Heading into Tuesday night's game with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Memphis Grizzlies had emerged as perhaps the league's most unexpected and intriguing success story, so solidly in the playoff mix that the notion of making a run for home-court advantage in the first round actually seems more reasonable than missing the postseason completely. Here are a few things I've noticed while enjoying the ride:
Though his scoring numbers are up only slightly, Pau Gasol's play over the past couple of weeks has been marked by a series of small but perceptible improvements that might be adding up to something big. Gasol's steal, foot-race, and spin-move dunk against the Spurs' Malik Rose was one of the Grizzlies' plays of the year, but it's been the little stuff that's been most impressive lately: The whining about non-calls that plagued him early in his career has all but disappeared now, and the more mature and confidant body language that's replaced it seems to be paying dividends in the way he's being treated by officials.
Gasol has also become less flat-footed on the boards and has become more aggressive following his own shots, something that has resulted in offensive rebound averages in March that double what Gasol put up in February. With starting center Lorenzen Wright on the shelf and with rebounding the team's biggest weakness, those boards have been huge.
Gasol also seems to be getting better with another of his biggest weaknesses: his tendency to lose control of the ball when he gets bumped. And, in recent games, Gasol seems much more effective defending the pick-and-roll, getting out on the ballhandler with actual purpose before retreating back to his own man, where earlier in the season he would mostly just wave his arms in a show of defense. Add his rising assist totals, and Gasol is suddenly playing legitimate All-Star-caliber basketball.
On the downside, Gasol still isn't slapping together the nightly 20-10 games that fans could reasonably expect. Part of this is a result of Hubie Brown's 10-man rotation. (Converted to the 38 minutes per game most top players get every night, Gasol's March numbers hit the mark.)But it's also the result of inconsistency that still slightly mars Gasol's game. If the Grizzlies are going to make a push for the 50 wins Gasol has publicly coveted, then he'll need to turn up the volume on his game every night.
Though the team's 11-3 record since he went back on the injured list might suggest otherwise, this team misses Mike Miller. And Hubie Brown recognizes this, which is why he laughed when a reporter asked after last week's win over the Los Angeles Clippers whether his team was "peaking."
How can this team be peaking when it's three-point shooting is plummeting? As the team's best outside shooter, Miller's key role in the offense is dearly missed no matter what the record has been. Miller shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc in January and February. In his absence, teammates haven't stepped up to fill this void.
After shooting splendidly from long range for three straight months, James Posey's three-point shooting in March has plummeted to 26 percent. And Shane Battier, whose outside shot has been disturbingly erratic all season, has seen his three-point percentage dropping from 42 in February to 29 in March. It doesn't get any better at the point, where Jason Williams and Earl Watson are shooting only 30 and 31 percent, respectively, in March. Miller's replacement, Bonzi Wells, is technically shooting 50 percent, but that's almost solely the result of a magical 4-6 night in his homecoming game against Portland. Take out that game and Wells has only attempted four three-pointers all month.
That the team is winning big despite the losses of starters Miller and Wright is a testament to not only Hubie Brown's indisputably brilliant coaching but to the moves Jerry West has made to bolster an already deep roster. Brown has gotten more attention for the Grizzlies' startling turnaround this year than his boss, which is reasonable considering Brown has delivered what might be one of the great coaching jobs in NBA history, while West's record is merely excellent. (Anyone who thinks West's tenure in Memphis has been marked by infallibility need only take a close look at the 2002 draft.)
But West's astute management of the way the NBA's new financial realities have altered deal-making is paying huge dividends now. By turning the expiring contracts of Wesley Person and Brevin Knight into significant on-court upgrades Bonzi Wells and Bo Outlaw, West gave Brown the ability to thrive in the face of injuries that might cripple other teams. With Wright out, Outlaw has responded to increased minutes with strong defense and rebounding and more effective offense than could be expected from anyone with his limited (to be generous) skills. And Wells, perhaps more comfortable as a starter, has taken up the scoring slack left by Miller's absence if not the outside shooting, averaging 15 points per game on 48 percent shooting in March.