TORONTO -- Dave Joerger never wanted his team to panic. After a difficult start to his first season as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, and with pressure rising by the day, he broke the schedule up into weeks. Joerger told his players to stay focused on what was immediately in front of them. Thinking about the hill that they had to climb would only drive them crazy.
"Since January we've been treating games as if, 'Hey, this is a must-win game, this is a playoff game, this is gonna set us up for next week,'" Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. "We're worried about days in advance, not even worried about the playoff standings. We're like, 'Man, we need to win two out of three or three out of four this week so we can set ourselves up for next week and have a chance for winning some of those.'"
Memphis' approach worked. The Grizzlies have gone 29-11 since the start of the new year, a record topped by only the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. With three weeks left in the regular season, Memphis has made it to the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference -- percentage points ahead of the Dallas Mavericks -- with the Phoenix Suns half a game back.
"I don't think people really understand how tough the West is," Conley said. "It's just been a dogfight from the beginning."
While the Grizzlies are just trying to survive, their opponents have a different perspective. They see most of the pieces that took Memphis to the Western Conference Finals last season. They see a team that wants to rough you up on defense and that possesses an improved offense implemented by Joerger. If the Grizzlies do hold onto their playoff spot, no one's looking past them.
Getting back in the mix is an accomplishment, but the Grizzlies have no time to savor the moment. In this topsy-turvy season, they've come a long way to fight for their lives.
"I don't even know if you can even put into words what we've been through mentally," Conley said. "Just the expectations coming into this season and starting off slow, having big-time injuries and midway through the year finding ourselves and coming back and fighting all the way back from the bottom, trying to get back to the playoff race. It's been a whirlwind, a roller coaster, and we've embraced it and we've just learned from it."
During training camp in 2012-2013, Lionel Hollins' coaching staff felt it had an often-overlooked edge on their competition. Hollins had spent the previous three and a half seasons presiding over a vagabond cast of characters and turning them into a defense-first group defined by their toughness. No one hyped them up as contenders, but the core players knew each other's games and their coach's expectations.
Memphis started 12-2 and finished 56-26. Undeterred by a controversial midseason trade that sent forward Rudy Gay to Toronto and rumblings of a rift between Hollins and the new front office, the Grizzlies enjoyed the best season in franchise history.
This preseason was drastically different. Hollins was gone, as well as most of his staff. Joerger was elevated to the head coaching position, with only assistant coach Bob Thornton remaining.
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Joerger wanted to improve on an offense that ranked No. 17 in the NBA in points per possession and sputtered against San Antonio in a four-game sweep in the conference finals. He said he wouldn't get away from the Grizzlies' identity, but there would be changes. They'd still pound people in the paint, but he wanted more creativity. He wanted to get into sets quicker, to have better spacing and ball movement. How this would jibe with their frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph was at the time still a mystery.
The players were used to Joerger's energetic spirit as an assistant, but moving over one seat meant he had to dole out the discipline, too. There was an unavoidable adjustment period on both sides, Xs and Os and otherwise.
"We've had to learn a whole new offense, see a different side of Joerger that we hadn't seen before just cause he's a head coach now instead of an assistant," Conley said in October after a 36-point preseason loss.
After the Grizzlies' success, though, patience wasn't popular. Call it the hidden cost of overachieving.
"Everyone's got high expectations," swingman Mike Miller said that same night. "Rightfully so. We've got a good basketball team with a great coach. But the West is a bear this year, so it's going to take a team playing at the highest level, their best basketball and even getting a little lucky at the right time."
Luck eluded the Grizzlies early in the season. An opening night playoff rematch saw San Antonio outscore them 30-7 in a disastrous second quarter. On Nov. 22, they were 7-5 and saw the Spurs again. That's when the serious trouble began. In the first half, the Grizzlies' All-Star center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year hobbled to the sidelines.
An MRI the next day revealed Gasol had a sprained MCL. Two weeks later, forward Quincy Pondexter suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. Pondexter, who had just signed a four-year extension, was a big part of Memphis' playoff run the previous season. A defeat in Dallas on Dec. 18 dropped the Grizzlies to 10-15. They were last in their division, third-worst in the West.
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"You're gonna see, what, six, seven, possibly eight teams get 50 wins," Joerger said. "So, when you're sitting there at 10-15, you're like, holy. Now I'm doing the math again, right? Well, we gotta go 40 and whatever, and that's the mental stressor of it for coaches. But for players, it's just, hey, you just gotta go out and try to get healthy and try to win the next game."
Things turned around with time and more talent on the floor. Gasol returned in the middle of January, having just watched them take two crucial games from the Suns without him. In his first two weeks back, they disposed of the Rockets twice, as well as the Thunder and the Blazers.
Journeyman forward James Johnson, called up from the D-League in December, provided athleticism and defensive versatility. An early-January trade sent Jerryd Bayless to Boston in exchange for Courtney Lee, who was an immediate game-changer and slid into the starting lineup as the two-way shooting guard Memphis had needed for years. The deal had the added benefit of freeing up minutes for backup point guard Nick Calathes, who won the West's Rookie of the Month award after he had to step in for an injured Conley in February.
"I thought all the guys who were playing weeks before Marc came back kind of got us rolling," Conley said. "We started to find a little rhythm, we won some games, some big-time games, beat some big teams and Marc came back right in the middle of that. So I think, right when he came back, it was like, 'Man, we finally found a groove, now we can add Marc to it we're going to be golden.' That's kind of how we saw it and how it's worked out for us."
The Grizzlies are still the slowest team in the league, but in March they've forced more turnovers and pushed the pace a little bit. The defense is fueling the offense, which is less stagnant now. They've won 10 of their last 13 games and 15 of their last 20 and seem to be peaking at the right time. The veterans in the locker room understood all along that they couldn't feel sorry for themselves when nothing was going their way.
"That's how the NBA is, every season something happens," Gasol said. "You can prepare for a season a certain way. It's how you react to certain things in-season that really matter. That's what I believe."
Far from a favorite approaching the postseason, Memphis' sights are set on a lower seed. In a perfect world, the Grizzlies would have liked home-court advantage, but playing the role of spoiler is comfortably familiar. It's why no team wants any part of them.
"Pretty much everybody on this team has been an underdog," Conley said. "We have no superstars. We've had guys who have been traded and benched and everything you can think of. We've got a team full of guys that are used to having to play from behind, so we're comfortable with it.
"Hopefully, we'll get to the playoffs and have a chance in it."