Grizzlies show one player can make an impact

OKLAHOMA CITY – Before anyone jumps to any conclusions from what happened Thursday night between Memphis and Oklahoma City, it’s probably best to not make any quick judgements.

In the first game since the Grizzlies traded away their leading scorer, Memphis struggled to score.

And in the first game back after the longest road trip in franchise history, it seemed like the Thunder couldn’t miss.

The result was a 106-89 Oklahoma City victory, but the true measure of these teams and their place in the Western Conference will be determined in the next few months.

For now, Oklahoma City has maintained its spot among the elite after dealing away one of its best players in November.

As for Memphis? We’ll see. But after Thursday’s limp-in against the Thunder, it sure doesn’t look great.

“Time will tell,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said about whether trading away Rudy Gay will make Memphis weaker. “Rudy Gay has been a big part of our success and a big part of my success as a coach here.”

Thursday, Memphis looked anemic. The Grizzlies shot 26 percent in the first half and trailed by 24 heading into the break. And it couldn’t have helped that newly acquired Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis weren’t with the team as they finished up their physicals back in Memphis.

Fourth in the Western Conference coming in with the best start in franchise history, Memphis, now 29-16, is a bigger question mark without Gay than the Thunder were when they went into the season trading away James Harden.

Then again, the Thunder had scorers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to cushion the blow. Memphis doesn’t have the same sort of talent, but does have Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, although in their first game without Gay, the Memphis big-man duo went a combined 10-for-32, including Randolph starting by missing his first nine shots.

“When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget,” Hollins said. “We’re in a small market, and I understand the economics of being in a small market.”

Well, the economics seems to be a priority in Memphis, and Hollins wasn’t shy about getting in front of the story, suggesting his team wouldn’t be able to hold onto three high-priced players. New owner Robert Pera and his new management group have cut more than $12 million in payroll in just more than a week, working a pair of trades. They let Gay go. He is making nearly $16.5 million this season and has an option for $19.3 million before the 2014-15 season. They replaced him with Prince, who makes about $7 million. Gone along with Gay’s money is 17.2 points per game and his track record of being in the top five of nearly every offensive category in Memphis team history.

For now, this champagne taste the Grizzlies developed when they made a run two seasons ago, albeit without Gay, who was injured, looks sour. Even the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins said so when he tweeted about how it was a bad trade. Another deep playoff push looks unlikely, despite Davis developing into a nice player and Prince having loads of championship experience.

And this team isn’t at the same talent level that took out top-seeded San Antonio in the playoffs, then took the Thunder to seven games in 2011. O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier aren’t around, and Jerryd Bayless and Chris Johnson aren’t good enough to take off the pressure that is now squarely on Gasol and Randolph down low.

“I feel like that,” Randolph said of what could be teams packing it in defensively. “Tayshaun can shoot. If not, it will be like tonight.”

Tonight was Thursday, and Memphis went 6-of-25 on 3-pointers and shot 34.7 percent for the game.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, the Thunder and its much-talked about preseason trade of star James Harden trade seems to have become an afterthought. The Thunder have flourished with Kevin Martin coming off the bench, and despite a recent 3-3 road trip, are 35-11 and virtually tied with San Antonio for the top spot in the West and at the forefront of the championship discussion.

Give the Grizzlies a pass for Thursday. They looked out of sorts from the beginning, and that can be attributed to new faces in new places and absent stars. But give the Thunder credit for Thursday, too. Not only did they come out with a purpose, shooting 80 percent in the first quarter and leading by as many as 26, but they distanced themselves from a sluggish road trip where they lost to Denver, Golden State and the Lakers – all possible playoff teams.

Now you have to wonder if these teams, which have developed a chippy Western Conference rivarly, are heading in different directions. The Thunder will be answering questions about the Spurs and the Heat and the Grizzlies will be answering questions about their payroll.

“We’ll see,” said Gasol. “Only time is going to tell. I’m excited about it. I think we can be a good team. I mean, we are a good team, and now, the only thing I worry about is this locker room, not all that other stuff. Everything outside of here you have to take in perspective. People just don’t know.

“I’m just trying to be positive.”

Looking at it from the brightest side: It would be hard to make the case, even with Gay, that the Grizzlies could be a championship contender. And now, even the most positive, Gasol-like outlook suggests that this team will likely get a little worse.

But they saved some dollars and they still have a dynamic Randolph, whose best moments came in 2011 when Gay wasn’t on the floor.

“We have to play basketball and be who we are,” Gasol said. “That’s it. I’m excited about the new guys coming in.”