The Memphis Grizzlies are on the verge of their first playoff berth since 2006 with enough youthful bravado to be a dangerous postseason foe.
And the city is finally buzzing about the NBA.
Mike Conley has endured the growing pains of his first four NBA seasons, and he almost can't believe how far the Grizzlies have come. He says the difference in the atmosphere is night and day — both in the locker room and from fans now excited about the team.
"I'm very happy. Not satisfied, but it's a great feeling to be in the position we're in right now," Conley said.
The Grizzlies are close to backing up their owner's prediction of making the playoffs this season and capping a three-year rebuilding plan with a team that wins with defense, scoring in the paint and just plain toughness.
Their magic number to clinch a berth is two with two home games remaining, needing a combination of Houston losses or Memphis wins going into Wednesday night's games. They also trailed Portland by one game for the Western Conference's sixth seed with four games left.
Memphis is 44-34 after Tuesday night's 82-81 loss to the Clippers, already a four-game improvement over last season and a remarkable accomplishment for a team that lost its leading scorer to a season-ending injury on Feb. 15. Rudy Gay, who was averaging 19.8 points per game, hurt his left shoulder against Philadelphia and had surgery last month.
That only hurt a team mostly built through the draft that came into this season as the NBA's least experienced team with just an average of 2.6 years of experience.
Until the Grizzlies orchestrated a trade to bring back Shane Battier and Jason Williams, Zach Randolph was their oldest player at 29. That's just a few months older than Tony Allen, who was signed to a multiyear deal last summer. They signed forward Leon Powe on March 5 to help replace Gay.
Coach Lionel Hollins, who received a contract extension after last season, said adding the veterans gave the Grizzlies some balance. Sam Young, a draft pick in 2009, had been in and out of the starting lineup. Darrell Arthur was hurt a year ago and didn't return until late. Marc Gasol got hurt, and Conley still was growing into his job at point guard.
"If we had to count on all the young guys, we'd be in the same boat this year as we were last year," Hollins said. "They're trying to find their way and play with poise and execute and get things done. The veteran guys know how to do it, and they just do it."
The Grizzlies have won 26 of their last 37 games also thanks to their strength inside. They are the NBA's best scoring team in the paint (51.3 points per game) behind Randolph and Marc Gasol. Battier was part of the Grizzlies' first three playoff teams, and he sees Randolph and Gasol as the dominant inside presence they didn't have between 2004 and 2006.
"We had Pau (Gasol), but that was about it. We had really good perimeter players. This team, obviously, the strength is in the interior," Battier said.
No one ever questioned Randolph's talent, just his off-court judgment. Now the Grizzlies are talking about a new contract for Randolph, who is one of only four NBA players averaging at least 20 points (20.1) and 10 rebounds per game — along with Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. The man known as Z-Bo just earned his third Western Conference player of the week honor Monday.
The 7-foot-1 Gasol, Pau's younger brother, is shooting a team-best 52.8 percent and averaging a career-high 1.65 blocks per game.
Allen is such a sensation that fans are wearing T-shirts in honor of his hustle, and the Grizzlies play a video of him late in close games to pump up the crowd. Allen is averaging 4.21 steals per game over 48 minutes, the highest since 1993-94, and he ranks fifth in the NBA in steals per game.
That has helped the Grizzlies lead the league in turnovers forced (16.71) and steals (9.46).
Along with the wins, attendance also has improved for the team Michael Heisley couldn't sell a few years ago. Memphis ranked last in the NBA in 2007, averaging 14,654, but now the Grizzlies are 26th with an average of 16,266 fans coming into the FedExForum just off Beale Street.
Memphis holds the dubious NBA mark for most playoff losses without a win at 12, having been swept its previous three postseason trips. This team is a bit more confident after going 10-6 this season against the West's top four seeds, splitting the series with both San Antonio and the Lakers, and going 3-1 against Dallas and Oklahoma City.
Guard O.J. Mayo said the Grizzlies have given fans plenty to notice.
"It lets them come out and have something to do on evenings when they don't have anything to do to come and watch us play and get the city excited for the playoffs," Mayo said.
AP freelance writer Clay Bailey in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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