Joerger maintains Grizzlies’ winning ways in debut coaching season

Led by their hard-nosed, but media-friendly coach Dave Joerger, the Grizzlies -- who face the Thunder in the Western Conference quarterfinals -- have posted 50 wins in back-to-back seasons.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dave Joerger walked into a fire. Bare feet. With lighter fluid leaking from his pockets.

But far away from the home tyrants behind the bench yelling about his poor choice of lineups, Joerger finds solace in the fresh air outside his home out in the country.

"Chicago at home was tough," Joerger said prior to Thursday’s practice at FedExForum. "Because you know you’re gonna pay for it. We can look back now and say they were bad losses. I knew then, ‘You’re going to pay for this later.’ In the Western Conference, you can’t get away with that. So, that wasn’t fun."

The aforementioned Bulls handed Memphis a 95-91 loss on Dec. 30 — dropping the Grizzlies to 13-18 at the turn of the calendar.

You know, the Grizzlies with all five starters back from the club’s first Western Conference finals trip. The team that showed Lionel Hollins — the winningest coach in franchise history — the door.

Joerger succeeded Hollins this season, seemingly walking right into an impossible situation.

"There was more than one low," said Joerger, before laughing.

On Thursday, Joerger was named Western Conference Coach of the Month for the second time. The Grizzlies went 6-2 in April. It took a playoff mentality for nearly four months for Memphis (50-32) to earn a postseason spot.

The Grizzlies clinched a playoff slot on Monday, knocking off the Phoenix Suns on the road. Two days later, they locked up the No. 7 seed — and a date with 2-seeded Oklahoma City — with an overtime victory over the Mavericks (the West’s 8-seed).

The win against the Mavericks gave Memphis back-to-back 50-win seasons for the first time. It has vaulted Joerger from the guy who replaced Hollins to … the guy who still gets yelled at for his matchup choices.

"We just won 14 in a row at home, so, I mean it’s every single game, it’s just like, whatever," Joerger said.

A hint of sarcasm. But he’s earned that right, though it’s not pointed at any fan or Memphian. Joerger has proved his worth. When Hollins wasn’t "retained," everyone knew it was Joerger’s job.

George Karl could have bought a room across the street at the Westin and everyone knew Joerger was the guy the front office wanted coaching the team.

It started slow, a tweaked offensive scheme, maybe a WCF hangover, an adjustment to Joerger. Key reserve Quincy Pondexter was lost for the season in early December. Whatever it was, Memphis slumbered to a 3-5 start.

But things were coming together. The Grizzlies won four straight on the West Coast — beating the Lakers, Kings, Clippers and Warriors on the road.

Just as things were starting to pick up, center Marc Gasol went down, suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain in a Nov. 22 loss against the Spurs. Memphis subsequently lost 14 of its next 24, including a stretch of five straight in December.

Joerger was to blame. He replaced a part that seemingly wasn’t broken. Surely this wouldn’t have happened if Lionel were still here.

When Joerger started his tenure at 10-15 following a 14-point loss at Dallas, things were bad. Fans were heckling. They were right, and they knew it. Hollins should still be the coach. Joerger is in over his head. He’s too nice. He doesn’t put enough air in the game ball.

"It was hard. We’re struggling. We’ve got great guys and they’re trying so hard, but we’re not getting the results that we want," Joerger said.

But since 10-15, the Grizzlies are 40-17. That’s a winning percentage of 70 percent.

Gasol’s return, Mike Miller’s recent shooting spark, Mike Conley’s new aggression, Zach Randolph playing like he’s 24 again. All factors in the Grizzilies’ second-half resurgence.

But a lot of credit goes to Joerger, as well. He held together a leaky vessel, one that had to be patched and required new parts, namely Courtney Lee and James Johnson.

Lee was starting within a week of his acquisition from Boston. Johnson was a D-League steal, an instant spark, a plug Memphis needed with Tony Allen shelved for 21 games with a sprained left wrist.

"Resilient," Miller said. "As a coach, it takes resilience. Tough situation coming in. Expectations were through the roof. Dealt with injuries. You put all that stuff in a pot and you spin it around and come out and you’re a 50-win team? You’ve got to give him a lot of credit for what he’s done."

There are still Joerger-haters and if Joerger bombs in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll be loud. Loud and impossible to convince that Dave Joerger isn’t trying to destroy the Memphis Grizzlies.

Give the guy some credit. If he were going to take down the plane, at least give him enough credit that he’d do it in record fashion and get in a front-row seat for the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.

Joerger established his roots here when he came to Marc Iavaroni’s staff in 2007. He committed to Memphis way before he got to that end of the bench. People forget how bad the defense was before he got here and how it climbed — atop the league in points allowed last season (3rd in 2013-14).

Joerger is genuine. He’s crazy about a city that is crazy about its basketball. He isn’t afraid to thank the media — a rarity in itself — like he did following Wednesday night’s win. The same night, he walked unannounced into a postgame radio show and gave the same gratitude to the fans and host Gary Darby.

"I just think there are a lot of people that listen on the radio and watch on TV that may or may never get to a game but once or twice a year," Joerger said. "But they’re passionate, and they care and it’s OK to disagree with me, or our players and how they play or what they do. But at the end of the day, we’re all in it for the Grizz."

Joerger accepts the highs and lows of coaching in similar ways, stepping away for an hour or two after a game and taking in the fresh air at home, in the country.

On Saturday, he’ll be thrust right back into the spotlight for his first playoff game as a head coach. Game 3 will be in Memphis (April 24), where there will be a share of his team’s own fans yelling at him.

He deserves the right to turn around about mid-third quarter and tell those guys, "Whatever."