LOS ANGELES -- The first thing you need to know about the Memphis Grizzlies is that not even all of the Grizzlies can identify their teammates.
“With all due respect, sometimes I don’t know … the last names,” Matt Barnes said. “But that’s what kind of season it’s been.”
Twenty-seven players have donned a Grizzlies uniform over the course of this season, the most by an NBA team in almost 20 years. Six players on the current roster are in their first or second years in the league. The more familiar names like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are out with injuries. Mario Chalmers isn’t even around anymore; he tore his Achilles tendon on March 10 and the Grizzlies waived him the next day.
The next thing you need to know about the Grizzlies is they stink. Literally. The locker room smells like a room full of fantasy basketball campers, reeking of the balms and ointments that Barnes, Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen rub on their legs and joints to coax whatever degrees of flexibility they still have left. “Pain zone” is Carter’s bottle of choice. He and Z-Bo call it “Old Man Sauce.”
And here’s the confounding thing about these Grizzlies: the collection of old guys and anonymous players is somehow sticking around in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture.
“It’s crazy,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “It’s a couple of things, though. First of all, it’s veteran leadership. It’s Matt Barnes, Vince Carter, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph. Those guys have really been helping our younger guys, taking them under their wing. Our staff has done a great job with the young guys and new guys and helping them get acclimated.
“Our guys have accepted each other for who they are as individuals.”
That all-around buy-in has enabled the Grizzlies to collect victories over the playoff-bound Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers this month; it has enabled them to maintain a grasp of the fifth playoff spot in the West and likely first-round matchup with the Clippers that would accompany the No. 5 seed.
“This ain’t our team, but we’re taking the best out of it,” Randolph said. “The good thing is these guys they’re young and they’re hungry.”
“Normally when you have this many fill-ins and D-League players, it’s for a team that’s not competing for [anything],” Barnes said. “The fact that we’ve been competing for a spot and been maintaining if not gained ground, you’ve got to take your hat off to those guys who have come in and played.”
Monday night, Jordan Farmar literally came in and played. He had been out of the NBA, working out at Impact Athletics gym in Las Vegas. In the summer, the gym is filled with pro players. Lately, Farmar has had it to himself. Occasionally, he’d go against a grad student just to face a defender. Farmar signed a 10-day contract with the Grizzlies on Monday, and that night, he wound up scoring nine fourth-quarter points, including two free throws to put the Grizzlies four points ahead of the Phoenix Suns with 12 seconds left.
“A week ago, I’m sitting on the couch. Now, I’m making game-winning free throws,” Farmar said. “That’s just how it goes in this business sometimes.”
Meanwhile, the lack of familiarity with the Grizzlies’ system means fewer guidelines, a faster tempo and more spontaneity. Freelancing and Free-Lance Stephenson. Stephenson is averaging 15 points and shooting 50 percent since he was traded from the Clippers to the Grizzlies in February. These numbers are better than any of his previous full seasons.
“Freedom ... that’s what I need, freedom,” Stephenson said. “When I’ve got freedom, when I’m playing without thinking, if I make a mistake, I’m going to come out. That’s when I’ve played better. Coach has been doing a good job.”
Allen has posted 20 or more points in three games this month -- including 27 on a perfect 12-for-12 night from the field in a 107-100 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night -- after he didn’t break the 20-point plateau at any previous point this season.
Allen insists this isn’t out of character for him: “Y’all better go look up the archives, man.”
He scored 20-plus points seven times with the Boston Celtics in 2006-07, and again in 2010-11, his first year in Memphis. But he hadn’t scored 20 since the 2011-12 season until this recent scoring binge. In the absence of Conley and Gasol, the ball is finding its way to him. After years of defenses sagging off and asking him to shoot (a key tactic in the Golden State Warriors’ victory over Memphis in the Western Conference semifinals last season), Allen is finally being the aggressor and punishing teams.
“Some nights are better than others, but that ain’t my mode coming into the game, trying to score,” Allen said. “If the opportunity comes, I’m going to take advantage. But for the most part, I’m a glue guy. Trying to fill in the gap. It might be on the defensive end. It might be on the rebounding end. It might be getting a few extra steals. Whatever it may be.”
Allen might need to be even better than perfect down the stretch, as eight of the Grizzlies’ final 10 games are against playoff teams, including four against the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors.
Memphis does have a 4 1/2 game cushion over the Portland Trail Blazers though, a slight comfort zone built by the Grizzlies' ability to concoct a few victories when the odds were already tilted against them.