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Grizzlies think big with Gay healthy, core intact

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)

With Marc Gasol signed and Rudy Gay healed, the Memphis Grizzlies are thinking and talking big.

The focus is now on winning titles, not just a playoff game.

''It's obvious that as a team, we have a lot of optimism. We feel like we have a team to make a run at a championship,'' point guard Mike Conley said.

That's a far cry from previous seasons where Memphis sought to be competitive. Once they made the playoffs last season, the Grizzlies wanted to just win the franchise's first playoff game after three previous trips to the postseason ended in winless eliminations.

That first playoff win over San Antonio started the Grizzlies on a roll that led them to eliminate the Western Conference's top-seeded Spurs in six games. Memphis took the Oklahoma City Thunder to a deciding seventh game with a triple-overtime thrilling loss on their home floor before the Grizzlies were ousted.

Pair that unprecedented success along with the bulk of the roster returning, and it's why the Grizzlies are so optimistic heading into this lockout-shortened season. Memphis has all its starters back, including their second-leading scorer in Gay who was sidelined through the final two months of the regular season and all of the playoffs with a shoulder injury.

''I'm hungrier than ever,'' said Gay, who brings his 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game back to the Grizzlies.

Gay steps back into a front line that boasts Memphis' leading scorer in Zach Randolph, and center Gasol. The Randolph-Gasol tandem has developed into one of the league's top rebounding duos, including the team finishing sixth in offensive boards. The Grizzlies gave Randolph a contract extension during the playoff run, and Gasol got his four-year extension last week.

''In the short three years he's been here, Marc has advanced through the ranks and become one of the top centers,'' Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said. ''Not just one of the top young centers, but the top centers overall in the NBA.''

Signing Gasol was Memphis' priority before this season. With the other starters already signed to long-term deals, his teammates see his return as key to any potential success this season.

''He's our final piece,'' Conley said.

The Grizzlies also developed a tougher defensive mindset led by Tony Allen, who coined the grit-grind motto after a road win at Oklahoma City. Memphis led the NBA in steals with Allen averaging 1.79 per game, only a tad better than Conley's 1.78 average.

Allen's emergence as a defensive threat sent former starter O.J. Mayo to a bench that has become productive in both scoring and minutes. But the bench took a big hit Tuesday when the Grizzlies announced Darrell Arthur, who had developed a 15-foot shot, will miss the season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in practice. That has the Grizzlies looking at a possible trade to fill that spot this season.

For now, the Grizzlies have second-year point guard Greivis Vasquez spelling Conley, though he could be pushed by Jeremy Pargo, signed out of Europe, as the third point guard. Sam Young fills the other forward spot off the bench. Memphis also wants someone to spell Gasol and is looking at options like Josh Davis and veteran Brian Skinner.

Randolph said they know people think what the Grizzlies did last season and in the playoffs simply was a fluke. That's not stopping these very confident Grizzlies from setting high goals.

''Last year, we got to the second round, Game 7 with one of our best players not being there,'' Randolph said.

Gay said it's a good position to be in being in the talk about the NBA's best teams.

''Nobody expects to get a quick W when they come into Memphis anymore,'' Gay said.

Tagged: Grizzlies, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley

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