Grizzlies winning despite injuries, youth, close games

New coach David Fizdale juggles mish-mash lineups to 56-win pace

Scott Howard-Cooper

Things officially reached the point of ridiculous a little after 9 p.m. in Memphis, Tenn., last Saturday night. Not quite two minutes into the fourth quarter inside FedEx Forum, the Grizzlies again strained the limits of believability while weekend revelers just outside on Beale Street were living only the second-best party spot in town.

Not that there aren’t many other moments of insanity to choose from. The nonstop clutch performances from the unproven coach relying on several unproven players. All those wins coming through all those lineup changes forced by injury and tragedy. But, no. Saturday, FedEx, fourth quarter is it, straight from the play-by-play of the game book:

10:06 SUB: McCaw FOR Durant

10:06 SUB: Clark FOR Thompson

The Warriors were getting beaten up by the Grizzlies so badly that Golden State didn’t play Stephen Curry or Draymond Green to start the period, or at all in the fourth, and pulled Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson for good in favor of Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark. The team with a flammable offense considered this a lost cause with about 10 minutes to go. Steve Kerr needed to get his guys rested for the next night in Minneapolis, and the crowd that had been amped from the beginning anyway seemed to get another bump with the white-flag lineup change.

This can’t be happening.

At 17-8, the Grizzlies would be a success story under normal circumstances. While starting an all-rookie backcourt of Andrew Harrison and Troy Williams the last seven games, the Grizzlies at 17-8 is more like beyond belief while standing in a lineup tsunami. They’re led by a rookie coach in David Fizdale. Zach Randolph missed seven games following the unexpected death of his mother on Thanksgiving. Mike Conley has been out the last seven games with a back injury that is expected to keep him sidelined until at least January, amid all the other injuries — Vince Carter and his hip, James Ennis III and his calf, Chandler Parsons and his knee, Brandan Wright and his ankle.

JaMychal Green is the only Grizz to play in every game. Harrison, a second-round pick in 2015 who spent last season in the D-League, has played almost 200 more minutes than Tony Allen, out seven games. The health problems. The coaching change. The personal losses. And yet look who’s on 56-win pace.

“This team is blessed with a tremendous amount of resilience,” general manager Chris Wallace said. “We had been resilient, tough team team for quite some time over the course of the last six years when we had been one of the three teams in the league in the playoffs ever year. That mainly came from the older guys, and now we have a group of younger players that have been thrust into action and they’ve picked up that theme of being resilient, being tough, the next man up, that type of thing. It’s very satisfying to see.

“And coach Fizdale, I think, is someone that embodies resiliency,” Wallace said. “Whenever we’ve got down into a valley this year and haven’t been playing well, he’s had the ability to immediately snap us back and go get a win and raise our level of play instead of staying down for a long period of time and wallowing in that negativity.”

There is no greater example of this as an extension of the Grindhouse mentality. These Grizzlies find a way, any way, no matter what, to win. This wounded team of patchwork lineups and little experience in some cases is 6-0 in games decided by three points or less, 12-0 when the margin was three points either way in the final minute of regulation or overtime. They have played 10 games decided by five points or less, more than anyone, and won all 10. They have 12 consecutive victories in games either decided by five points or fewer or that went overtime.

And the defense. It’s still about head-banging defense even with the new emphasis on 3-point shooting. The Warriors are averaging a league-best 118 points, but managed 89 while losing by 21. The game before that, Thursday at Fed Ex, the Trail Blazers, now at 109.6, sixth best, made it to 86. Memphis is first in defensive rating, third in scoring defense and third in shooting defense.

“I have to admit, no one expected us to win as many games as we have and to be able to beat Golden State, even at home, by that margin without Mike Conley,” Wallace said. “But I’ve also learned in the NBA that you never write a team off when they circle the wagons. Some results can come that are completely unexpected.”

The obvious disclaimer is that the season is all of 30 percent old and, oh, yeah, the Cavaliers are right in front of the Grizzlies for a home-and-home Tuesday in Cleveland (7 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) and Wednesday in Memphis (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), so everything could tumble down. But what a 30 percent it’s been, the part that can’t be happening but is.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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