LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates his three point basket for a lead over the LA Clippers with James Ennis #8 during the final seconds of the fourth quarter at Staples Center on November 16, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Grizzlies won 111-107.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Memphis has healthy roster for playoff push in stretch run

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) β€” The Memphis Grizzlies’ latest injury reports need a second glance, they appear a bit suspect.

Nobody is listed as hurt or nursing an injury. If someone is out, it’s simply for rest.

No knee problems requiring forward Chandler Parsons to sit. No ankle issues for reserve forward Brandan Wright. No lingering problems from point guard Mike Conley‘s broken back earlier this season, and no more groin issues for defensive stalwart Tony Allen.

There’s not even foot problems for All-Star center Marc Gasol.

Having no injuries to report is a relief for a team that has been hit hard the last two years. The Grizzlies are 34-24 and sixth in the Western Conference heading down the stretch.

“I think our chemistry is starting to come,” forward Zach Randolph said. “Guys are starting to fill into their roles and starting to play a lot better, especially on the defensive end.”

It was just a year ago on Feb. 20, 2016, that Gasol had season-ending surgery to repair his broken right foot, sending the Grizzlies spiraling into a historical season for injuries that finished with Memphis using an NBA-record 28 players . Memphis limped into its sixth consecutive playoff appearance and was mercifully swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.

Memphis’ injury woes seemed to pick up where last season left off for the first three months of this season. Conley missed 11 games, nine with broken vertebrae in his lower back . Wright, hampered by knee issues after signing with Memphis in 2015, dealt with left ankle issues the first 49 games. Parsons, the Grizzlies’ major free agent acquisition last offseason, missed 17 games with knee problems and still doesn’t look completely healed.

That left Memphis with only nine players for a few games.

“It’s nice to have more bullets, definitely,” first-year coach David Fizdale said. “It was fun winning with the Nasty Nine, but it didn’t feel good going into every game with the Nasty Nine, I tell you that.”

Fizdale, hired away from Miami where he assistant head coach, has had players miss a combined 130 games forcing him to adjust lineups regularly while settling into his first head coaching role. As the Grizzlies prepare for the stretch run, Fizdale says he feels prepared for anything.

“I think that was the good part about everything that has happened to us this year,” Fizdale said. “It has prepared me for different things. Our team doesn’t panic when guys go down or when we have to rest a guy. I think that part of it was good for me from a learning standpoint.”

Gasol has recovered so well that he made his third All-Star appearance Sunday. He is averaging 20.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, along with 4.3 assists. At Fizdale’s urging, Gasol has added a new weapon to his post play and midrange jumpers. The 7-foot-1 Spaniard has converted 77 3-pointers this season – a stark improvement from the 12 combined over his previous eight seasons.

Conley also has improved, averaging 19.3 points and 6.2 assists shooting 41 percent from outside the arc. He says he doesn’t notice the back bones he broke Nov. 28 against Charlotte at all.

“I (don’t) think twice about going in the paint or anything,” Conley said. “I’m excited about that and looking forward to a healthy second half.”

With 24 games left, Memphis is only two games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage to start the playoffs. The Grizzlies, who visit Indiana on Friday night, also have an eight-game lead ahead of Denver for the final playoff spot, putting them on course for a seventh consecutive postseason appearance. Only San Antonio and Atlanta have longer active streaks in the NBA.

If the Grizzlies’ current run of good health continues.

Glenn Robinson III does his best to salvage Dunk Contest, gets victory in process

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NEW ORLEANS β€” This year’s NBA All-Star Dunk Contest was doomed to disappoint, it was never going to match last year’s epic battle. It started in a hole.

It never climbed out. Don’t take my word for it, check out what JaVale McGee thought.

Saturday was an underwhelming night of dunks punctuated by a couple of moments of brilliance.

The Pacers’ Glenn Robinson III had the most of those moments β€” which is why he won the event. His strong night started with his first dunk, which may well have been the best of the contest.

“And just talking to a couple people helping me, Vince Carter did one of his best dunks first, and it kind of intimidated people,” Robinson said sitting next to his trophy later. “That’s what I wanted to go out and do. I wanted to do one of my best dunks first. Who knows if it worked? But they missed some of their dunks, and it gave me a little more room.”

The final one from Robinson, the one that sealed the victory, may be the other best dunk of the competition β€” dunking over Paul George, the Pacers mascot, and a Pacers dancer.

“I originally planned for it just to be PG (Paul George),” Robinson said afterward. “I knew I had to bring out something special. We added the mascot and the cheerleader. I really just wanted to get up high and dunk that thing hard, man. My adrenaline was going. It felt like I was looking at the rim. All I knew was the crowd go crazy. I pointed like this because, man, everybody seemed to sleep on me, didn’t really think I was going to win this thing.”

Event favorite Aaron Gordon, who should have won a year ago, opened the contest with an innovative idea β€” a drone dunk β€” but he couldn’t execute it and there were a few attempts before he nailed it.

Gordon didn’t advance out of the first round, and his first dunk summed up the 2017 Dunk Contest β€” interesting ideas that didn’t quite pan out like planned. Gordon said some recent injuries didn’t impact his performance, and that if he had reached the Finals he had another drone dunk planned.

If it wasn’t going to be Gordon, a lot of people expected it to be the bouncy Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. who won, and he reached the Finals in part thanks to this spectacular dunk that woke up the Smoothie King Center up.

DeAndre Jordan was okay, but without Chris Paul throwing him lobs it didn’t quite feel the same. Jordan can dunk with such power in game, but we didn’t see that Saturday.

In the end, it was Robinson who made the plays.

“I’m not really a known dunker,” Robinson said. “I practiced. I prepared. I know I’m a jumper. And like I said, I’m a guy that stays out of the way. But when it’s time to shine, that’s my thing. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew all along I had some things planned, and I just wanted to show the world.”

LeBron James talking a good game, still playing a great one

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) β€” Older, wiser and more aware of the world, LeBron James is unafraid to let his views known on politics or social issues or even the business of basketball.

It wasn’t always that way.

But in his 14th season, with more NBA playing years in his rear-view mirror than left in front of him, James doesn’t see much reason to stay silent these days. His voice is louder than ever when he deems it appropriate while his numbers remain as good as ever. It’s one of the reasons why he’ll again be the star attraction on Sunday night when he plays in the All-Star Game for the 13th time.

“I’ve been vocal about a lot,” James said Saturday. “That’s who I am. I’m a vocal guy. I’ve been vocal about a lot of things this year.”

Whether it was his stance on the presidential election where he supported Hillary Clinton, expressing his displeasure about Phil Jackson’s characterization of the people closest to him , speaking directly to fans through video messages or even saying his Cleveland Cavaliers need another playmaker to help with their NBA title defense, James has been taking full advantage of his massive platform .

This weekend, though, he is trying to take a break from any negativity and enjoy the moment.

“Truly blessed,” James said. “This is a special time for me.”

He’s not alone in that sort of thinking. For all the subplots – the Kevin DurantRussell Westbrook drama, Kyrie Irving‘s claim that the Earth is flat and Carmelo Anthony‘s All-Star nod after some trying times in New York – none of the 24 players who’ll be on the floor Sunday night will likely be thinking about anything besides putting on a show.

James’ two sons are hoping for a show, too. Not from their dad, so much – but rather from their favorites like Westbrook and Stephen Curry.

“LeBron Jr. wore 0 for the longest time because he loves Russ,” James said. “Bryce wore 30 because he likes Steph and likes to shoot the ball from deep. I think that’s pretty cool.”

James’ arrival was the big news of All-Star Saturday, largely because he missed Friday’s events because of family obligations. Durant and Westbrook shared the floor for practice but had minimal interaction – not even looking at each other when they were maybe a foot apart in the back of the Superdome while trying to find their assigned spots for a media session.’

“This game, it’s for the fans,” said Westbrook, the two-time reigning All-Star MVP.

It always is, though this All-Star weekend has a younger feel.

Sunday’s will be the first All-Star Game since 2005 – James’ first All-Star – where no player in the game will be older than 32. Kobe Bryant was 37 when he made his All-Star farewell in Toronto last season, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was two months shy of turning 42 when he played in the game for the last time in 1989.

Anthony is the oldest All-Star, seven months older than James and eight months older than Marc Gasol. They’re all 32.

“It’s pretty weird to be the veterans now when we were the young guys a few years ago, but that’s just the way the league is going, man,” Durant said. “Teams are drafting two or three 18-year-olds a year. … The league is getting younger and at some point we’re going to be the old guys passing the torch to the young guys.”

James is one of those old guys now.

But he’s not ready to pass any torch.

He’s shooting better this season, 54 percent, than he did in his first three MVP years. His 8.8 assists per game have him on pace for a career-best, his rebounding average is essentially the same as it was in all four MVP seasons and his scoring – 25.9 per game – is just a tick below what he did in those years where he was tabbed as the game’s best.

“I take pride in going out every night, and you knowing what you’re going to get from me every night,” James said. “I work on my game. I work on my craft. And to know that my numbers are right up there with my MVP seasons, it just lets me know I’m consistent. You can always book me for whatever my numbers say. Sometimes they’re more. Not going to be less, not that many times.”

Grizzlies reporter asks clueless fans about Zach Randolph’s dunk-contest chances in hilarious video

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Zach Randolph has already dunked twice as much this season as he did all of last season.

But going from one to two didn’t put the ground-bound Grizzlies big man into the dunk contest.

That didn’t stop Alexis Morgan of Grizzlies.com from asking fans in New Orleans for All-Star Weekend about Randolph’s chances in tonight’s signature event:

Rise and resilience (and fall?) of Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind

Memphis Grizzlies players Courtney Lee (5), Tony Allen (9), Mike Conley (11) Zach Randolph, second from left, and Marc Gasol (33) talk during a break in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Grit & Grind was borne out of Tony Allen loathing his defensive assignment.

Allen was mostly coming off the bench in his first season with the Grizzlies, as they prepared for a Feb. 2011 game against the first-place Thunder. So, he studied to guard Oklahoma City super-sub James Harden.

But, with O.J. Mayo already suspended, Rudy Gay was a late scratch due to injury. Memphis inserted Allen into the starting lineup – and told him to cover Kevin Durant. With no time to prepare, Allen seethed.

“It felt like my livelihood, my manhood, everything, was on the line,” Allen said. “I didn’t want to get embarrassed.”

Allen carried his anger into the game and played his heart out. In a four-point overtime win, the Grizzlies outscored Oklahoma City by a whopping 24 points with Allen on the court. He scored 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting with five steals and three blocks. Though Durant finished with 31 points, he’s a generational scorer, and Allen slowed him just enough late.

After the game, Allen was still riding a wave of emotion when, in an on-court interview, he uttered the two words that would define an era.

“It’s just all heart,” Allen said. “Grit. Grind.”

Six years later, a core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are still leading Memphis, which has adopted Grit & Grind as its perfectly fitting slogan.

The quartet’s seven seasons together is NBA’s longest active run for a foursome – one year longer than Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills (yes, five) have all been with the Spurs. In that time, the Grizzlies have established themselves as a team that plays tough and defends.

“It might not be the prettiest of basketball,”Gasol beams. “It might not be the most spectacular.”

But it has been darn effective.

The Memphis quartet reached playoffs all seven seasons together, upsetting the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the 2011 first round and peaking with a trip to the conference finals in 2013. At 34-23, the Grizzlies appear headed back to the postseason again.

There little idea this core would achieve so much when it was formed.

Conley arrived in Memphis first, drafted No. 4 in 2007 and overcoming premature bust labeling. Gasol followed in 2008, when he signed after the Grizzlies acquired his much-overlooked rights in an earlier trade of his brother, Pau Gasol. Then, in 2009, Memphis traded for Randolph, who came cheaply because he had developed a reputation as a troublemaker with the Trail Blazers and Knicks. Allen was the final enduring piece to the puzzle, signed after helping the Celtics win the 2008 title and return to the 2010 Finals as a reserve.

Through the years, they’ve developed a bond evident in their linked competitiveness and on-court chemistry.

“These are the people that I want to go to war with,” Gasol said.

The players have established such a strong culture, it has survived through three coaches.

It blossomed under Lionel Hollins, whose hard-nosed style was integral to the Grizzlies establishing their identity (especially given his insertion of Allen into the starting lineup for that Feb. 2011 game). Dave Joerger followed, and Memphis endured. Now, David Fizdale is in his first season.

“They already had some success before I got there,” Fizdale said. “I just felt like what I needed to do was fill in the gaps to get us a little bit closer to the promised land.”

Fizdale has rejuvenated Conley-Allen-Randolph-Gasol as a unit after it slipped last year. When they shared the floor, those four played better than a 53-win team in each of their first five years together. That dropped to playing like a 38-win team last year. This year, they’re up to a 70-win pace when sharing the court, important considering how little Memphis has gotten from its splashy offseason signing, Chandler Parsons:

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Fizdale has given Conley a larger offensive role, and the point guard is absolutely thriving in it. Career highs in usage percentage (26.0) and true shooting percentage (58.7) have led to him scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game and adding 6.3 assists per game.

Per Fizdale’s suggestion, Gasol has expanded his range beyond the arc. After making 12 3-pointers in his previous eight seasons, he has already hit 77 this season. And he’s doing it efficiently, converting 39.1% of his 3-point attempts.

Fizdale is bringing Randolph off the bench. Not only does that set a tone of sacrifice, Randolph is excelling in his new role, averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The only other primary reserve to meet those marks in the last 25 years was Lamar Odom in 2011.

The coach has unleashed the active Allen on the offensive glass. A poor outside shooter, Allen is hunting offensive rebounds like never before. His 9.4 offensive-rebounding percentage is the best by a rebounding-leaderboard-qualified guard this century. Every other guard ever to hit the mark has been at least eight years younger.

And that’s why time is ticking on this group. Allen (35), Randolph (35), Gasol (32), Conley (29) won’t maintain this production forever – though they’ve already collectively hung on longer than expected.

Contract situations could also break up this group before Father Time. But, again, the Grizzlies have so far staved off that threat more easily than expected.

Despite big-marketΒ rumors and a pending salary-cap explosion incentivizing a shorter contract, Gasol re-signed on a five-year deal in 2015. That commitment presented major risk considering Conley would become an unrestricted free agent the following year. If Conley walked, Gasol could be stuck on a listless team.

But Conley’s teammates recruited it him in their own ways. Allen threatened to flagrantly foul the point guard if he signed elsewhere. “He was serious,” Conley said. “He might have showed up at my house.” Gasol went with honey to Allen’s vinegar.

It didn’t hurt that Memphis offered Conley a five-year contract worth more than $152 million – the biggest deal in NBA history. He of course re-signed, taking advantage of the new salary-cap landscape.

But Gasol returning on faith, in part to keep playing with Conley, the year before also factored.

“I guess there was a little bit there,” Conley said. “You didn’t want to let him down. You didn’t want to let the guys you played with over the last seven, eight years, to let those guys down by leaving, abandoning them. So, in a sense, I felt a sense of responsibility, a sense of loyalty, to my guys. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Conley and Gasol are stars who nearly any team would covet. They determined their own futures. The other half of the Grit & Grind quartet is at the whims of the Grizzlies.

Allen has already popped up in trade rumors, and he and Randolph will be unrestricted free agents this summer.

Randolph walks the middle ground about his plans.

“I want to, of course, be here,” Randolph said. “It’s where I want to finish my career.

“You never know. It’s a business. You never know.”

Allen is more direct about his intentions.

“I don’t want to go nowhere,” Allen said. “I want to be in Memphis.

“I don’t need a lot. But I need to be tooken care of. But my heart is in Memphis.”

Heck, Allen will even answer on Randolph’s behalf.

“I’m pretty sure his heart is in Memphis, too,” Allen said. “I don’t think we’re going to go nowhere. But, obviously, Zach is a higher commodity than me. He’s a 20-and-10 kind of guy. He can start anywhere. That’s basically his deal, and he understands it’s a business. Me, on the other hand, I’ve got my feelings into it. I want to be in Memphis.”

Is it time for a new chapter, or will the Grizzlies keep this core together? Owing Parsons more than $72 million over the next three years complicates the picture. So does the changing landscape of the NBA game, which increasingly values speed and spacing.

But Gasol lays out, in simplest terms, why the Grizzlies must re-sign both Allen and Randolph.

“One is the president of Memphis,” Gasol said. “The other is mayor.”

Gasol, Conley, Randolph and Allen have set a winning tone. They each play off each other in their own way, and disrupting the ecosystem could destroy it.

Fizdale hasn’t been in Memphis long, but he has quickly understood who drives the team’s identity.

“It’s all four of them,” Fizdale said. “They all have an incredible toughness, an ability to rise to the occasion. They’re all connected.”

Those connections have survived countless ups and downs, big and small moments. Gasol looks back fondly on their dinners together. It’s not even the happiest times that stand alone. He recalls meals after playoff losses, when a group of four friends – bonded by pursuing a common goal over a long period off time – connect more deeply.

“Everybody is more vulnerable or more open,” Gasol said. “Everything is more real after a loss, and everybody is just more open. More fragile, maybe. I think, after a loss, you sit, and you talk, and you share some wine or whatever it is that you drink, or a Shirley Temple you may like to drink, whatever it is. And you just talk in there, and you open your heart and talk. We always find that we always stay on the same side.”