NEW ORLEANS — When Greivis Vasquez looks at the Memphis Grizzlies, it gives him hope concerning the New Orleans Hornets.
Vasquez, who was the Grizzlies’ backup point guard before being obtained in a trade for swingman Quincy Pondexter, said he remembers when the Grizzlies, a recent playoff team, were having a hard time winning.
“When Mike Conley was in his second year and going into his third year, they struggled,” said Vasquez, who is in his third NBA season and ranks fifth in the NBA in assists at 8.7 per game. “My rookie year was their first year making the playoffs. Now they’re playing great basketball because they have been together through the ups and downs and bad and good.”
Sixteen games into this season, the Grizzlies (13-3), whom the Hornets (5-12) play tonight at New Orleans Arena, have the best record in the NBA.
One doesn’t have to look far to see the main reason. When a front court of burly power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol as well as small forward Rudy Gay, one of the top athletes in the league, the Grizzlies are a physical challenge for any opponent.
Randolph is second in the league in rebounding (12.7 per game) and first in double-doubles (14). In Memphis’ most recent game against Phoenix, he bullied the Suns for 38 points and 22 rebounds.
“In my opinion, they’re the best team in the NBA, and it’s due in part to that front line,” said Hornets coach Monty Williams. “Rudy Gay is playing some of his best basketball, if not the best. Zach has always been a monster, scoring and rebounding, and Marc is improving every year, and he’s already an All-Star.”
Memphis’ backcourt complements the frontcourt well. Off guard Tony Allen is considered the league’s best perimeter defender, and point guard Mike Conley, like Gasol, has improved every year.
“They have some weapons, and Conley is an upper-level point guard,” said Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles on Monday at the Arena. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit, but he can really run a club. I think he’s matured and gotten a little bit older and knows what it takes to win.”
Conley is averaging career highs of 15.3 points per game, 6.7 assists, 2.57 steals, ranking third in the NBA, and 49.7 in field-goal percentage and an impressive 46.3 percent in 3-point shooting.
The Grizzlies lost their season opener at the Los Angeles Clippers, 101-92, then reeled off 12 victories in their next 13 games before losing in overtime to San Antonio 99-95 at home on Dec. 1.
During its eight-game winning streak after the loss to the Clippers, Memphis took consecutive home victories against Miami, Oklahoma City and New York, and later beat the Lakers. In the back-to-back wins against the Heat and Thunder, who played in last year’s NBA Finals, Gay averaged 24.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 50 percent shooting.
As if the Grizzlies don’t present enough problems, the Hornets have a big one of their own to overcome. A pattern of third-quarter meltdowns has seriously hampered the team’s chances of winning this season.
In six of the Hornets’ 12 losses, the opponent scored an average of 30.6 points to the Hornets’ 15.3.
In another loss, on Nov. 16, the Thunder outscored the Hornets’ 36-18 in the first quarter and 30-19 in the second. And, in another, at Houston on Nov. 14, New Orleans was outscored 39-18 in the second.
In nearly each case, opponents say there was no change in strategy, just an increase in intensity and focus.
“We seem to start the second half with less force,” said Williams. “Maybe I need to shorten our film study (at halftime). But it’s really something we have to take care of.”