The Pelicans’ games missed because of injury this season is teetering on 200, with starters Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter and Bryce Dejean-Jones all sidelined from here on out. Toney Douglas, part of the early cavalry when the bodies first began to pile up on the training tables, replaced 10-dayer Orlando Johnson in the starting lineup, bringing their league-high opening combinations to 31.
The Grizzlies, however, are one of the rare teams able to trump them: They were without their three best players (Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph) and two big men (Brandan Wright, Chris Andersen); had to waive Mario Chalmers to open up a roster spot a day after the early-season acquisition ruptured his right Achilles tendon; lost Vince Carter in the first quarter to a left leg injury; and started Briante Weber on the first day of his new 10-day contract.
Memphis, the current No. 5 seed in the West, had eight healthy players once Carter went down. New Orleans, down to 0.1 percent playoff odds, had 10 but played seven for 13 minutes or more.
“It’s not easy, it’s not enjoyable,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “There’s a lot of pressure because, as a minor league coach, everybody says you can just go to college. But you really can’t. There are two separate ponds; very few people cross back and forth unless you have tremendous contacts. So you are under a lot of pressure there of your own. You put yourself under that pressure because you know if you don’t win, you’ll be out of a job. If you’re out of a job, you’re on the other side of the recorder. It’s been tough, but in this situation you do the best you can.”
By the end of the night, the following things happened: Lance Stephenson, on his fourth team in three seasons, finished with a career-high 33 points; Matt Barnes had his first career triple-double at age 36 (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists); JaMychal Green had a career-high 21 points; Jrue Holiday had a double-double (34 points, 10 assists) in a season-high 41 minutes; Jerry “The King” Lawler maintained the “Grizzlyweight” title belt in a halftime wrestling match; and the Grizzlies beat the Pelicans 121-114 in overtime at FedEx Forum.
“Well, they have an All-Star center and what should be an All-Star point guard out. It came down to the end of the game of just making tough plays,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “They made the tough plays and we didn’t. That’s basically what it came down to.”
The Pelicans have lost six of their past seven games and are 4-7 after the All-Star break.
“They played hard,” said Dante Cunningham, who had a season-high 17 points. “They kind of got into us a little bit, and we didn’t really push back enough.”
With the hopes of repeating the second-half surge that pushed them into the final West playoff spot last season all but gone, Gentry has said recently that, in addition to winning, he wants the Pelicans to set a foundation, to build a culture to move forward with. That’s partly why he moved Holiday, a reserve since Dec. 4, back into the first unit three games ago.
“We’re looking for it,” Holiday said of the elusive team identity. “We’re looking for it."
If there’s anything left of the “Grit ‘N’ Grind” era in Memphis, it’s the tough-guy ethos. The Grindhouse still rocks in tight games. The “growl towels” still fly. The players -- even the ones they’re using now to plug their many holes -- still snarl (or in Stephenson’s case, shimmy.)
Memphis upended the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers with just eight players four nights ago and was able to drag out a win against New Orleans with Tony Allen -- a non-shooting shooting guard now struggling to find his place in a 3-happy league -- as the only vestige of the Grizzlies' heyday left in uniform.
The Pelicans indeed have their own stockpile of injuries, but they still have one of the best young players in history on their side. If there’s a moral to a 40th loss in a forgettable season, maybe it starts there.
“We have to be that grit-and-grind team just like them,” said Anthony Davis, who finished with 25 points (9-for-17) and 13 rebounds on his 23rd birthday. “No matter who’s on the floor, they’re going to play hard, play aggressive, and that’s how we have to be. We have to be a team that goes out there for the whole 48 minutes. We were able to come back tonight, but in overtime we were just a different team.”
The Grizzlies’ identity, even in the midst of a potential existential crisis, is still plastered all over the city of Memphis.
“This is the time when everybody pulls together,” Stephenson said. “We’ve got guys coming in on 10-days, trying our best to help everybody. I just got in here, so I’m just trying to get with the coaches and just get a lot of help from my teammates and the guys who have been here, just having fun and competing. A lot of guys have something to prove that are playing right now, so that’s probably the edge we have right now.”