MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The moment Rudy Gay has waited his entire career for is finally here: His playoff debut.
The starting forward watched wearing dress clothes seated at the end of the bench with a sling-like contraption protecting his surgically-repaired left shoulder as the Memphis Grizzlies made the greatest playoff run in franchise history last season.
"I might as well have bought a ticket," Gay said. "That's how I felt. The team tried to keep me involved, asked me some questions while I was sitting on the bench. But I'm a competitor.
"Of course, I wanted my team to win, but I wanted to play. This is my chance."
The Grizzlies open the playoffs for the first time at home Sunday night as the No. 4 seed against the Los Angeles Clippers with the core of last year's team intact. Starters Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, along with defensive specialist Tony Allen and power forward Zach Randolph are back after pushing Oklahoma City to a seventh game before losing to the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.
Gay was the missing piece after injuring his shoulder Feb. 15, 2011, against Philadelphia. Gay was little more than a high-priced cheerleader as his teammates clinched a playoff berth, then eliminated the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs before the loss to Oklahoma City.
Now, he can experience firsthand what the Grizzlies enjoyed last year.
"I've never been there, so I'm still excited," Gay said. "There is more of a focus mode. People are ready for it and know what to expect. I don't, so I'm excited."
The Grizzlies had never finished higher than the fifth seed before now. They were swept in 2006 by the Dallas Mavericks, ending three straight playoff runs where the Grizzlies were winless in 12 games.
Memphis just hoped for a win last year in the playoffs. That came in the opening game at top-seeded San Antonio, sending the Grizzlies to a series win over the Spurs.
This season, Memphis finished 41-25, just ahead of the Clippers who finished the regular season losing their final two games — both on the road to fritter away home-court.
Gay has been key, scoring a team-high 19 points a game while also grabbing an average of 6.4 rebounds. Those numbers are comparable to where he was before last season's injury.
The Grizzlies can tell Gay is anxious to do more than advise this time around.
"I can see it in his eyes, and the way he's been approaching each game down the stretch," Conley said of Gay. "He's been really focuses and mentally preparing himself for what's to come. I know he's excited."
"This is great for him," Randolph added. "He's our franchise player. The guy can flat out play. We need him. If we had him last year, we could have done things in that second round" against Oklahoma City.
The Grizzlies go into the postseason relatively healthy after an injury-filled season. Reserve forward Darrell Arthur and his scoring and defense off the bench, was lost before the season with torn right Achilles. On Jan. 1 in Memphis' fourth game, Randolph went down with a torn right MCL and missed 37 games before returning in mid-March.
General manager Chris Wallace picked up Maresse Speights, little used in Philadelphia, in a three-team deal only days after Randolph's injury, and Speights has averaged 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. Dante Cunningham signed an offer sheet that Charlotte failed to match, and Quincy Pondexter came in Dec. 24 in a trade with New Orleans.
Coach Lionel Hollins pieced together lineups to fill the void emphasizing the Grizzlies' signature defensive intensity until everyone healed up. Hollins called the success this season very satisfying.
"Rudy played most of the season last year. He was a big part of getting where we were, then he got hurt . This year it is more gratifying because Zach and Darrell haven't been a part of it, until Zach came back. The games he missed, we just found a way. We regrouped and established a way of playing that could allow us to be successful."
Even late addition Gilbert Arenas has worked out, providing a strong 3-point threat Memphis lacked off the bench.
Memphis hopes the experience the reserves got earlier this season provides a stronger bench and deeper rotation in the playoffs. The Grizzlies have much loftier goals than just winning a playoff game or advancing to the second round this time around.
Gay said they have to build on last year's success and believe the sky's the limit now for a team that felt it could have played Dallas in the Western Conference finals last year.
"We've set our goals really high," Gay said. "Of course, we want a parade on Beale Street someday."