A regular season that’s been up, down, all-around through various realms of expectation for Memphis has drawn to a close, leaving the Grizzlies – more or less – where they figured to be.
Slotted by many in October to be duking it out with the Nuggets and Clippers for the West’s 4-5 seeds, Memphis has settled in fifth; tied with the Pacific (and season-series)-winning Clip Show, and a single game behind Denver, capping a playoff-position race that couldn’t have been any closer.
While they’ve lost out on homecourt, Memphis is still considered by many to be a viable (if somewhat unlikely) threat to win the West that can still cause problems for all of the teams that outrank them. They’re a squad that can play above the sum of its parts against top opposition, but several things are going to have to go right for the Grizzlies to avoid sudden hibernation.
Among all the misguided, misinformed platitudes that Robert Pera heaped upon Grizzlies fans after the (suddenly brilliant-looking) Rudy Gay salary dump, he made the valid point that Memphis was still built to compete in the postseason as a gritty defensive squad that was only upgraded with Tayshaun Prince taking Gay’s place. Tony Allen is also fully healthy this spring – perhaps the NBA’s most fearsome obstacle on the perimeter – and Mike Conley remains one of the League’s best defensive PG’s, completing the West’s toughest wing unit, only to be fortified in the middle by Marc Gasol, who by most indications is only going to win Defensive Player of the Year.
Their intimidating, physical, straight-up stingy defensive presence will suit them well; the West is full of teams that like to play a reasonably fast-paced game that puts points on the board and forces opponents to keep up. The Grizzlies have proven they can take teams out of their element and force a slower, grittier game, but their chances of making a deep run rest on them not only doing this consistently but, more obviously, scoring.
The early evidence – while still inconclusive – points to Rudy Gay having been a streaky shooter who hurt Memphis’ offense as much or more than he helped it. While they’ve been producing more efficiently in his absence, there’s still plenty to wonder about how well Memphis can compensate against better teams over seven games, in the type of environment that’s less conducive to Jerryd Bayless heroics. And while Bayless and Conley have kicked their offensive games up a notch, Zach Randolph’s play of late – particularly in the clutch – is hardly reminiscent of his 2011 run.
The Grizzlies rely heavily on an inside-out attack that smarter defenses will pick apart if Randolph isn’t keeping them honest. Gasol’s passing from the post – excellent as it is – isn’t enough to space this team without the attention Randolph can demand. The Grizzlies are essentially aiming to emulate their run from two years ago with an improved Conley, but Bayless and Quincy Pondexter instead of OJ Mayo and Shane Battier; they’re going to need Randolph at his best.
Their first-round matchup is deja-vu: a shot at revenge against the Clippers team that took the full seven to bounce them in last year’s opener, after stealing the first game with an equally-harrowing and historic 4th-quarter comeback.
While the Clippers are a better – and certainly deeper – team on paper, there’s plenty Memphis can do to tilt the scales. Most noticeably will be Chris Paul’s impact vs. a healthy Allen and a more confident Conley on D. Paul is this team’s heartbeat, and he was able to carve up the Grizzlies last spring, which should prove less difficult this year, even for CP3.
Paul’s ability to get DeAndre Jordan involved should also have a significant impact on Blake Griffin’s ability to operate. Jordan has no offensive game to speak of unless there’s a shot in the air or a direct pass from Cliff’s brother, and allowing the most defensively aware big man in the NBA to ignore him and clog the high post doesn’t bode well for Griffin’s halfcourt scoring.
Memphis’ higher-efficiency offense also plays against the Clippers’ strengths; fewer misses and turnovers (especially Rudy Gay-style long rebounds) directly translate to fewer fast-breaks, where teams like L.A. who thrive in transition can blow close games open.
And while the Clippers have depth on Memphis for days, the Grizzlies (as noted) play that slow-paced, physical “Grindhouse” style that easily can take deep, high-energy teams like Lob City out of their rhythm and force them into an unfamiliar tempo. They need to do this consistently to survive, because if this series becomes a shootout, the Clips are unloading, and have the drop on every draw. Fortunately for the Grizz, their defensive execution is their most valuable asset, and their tenacity can torment the best of teams, which is why they’re still a threat.
Randolph’s ability to keep Memphis’ attack intact is vital, but Conley might be the most pivotal Grizzly in this series. Not only will he face the bulk of perimeter attention on D as the primary ball-handler and scorer, but he seems like the most likely candidate to consistently fill the void left by Gay that allows opponents to sag off the Grizzlies’ perimeter, knowing they’re mostly pounding the post. His ability to keep Paul keyed-in, exploit Jamal Crawford, and generally make the Clippers stay honest will be most crucial to his team’s offensive execution, which could very likely decide what promises to be a close series.
This Clippers team is better than they were a year ago when these two faced off, but Memphis is a more cohesive, stronger defensive unit; one that has spent more time in their roles, looks more focused this year, and is infinitely less likely to blow a 27-point lead. Unlike last year, they aren’t going to be squandered by Rudy Gay’s pseudo-swag after a season without Zach Randolph, and while their bench isn’t as deep, the man standing over is vastly better at managing it – not to mention the guys on the floor – than his counterpart.
Whether the Grizzlies can pull off what really can’t be called an “upset” might come down to their “survival instinct”; that trademark, #GNG-style basketball played with a level of precision, intensity and passion that few teams possess. It sounds corny as hell to make that the deciding factor in a series I’ve changed my mind about no fewer than five times through this piece, but in a matchup this close, the team who wants it more must just get it. ?
Grizzlies in Seven.