Warning: This article is going to be a bit self-serving since I kinda, sorta picked the Grizzlies to make it to the NBA Finals at the start of this crazy, lockout-shortened season. GrizzNation is 11-8 since the return of Zach Randolph from a partial MCL tear that he suffered early in this compacted season. More recently, the Grizzlies have won 10 of their last 14 including wins over the Lakers, Thunder, and Heat, all of which were on the road. Their road to the playoffs is filled with cupcake specials, as their final 6 games are against all non-playoff opponents (their final game of the season is against Orlando, but all reports are saying that Howard is done for the regular season with a herniated disk in his back).
Last year, this Grizzlies team showed their heart and ability to play as one cohesive unit when they pulled off the 1 v 8 upset special against division rival San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. Memphis used their physical post-play and strong perimeter defense to stifle the Spurs attack and send them home early. The next round featured, in my opinion, the highlight of last year’s playoffs. The Grizzlies epic struggle against the Oklahoma City Thunder went down as one of the most entertaining series in recent memory. Not only did the series go to seven games, but Games 3 and 4 in Memphis both went to OT, including the 3OT thriller in Game 4 that was one of the most physical, well-executed games in recent memory.
The Grizzlies came back this year with essentially the same starters and role-players, primed to make another postseason run. However, this year they’ll actually have their athletic wing Rudy Gay, who missed all of the playoffs last year after he elected for surgery to repair a partially torn left shoulder. Gay’s absence was vastly overlooked last year because of how well Memphis played despite him. This led to talking heads last offseason recommending the Grizzlies try to move Gay for additional help since people felt that his presence wasn’t crucial to Memphis’ success. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Memphis’ best lineup consists of Conley-Allen/Mayo-Gay-Randolph-Gasol. If the situation calls for defense, Tony Allen (one of my favorite twitter follows, @aa000g9) is typically inserted into the game, while if playmaking and perimeter shooting are needed on the court, O.J. Mayo gets those minutes. What makes Gay so crucial to Memphis’ lineup is that he is only player that can create his own shot outside of the post. Mike Conley, one of the most underrated players in the NBA, is a very-capable floor general, has above average range, has incredibly quick hands (2nd in the NBA in SPG), and always handles the ball with utmost care, evident as he has the 6th lowest turnover rate among starting PG’s.
Meanwhile, that lineup sports two big men with very contrasting styles. Zach Randolph, a 20-10 machine who has often been overlooked for his off the court issues, is an absolute terror in the post. If he’s left in a 1-on-1 post situation, he’s probably going to get what he wants. He showed his dominance against OKC last year as he repeatedly abused Serge Ibaka until the Thunder were forced to adjust and double team him. The other counterpart of that fierce low-post tandem is Marc Gasol, brother of Pau Gasol. Marc, in my opinion, is the player that makes Memphis such a tough matchup for so many teams (especially the Miami Heat).
Gasol’s emergence in the last couple of years has shocked most in the basketball community, especially since he was a part of the trade that sent his brother, Pau, to Los Angeles in what was regarded at the time as one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. That trade looks much less lopsided these days, accentuated by Marc Gasol being the only Gasol brother to represent the Western Conference in the All-Star Game. Gasol’s game is quite a contrast from Randolph’s, as his is more of a finesse game. What makes Gasol especially dangerous is his passing ability. With his soft touch and incredible feel for open teammates, Gasol is a nightmare when he catches the ball in the paint. Marc can also hold his own on the defensive end, as he is AVERAGING 2 blocks and a steal per game, which is quite a contribution for a guy who’s biggest obstacle throughout his career has been his weight.
An overused cliché in sports is that you’re only as good as your weakest link. In basketball, this couldn’t be truer (looks at Miami’s inconsistency). The thing that people should fear most about these Grizzlies is their lack of a glaring weakness and the emphasis that they place on the defensive end (1st in the NBA in team steals at almost 10 SPG). This team reminds me a lot of those Detroit Pistons teams from the early 00’s in that they don’t feature a legitimate star, but don’t have a true weakness either. If this Memphis’ squad can stay healthy and stay true to the mantra Coach Lionel Hollins has preached the past couple of years, this team has more than enough to shock the world and come out of a Western Conference gauntlet has champions.