The NBA playoffs are an equal opportunity affair—any team good enough to make it in has the chance to put it all together and go on a historic run. One of the great variables of a compressed season is knowing that almost any team has a chance. The last time we had a short season, the eighth-seeded Knicks somehow clawed their way to the Finals, only to be mauled by the San Antonio Spurs, who were in the midst of their own historic run.
During that season, the Knicks took a huge risk in acquiring Latrell Sprewell. At the time, he was known around the NBA as a volatile, but lethal scorer. He was also known for attempting to choke his former coach, P.J. Carlesimo.
But this lockout season, we should prepare ourselves for deja vu, this time however, in the Western Conference.
Not since before the Lakers's dominance of the early naughts have we seen such parity in the West. Nearly every team that has made it to the playoffs possesses the chance to, if not the outright belief that they will make the Finals. But this year, more than most, it is the sleeper teams that will have the biggest say in how the rest of this season will unfold.
This is where the Memphis Grizzlies come in.
Just like the Knicks in '99, they took their own chance with a volatile outside scorer, this one named Gilbert Arenas. Even though they lost Game 1 of their series in historic fashion, their performance in the playoffs last year proves they possess the mettle to overcome the adversity associate with such defeat.
The Grizzlies finished the season winning 11 straight games at home, and looking ahead, their road to the Finals seems unexpectedly manageable. Last year, they ousted the No. 1 seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
They did this without Rudy Gay, who is averaging 19 points per game this season. They also did this with almost no post-season experience, limited contributions from their bench and a point guard that was still learning how to distribute the ball evenly between his stars. Now, they have mostly fixed those problems, and for the first time all season, their starting forward, Zach Randolph appears to be completely healthy.
All this adds up to trouble for the Clippers going forward. That 20-point lead early on in Game 1 was not a fluke. Zach Randolph is more than capable of neutralizing Blake Griffin's offense, and if Rudy Gay can use his exceptional wingspan effectively, he'll provide serviceable defense against Chris Paul as well. The individual match-ups favor the Grizzlies, and with Lionel Hollins directing their defense, they are still the prohibitive favorites for this series.
If they advance to Round 2, they will likely square off, once again, with the San Antonio Spurs. There remains a giant asterisk next to their victory against the Spurs last year—Manu Ginobili's absence due to injury.
Nevertheless, a win is a win, and the confidence Memphis derived from that series will serve them well if they meet again. The Grizzlies are much stronger in the paint than most give them credit for, and the only way to slow down Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is with steady, interior defense.
From there, if all goes according to plan, they will face the Thunder. They've only beaten Oklahoma City once this year, and they are too slow around the perimeter to defend both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In order for them to be successful against the Thunder, they will need to be effective in the paint—they must rely heavily on Randolph along with center Marc Gasol to carry their offense and protect the rim.
If they get quality games out of these two, they have more than a fighter's chance at moving on to the Finals.
The fact that a team like the Grizzlies has such hope and confidence underscores the depth of this year's playoffs. They may not be off to the best start, but fear not Grizzlies fans, there is still plenty of hope. This team has everything necessary to go on an extended run, and earn a spot to face the Eastern Conference champion.
Let's just hope the result for them is better than it was for the Knicks.