In a cover story a few weeks ago, I wrote about how Mike Fratello had transformed this year's Grizzlies on the fly. But what Fratello & Co. have done since then to stay in playoff contention despite a staggering run of injury problems almost defies description.
Fratello's Grizzlies were cruising at 18-8 after the early-December coaching change when the team's best player, Pau Gasol, went on the injured list in late January. With Stromile Swift replacing Gasol in the starting lineup, Fratello guided the team to a 7-4 record before losing Swift to injury in late February. Since then, with third-option Brian Cardinal playing at power forward, the Grizzlies have kept pace, to the tune of 6-4.
That 6-4 over the past 10 games is especially impressive because not only have the Grizzlies done it without Gasol and Swift, the team's two best interior scorers, but also without Bonzi Wells, the perimeter player most able of creating shots for himself.
And injuries haven't just affected players sitting in street clothes. James Posey, a mere shadow of last year's model, is still trying to play himself into game shape after struggling with foot injuries. Jason Williams has battled chronic sore feet and now a sprained ankle and hasn't even been the sporadic scoring threat he once was, averaging a mere 7.4 points a game over this stretch. And the improved jump shot that back-up point guard Earl Watson flashed for the first few months of the season disappeared when he dislocated his shoulder in a January game at New Orleans. Since his shoulder injury, he's 6 of 34 (18 percent), including one stretch where he missed 18 straight attempts.
Another casualty has been the Grizzlies' much celebrated depth. With third-teamers such as Jake Tsakalidis, Ryan Humphrey, and Andre Emmett struggling through rare meaningful minutes, a team that once thrived on its superior bench scoring has instead outscored its opponents' reserves only three times over the past 10 games.
With six members of the Grizzlies' optimal 10-man rotation either out of commission or hobbling, the Grizzlies have essentially been reduced to a four-man team during their 6-4 survival run: Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, Lorenzen Wright, and Shane Battier.
They're all essentially role players (though Miller can be much more), guys you can't expect to score 20 a game. But they've each averaged 14 to 16 points a game over the 10-game stretch. It's been just enough to keep this team from losing ground in the Western Conference playoff race.
At a floor-bound 6'8", Cardinal is a poor rebounder for his position, but Battier and Miller have stepped in, each averaging over six boards a game. Battier, a player who routinely got his shot blocked a couple of years ago, has developed into a post option, killing Golden State and Toronto inside with huge scoring outbursts. And Wright, who was shooting around 40 percent for much of the season, has become a consistent finisher and nightly double-double threat. With Williams, Watson, and Wells fighting injuries, the three-point attack that helped Fratello turn the season around has suffered, but Cardinal and Miller have both hit over 40 percent from downtown to compensate. None of them are great athletes, but they've played together -- for much longer stretches than any of them are used to -- with chemistry and cohesion, effort and execution.
They've been great, and Saturday night in a depressing 80-66 loss to the Portland Trailblazers, they looked exhausted. Wright alone had a good game, but the team energy just wasn't there. It was back Monday night in a rematch with the Blazers, where the Griz got revenge with a 104-83 win, their finest offensive performance in more than a month. It was also a game in which the recently fantastic four finally got some help: Point guards Watson and Antonio Burks combined for 20 points, the only game in the past 10 where the Griz have gotten that much production from that position. And Posey played 34 minutes, the most he's played in a game since coming off the injury list in late February. Those reinforcements were much needed, but if the Grizzlies are going to hold on to a playoff slot, there had better be more on the way.