The surprising yet indisputable No. 1 team of the opening month was the Grizzlies, who in one six-day period blitzed the Heat, Thunder and Knicks—all by double digits. Their 12--3 record at week's end was tied with the Heat for the best in the league, but even more impressive was their adaptability: They overwhelmed Miami with 41 points off the bench, clobbered Oklahoma City behind 28 from small forward Rudy Gay and unnerved New York by playing through big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who combined for 44 points and 22 rebounds. "Rudy Gay—I don't like to say this because he's so talented—but he's, like, their third option," said LeBron James after watching the Grizzlies build up a 27-point fourth-quarter lead. "They got a really damn good team."
Memphis has become more well-rounded since January 2009, when Lionel Hollins replaced Marc Iavaroni as coach. Hollins's first goal was to emphasize defense. "We laid the foundation of how we're going to play in terms of effort and playing together," he says.
In each of the past two postseasons the Grizzlies have lost a tough Game 7, to the Thunder in the second round in 2011 and to the Clippers in the opening round last spring. Against Los Angeles, Memphis hit just 28.9% of its threes, continuing a trend of poor outside shooting. (The team was 25th or worse in three-point percentage in each of the past three years.) The Grizzlies have addressed that weakness in the off-season by acquiring guards Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington. Those two—plus the improved accuracy of point guard Mike Conley (46.3% on 3.9 attempts per game through Sunday, up from 37.7% and 2.6) and Gay (39.6%, up from 31.2%)—have helped Memphis surge to a tie for ninth in the league (37.0%).
But what gives the Grizzlies such extraordinary balance is the low-post scoring and rebounding of forward Randolph and the diverse skills of center Gasol, whose passing—he ranks second on the team with 4.4 assists per game—enables Memphis to exploit all its weapons in the half-court. "I played with Bill Walton," says Hollins, who was the point guard on the Trail Blazers' 1977 championship team. "It's nice to have a big guy who likes passing, because that makes it tough on the other teams."
While their hot perimeter shooting is likely to cool, the Grizzlies' early results are indicative of a title contender. "There's no dominant team," says Hollins. "Miami has been in the Finals twice, and you have to give them their due—they're probably the favorite. But there hasn't been one that has established itself head-and-shoulders above everybody else."
Two Ways About It
How Memphis has ranked in offensive and defensive efficiency since Lionel Hollins became coach
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
GREG NELSON (GAY)
RUDY AWAKENING Gay is the top scorer for Memphis, one of just two teams with four players averaging at least 15 points.