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Appreciating the Grizzlies

Jan. 31, 2015 - Memphis, TN, USA - Memphis Grizzlies bench players, from left, Marc Gasol, Courtney Lee, Jon Leuer, Jordan Adams and Tyrus Thomas celebrate a Jeff Green dunk against the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015. The Grizzlies won, 85-74

Shortly after the calendar turned to 2015, the Memphis Grizzlies played their most forgettable game of their season. They had recently put up a season-long four-game losing streak, and were trying to get it back together after a hot start to the season. Playing in Denver against the awful Nuggets and without Zach Randolph, the Grizz seemed to be going through the motions for much of the game. The Nuggets were hot in the first half, and they went to halftime with an 11-point lead.

Coming out of halftime, you’d expect that Memphis would close the gap and take the game against one of the worst and most dysfunctional teams in the NBA. But the Nuggets outscored them 65-47 in the second half, and the Grizzlies went home with their tails between their legs. That may have been a turning point for their season, and they haven’t looked back.

The Grizzlies are leading the league in points allowed for the season at 95.5 per game, but they’ve clamped down and only allowed 92.5 since January 11th; a span of 27 games in which they’ve gone 20-7. This run coincides with their trade for Jeff Green in a three-team deal with the Celtics and Pelicans that only forced them to give up Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince and draft picks.

Green hasn’t been great, putting up 12.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in just under 30 minutes per game, but he has stabilized the rotation. He has absorbed the minutes previously occupied by Pondexter and Prince, and gives Memphis another legitimate scoring threat. While he has never been a great shooter, he can knock down three-pointers on a semi-regular basis. In his most recent game against the Bulls, Green hit 3-of-4 from downtown and put up 19 points in 33 minutes of play, and the Grizzlies beat the Bulls in Chicago, 101-91.

Courtney Lee has been huge for the Grizzlies this season, too. He’s not a high-volume scorer, but he can certainly shoot. In 60 games played this season, he has hit 77 three-pointers and shot 43.3 percent from behind the arc. He has put up a 57.7 true shooting percentage, which is the exact same as Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Chris Paul, for comparison. Much lower usage for Lee, of course, but solid nonetheless. Acquiring Lee in the middle of last season, in addition to Green this season, has allowed the Grizzlies to move defensive specialist Tony Allen to the bench without creating a big drop off in defensive intensity, as Lee is a quality defender in his own right.

Mike Conley has been having another strong season, and you could make a case that he’s one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA. He’s having a career season shooting from downtown, hitting at 38.5 percent and being on pace to set a career high in three-pointers made at around 117. He’s also shooting almost one full free throw extra per game over his career average while hitting 86.2 percent, and is putting up 16.2 points per game while cutting his minutes back to just under 32 per game. His assists are down just a bit to 5.4 per game, but it’s obvious that he’s having one of the best years of his career.

How could I get this far into a story about how the Grizzlies have been winning without mentioning Marc Gasol? The All-Star is blowing away his previous career high of 14.6 points per game with 18.1 this season, while keeping his minutes pretty consistent with his career average. Gasol is arguably the face of this team and their leader on both ends of the court. Not much else needs to be said about Gasol, who has transformed into one of the premier big men in the game at the age of 30.

Memphis is currently on pace to win around 58 games this season, which would be a franchise record. They’re sitting in second place in the Western Conference, only behind the Warriors. This Grizzlies squad is the best equipped team they’ve ever had to actually get to the NBA Finals, as their stout defense has finally been paired with an offense that’s capable of putting up points. There are a lot of good teams in the West, but Memphis could end up being the best of the bunch. They’re going to get their chance to prove it soon.

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