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Observation Deck

Grizzlies pick up pace, rising/falling players and more

Posted: Tuesday January 16, 2007 2:07PM; Updated: Tuesday January 16, 2007 2:46PM
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Tony Barone has tranformed the last-place Grizzlies into a running team since replacing Mike Fratello as head coach.
Tony Barone has tranformed the last-place Grizzlies into a running team since replacing Mike Fratello as head coach.
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It nearly goes without saying that there is usually quite a fair amount of pressure weighing on the shoulders of your typical NBA coach, with little personal payoff besides an enviable bank account and a good bit of internal satisfaction derived from a winning turn.

With the possible exception of your litany of Dean Smith acolytes and the dynamic between a head man and his assistants, the coaching fraternity offers very little actual fraternization. These guys rarely slunk off to the same sitting room, smoking jacket in hand, when their careers end. Sure, they might pair up to call the odd TNT game during the playoffs, but an ex-coach has a better chance of being paired with an irreverent ex-jock than a former sideline contemporary. And you're more likely to hear sniping in the press between two retired coaches than heartwarming stories of bread being broken over an ex-coach get-together spearheaded by Gene Shue.

Though these coaches rarely have to answer to each other in person during their inactive years, they still seem to fall in line with the same styles of thinking when preparing their team for game action. These guys are nothing if not creatures of habit -- not quite slavish imitators, but they will go to great lengths to copy and emulate le Right Way du jour, whether they're ripping off plays from the disparate styles of a Larry Brown or a Mike D'Antoni. Whatever usually works for the guy at the top of the division works for them. Because, should the smoking jacket scenario finally come true, no coach wants to be laughed out of their easy chair after kibitzing with Chuck Daly at the Old Coaches Home.

Which is why it's always fun to see a coach go against the grain, leaving himself open to ridicule while finding his way through an 82-game season. Sometimes the (relative) unorthodoxy works, and you find yourself labeled an iconoclast (Phil Jackson) or an innovative NBA saver (Mr. D'Antoni) as the wins pile up. And sometimes you last long enough just to take in a few sneers and insincere plaudits from your opponent from across the sideline, which will probably be the case for Memphis interim boss Tony Barone.

Barone took over for the deposed Mike Fratello in late December, and immediately demanded that his Grizzlies push the ball. We talked a bit about the early results, which were then broken down even further by numbers analysts far smarter than the mug's mug you see at the top of this page, and Memphis' pace has sustained. This team runs (it's gone from the NBA low in possessions per game under Fratello to the most under Barone), and this team is still lousy (average score under Barone: 111.6 to 118.9).

But the Grizzlies run, which goes against everything we've been taught to believe about trying to win with an overmatched team. The usual brand of thinking, with Fratello as its principal avatar, told us that the underdogs needed to slow the pace, keep games close and wait for the more talented team to lose focus and make a late game-changing mistake or two. That's when you execute a play cobbled together by your genius of a coach, nail your free throws and pull out the 89-84 win.

And yet, there were just as many (usually more) 84-89 losses with teams like these, games that were absolute drudgery to sit through. Barone's not buying into that line of thinking, and though the Grizz are still getting walloped (they lost by 45 to the Bulls on Saturday), they're at least fun to watch. And Barone isn't waiting for a Steve Nash or Allen Iverson to lead his attack; his team is pushing the ball with 33-year-old Damon Stoudamire (fresh off major knee surgery after years of ankle troubles) at the helm.

It may not win him any style points with his fellow coaches (though his Carl Sagan-inspired outfit from Saturday night was a nice choice), but Barone is proving that losing doesn't have to result in a lost cause in the aesthetics department, a realization most coaches probably made years ago but were probably too timid to do anything about.

• On the flip side, Brian Hill's Orlando Magic are an old-fashioned, slug-it-out team that is winning slowly without winning ugly. Though Hill's rotation is filled with talented types, they're best served waiting for screens (like point guards Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo), working in the post after the cutters have gone through (Dwight Howard), operating in one-on-one isolations (Grant Hill) or chucking a 25-footer with all options exhausted and the shot clock dwindling (poor Hedo Turkoglu).

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