By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – The Grizzlies simply have an affinity for adversity.
“When things get tough, we get comfortable,” veteran forward Zach Randolph insists. “That’s just us, man. There ain’t nothing new about this. We’ve been doing this for years.”
And when it comes to digging themselves out of tight spots to win close games, there’s no team in the league currently better at the process than Memphis. With Wednesday’s 104-99 win over the 76ers in double overtime, the Grizzlies improved to an NBA-best 6-0 this season in “super clutch” situations, which is defined as games in which the score is within three points in the final minute.
There are two ways to process this trend. Either Memphis struggles to handle prosperity when it builds what should be comfortable leads in the second half of games, which again was the case Wednesday when Mike Conley’s three-pointer put his team up by six with 1:53 left in regulation. Or, it can be seen as a team that relies on its fortitude and resilience to overcome just about any game situation.
In either case, the Grizzlies (10-5) have emerged from their early season turbulence to steady themselves as one of the hottest teams in the league. They carry a six-game winning streak into the Thanksgiving holiday before resuming for a back-to-back set with the Heat on Friday and Saturday.
“I keep saying the same thing – this team just finds a way,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said after their fifth straight road win. “They collectively just find ways to grind games out. It’s the characteristic of a championship ball club. When you get to April (playoffs), these are the games you look back on. You preach to your team that there is another level to go when it gets tight and you’re under duress. And that’s what we’re building right now.”
The difference in Wednesday’s outcome was determined by the makeup of the respective teams. Memphis has a core that’s been together for nearly a decade and has developed a late-game formula for where to get the ball and what players will fill certain roles. Memphis shot just 38 percent from the field, but got a combined 63 points from Randolph, Conley and Marc Gasol. That threesome accounted for all 13 points the team scored in the second overtime period.
Defensively, the Grizzlies forced six turnovers and limited the Sixers to just 3-for-13 shooting after the game was tied at 86-86 at the end of regulation. It was ugly. It was effective. It was familiar.
“There are still things we need to get better at, but when you win, you don’t feel too bad about it,” Gasol said. “Most of the games we play are close. We don’t know any different. We just feel very comfortable in those situations. We know what we’re looking for.”
Randolph was having a horrible, lethargic game through the first four quarters against the Sixers. But once the game got into overtime, particularly the second extra period, he went to work. Z-Bo scored six straight points and dropped in a beautiful high-low pass to Gasol for a dunk to get the Grizzlies going with the game on the line. That spurt gave the Grizzlies a 97-93 cushion and jumpstarted the level of execution they would need to close out the game and end the Sixers’ four-game home winning streak.
The Grizzlies executed on both ends to perfection on a sequence midway through the first quarter. It started when Gasol stepped over in help defense to swat away Nik Stauskas driving layup after he beat Troy Daniels off the dribble. Gasol then passed to Conley, who heaved a half-court pass to JaMychal Green for the fastbreak dunk to put Memphis ahead 14-13 at the 5:11 mark of the first quarter.
Mike Conley. Before the game, Fizdale offered the latest in his line of answers when reporters outside of Memphis ask about Conley’s $153 million contract he signed in free agency. “A lot of people criticize about his contract,” Fizdale said Wednesday. “But to me, we are paying him for more than just points, assists and defense. We are paying him for the character, leadership, what he does in the community. He is much more than just a basketball player for us. So who is more deserving of a contract like that than Mike Conley? It’s not just on Mike Conley to fulfill that contract. It’s on all of us.”
Conley continued his prolific start Wednesday, when he nearly got his first career triple-double but finished with 25 points, nine rebounds, nine assist and two steals in a season-high 45 minutes.
The Sixers became the latest in a line of opponents to outrebound the Grizzlies (56-46) by double digits. But Memphis made up for the deficit with a 46-38 edge in paint points and by forcing 27 turnovers. As both Gasol and Randolph said after the game, the Grizzlies know what they want to do and have built up years of trust in late-game situations. There were several defensive lapses that could have haunted Memphis down the stretch, but every time it needed a play to be made, someone stepped up.
With Chandler Parsons (knee) and James Ennis (calf) sidelined for about two weeks with injuries, Fizdale went deep into his bench to promote Troy Daniels to the starting lineup at shooting guard against the Sixers. Daniels was signed in free agency to help bolster Memphis’ three-point shooting, but had yet to make one in either the preseason or the regular season since he arrived. That changed Wednesday, when Daniels knocked down a pair of threes in the second quarter and finished with six points, four rebounds and a steal in 24 minutes. It was a small but significant step for Daniels as he tries to regain both his rhythm and confidence at a time when the team needs both from him until others get healthy.
Grizzlies vs. Miami Heat at FedExForum, 7:00 pm (TV: TV: Grizzlies Live! Pregame Show FOX Sports Southeast 6:30 p.m./Radio: Grizzlies Pregame Show 92.9 FM ESPN, 6:30 p.m.)
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