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Memphis Grizzlies' veteran core shares uncommon bond, championship hopes

Honesty always at forefront of how Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph lead team

Ian Thomsen

Comfort was giving way to discomfort, and friendship to frustration. “Do something!’’ Marc Gasol was seen yelling at Memphis Grizzlies teammate Mike Conley on their way out of a team huddle.

There were on their way to a loss against the visiting Houston Rockets — Memphis’ third defeat in four games — and after so many years together it was becoming harder than ever to hold the filters in place. Later that night two weeks ago, Memphis guard Tony Allen would go online in the middle of the night to dismiss reports of dissension within his team.

“If you see me talking to any of my teammates and we bickering, trust me, it’s a resolution going to get done right then and there,’’ said Allen, as detailed by Ron Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal. “You think Michael Jordan ain’t curse Scottie Pippen out? You think Michael Jordan ain’t curse Dennis Rodman out?’’

“We hung our heads a little bit too much,’’ Conley said after the blowout loss to Houston. “We were a little bit too emotional on different plays … It’s hard to be a team when you’re battling yourselves.’’

Of course there were disagreements among the Grizzlies. For them, however, this was not necessarily a bad thing. They were counting on squabbles like these to renew their strength. Their willingness to argue with one another is why they have a chance to go far this spring.

Honesty prevails in Memphis

In 2008, one year after the investment in Conley, Gasol arrived as an afterthought to the widely-criticized deal that sent his brother Pau Gasol to the Lakers. Zach Randolph was acquired from the LA Clippers in a 2009 trade after bouncing between three teams in as many years. Allen was signed for a relatively small $9.7 million over three seasons in 2010, making him the final cornerstone of a deliberately-built foundation that has lasted and grown stronger than anyone could have imagined.

The ideal of a team being bigger than the sum of its parts has driven the four core Grizzlies, in part because each has been informed, in a variety of ways, of his weaknesses. In one another’s company, however, they’re on their way to a seventh straight playoff appearance.

Knowing each other so well has enabled them to argue and yell without doing irreparable harm.

“It allows us to be 100 percent honest with each other,’’ said Conley, who is averaging 19.2 points and 6.2 assists. “There is no sugarcoating anything. To be quite honest — since we are being honest — we get on each other’s nerves just as much as a married couple, or a longtime relationship with family members and little brothers and sisters. It’s that kind of relationship where we will go after each other. And it’s all love at the end of the day.’’

“You can give them a stare. They can see it in your eyes what you are thinking. And that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight.’’

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley

They can see the arguments building in advance from one another — the widening of Gasol’s eyes, Allen’s nervous tics, Randolph’s shaking of the head. “It’s like a here-he-goes-again kind of thing,’’ Conley said. “And we have seen that happen so many times.’’

Passive-aggressive doesn’t work in Memphis. Recently in Chicago, the Bulls appeared to be arguing via traditional and social media. In Memphis it happens face to face, man to man. “You’ve got to be direct,’’ Conley said. “We make eye contact. There is no beating around the bush. It’s the only way we know how.’’

During the games, Conley has learned to code his messaging, sternly, without raising his voice. “You can give them a tough look,’’ Conley said. “You can give them a stare. They can see it in your eyes what you are thinking. And that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight.’’

Each time they’ve reached free agency, the four Grizzlies have chosen to remain together. The fact that Memphis has offered the most money has been the significant influence, of course — but there has been no politicking for a trade out of town to a bigger market.

“A lot of it has to do with the loyalty you feel towards your family, in a sense,’’ Conley said. “Contract stuff aside, we have built something here that not a lot of people in their lifetime will get to be a part of. Something that you take from the ground up, basically make it your own, and see that it is doing better and better each season — and striving for something great. You want to see it through. It’s that whole deal where you don’t want to leave it. This is your baby. You want to see it mature. You need that loyalty, that friendship that you have. So you just have to come back.’’

Conley credits the tough, credible love of his teammates with helping him to become a leader that they can respect. “For me that’s been the big key, trying to become more vocal for my team,’’ said Conley, who is naturally quiet and deferential. “Thankfully I’ve been around a group of guys who have helped me mature in that manner.’’

In short, they want him to yell at them, or to be more selfish with the ball even if it means fewer shots for them. “There’s been plenty of times where big Marc or Zach have pulled me aside and told me, ‘Man, we’re not going to win if you don’t start being aggressive. We need you to score. We need you to be that guy and not be passive right now,’’’ said Conley. “It changes my mindset immediately. Because I hear positive reinforcement from those guys that they want me to do this.’’

Their demands have brought forth an edginess within Conley that had been dormant for much of his younger career. “It’s like, alright, I’m going to do it,’’ Conley said. “And then I go out there and play well and win games, and it makes you feel a lot better about it.’’

Conley, Randolph adapt to new expectations

There was much speculation and second-guessing of the contract awarded last summer to Conley. His five-year, $153 million deal made him the highest-paid player in the NBA, even though he hasn’t been an All-Star in the hyper-talented Western Conference.

Conley’s value transcends statistics. On this team he is both leader and mediator. In many predicaments he is the grownup, the one who listens and responds wisely. He is respected because he lives by his preaching.

As the No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA draft, Conley — 6-foot-1 and skinny — arrived to Memphis on the coattails, supposedly, of his Ohio State teammate and No. 1 pick Greg Oden. Oden is long gone from the NBA, while Conley has turned himself into a leader who does not yield to hardship. Two years ago he scored 22 points in a Western Conference semifinals win over the champion-to-be Golden Warriors in spite of a gruesome fracture of three bones in his face.

“You could see the blood in his mask,’’ recalled Alvin Gentry, a Warriors assistant at the time.

In December, after suffering fractures in his lower back that were expected to sideline him for six weeks, Conley cut his recovery time in half. Weeks later he was still in pain. “But it’s not stopping me from doing anything I should say,’’ Conley would say. “It’s not inhibiting me at all.’’

He finds himself to be far more committed to his mission than he had been years earlier. No longer could Conley relate to his younger point of view, when basketball was a game rather than his way of life. It was as if he had turned into a different person.

“There’s times when I’m sitting in the cold up to my neck,’’ he said of his therapy sessions in an ice tub, “and it’s like I never thought I would be this committed to anything 10 or 12 years ago. I think of how serious I treat my job and how much I want to be part of a championship environment and team — I sacrifice everything for it. And that’s the kind of position I’m in right now, where no matter the injury, I’m laying it all out. Because it’s such a short period of time you get to play the game, and I’m trying to get the most out of it.’’

At 29, he can feel the clock ticking down already. “You can see your past the eight or nine-year mark,’’ Conley said. “And you’re thinking, it could easily be five or six years and you are being considered the old vet and they’ve got some new guy coming in and now you’re out the door. You’ve got to be realistic in that sense. So you have to keep it all in perspective.’’

Earlier in his career, he would not have forced himself back from his most recent injury — simply because hurrying back into shape would not have occurred to him.

“As a younger guy, if they told me it was six to eight weeks, I would have did my six to eight weeks and been ready at that time,’’ he said. “But since I grew up around such good teammates, such a good training staff, you start to understand things that you need to do if you want to get back on the court quicker — if you really focus on your rehab and really do the things that they tell you to do.’’

His hunger to win had been driven in recent years by his relationships with those teammates. “At some point they’ll tell you, ‘Man, I need you back, I want you back,’’’ Conley said. “But they also want me to be healthy, because it’s a fine line that you walk. I understand the importance of it and they do too.’’

As for Randolph, one reason he has accepted a new role off the bench is because his teammates have made sure he knows how much they need him.

“We can talk to each other,’’ said Randolph, 35, who averages 14.2 points in 24.4 minutes. “We cuss each other out, we get on each other when we need to. We respect it because we know it’s love and we want to make each other better.’’

Ask Randolph if he has experienced other locker rooms where honesty did not prevail, and he will start laughing. And keep laughing. “Hell yeah,’’ Randolph said in response to such a question. “Oh yeah. Definitely.’’

He found himself worrying whether he would ever be able to find a team built on such strong relationships. “I did wonder,’’ he said. “It’s very rare.’’

‘It’s bigger than sport’

The Grizzlies happen to be playing host to their role models from San Antonio on Monday night (9:30 ET, TNT), the Spurs being the ultimate example of a team whose performances have exceeded its small-market limitations. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili chose to stay in San Antonio with Tim Duncan for so many years because they cared about each other and valued their relationships as something more than work or play.

“We don’t take it for granted, that I can promise you,’’ said Gasol, who will be playing in his third All-Star Game Feb. 19 in New Orleans. “We appreciate it. It makes us a better team also because there’s nights that the fans just pick you up, and you care so much about them and how they feel, that it just makes you play maybe not a little better, but maybe a little harder. If you always feel responsible, that you are going to be held accountable because people are watching and you care about those people, it makes you play with that extra step.’’

Their cohesion has everything to do with their 15-5 record when the difference is 3 points or less in the final minute of regulation or overtime. “The experience of playing together and understanding what is every read to every defensive scheme that they do to us — we have seen pretty much every read,’’ Gasol said. “And then it’s going to be up to us to make the shot or not. But we know what the options are.’’

“When you have that type of relationship with guys, you are open to the criticism. … So I know anything that they’re telling me is because they care about me.’’

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol

Gasol has helped steer the leadership qualities of Conley — his point guard and best friend – based on his own experiences with the Spanish national team, which alongside Argentina has established the international model for togetherness.

“Everything you do in life, it comes down to that,’’ said Gasol of his closest relationships. “It means that much more to you when you have that feeling about it.’’

Gasol operates a youth team in Girona, Spain, and counsels the players to value their relationships with teammates. “Don’t take anything for granted, and enjoy the people next to you and care about them,’’ Gasol said. “It’s bigger than sport. It goes beyond that. Win or lose, if you look at it that way, you already won.’’

By focusing on personal relationships, Gasol insists, the Grizzlies — like the national team of Spain — are improving their teamwork. “Because you care on a deeper level, and you can have deeper communication,’’ he said. “It allows you to grow more as a basketball player.

“When you have that type of relationship with guys, you are open to the criticism. Because you know where the criticism comes from. It doesn’t come from a bad place if you have that dialog. Like me and Zach, we talk all the time, and when he sees something that I’m doing wrong — anything that he tells me — I know where it comes from. I’m going to take it like it’s my brother talking to me, because that’s the way I feel about him. Those are the guys that have been with me pretty much my whole career, and that I respect beyond basketball. So I know anything that they’re telling me is because they care about me.’’

Gasol didn’t want to consider playing in the more common NBA environment, in which teammates view one another as professional associates and every player is a franchise unto himself.

“I don’t know any other way, and I think I would not be able to perform the way I do or play the way I play if that was any different. I really don’t,’’ he said. “I was brought up in the Barcelona teams since the age of 12, and that’s the way they teach you: You either play the right way and care about the right things, or you’re not going to play. And that’s it. There is no other way. It is not about you or how are you can score or how good you are as a player. It’s how good you can be as a team. That’s the way they brought us up.’’

Changes don’t change top goal for Grizzlies

Two important changes were made to the Grizzlies last summer. Chandler Parsons, who was signed to provide 3-point shooting and athleticism, has been limited by lingering knee troubles. But the hope is that he will bond with and enhance the Grizzlies for a strong second-half run.

The other big move was to hire coach David Fizdale, whose messaging was consistent during his job interviews and then in meetings with his players: They should be focused entirely on winning the championship.

“They know I’m always going to be honest with them,’’ said Fizdale, who won two championships while assisting Erik Spoelstra in Miami. “I’m not taking shots at anybody, but I’m always going to try to elevate guys in this team to get uncomfortable and get out of their comfort zone when things are going haywire or adversity hits.’’

Fizdale’s championship experience was crucial to his hiring, said GM Chris Wallace. “I only know one thing,’’ Fizdale said. “I have been bred through the Heat organization to do it one way. And every day you prepare. No matter who is on your team, you are going after the title. You don’t sell the team short and say we’re just trying to make the playoffs or anything like that. They’ve done that already in Memphis. So I wanted to try to take them to another level and get them thinking bigger. That’s how I approach every day with these guys and that’s the standard I hold them to.’’

They rank No. 3 in field goal defense and No. 5 in overall defensive rating. And yet Fizdale has been on them for more effort, tighter rotations and better communication.

“I want them thinking bigger,’’ said Fizdale. “I want them thinking title. Only one champion stands at the end of the year, so just making the playoffs isn’t enough. I’m really challenging these guys to think bigger and act bigger and lead bigger.’’

The stress of pushing themselves is certain to bubble over from time to time. And when it does, the Grizzlies may recognize that they’re on the right track.

“Oh yeah, we are a championship team,’’ said Conley. “We have guys who really believe. It starts with that culture that believes that you can do it. And we believe it. So we have a chance.’’

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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