For a while, it seemed the Memphis Grizzlies might not follow up the promise of last season's impressive finish. They're quickly erasing those concerns and must feel good about continuing to do so with their top player nearing a return.
Only two Western Conference teams have a better record than Memphis, which enters Saturday night's road game against the Phoenix Suns seeking a sixth consecutive victory.
A 46-win season in 2010-11 and a playoff upset of top-seeded San Antonio had Grizzlies fans excited going into this winter, but an inconsistent first six weeks and an injury to Zach Randolph tempered that optimism.
However, just over a month after a 2-7 slump left them with the West's fifth-worst record, the Grizzlies (23-15) now sit below only Oklahoma City and the Spurs.
They've won five straight and nine of 10 even with Randolph sidelined by a torn knee ligament. The 2011 All-Star, Memphis' top scorer and rebounder last season, has been out since Jan. 1 but recently returned to practice and could play as early as Tuesday against the Lakers.
The Grizzlies' starting frontcourt has been doing pretty well without him.
Marc Gasol has averaged 18.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks during the five-game winning streak. Marreese Speights, starting in Randolph's place, has 34 points and 14 boards over the past two games. Rudy Gay is averaging a team-high 19.1 points and matched a season high with 26 on Wednesday in a 110-92 win over Golden State, also grabbing 12 rebounds for the second time in three games.
That victory opened a three-game trip for Memphis, which has won three of its past four road contests while averaging 102.5 points. The Grizzlies failed to reach 100 in any of their first 14, going 5-9 and scoring 86.7 per game.
"If you want to be a good team, you have to win on the road," Gasol said. "You have to come out, execute and be mentally stronger. We're taking steps forward, baby steps, it's a process."
The Suns (18-21) seem to be going in the right direction, too. They've won six of eight and their only loss in five games this month came at West-leading Oklahoma City on Wednesday after blowing a 16-point lead in the second half.
Phoenix returned home the following night to knock off defending champion Dallas 96-94, but remained in 12th place in the West.
"We couldn't lose both of these and stay in the playoff picture," said Steve Nash, who had 11 assists and is averaging a league-best 10.9. "It's an early crunch time for us. We've got to keep crawling back to that eight-nine-ten spots and try to give ourselves a chance to sneak in there."
Jared Dudley has keyed the Suns' 6-2 surge, scoring 16.6 points per game on 53.5 percent shooting.
Marcin Gortat also continues to play well, averaging 18.7 points and 12.1 rebounds in his last 12. He posted his fourth straight double-double Thursday and is among the league leaders with 24.
Gasol limited his effectiveness in these teams' only meeting this season as Gortat, among the NBA's best in field-goal accuracy at 55.8 percent, shot 6 for 17. The Suns were held to 36.4 percent but won 86-84 as Dudley capped a 20-point night by hitting the go-ahead free throws with 3.3 seconds left.
Phoenix is riding a four-game home winning streak, its longest in nearly two years.