 41.6 percent on threes and 85.5 percent from the free-throw line. Those represent his best numbers since he became the fourth rookie in NBA history – joining LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson – to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
“Do I look like I feel good out there?” Evans joked with reporters after leading Memphis to a win over his former Kings team during a New Year’s Eve stop in Sacramento. “I’m playing the best basketball I’m capable of playing. My knee’s not swelling up, so I can move how I want, and I’m just playing the game I knew how to play before I got hurt. I came back wanting to prove everybody wrong, that I can still play.”
Bickerstaff described Evans as being “on a mission, which is the best part about it.”
The Grizzlies signed Evans to a one-year, $3 million deal in free agency last summer. The combination of that contract and his career-best production stand to make Evans a potential target as the mid-February trade deadline looms. If the Grizzlies continue to struggle, Evans is reportedly expected to have plenty of suitors among playoff contenders in need of a short-term scoring punch.
Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace maintains that the priority is seeing Conley rejoin Evans and Gasol to lead Memphis on a second-half playoff push of their own.
For Memphis this season, it’s basically down to January or never.
3. Progress and Pain
The Grizzlies have endured gains and losses on the injury front in recent weeks, but Wayne Selden’s return to action from a lengthy quad injury has provided a spark for the rotation.
“It feels great just being able to get back out there and compete with the guys to help wherever I can,” Selden said. “I finally feel like I’m 100 percent.”
Selden has averaged 11.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes off the bench in his first two games since he returned from a 34-game absence with a quad injury. Selden has already emerged as one of the Grizzlies’ top perimeter defenders and adds further depth to a wing rotation that has been without Chandler Parsons the past three games because of knee soreness.
Parsons has missed six of the past 10 games due to either soreness or the health management plan that limits him to one game of availability on back-to-back sets. Bickerstaff said Wednesday that Parsons remains day-to-day for the Grizzlies, who are now 5-21 this season without Conley.
Bickerstaff was uncertain Wednesday of a timeframe on a potential return, but said Conley continued to work on the side with trainers and sports science staff. Conley has been sidelined since Nov. 13 with a left heel injury, and an update on his status is expected in the coming days.
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