Before he proved to be a perfect fit in Memphis, Jeff Green was reminded of his proper place.
So when Mike Conley welcomed Green to Memphis last month after one of the most impactful trades of the season, the initial greeting didn't involve a handshake or a hug. Instead, it was more of a heckle.
Albeit, a playful yet humbling one.
Green arrived for a team function the day after Ohio State defeated Oregon in the college football national championship game. Before Conley became one of the league's most underrated point guard magicians for the Grizzlies, he was a college hoops catalyst for the Buckeyes' 2007 Final Four team.
To celebrate and boast, Conley reached deep into his closet to throw on his old Ohio State game jersey to rep his beloved school in the aftermath of the championship. On this particular day, Green just happened to be the right guy who showed up at the wrong time.
"The first day he came, he walks over and I'm in my college Conley jersey," Conley said of Green, whose Georgetown team lost to Ohio State in the 2007 Final Four before the Buckeyes fell to Florida in the title game. "I act like I'm dusting it off in front of him. Then I said, 'I hadn't worn this since the last time I beat you.' Then I shake his hand and said, 'Welcome to Memphis. Glad to have you.'"
Since then, Green has fit the Grizzlies with the same tailor-made precision as Conley's authentic gear, giving Memphis the most formidable look in the NBA. Having grinded out two more victories this week in ruggedly familiar fashion over Portland and the L.A. Clippers to open the post All-Star break stretch run, the Grizzlies improved to a conference-best 15-3 since acquiring Green on Jan. 12 from Boston.
The addition of the versatile and athletic wing has recalibrated Memphis for upward mobility. In the past six weeks, the Grizzlies (41-14) have climbed two spots in the Western Conference standings and sliced in half a six-game deficit to pull within three games of front-running Golden State.
Securing the No. 1 playoff seed in the West was thought to be as automatic for the Warriors as an open 3-pointer in transition for the Splash Brothers. But that's no longer a forgone conclusion with the Grizzlies lurking despite closing with the toughest remaining schedule in the league. The combination of Memphis' surge and Steph Curry's nagging ankle injury that has slightly hobbled the Warriors has given the Grizzlies a legitimate shot to shake things up with 27 games left.
"I think we've got a chance," center Marc Gasol said. "I always take that approach. It doesn't matter the cards we get dealt with; I always feel like it's the best hand that I've got and I'm going to go with it. It doesn't matter who it is or when it is; I always feel like we have a chance."
When Gasol made that comment, he wasn't talking about simply catching Golden State for the top spot in the West. That reference had everything to do with pursuing the much loftier goal of finally punctuating the city's annual Memphis In May festivities with an NBA championship parade in June.
After reaching the conference finals two years ago and getting bounced in the first round last season with the same core, it's no wonder many of the Grizzlies players and coaches speak in poker analogies these days when referring to Memphis' quest for the ultimate breakthrough. It's because coach Dave Joerger believes Green gives the team the sort of wild card that's been lacking the past few years. And that's a key reason why Memphis didn't hesitate to make its move more than a month ago.
"I think what you're seeing coming out of the break is it's feast or famine," Joerger said of the jockeying in the West, where all contenders aside from Golden State and San Antonio have made significant trades. "There are so many teams that are all-in. You either have to be all-in or ... I want to say something negative. But it's so competitive. If you're going to chase it, you need to go for it."
Because the Grizzlies solidified their footing a month ago, they're on more solid ground now.
While most teams frantically approached last Thursday's trade deadline that produced a record number of transactions, Joerger pushed his team through practice with the comfort of a significant head start on working through adjustments that come with the midseason addition of a key player.
"We put it all up on the board, all of the players that were going all over the place as soon as it happened," Joerger said of the 39 players involved in trades on deadline day. "We had practice at noon, and [two hours later] we came back into the office and it was like, 'Holy cow.' We talked about when we did it, we didn't want to have guys asking and wondering around trade deadline what to think. We have a real good chemistry right now, in a way, because we didn't have to deal with that."
That was evident earlier this week in a 98-92 win at Portland.
While the Blazers were trying to get Arron Afflalo acclimated in his first game after being acquired from Denver three days earlier, Memphis was already 17 games into establishing a comfort zone with Green. He was one of five starters to score in double figures for the Grizzlies, who took advantage of LaMarcus Aldridge's injury absence to outscore Portland 34-15 in the fourth and rally from a 13-point deficit.
Green played only 44 seconds in the fourth quarter against the Blazers, with Joerger opting to give Tony Allen and Kosta Koufos the bulk of the work alongside Conley, Gasol and Zach Randolph. The next night in Los Angeles, Green was part of pivotal lineup that took control of the game. He combined with Conley for 34 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 steals in a 90-87 win against the Clippers.
"It's easy to get comfortable when you've got go-to guys in Z-Bo [Randolph], Marc and Mike," said Green, the fifth overall pick in 2007 who spent his first two seasons in Oklahoma City. "All I have to do is continue to be aggressive. And when I do, it opens the floors. It shows that they have confidence in what I can do. When it doubt, I'm feeding the big guys, feeding the beast and playing off them."
The Grizzlies are 12-2 since Green replaced Allen as a starter at small forward. At 6-foot-9 with the ability to drive, shoot from 3-point range, post up and defend anyone from shooting guards to power forwards, Green gives Memphis' lineup flexibility. The irony is that Memphis was expected to get a major boost on offense from Green, who is averaging 15.8 points and 4.2 rebounds this season. But his scoring is down nearly five points from his production in Boston and he's shooting just 40.7 percent with the Grizzlies.
"When he struggles, it's because he's probably thinking, 'Is this my shot? Should I take this at this time? I'm playing with Marc, I'm playing with Zach or should I put in?'" Joerger said of Green. "Nobody can think and shoot at the same time. Anytime you play with one dominant post man, that's good. But we have two and we still don't want him to think to always defer. We want him to be aggressive."
Green admits it's been a bit of a struggle, but he's starting to find a groove amid the Grizzlies' trademark grit and grind and has scored in double figures in eight consecutive games.
"Normally, when you get traded you spend the first few weeks trying not to step on people's toes," Green said. "You want to go in and be passive. You're not looking for your shot. But [Joerger] wanted me to come in and be aggressive and play the way I was playing in Boston. It showed he was watching the way I played in Boston. He has confidence in me to make the right plays."
The biggest impact from the trade actually resonates on the other end of the court, where the Grizzlies allow the fewest points in the league. With Green, Memphis has restored its defense to the second-best overall efficiency rating behind Charlotte after spending the first two months in the middle of the pack.
The hope is that Memphis will enter the playoffs with a different dynamic than in previous seasons. Conley said one of the main reasons Memphis struggled in a seven-game series loss in the first round to Oklahoma City last year was because Memphis lacked the personnel to adjust when OKC used a small lineup with Kevin Durant at power forward.
Theoretically, Green addresses that issue.
When the Spurs swept Memphis in the conference finals in 2013, the Grizzlies lacked home-court advantage, perimeter depth and shooting. Should the current standings hold, Memphis would open with home court in a first-round matchup with the Spurs. And in addition to Green, the Grizzlies have since added Courtney Lee, Beno Udrih and Vince Carter to add backcourt balance to the frontcourt bulk.
"We always had trouble with teams that go small in the playoffs," Conley said. "And with a guy like that, you can throw Jeff in there and put him at [power forward], we can match up with guys and still play through Marc or Z-Bo. We have more flexibility to move stuff around and match up with anyone."
The record speaks for itself this season.
Memphis is 13-5 against the seven other teams currently in playoff position in the West, including a 105-98 win over Golden State in their lone meeting so far in December. The Warriors are 12-4 against West teams positioned for the postseason, with two games left against Memphis. Much like Green, the Grizzlies are far more deliberate than dominant. No player's individual numbers jump off the page, but their collective onslaught is relentless.
Fittingly, their win over the Clippers ended with Conley swiping Chris Paul for the game-clinching steal. Hours earlier, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said no team in the league knows who they are and plays to their identity as consistently as the Grizzlies.
That knowledge has only expanded over the past month.
"I'm trying to be part of something where guys are going to play together, guys are going to fight to the end for each other to win a championship," Green said. "I fit into what they do. They were already a championship-level team before I got here. I just look at it as a chance to come in and add my skill set to what they already have."