Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Grizzlies Roaring to New Heights
The NBA playoffs, versus the postseason in any other major American sport, and especially those with single-elimination formats, are thought to be the most chalk-stained and uncompelling by many. In many years, the first and second rounds act as more of a weeding-down process in order to get to the teams that had the best records. Rarely do the teams like the 1999 Knicks eke into the postseason with records barely above .500 and end up playing in June.
In the Eastern Conference, the playoff status quo looks to be holding. Sure, the Bulls won a Game 7 in Brooklyn with an injury ward of a team, and there's a good chance the Pacers will take their second round series with the Knicks as the lower-seeded team. But both those series were toss-ups to start and, in each case, did or will determine the right to be a massive underdog to the juggernaut Heat.
But in the Western Conference, much as last year's East playoffs were thrown into flux by Derrick Rose's ACL, an injury to a star player has helped make proceedings much more wide open.
Before Game 2 of the Rockets-Thunder series, Oklahoma City was the favorite to make a return trip the Finals out of the conference. Even though it squeaked out that contest and Game 3, the Thunder still had a nervy six-game series with the Rockets, which made it clear that Oklahoma City was transformed from dynamic offensive team to a one-man, predictable show.
The biggest beneficiary of the injury in Oklahoma City and others elsewhere in the West has been the Thunder's current opponent and likely playoff conqueror, Memphis.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece extolling the playoff potential of the Denver Nuggets (oops). In it, I briefly previewed the possible series between the top contenders in the West, who I viewed to be Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Denver. I assumed that the Clippers would have issues with coaching, and that the Grizzlies, even if they did get past L.A., wouldn't be strong enough on offense to match Oklahoma City. Now, with Westbrook gone, Memphis' big man-centric offense is doing wonders.
The fact that Oklahoma City's point guard is done for the season isn't the only reason the Grizzlies are in position to make the franchise's first conference finals appearance, with a chance at making the NBA Finals.
The Grizzlies' contender status may have paradoxically started back in January when the team traded leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto as part of a three-team deal with the Pistons. In return, Memphis received Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis. The deal was made in large part to get the Grizzlies under the luxury tax threshold, but it's paid enormous dividends.
Since Gay's departure, Mike Conley has been one of the league's best point guards, in no small part due to the fact that he sees much more of the ball now and can distribute to the best power forward-center tandem in the NBA in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. What makes Conley's rise that much more amazing is that he's come so far in his sixth season, a career juncture where a point guard's status is normally well-entrenched.
The most captivating aspect of Memphis' playoff success is how different the Grizzlies are from the style the league has been trending towards.
There may still be five traditional positions on a basketball court in an NBA game, but you wouldn't know it many times. The "point forward" role is a genre in and of itself now, and you can't watch a game now without talk of small ball by one of the teams. Miami, the class of the league and possibly the greatest team in 15 years, won a title last year in significant part because it outclassed OKC with smaller lineups and unconventional matchups that took advantage of quickness.
However, Memphis' title contention is a throwback to the not-too-distant (we're talking like five years ago here) time when dominant centers and post scorers ruled the NBA roost and delivered championships for their teams. In Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies certainly have a championship-caliber center who can change a game with offense, defense, rebounding and even passing. In Zach Randolph, the Grizz have an old-school bully in the post, who gets his points with strength, positioning and footwork.
And somehow, I've gotten to this point without mentioning the Grizzlies' bread and butter, their defense, anchored down low by Gasol and on the perimeter by the incredible Tony Allen, the best on-ball defender in basketball. Without Westbrook around, it's been a treat to see how Memphis has outwitted the impotent Thunder offense, especially on crunch time possessions. Kevin Durant has struggled so much in the fourth quarter (Game 1 aside) that is clutch bona fides are now being questioned, when Memphis' stellar defense should be lauded more.
Assuming they close out Oklahoma City in the coming days, the question is, can the Grizzlies go to the finals by beating either Golden State or San Antonio. With the Warriors, one would think Allen and Memphis' defensive schemes would finally represent the anecdote to the thrilling Stephen Curry craze and bombs-away gameplan of Golden State.
With San Antonio, Memphis took down the Spurs two years ago in the playoffs with many of the same players behind Randolph's tour de force performance, and Gasol and Conley have improved since April 2011. While San Antonio has Tim Duncan playing better than he did then, and Kawhi Leonard as a newer offensive weapon, it's still a favorable matchup for Memphis.
The Grizzlies, despite their 56 regular season wins, weren't supposed to challenge for a title this season. Yet, after continued stellar play, the Grit & Grind Grizzlies aren't only among the elite, they're a contender for the ultimate prize.