Rudy Gay Wants to Be the Next Kevin Durant or LeBron James
That being said, it wasn't entirely surprising when Memphis small forward Rudy Gay dubbed his team's 100-91 win over the Kings Saturday night a "must-win." There are still a few grains of salt needed here, but it could be argued that the difference between a 2-5 record and 3-4 is huge for a young team like Gay's that fancies itself a postseason contender.
The Grizzlies, according to Gay, fully intend on maintaining the momentum of their 16-win improvement last season by being a playoff team this time around in the always-loaded Western Conference. As such, losing to a lower-level squad like the Kings -- especially with Memphis' starting five in place for just the second time this season -- would've been a significant setback.
"Definitely, definitely," Gay told FanHouse when asked if the Grizzlies' postseason dreams were realistic. "As this thing boils down, we have to start sharpening up and getting better as a team. I think we can get there this year. Definitely we can get there."
Five of the Grizzlies' first seven games were on the road, but none was tougher than their double-overtime loss at Phoenix on Friday night in which they blew a four-point lead with three seconds left in regulation and eventually suffered their third straight loss. Gay opened the door for a Suns comeback in that sequence, missing the first of two free throws before making the second despite attempting to miss. That left Phoenix down two with 0.4 seconds left and with the chance for one last play, and Grant Hill fired a Joe Montana-esque inbounds pass to Jason Richardson for an incredible tip-in that forced the first overtime.
The fatigue factor was in full effect after the marathon affair, as the team flew to Sacramento that night and some players received treatment from the team's staff until 5 a.m. Forward Marc Gasol was among them, having tweaked the left ankle that he sprained earlier this season and forced him to miss the season opener.
But Memphis wasn't ready to finish its road trip on a down note, and no one played at a higher level than Gay. The fifth-year pro is doing all he can to quiet those critics who considered his max deal signed in the summer (five years, $82 million) unwarranted, as he scored 32 points (11 of 19 shooting), had nine rebounds, three assists and just two turnovers in 46 minutes. He's averaging 27.1 points per game thus far, well above his career high mark of 20.2 set in his second season and among the league's scoring elite (he entered play ranked fourth at 26.3 points per game, trailing Golden State's Monta Ellis, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant).
And he's doing it, Gay said, while playing at "60 percent" health. Gay continues to deal with an oblique strain that is causing his diminished state, although he explained that "it doesn't affect my arms and my legs so I go out there and play."
He has been taking that very approach since the summer, when Gay was a productive part of the U.S. national team that won gold at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey. Gay averaged seven points (48.9 percent shooting) and 13.4 minutes in the nine games, doing what was asked by coach Mike Krzyzewski while Durant continued his coming-out party that began with his banner season in 2009-10.
Yet if Gay can, in fact, lead Memphis to the playoffs while producing like this, he won't be in the shadows of superstars much longer.
"I'm a realist, and I understand that the reason the Kevin Durants and LeBron Jameses get noticed is because they've done it," Gay said. "They've made their team better, got to the playoffs and played on the biggest stages. I think that's where I think I'm going to get. I definitely think I have the talent to be like one of those players, but it's a process. That just makes me work harder."
As Memphis coach Lionel Hollins pointed out, Gay's penchant for -- and we're paraphrasing here -- playing with the ball too much in isolation situations has been nonexistent to this point. And Hollins, whose team will now play seven of its next nine games at home, is enjoying watching the growth process unfold.
"He's playing like a big-time player," Hollins said of Gay. "He's taking control, getting the shots he wants, getting to the free throw line. Especially since (forward) Zach (Randolph) has been out (he missed four games with a bruised tailbone), Rudy did a good job of carrying us and he did it again tonight.
"It's high level maturity (he's playing with). He's starting to make smarter decisions. If he doesn't play with the ball and he attacks, he's pretty good, and he's been doing that. (But) when he doesn't, I tell him, 'You've got to respect all your opponents and you've got to attack them. Don't .play with them, just attack them.'"
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