The Memphis Grizzlies have been scorching hot during the second half of the season.
In fact, they've gone 16-4 over their last 20 games heading into a Saturday night outing with the Charlotte Bobcats, and that stretch has pushed them within striking distance of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Only one game shy of the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis could very well move into the postseason picture in the near future.
Especially if the team just keeps rolling along.
But what's caused this reversal? What sparked a below-.500 team to turn everything around and become a squad no one wants to face in the postseason? What allowed them to move all the way up to No. 10 in Josh Martin's post-trade deadline set of power rankings for Bleacher Report?
Turns out, there isn't just one answer. There are three.
1. This Marc Gasol Guy Helps
Let's begin with the blindingly obvious reason.
Marc Gasol's return to the lineup has made a significant impact, not that anyone expected otherwise. After all, the Spaniard spent the 2012-13 season winning Defensive Player of the Year and putting himself in the conversation about the league's No. 1 center.
Since Gasol returned from his knee injury for a Jan. 14 clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies have gone 14-4. That's a winning percentage of 0.778, which isn't too shabby for a team sitting at 0.472 heading into that victory over OKC.
During those 18 games, Gasol has produced rather pedestrian numbers. He's averaging only 11.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 44.9 percent from the field. But if anything, it's incredibly impressive that the 7-footer has made this much impact without contributing in the normal categories.
He's just the centerpiece of Memphis' offense and defense, something that very few players can claim. LeBron James is one, and Anthony Davis is another. Good luck reeling off many more names, though.
"Gasol creates a tough defensive interior with Zach Randolph through chemistry, communication and help. The soon-to-be 29-year-old often rotates to help his partner," writes B/R's Tom Firme. "Both have a strong sense of the other's capabilities."
And that's what it's all about for Gasol: communication and chemistry.
He's not going to put up gaudy numbers on defense, but he makes everyone around him better. Gasol is one of the most brilliant basketball players in the NBA when the other team has the ball, and he sets the tone with his physicality too, as Jon Rosen, a producer of The Chris Vernon Show, makes clear:
Marc Gasol just tried to throw Dwight Howard to the ground. Also, Gasol's 2nd foul. Rockets lead 8-6 and Grizzlies shooting 21%— Jon Roser (@Jon_Roser) January 26, 2014
Offensively, the story is no different.
Time and time again, Gasol makes the right play, whether or not it results in a counting stat for the box score. He's a masterful passer from the blocks and elbows, and his ability to function as yet another offensive hub is truly key for David Joerger's offense.
After beating the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 29, the Grizz improved to 24-20, and Joerger told the Associated Press, via ESPN, "Our chemistry right now is as good as I've ever seen it. Our confidence is high and we're really trying to stay in the moment."
Thank you for that, Gasol.
2. David Joerger's System Is Better
It would've been foolish to expect too much from David Joerger during his first season in charge of the Grizzlies.
After all, he was replacing a high-quality coach—Lionel Hollins—who was only fired because he clashed with the front office. He only recently turned 40 years old and had just his time as an assistant coach for the Grizz as NBA experience.
Growing pains were to be expected. And they happened.
At the beginning of the season, Joerger insisted on having his team push the pace, which didn't suit the personnel on his roster. He was making the classic mistake of attempting to shape his roster to his system, rather than shaping his system to the roster.
As one scout told B/R's Ric Bucher in late November, "It looked as if Joerger was trying to put his stamp on them and the players resisted. They were like, ‘The other way worked, so why change?’ I know they wanted to play faster, but they don’t have that kind of team. They grind."
And it wasn't just anonymous scouts weighing in.
Mike Conley, the team's stud point guard, spoke up as well.
"I know he's learning, going through some bumps and bruises here and there from the learning curve of being a head coach," the southpaw told USA Today's Sam Amick. But then he offered encouragement: "For being young and new, I think he's doing a pretty good job at it."
I thought Dave Joerger was going to be good, then the season started and I thought it was disaster, now it looks good again.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) February 3, 2014
But the struggles are no longer happening. The man in charge is coaching his butt off, utilizing players deep off the bench (more on that later) and allowing everyone to fill roles they're comfortable in.
Last year, that's exactly what made the defense so special. There was an intuitive understanding of positioning, and the lack of hesitation allowed the Grizzlies to rotate with blinding speed and effectiveness.
Now that's happening again, and it led to an NBA press release that reads as follows, courtesy of BasketballInsiders.com:
Joerger led Memphis to the league’s best record in January at 12-3 (.800). The Grizzlies went 7-1 on the road and closed the month by winning 10 of their final 11 games. Memphis, which allowed just three of 15 January opponents to score 100 or more points, swept a home-and-home from the Houston Rockets on Jan. 24-25, and then traveled to Moda Center on Jan. 28, where they topped the Portland Trail Blazers 98-81.
Why was the NBA highlighting Memphis' achievements during January?
Because Joerger was named the Western Conference Coach of the Month—and deservedly so.
Throughout the Grizzlies' hot streak, he's done a fantastic job getting back to the basics. He's promoted offense that relies on ball movement and defense that slows down the tempo of the game and makes opponents quake in their sneakers.
Perhaps most impressively, he's maximized the impact of a number of role players.
3. Role Players Stepping It Up
When Conley went down with an ankle injury suffered against the Minnesota Timberwolves, it could have been seen as a death knell. He missed seven games, but Memphis didn't fall far off pace, even though the team's depth chart behind the former Ohio State standout was pretty ugly.
Fortunately for the Grizz, Nick Calathes stepped up during Conley's absence. The 25-year-old rookie had spent the majority of his time at shooting guard, but the opportunity arose at the 1, and he seized it.
During that seven-game stretch, Calathes averaged 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per contest while shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 40.9 percent beyond the arc. Joerger said he was "the guy" when Conley went down, via Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel, and he wasn't wrong.
However, Calathes hasn't been the only role player standing out lately.
How about James Johnson?
He did that, but he's also played great basketball after re-emerging from the D-League. During February, Johnson has averaged 10.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, stuffing the stat sheet while shooting 47.9 percent from the field.
Then there's Mike Miller, who is finally starting to hit from beyond the arc.
The former Miami Heat sharpshooter has spent February connecting on 44 percent of his three-point attempts, which is a serious step up from the seasonal mark of 42.2. (That includes the damage he's done in February.)
All of a sudden, the Grizzlies are looking deep.
During a 102-96 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 21, 10 different players had double-digit minutes. And that's without Ed Davis factoring in because he's been slumping lately.
Star power at the top, skill on the sideline and depth at the bottom of the roster.
It's a recipe for success, and lately, everything has been cooking properly for Memphis.