by Chris Herrington
Breakthrough or breakup? That could be the central question for this Grizzlies season. Faced with an increasingly expensive core, the Grizzlies decided to keep their team mostly intact this summer and were even willing to go over the NBA's luxury-tax threshold — at least for the moment — to give that core some support.
The bet is that we haven't yet seen the best that this iteration of the Grizzlies can be: that a healthy Zach Randolph, a rising star Marc Gasol, a potentially improved Mike Conley and Rudy Gay, and a deeper and more versatile overall roster will be enough for the team to stand toe-to-toe with the NBA's elites. The risk is that the Western Conference's other contenders have gotten better — especially the Los Angeles Lakers, who added two All-Stars to the couple they already had — and the Grizzlies may have lost their best chance with Randolph's injury last season.
If this Grizzlies team doesn't advance on previous accomplishments, there's a good chance there will be major changes next summer. For now, at least, this core controls its own destiny. And here are the issues that will determine how far they can go:
The Starting Five
1. The Z-Bo that we used to know: When Zach Randolph went down with a torn knee ligament four games into last season, the Grizzlies proved that a Mike Conley-Rudy Gay-Marc Gasol foundation was good enough to be a playoff team without him. But the team's offense sputtered in the post-season as a returned Randolph averaged 13 points on 42 percent shooting and seemed incapable of the scoring eruptions and bully-on-the-block physicality that had made him a Memphis folk hero the prior spring.
Heading into this season, it's reasonable to conclude that the Grizzlies' opportunity to be a legitimate contender, despite lacking the kind of transcendent star (Lebron, Kobe, Durant) often considered a contention prerequisite, is largely dependent on Randolph returning to his pre-injury, all-NBA level. And coming off a serious knee injury at age 31, there was good reason to doubt Randolph's ability for a full bounce-back season.
Happily, preseason returns have been extremely encouraging. Randolph has pinned bigger defenders in front of the rim and finished easily over them. He's beat multiple defenders on second and third jumps going after offensive rebounds. He's looked like the Z-Bo that we used to know. Can he dominate again? Consider this: When we last saw Randolph healthy in the playoffs, he was the second best power forward on the planet, behind Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, another floor-bound big man who carried his team to a title strictly on skill and guile. This season, Randolph is still a year younger than Nowitzki was that season.
After the Grizzlies' first exhibition game, against Spanish team Real Madrid, I spotted an excited Randolph bouncing irrepressibly around his locker, like Tigger, like he was hoping for a double-header. I told him he looked like his old self, and he smiled broadly and put his finger to his lips. "Shh," he said. "It's a secret. It's coming. I'm getting back to the old Z-Bo."
2. Conley is the key: Back in the day, former University of Memphis point guard and current Grizzlies broadcaster and minority owner Elliot Perry had inscribed on his knee pads the mantra "Confidence is the key." For the Grizzlies this season, that could be amended to "Conley is the key."
While Zach Randolph's return to form is obviously a paramount concern, the feeling here is that Mike Conley is otherwise the most important player on this year's team. Last season, as one of only eight point guards to average more than 35 minutes per game, the slight Conley's production faltered badly in fourth quarters, but the team's lack of viable options behind him made it difficult to take Conley off the floor.
This season, with young veteran free agent Jerryd Bayless and high-upside rookie Tony Wroten Jr. in the fold, Conley has more ball-handling help, which can keep his minutes in a more reasonable range while also freeing him up to play more off the ball and exploit his underrated three-point shooting. Meanwhile, Conley's own off-season regimen has him looking stronger, quicker, and more confident than ever. In the preseason, he's been the team's best player.
Even with the help, there's still a lot of pressure on Conley. The Grizzlies may be a post-oriented team, but in a league where the very best players are on the perimeter, the Grizzlies need some dynamism in their backcourt, where their increased depth of ball-handlers and shooters is unlikely to yield anyone with the explosive potential of the departed O.J. Mayo. If the increased and improved ball-handling Rudy Gay has shown in preseason carries over — a big if at this stage of Gay's career — that will be a significant help. But the onus is still primarily on Conley. For the Grizzlies to have a big season, he needs to have a big season. He knows it. He's prepared himself for it. And he looks ready to make a leap.
3. Three-pointers and pace: The Grizzlies' offense last season fell to 21st in the NBA in points per possession, down from 16th the season before. Losing Randolph had a lot to do with that, and getting him back will give the team a boost, as will potential development from Conley and Gay. But for the Grizzlies to have a chance to push toward a Top 10 offense, a couple of other factors will be key.
One is pace, where the Grizzlies fell from 15th in 2010-2011 to 18th last season. Playing a little faster would help Randolph and frontcourt partner Marc Gasol get some easier baskets, before defenses can fully set up, would help take better advantage of the speed of Conley and Gay, and will help create more open looks from beyond the arc.
And that last component is the biggest key of all: For the Grizzlies to have an above-average offense this season, they simply must be a better three-point shooting team. The Grizzlies have been among the NBA's least prolific and least effective three-point shooting teams over the past three seasons and just said goodbye to their most significant shooter from that stretch with Mayo's departure. But there's still some potential for improvement here.
Newcomers Bayless and Wayne Ellington could collectively duplicate Mayo's outside shooting, while reserve swingman Quincy Pondexter is emerging as a shooter and Gay should bounce back to his career averages after a terrible shooting slump. The wild card in the mix could be second-year guard Josh Selby, who lit up the Vegas summer league and has continued that hot streak into the preseason.
Even without an individual shooter as prolific as Mayo, the deeper cast of shooters should lead to better spacing and a more symbiotic relationship between spot-up shooters and the team's post game.
4. Maintaining a Top 10 defense: If the Grizzlies will be trying to boost their offense this season, the challenge defensively will be to maintain what has been a Top 10 unit for each of the past two seasons.
The anchors for this are still in place, with Marc Gasol manning the paint and Tony Allen patrolling the perimeter. Gasol's size, smarts, and dedication have made him a much more considerable defender than his relatively limited athleticism would suggest, while Allen is the catalyst for a defense that's led the league in opponent turnovers from the moment he donned Beale Street Blue.
Allen's had chronic knee issues and had surgery this summer to help clear it up. He's looked fine on the floor, and his limited minutes in the preseason seem to be just a means to limit mileage on Allen in games that don't count. With Conley adding strength to help him better combat bigger opponents, the team's starting lineup should again be a high-level defensive unit.
But maintaining the team's defensive level throughout the rotation may require key contributions from a couple of players we haven't seen much of this preseason. Most significantly is reserve forward Darrell Arthur, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles and was sidelined on the eve of training camp with a more minor leg injury. Arthur is slated to return to the floor in the season's opening month, but it may take longer to get fully up to speed. With Dante Cunningham gone from last year's team, Arthur is potentially the team's most versatile frontcourt defender, the one best able to defend the pick-and-roll and chase more mobile forwards along the perimeter.
In the backcourt, defense could be rookie Tony Wroten's path to playing time. While a gifted playmaker, the 19-year-old's high-risk/high-reward offense is unlikely to garner trust from coaches early on. But as a strong, dynamic athlete with 6'6" length, Wroten offers match-up possibilities on the defensive end that the team can't count on from reserve guards Bayless, Ellington, or Selby.
5. Betting on big: With the Miami Heat winning an NBA title with ostensible small forward Lebron James as the second biggest player in their primary lineup and many other teams following suit, the Grizzlies are one of the only contenders — the Lakers, with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, are the most prominent exception — built around a big lineup.
The Grizzlies lost some small-ball versatility by trading Cunningham this summer. While only a role player, Cunningham is particularly skilled at guarding both the perimeter-shooting "stretch" power forwards and big small forwards that have become de rigueur in the modern NBA. While Gay can — and almost certainly will — play this role in small lineups this season and the team hopes a returning Arthur can mitigate much of what was lost with Cunningham's departure, the Grizzlies' path to success won't come from matching with other teams' small lineups. It has to come from forcing opponents to handle the Grizzlies' size advantage.
This could make the Grizzlies one of the most interesting teams in the the NBA this season, with the interior tandem of Randolph and Gasol providing counterprogramming — and an old-school foil — to the speedier, trendier attacks of teams like the Heat and Thunder.
Buzzer beater: Even with a returning Randolph, a lot of national prognostications have the Grizzlies slipping this season. ESPN's John Hollinger projects the Grizzlies to finish fifth in the Western Conference. Basketball Prospectus has the team falling back to the 8th seed. Maybe this is hometown optimism talking, but based on Randolph's fitness, Conley's sense of momentum, and better depth in terms of the frontcourt (where re-signed third big Marreese Speights has looked sharp), outside shooting, and ball-handling, I think this is the most promising team with which the Grizzlies have ever opened a season.
What would success reasonably look like? How about combining the franchise-first feats of the past two seasons: again obtaining homecourt advantage in the first round with a top-four playoff seed, but this time advancing. How about an old-fashioned goal for an old-fashioned team: winning the franchise's first division title, which would itself ensure a top-four seed.
For basketball coverage throughout the season, be sure to check out memphisflyer.com. Frank Murtaugh's Tiger coverage can be found on "Tiger Blue," at memphisflyer.com/blogs/tigerblue. Chris Herrington's Grizzlies coverage can be found on "Beyond the Arc," at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.
by Frank Murtaugh
THE STARTING FIVE
1. Will a veteran team make a difference? This is debatable. With four juniors and two seniors expected to be in the rotation, this is the first of Josh Pastner's teams that can be described as experienced, seasoned even. The ebb and flow of the season will feel natural to most of the roster. And the rookies can only benefit from the guidance players like Tarik Black, Joe Jackson, and D.J. Stephens should provide.
"There's a difference," Jackson says. "You can tell. Everybody's listening. We're trying to prepare for what we need to do this year. We've been through a lot. It's a different vibe: team first. It's easy to say that, but now I can feel it."
"Since I've been here, we had juniors and seniors, but some of them were transfers or had not been here the whole time," Black adds. "Now we have a group of guys who are legitimate juniors, not juco transfers. We've been in the program long enough that we can teach the young guys instead of having to learn while they're learning. That's an advantage for this year's team."
But remember the 2005-06 Tiger team when weighing the value of experience. That club started two freshmen (Antonio Anderson and Shawne Williams) and two sophomores (Darius Washington and Joey Dorsey). They merely went 33-4 and reached the NCAA tournament's regional finals.
2. The Tigers have a roster 10-deep with rotation players. Who is the one player indispensable to their success? Let's allow Joe Jackson to chime in on this one.
"Tarik Black. He's a force," Jackson says. "I've been playing with him forever. This year, he's going to have to be a marquee player. He's always been the guy nobody seems to know about. This needs to be his year for him to be one of the best big men in the country."
Black averaged 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds last year while setting a Tiger single-season record by shooting 68.9 percent from the field. But you just got the feeling we never quite saw Tarik Black unleashed. (As a freshman, he averaged 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds.) His height (6'8") won't allow him to play center as a pro, but Black's quickness, soft hands, and strength make him well-nigh a prototype for a college pivot man. "I was playing lighter last year," he says, "so I had to find new ways to guard people. But I've added muscle, and I'm at a weight where there's balance."
Conference USA coaches apparently agree with Jackson's assessment of Black's value to this year's Tiger squad. He was the only Memphis player voted to the preseason all-conference team. (Jackson, Adonis Thomas, and Chris Crawford were named to the second team.)
3. What kind of impact can be expected from the three rookies? Damien Wilson smartly toed the program line when asked by a gathering of media earlier this month what kind of role he'll play. Rubbing his lengthening beard ("My James Harden"), Wilson said, "I need to play hard on defense and rebound."
More than blue-collar support will be expected from Shaq Goodwin, who will likely give Pastner three former McDonald's All-Americans in his starting lineup (along with Jackson and Adonis Thomas). Rebounding was an issue last season, when Will Barton (no giant) was the only Tiger to average more than five per game. If Goodwin (6'8") can complement Black (6'8") and get support from the likes of Thomas (6'6") and Ferrakohn Hall (6'8"), the Tigers' rebounding margin should grow from last season's measly +1.3.
Goodwin lost 15 pounds during his first two months on campus, an effort to be in game shape for the faster pace of college basketball. And during his introductory session with the media, the Georgia native emphasized the sense of chemistry he felt on a largely veteran team, a precocious observation if it translates to play on the floor.
Then there's Geron Johnson. The combo guard — a Doc Rivers look-alike — managed to qualify academically after a troubled past that saw him dismissed by two junior-college programs. He brings starter talent to the Tigers and could fill much of the slasher role on offense personified by Will Barton the last two years. Since his arrival, Johnson's emphasized looking only at the future, at finding "a better outcome." Tiger fans are hoping Pastner's straight-laced tutelage is the prescription for growth — personal, as much as basketball-wise — for a player talented enough to make a difference even as a rookie.
4. What could go wrong? Basketball is played with one ball. And the Tigers have a team heavy with players used to being a star on the floor: Thomas, Jackson, Black, Goodwin, Johnson. For now, they're all saying the right things about team chemistry and the value of having such a deep and talented roster. But what happens if minutes diminish for one or more of these players as Pastner figures out his strongest rotation? Remember all the talent the 2004-05 Tigers had on opening night (Darius Washington, Sean Banks, Rodney Carney, freshman Joey Dorsey)? That team couldn't get along and lost 16 games, the last of them in the NIT.
5. Can the Tigers have a successful season without winning an NCAA tournament game? Easy answer: no. Conference USA championships are fun, and the Tigers are intent on finishing their 18-year run as the league's standard-bearer. But for 2012-13 to be a measurable success, the U of M has to advance in the NCAA tournament. (The Tigers lost their opening game to Arizona in 2011 and to Saint Louis last March.)
Three reasons the regular season is merely prelude:
This is Josh Pastner's fourth season at the helm, and, with the graduation of Wesley Witherspoon, the team is decidedly his. Mr. Recruit has a team he assembled from top to bottom, the objective being NCAA tournament wins. (Remember, according to Pastner and his predecessor, "This is a national program.") No four-year plans in these parts. Time to extend the stay on the dance floor come March.
Losing is fuel. Led by juniors Black, Jackson, Crawford, and Antonio Barton (not to mention seniors Ferrakohn Hall and D.J. Stephens), the Tigers have tasted March Madness but only morsels of the sport's glamour event. The disappointment of the NCAA tournament losses the last two seasons should rev up the competitive drive for each and every upperclassman.
Adonis Thomas won't be here as a junior. He took two weeks before deciding to stay in school for his sophomore season (knowing he could well have been a first-round pick even after an injury-shortened freshman campaign). This is the year to capitalize on his prodigious talents.
Buzzer Beater: Last season, the Tigers lost two games in November and three more in December. The team found itself climbing the rest of the season, well off the Top 25 radar. Pastner needs a signature win (outside C-USA play), and it could come before the new year, against the likes of Duke (in the Bahamas, Thanksgiving weekend) or Louisville on December 15th. With a win over a major opponent (Pastner is 6-12 against teams from the six power conferences), the Tigers should enter conference play securely in the Top 20, which should yield an NCAA tournament seed higher than eighth, as they received last March. Seeding, come tournament time, isn't everything. It's the only thing.
The Grizzlies: Seven Dates to Remember
• Monday, November 5th — Grizzlies vs. Utah Jazz: The Grizzlies' home opener showcases two of the NBA's most productive frontcourts, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol facing off against Utah's Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
• Sunday, November 11th — Grizzlies vs. Miami Heat: Lebron James and the defending NBA champion Heat make their lone FedExForum appearance at 5 p.m.
• Friday, November 16th — Grizzlies vs. New York Knicks: The Grizzlies' first nationally televised home game is an 8:30 p.m. tipoff on ESPN against the New York Knicks, a game that pits Baltimore small forwards Rudy Gay and Carmelo Anthony.
• Friday, November 23rd — Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Lakers: The new-look Lakers, who added the league's best center (Dwight Howard) and perhaps most skilled point guard (Steve Nash) to a core of Kobe Bryant and ex-Griz Pau Gasol, make their first FedExForum appearance. If you cup your hand to your ear, you can hear the "Beat L.A." chants already forming.
• Monday, January 14th — Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Clippers: The Grizzlies will open their season on the road against the Clippers, but this will be the other L.A. team's first return to the scene of their Game 7 crime, a chance for the home team to partially exorcise their playoff demons from this spring.
• Monday, January 21st — Grizzlies vs. Indiana Pacers: The annual Martin Luther King Day matinee tips at noon and will be broadcast on ESPN, pitting the Grizzlies against their Eastern Conference doppelganger — a small-market contender built with lots of really good players but no "superstar."
• Wednesday, March 20th — Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: The defending Western Conference champions and one-time Grizzlies playoff rival make their lone appearance at FedExForum as both teams gear up for a final playoff push.
The Tigers: Five Dates to Remember
• Wednesday, December 5th — Tigers vs. Ohio: Call them mid-major if you like (they hail from the Mid-America Conference, or MAC), but the Bobcats did some big-time dancing last March, knocking off Michigan and South Florida on their way to the Sweet 16 (where they fell to North Carolina in St. Louis). The run landed coach John Groce a new gig (at Illinois) and opened a chair for new head coach Jim Christian.
• Saturday, December 15th — Tigers vs. Louisville: This is a date you don't so much circle on your calendar as cut out, laminate, then paste upon every flat surface of your blue-and-gray man cave. Once among the greatest rivalries in the country, the series resumed last season after six long years (and will continue annually when Memphis enters the Big East next year). To date, the Cardinals own a 52-34 edge. Rrrrrrrrgh.
• Wednesday, February 13th — Tigers vs. UCF: C-USA coaches tabbed UCF senior forward Keith Clanton as the league's preseason Player of the Year. Last season, Clanton averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds. As a junior, Clanton scored 23 points against Memphis in a Knight victory at Orlando but was held to seven points in a Tiger blowout at FedExForum.
• Saturday, February 23rd — Tigers vs. Southern Miss: This is one league rival the Tiger faithful will miss when the U of M moves on to the Big East. Memphis has played the Golden Eagles 88 times on the hardwood (and won 64), the most against any opponent.
• Saturday, March 9th — Tigers vs. UAB: Two programs forever connected by the spirit of Hall of Fame coach Gene Bartow. Memphis has won the last 13 games in the series.
On the Record
A handful of hopeful predictions for the 2012-2013 Grizzlies season:
1. I've made this prediction before, but I'm dusting it off again: Rudy Gay will make his first All-Star team. I don't necessarily think Gay makes a significant improvement from his career norms, but with Zach Randolph's minutes declining, he'll be the leading scorer on one of the conference's best teams and will be considered the second-best small forward in the conference, after Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. Working in Gay's favor: a rising consensus that he's one of the best players in the league who hasn't made the team, which will have coaches primed to give him the nod if both he and the Grizzlies are having a good season.
2. Though it's probably unreasonable to expect him to ever make an All-Star team in this golden age of point guards, Mike Conley will make a leap this season, reaching career highs in most statistical categories. As a result, Mike Conley will finish in the top five in voting for the league's Most Improved Player award.
3. Zach Randolph will not return to 20-10 form but only because he will play fewer than the 37 minutes per game he averaged in his two healthy Griz seasons and he'll sacrifice a little scoring for more passing. It says here Zach Randolph sets a new career high in assists, easily surpassing his previous career best of 2.2 per game.
4. This will not be a "redshirt" season for Tony Wroten. The rookie will start at the bottom rung of the team's 13-man roster and may see some D-League action, but his size, defense, and dynamism will vault him into the rotation by the season's end.
5. The Grizzlies will win a franchise-record 52 games but can't quite catch the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the Southwest Division crown. As a result, they duplicate last season's number-four seed but this time topple the fifth-seeded Denver Nuggets in the playoffs' opening round before falling again in another seven-game, second-round thriller against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
— Chris Herrington
Josh Pastner lives with the expectations. Matter of fact, he's embraced the extraordinary altitude of Tiger Nation's basketball standards. Now a veteran coach (entering his fourth season at the helm) and with a growing family (his third child, daughter Kamryn, arrived September 13th), Pastner has skipped the formula for young coaches learning their trade gradually, off the radar.
"I enjoy this," Pastner says. "Have there been stresses and ups-and-downs? No doubt. But I've enjoyed it. I love being part of a situation where the energy and enthusiasm for basketball is at such an enormous level. And I love that it's a 24/7/365 job. On a much smaller scale — I'm not saving lives — it's like being a doctor. I'm always on call. For some reason, I like that. I don't like having down time."
Now 35, Pastner concedes that he's aiming for more balance, particularly with a young family at home: "It's not easy, because there are a lot of responsibilities with this job and not just coaching the team. In the community, I try to be out as much as I can. My wife's been tremendous. But I don't want to look back and say, 'I wish I'd enjoyed the process.' I'm enjoying everything."
Are there elements that Pastner didn't anticipate upon taking the job in 2009? "Unless you've been a head coach," he explains, "it's hard to imagine all the responsibility that comes with it. You are responsible for so much that you can't picture it all. Especially these days with instant technology. You're held responsible for things, including some you have no control over." Pastner is hands-on (and then some) with compliance and academics, insisting on a daily report on class attendance for each of his players.
"You're educating your players and staff all the time," he adds. "There are not just rules of law, but NCAA rules. I've tried to do a better job of delegating, and it's something I was not good at. But there's no way I could do it all."
As for living with the expectations of a fan base hungry for Final Four appearances, Pastner retains perspective by focusing on today's challenge (then tomorrow's), as it's the first step on that proverbial path to greater achievement.
"I feel like we've got the ship righted from when I first took over," he says. "It's not a thunder storm. I feel at ease. We have a veteran team, which is a first for me. These are all guys I recruited. I promise you, there's no one who wants to advance in the NCAAs and win a national championship more than me. But I can't do that in October. It's a process. We have to do a great job in nonconference, a great job in league play, and set ourselves up to advance." — Frank Murtaugh
How to Tailgate B-Ball-Style
by Susan Ellis and Hannah Sayle
Beyond the Arc
While Lunchbox Eats is primarily a lunch spot, they take advantage of their proximity to FedExForum and extend hours during Grizzlies and Tiger games, and when the weather is warm, they grill outdoors — smoked sausage, chicken kabobs, ribs — for some proper tailgating. The food is designed for patrons to grab and go, but the games are broadcast, when available, on the restaurant's 100-inch projection screen indoors and on a 55-inch plasma they bring out to the patio. More fancy footwork comes via the sweet parking spots on the south side of the building. Fans who eat at Lunchbox Eats can park there for free.
Lunchbox Eats, 288 S. Fourth (526-0820)
South of Beale has become a favorite for basketball fans for pre- and post-game meet-ups. One reason: Fans who show the SOB crew their tickets receive 20 percent off on food. Another: the impossibly rich gouda mac & cheese and the duck fried rice (recently featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives) and washing them down with a local brew like Ghost River while cheering on the local teams. And here's a hook: Griz shots, an appropriately blue concoction of vodka, peach schnapps, and blue curaçao.
South of Beale, 361 S. Main (526-0388)
The Blind Bear bears a Prohibition-era speakeasy theme, so it's fitting that basketball fans need a password for access to specials during the games. (Psst, it's "Basketball Special.") Admittance brings $5 chili-cheese Bear Dawgs, half-off appetizers, and $2.50 Budweisers, Bud Lights, and Michelob Ultras. Fans who plan on watching the games while beering and dawging may want to work on hand-eye coordination to avoid double-dribbling.
Blind Bear, 119 S. Main (417-8435)
Home Court Advantage
The advantage of going to a sports bar is that sports will be on, and so it goes at Max's Sports Bar. The cozy bar boasts 10 TVs, which breaks down to roughly a one-three TV-to-seat ratio. Plus, there's a projection screen on the patio. And while drink and food specials have not been set for this basketball season, there are some givens: $1 hot dogs during happy hour, 4:30 to 7 p.m., and the $14.25 bucket holding five beers.
Max's Sports Bar, 115 G.E. Patterson (528-8367)
Grit & Grind
Everyone knows Felicia Suzanne's has Cajun-Creole Southern favorites on lockdown. So while the Griz prepare for some grittin' and grindin' on the court, why not tackle some shrimp and grits in the courtyard? Round things out with an artisan cocktail and you're one short walk from the Forum and ready to get rowdy with the best of them. Sure, it's a little more upscale way of tailgating, and it's definitely classier than slamming back a pre-game 12-pack in the Peabody Place parking garage, but nobody said class and "grit and grind" were mutually exclusive.
Felicia Suzanne's, 80 Monroe (523-0876)
The best things come in threes: points and plates alike. At Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar, each "flight" you order comes with three samples — a trio of salads, soups, entrées, or wines. Whether you've got tickets to cheer on the Tigers or the Grizzlies, if your idea of ramping up for the action involves a good meal and a bottle of fine wine, head to Main Street before the main event.
Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar, 39 S. Main (521-8005)
In the Paint
Bleu Restaurant and Lounge downtown is so close to the action, it's practically in the paint. Directly across the street from FedExForum's main entrance, Bleu welcomes game-goers with a full bar and their popular BYOBurger (Build Your Own Burger) concept, which is normally reserved for the lunch menu. Tiger bleu or Grizzlies bleu, it doesn't matter; you'll find tasty appetizer and cocktail specials, large comfy booths and bar seating, as well as free valet parking and one of the shortest walks from bar-side to courtside.
Bleu, 221 S. Third (334-5950)
If you're looking for a bank shot, look no further than the Brass Door, an Irish pub that serves up pints, eats, and shots in an ornate, refurbished bank building. Few spaces downtown rival its unique décor, and when it comes to drink specials, this Irish pub is expanding its offerings, with an eye on cutting-edge mixology. Traditionally a soccer and football kind of pub, they're reaching out to basketball fans this season. Kick off the game night here or kick back and spend the game night here — they've got plenty of televisions and game-day cocktail, beer, and food specials.
The Brass Door, 152 Madison (572-1813)