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GRITGRINDGRIZZ: Grizzlies’ defense is great. But can they score enough to win?

Looking back now at the birth of Grit-N-Grind, it’s easy to forget how much of a happy accident it was to construct a team identity that matched the personnel, the coach and the city.

Back then, Lionel Hollins was the perpetually overlooked assistant coach who, while very qualified, only became a head coach after his high-profile predecessor was unceremoniously fired. Remember Marc Iavaroni? Me neither.

Hollins took the gig and instilled his tough-minded, hard-working, defense-first mentality. Hollins built around his team’s strengths: two classic, back-to-the-basket big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Add in a savvy point guard named Mike Conley and a defensive dynamo called Tony Allen, and the Grizzlies fielded an elite defense that dragged opponents “in the mud” to win games. There was only one problem.

The Grizzlies couldn’t score enough. In fact, they were renowned for their relative lack of a reliable outside shooter. Those squads rarely built large leads; even if they did, a flurry of three-pointers from the other team often wiped it out.

Likewise, when the Grizzlies dug themselves a 20-point hole, simple math often kept them from recovering. Speeding the game up so you can get back into it with three-pointers plays right into the hands of teams that run faster and make more shots. That’s where “slowing the game down” can bite you in the butt.

And that’s why, as much fun as these Grizzlies are to watch, I can only get so excited.

Now, J.B. Bickerstaff is the assistant who finally gets his shot. The squad’s hoops IQ is ridiculously high. They are once again an elite defense. Things have changed, but they’ve also stayed the same.

As of Dec. 11, the Memphis Grizzlies have played 14 close games this season – “close” being games where the score is within five points with less than two minutes to go. In those games, their record is 7-7, which isn’t bad, actually. But it’s also not good. It’s .500. It’s average.

It’s great to have a shooting guard who can actually shoot (Garrett Temple). It’s great to have an exciting young phenom in Jaren Jackson Jr. I’m thrilled to bring a quality backup guard like Shelvin Mack and a former Defensive Player of the Year off the bench (Joakim Noah). And the roar of a FedExForum crowd when they see players diving on the floor or blocking shots? Priceless.

But unless the Grizzlies can score enough to build big leads – and play focused defense to protect those leads – they will continue to find themselves in close games that could go either way.

Barring an unlikely change in personnel or playing style, they’ll be fun to watch. They’ll probably make the playoffs as a lower seed, as that team “nobody wants to meet in the first round.” And . . . they’ll help toughen up some higher seed before bowing out in six games.

Just like Grit-N-Grind 1.0.

 

Gotta be the shoes

There wasn’t much to take away from the Grizzlies blowout loss to the Lakers on Saturday. But one Grizzlies employee got to take away a pair of LeBron James’ shoes.

“One of the ball girls here,” James said after the Lakers 111-88 win. “Every year I come here, she’s always worn a very exclusive pair of my shoes. I’ve always noticed, but I never said anything to her. Tonight, for the very first time, I said something to her and she was like, ‘Yeah. I’ve always been Team Lebron. Always.’

“So she got a pair of LeBrons,” he said.

Her name? Briane Miller, 23, and she’s an equipment manager for the Grizzlies. And she has reportedly been offered $100,000 for the shoes – an offer she turned down. In fact, those shoes are locked away, she said.

“I’m loyal to the max,” she told LocalMemphis.com. “There’s no way I’m letting those go.”

Noah’s arc

We’re now a week or so into the Joakim Noah era. What have we learned?

Statistically? Meh. In four games, he’s averaging about seven points and four rebounds in 18 minutes per game. I do believe those numbers will trend upward slightly over the course of the season. But I think Noah’s impact will come more in the intangibles.

Noah has always had a quirky, outsized personality. And he’s also a fiercely emotional competitor who visibly plays hard every night – the kind of player whose own excitement becomes contagious – not just to teammates but a whole arena. That dynamic has been missing with Tony Allen gone, and it’s good to see it back.

“It just feels great to be out there,” Noah told NBAtv after a 13-point performance in the Grizzlies 107-103 win over New Orleans. “I think I’m just really enjoying the process of just being here with these guys, battling and playing ball.”

Noah made a name for himself with the Chicago Bulls, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. He later played for the New York Knicks, but after an injury and falling out with coaches, he nearly found himself out of the league altogether.

Now that he’s back in an NBA locker room, he’s humble, grateful and savoring every moment. As if Noah needed any more motivation, he’s playing as if his career could be over in an instant – because it almost was.

“It’s a blessing,” Noah added. “I really had to dig down, figure out what I wanted. And I stayed grinding. And you know what? This NBA thing . . .

“I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t expect anything anymore. Because from one day to the next, I went from being an All-Star to not having a job,” he added. “And it happened really fast.

“So I’m not taking anything for granted anymore,” he continued. “I’m just appreciating being 33 years old and playing basketball and just being in the locker room and just enjoying what it is.”

A fiery defender who leaves it all on the floor because he’s just happy to be in the league? Welcome to Memphis, Joakim. Welcome home.

GRIND ON!

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