Buried within a pile of papers on Lionel Hollins's desk at the FedEx Forum is a faded stat sheet from the Grizzlies' Nov. 29 loss to the Clippers. The Memphis coach keeps the memento of that game, in which his team blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead, as a reminder of just how quickly inexperienced players can lose focus. "The game isn't over until the end," says Hollins.
"When you have young guys, you have to keep telling them that."
Hollins has—and the Grizzlies, who haven't won more than 24 games in three years, have begun to listen. After a 1--8 start (largely attributable to the daily distractions associated with disgruntled guard Allen Iverson, who was waived on Nov. 17), the NBA's youngest team has rattled off 15 wins in its last 23 games and at week's end was just two games out of a playoff spot.
Spearheading the resurgence is some new muscle: power forward Zach Randoph, 28, who was acquired from the Clippers for guard Quentin Richardson last July. The deal was roundly criticized, in part because of Randolph's boorish behavior, including several run-ins with the law and a 2009 suspension for punching Louis Amundson of the Suns. But in Memphis, Randolph, the team's most experienced player, has embraced the role of elder statesman. He dropped 15 pounds and was voted a team captain. "Guys go to him to talk about the game," says Hollins, who lobbied hard for the Randolph deal. "He takes his leadership responsibilities very seriously."
He's taking his own production seriously too. Randolph was averaging 20.2 points and 11.4 rebounds through Sunday and had come up big in the team's biggest games. He racked up 32 points and 14 rebounds in an overtime win over the Cavaliers on Dec. 9 and had 32 points and 24 boards in a victory over the Nuggets on Dec. 20. With Randolph and 7'1" center Marc Gasol (who worked off 10% of his body fat in the off-season) the Grizzlies led the NBA in points in the paint (52.8 per game) and offensive rebounds (13.8). That inside firepower has opened up the perimeter for Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, who are each shooting at career-best clips. "Offensively, they are loaded," says an Eastern Conference assistant. "They play to their strengths, and they can counter anything you throw at them."
To help keep the Grizzlies focused—there's that word again—Hollins has divided the schedule into five-game blocks and urged the players to win two games per set, which translates to 32 W's by season's end. The players' response: We'll win three out of five, which should be enough to get into the playoffs. "Changing our loser mentality wasn't easy," says Gasol. "We had to get mentally tougher. But we believe in ourselves in a way we have never before."
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Despite losing 13 of 16 games in December, Pacers coach Jim O'Brien received a vote of confidence from team president Larry Bird last week. Such statements often precede a firing, but Bird has been telling confidants that he believes the players are responsible for Indiana's 10--22 start.... Gilbert Arenas's brush with the law—D.C. police are investigating an incident in which he allegedly drew a gun on teammate Javaris Crittenton—has Washington thinking trade. But there isn't much interest in the 28-year-old (below), who is averaging 22.7 points in the second year of a six-year, $111 million deal. "I wouldn't touch him," says a Western Conference executive. "He's played 46 games in the last three seasons. He puts up great numbers, sure, but you can't build a team around him."
Photograph by GREG NELSON
PAINT PRESENCE He might be slimmer, but Randolph, who's shooting 51.0% from the floor, can still bang.
NED DISHMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (ARENAS)