6 Reasons Why the Memphis Grizzlies Are a Dark-Horse Contender in the West
After limping into the playoffs last year, the Memphis Grizzlies far exceeded expectations, knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round and pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder to an exciting Game 7 showdown before bowing out.
With the recent return of Z-Bo to the Grizzlies lineup, this team appears to be primed for another impressive run in the NBA playoffs.
And here's why.
Improved Play of PG Mike Conley Jr.
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Though Mike Conley Jr. hasn't quite lived up to the Chris Paul comparisons he received after being drafted fourth overall out of Ohio State in 2007, he has developed into his own player: a solid pass-first point guard and regular ball thief.
The Grizzlies were widely panned for their decision to extend Conley during the 2010-11 offseason, but he has steadily improved as a leader, game manager and defender ever since.
He is averaging career highs this season in assists at 7.3 per game and leads the league with a whopping 2.46 steals per game.
In fact, the Grizzlies boast a record of 15-6 this season when Conley has at least three steals.
They say the NBA is now a point guard's league, and the Grizzlies' playoff success will likely hinge on the performance of their point guard, Conley.
Stellar Team Defense
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Lacking a true superstar, the Memphis Grizzlies rely on teamwork and unity for most of their success, and it is apparent on the defensive side of the ball.
The Grizzlies are holding teams to 93.8 points per game this season, good enough for 10th in the league, while being in the top 15 in the league in point differential and opponent field-goal percentage.
NBA teams are known for clamping down on defense come playoff time, and as the Grizzlies' last playoff run showed, they should not disappoint on that side of the ball.
If they can keep up, or even improve upon the stellar team defense they have showed thus far, then they will be able to contend with anyone in the West.
Return of Rudy Gay
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People may forget that while the Memphis Grizzlies had a miraculous playoff run last year, they did so without their second-leading scorer in Rudy Gay, after he went down with a shoulder injury.
With the extended absence of forward Zach Randolph this season, Gay has led the the team in scoring with 18.9 points per game and has shown his versatility, contributing in blocks, steals, assists and rebounds.
While Zach Randolph put on a clinic from the low block last postseason, teams caught on to the pound-in-the-paint style of the Grizzlies.
When teams began sagging from the perimeter and double-teaming the Memphis big men, the Grizzlies had no true perimeter scoring option to keep defenses honest.
Look for Rudy Gay to be the guy to take some pressure of the Grizzlies' big men when the Grizzlies attempt to make another run this postseason.
Tenacity and Turnovers
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Under coach Lionel Hollins, the Memphis Grizzlies have proven to be a fearsome group of bandits on the defensive side of the ball.
Allen is arguably the top perimeter defender in the entire NBA, and he is the catalyst of this grinding Memphis squad.
The consistent energy, effort and tenacity he brings on defense seems to inspire the entire team on that side of the ball, and it shows in the stats.
This season, the Grizzlies rank first in both steals per game (10) and forced turnovers per game (17.6). The last team to accomplish this feat was the 1995-96 Seattle Supersonics.
The Supersonics found themselves in the NBA Finals that season, and if the Grizzlies continue their "controlled-chaos" style of defense in the playoffs, they could have a similar fate.
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As if the preseason loss of power forward Darrell Arthur to an Achilles injury wasn't enough, the Grizzlies also lost their closest thing to a star, Zach Randolph, for significant time due to a torn MCL.
However, the real reason that the Grizzlies have been able to stay afloat during this tough stretch has been due to the stellar play of emerging All-Star, center Marc Gasol.
Averaging career highs in points (15.5), rebounds (9.6) and blocks (1.8), Gasol received his first All-Star Game bid this season and has finally seemed to have emerged from the shadow of older brother and perennial All-Star Pau Gasol.
But the season Gasol is having should be no surprise to anyone who watched the Grizzlies in the NBA playoffs last season, when he averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds to go with two blocks.
He seemed to have gained a lot of confidence from that playoff run, and he should look to pick up where he left off this postseason.
With the recent return of Z-Bo to the Grizzlies lineup, the emergence of Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies' added depth, this frontcourt should be lethal come playoff time.
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Speaking of Z-Bo...
After the legendary performance Zach Randolph put on in last year's playoffs, he alone is one reason why the Memphis Grizzlies must be feared come NBA playoff time.
The closest thing resembling a go-to star on the Memphis squad, when the Grizzlies needed a basket last postseason, Randolph almost always responded.
The fact alone that the Memphis Grizzlies have stayed in playoff contention this season with their best player, Randolph, missing significant time, should be reason enough to strike fear in any potential playoff opponent.
And if Z-Bo can put on some more postseason performances similar this one, watch out.