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Grizzly Light and Leadership: Memphis is Rising to the Occasion

The fastest way to right the wrongs of an organization and roster is to win, and win the Memphis Grizzlies did this past weekend. After a successful run against potential playoff competition, and after the worst of Memphis in the darkness, it took a return, a force of nature, and an act of selflessness to allow for leadership and light to shine through once again.

Jeff Green emulating TA, a glorious sight.
Jeff Green emulating TA, a glorious sight.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing worse in sports than seeing the demise of your favorite team before it is supposed to happen, its potential squandered, the opportunity of a lifetime slipping away as if it almost were never there. For many fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, this was the environment for the past few weeks as the team wandered through the wood that is the Western Conference as if they were without care for the possibility of something "greater" in front of them.

Barely above .500 since the All-Star break, coming off a bad loss in Detroit against the Pistons, and heading into a tough weekend slate against the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers, fans were yelling for change, placing blame here, there, and everywhere. They swear they saw a contender losing its way, starting into the mystic.

Except, of course, they weren't.

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English novelist Thomas Hardy once said...

There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is, seeing something that isn't there.

This is not to insinuate that there weren't issues. Zach Randolph was quoted as saying that the Grizzlies were playing "soft", and body language of key players like Marc Gasol was troubling, to say the least. Sitting on the floor post-foul, slamming the basketball, frustration was flourishing at the worst possible time. Memphis just wasn't clicking as they had before.

So, what was different? Jeff Green starting? Sure, and it was easy to point to integration and say the problem was there. The issues ran deeper than that, though, with other players being out of role due to injury and chemistry just not developing the way many had hoped alongside Green. Courtney Lee struggling, Marc Gasol regressing to pre-potential MVP lack of aggression status, all of the above led the Grizzlies down the rabbit hole of darkness.

Then, this weekend? Wins over the playoff bound Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers. Chemistry. Leadership.

In the darkness of doubt...several Grizzlies brought back the light.

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A Reinvigorated "Captain Clutch"

There can be only one Captain to a ship.- Thomas John Barnardo

Mike Conley had not been right for quite some time.

His (thankfully) less severe than originally thought ankle injury suffered in Boston against the Celtics was just the tip of the iceberg. Ankles have been a problem for over a year for the man who has been called "under-appreciated" for so long that it has become a joke among the NBA community. His entire body was banged up, however, as he told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal,  a consequence of invading the land of giants known as the paint night in and night out. While an All-Star snub in a loaded Western Conference backcourt surely had its impact mentally, the longest tenured Memphis Grizzly, the home grown hero, the Captain, was physically exhausted.

It showed in his performance. Compare his shot chart pre All-Star break on the left to the one on the right, which is from after the break all the way to that night in Boston where the ankle was the last straw.

Conley Pre-All-Star
Conley Post-All-Star to Injury

Of course, the shot chart on the right is partially the result of a smaller sample size (49 games compared to 11, respectfully), but Mike was clearly not himself. His advanced numbers during the same stretch of time reflect that as well:

Conley Pre-All-Star Game
Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Net Rating Usage True Shooting %
106.7 101.7 5 24.60% 56.80%

Conley Post-All-Star Game to March 11th (Celtics game)
Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Net Rating Usage True Shooting %
100.6 102.7 -2.1 21.60% 53.10%

Worse across the board, and not what Memphis Grizzlies fans had come to expect from Conley.

Sometimes, the term "warrior" gets thrown around too easily in sports. This is not the case with Mike Conley. You could tell he was hurting, knew he wasn't fully there physically. He refused to sit. Then, the scare in Boston, the bend that could have been much, much worse, finally allowed Mike to step back and try to heal up.

Two games in to his return to the lineup, it seems to have worked.

Conley came back in Dallas against the Mavericks, then played in the second game of a back to back at home against the Portland Trail Blazers. In those two games, here is how Mike's shot chart looked.

Conley DAL-POR

The advanced numbers look a lot more like Mike as well...

Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Net Rating Usage True Shooting %
112.4 79.2 33.3 20.20% 75.80%

Not sustainable, but could you imagine Mike before his four game hiatus putting up anything near those performances? He physically was not capable of doing it.

The idea that Mike Conley is under-appreciated is not as laughable as one would imagine. You can argue he is still undervalued in Memphis; so much of the uproar and concern over the squad's cold start post All-Star Break coincided with Mike Conley's health issues, yet the darkness of doubt continued to creep in. All this team needed was its anchor, its steadying presence, its voice of reason, back at the helm. It needed its Captain.

Clutch appears to be back.

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An Unselfish Shade of Green

"Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates."- Magic Johnson

Paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy may not be Jeff Green's style, but his actions this past week spoke far louder than any words said trying to defend him as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies ever could. A talented player whose fit continued to be questioned in Memphis and beyond, Green surely felt out of sorts from time to time within the locker room and on the court alongside his new teammates. His play was not consistent, as has been the case in Oklahoma City and Boston before his turn in the Bluff City, and while highlight dunks were impressive, fans were looking for something more.

Calls for patience were made by this writer and others, but Green surely saw the strain on the ties that supposedly bind this team so strongly. Not to make him out to be a complete saint - he also likely understood the issues that playing alongside Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol consistently can present a player with "Uncle Jeff''s" skill set: Less room to operate in the lane, more reliance on the least reliable aspects of Green's game: the mid-range and three point shots.

Jeff Green showed another aspect to his versatility this weekend - leadership.

Whatever the reason, likely somewhere in between, Green approached Vince Carter, Marc Gasol, and eventually Dave Joerger about a change to the starting lineup. Jeff offered to return to the bench, to allow Tony Allen the opportunity to start again and restore balance to the energy of the starters. Despite the millions of dollars and potential ego, Green understood what some, myself included, did not, that this team's energy, the spark of the fire of the Grit and Grind, was missed with the starting unit more than was realized.

After two games, the change looks like a home run. Green even started in the Dallas game in place of the injured Courtney Lee (who could also use a Conley-esque sabbbatical to heal up) and had his best game as a Memphis Grizzly, scoring 23 points, including five made three point shots, one of which being this gem:

A bit of good karma for a man showing the kind of leadership this team - any team - could always use more of.

Jeff Green is an imperfect fit on just about any team he plays for due to his perimeter issues and tweener positional status. His versatility and athleticism are welcome just about anywhere he plays though, and the second unit will benefit from his ability to run and gun. Green will still get his minutes (27 against Dallas, 40 against Portland) and still get time with the starters.  The difference is that now he will do so while not disrupting what has made the Grizzlies one of the most successful franchises in the NBA over the past four seasons.

What he showed this past weekend though - his willingness to do what it takes for his team to win - will only brighten these Grizzlies' chances moving forward.

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Grinding Through the Good and the Bad

The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.- Robert Green Ingersoll

The one constant through the ebbs and flows of the past month or so of Grizzlies basketball has been the force of nature that is Tony Allen. He is almost always there when you need him on the court, and despite his shortcomings in other areas, he consistently adds to the legend that will make him a figure in Memphis Grizzlies lore for a long time to come. Whether it be as a bench player or as a starter, Allen disrupts opposing offenses and creates multiple opportunities for his own team's offense.

Take this set of screen shots from the Grizzlies' win against the Portland Trail Blazers this past Saturday, in which TA recorded a double double of 10 points and 11 rebounds alongside six steals:

TA Passing Lane Snip 1

Tony Allen does not have the best defensive stance here, but he is aware of both Damian Lillard and his man that he is responsible for, who is out of frame in this shot. Ball watching has burned TA before, but not this time.

TA Passing Lane Snip 2

Allen leaps once Lillard makes the pass, deflecting the ball and taking it to the other end of the court. While TA performs the "trick" after the steal "treat" of a missed lay-up, Kosta Koufos followed TA and finished the extra possession with a score. "The Grindfather" creates the opportunity, a teammate finishes it.

This next sequence doesn't involve playing the passing lane and film study like the one above did, but it does show what makes Allen so special - pure tenacity.

TA Lillard Snip 1

There are about three minutes left in the game, and Tony is now defending Lillard man to man. He makes a minor mistake reaching for the ball without a step, meaning he is lunging, which means Lillard can gain a step on TA. Marc Gasol is retreating back to help, but TA is in a tough spot to start.

TA Lillard Snip 2

The paint is pretty clogged up, so Lillard has nowhere to go. Allen recognizes this help and again reaches in to make a play on the ball, this time having success and creating another turnover opportunity.

TA Lillard Snip 3

Of course, it's rarely that simple (par for the course with Tony Allen), and the ball is loose on the floor after a spill cause by a foul on TA that was not called; now it comes down to positioning and who wants it more. Allen rarely loses in those spots.

TA Lillard Snip 4

Allen secured the ball, then threw out a slow, dribbling pass in the area of the waiting Zach Randolph and Mike Conley. Not the prettiest play, but it was a play Allen was more willing to make than Lillard in this particular situation, the definition of a "winning play".

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There were other stars of the recent weekend turnaround. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 66 points on 44% shooting and 27 rebounds over both games, Vince Carter hit three shots from beyond the arc against the Mavericks, and Dave Joerger continued to show a better understanding of lineups and rotations with Green now in the fold. That is the beauty of these Grizzlies; they are all threads in the design, ingredients in the melting pot, coming together to create something greater than the individual element or string. More and more, as the regular season closes and sights turn toward the playoffs, these individuals must continue to trust in the greater good, to sacrifice, to lead, to do what they must to win.

The time for darkness has appeared to have come to an end. The light is back, and that fire will resume lighting the way to that "greater" goal, to hopefully burn all the way through June and the NBA Finals.

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