Many write off the Memphis Grizzlies in the shifting NBA landscape, but that doesn't mean this small-market team will automatically falter in the playoffs. The Grizzlies can upset what many expect to be a two-team race between the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder to represent the West in the NBA Finals.
The Grizzlies can mount a serious challenge by keying in on the most important aspect of the team's success, bring a bit of certainty to an unpredictable variable and adding a dimension on offense.
Grind It Out on Defense
Grinding defense defines the Grizzlies. The Tony Allen-led defense focuses on forcing turnovers like none other, having led the league in steals and turnovers forced the last two seasons. Allen, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley averaged at least 1.5 steals per game in each of the last two seasons. Allen was second in steals percentage last season.
Memphis ranked fifth in scoring defense and seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions last season after placing 13th and ninth in the respective categories the season before.
The "grit 'n' grind" struggled at times in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers after punishing offenses in the 2011-12 campaign. The Grizz allowed 110 points per 100 possessions three times and had six or fewer steals four times.
Will the Grizzlies defense be one of the five best in the NBA this season?
Turnovers don't always come easy in the playoffs. Still, the Grizzlies need to slow teams down in order to win. Offense doesn't carry this team by any means. Memphis was only 19th in points per 100 possessions and scored 100 points just 20 times last season.
Whether the Grizzlies can win in the playoffs will be determined by the team's defensive performance.
The Grizzlies have been struck with an injury to a key player in each of the last two seasons. In 2010-11, Rudy Gay went down with a season-ending elbow injury. He missed the last 23 games of the regular season, as well as the playoffs.
Memphis managed to play seven games with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the team was missing the versatile scoring presence that Gay provides. Without Gay, the Grizzlies lineup lacked a potent starting backcourt scorer.
Zach Lowe broke down how the Grizzlies were affected by Gay's absence, saying:
Go back and watch the Memphis-Oklahoma City series from last season, and you'll see the Thunder happily ignoring just about every Memphis perimeter player in order to crash down on the Grizz big men.
The Grizzlies missed Zach Randolph for 38 of 66 games last season due to his partial MCL tear. With Randolph gone most of the season, the Grizzlies coped offensively, but still were worse on that end. The Grizz scored 104 points per 100 possessions in 2011-12, 3.7 less than the prior season.
Also, the Grizzlies averaged 95 points per game, 4.9 fewer than the season before.
When Lionel Hollins put Randolph back in the lineup in his third game back, the Grizzlies suffered. After the "Grindhouse" lost three straight, Hollins put him back on the bench.
Randolph regained his rebounding edge in April, but he struggled shooting. He averaged 12 rebounds per 36 minutes that month, but he hit just 44.1 percent from the field. In the playoffs, Randolph's offense was muted, as he scored 13.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting.
What are the odds that Memphis' starting lineup will stay healthy for the entire season?
While Randolph's troubles on offense didn't stand among the biggest causes of the Grizzlies' series loss to the Clips, his offense didn't help his team's cause in most games.
Health is a wild card for many teams. Memphis could pose matchup problems against the Thunder and Lakers if each key Grizzly stays healthy. The key word is "if."
That key Grizzlies players are in good condition is a good sign. Randolph told The Commercial Appeal that he's 100 percent healthy and that he returned to the chameleon training he did last offseason. Gay has bulked up, according to NBA.com. Conley has also built muscle, according to The Commercial Appeal.
Marc Gasol stayed strong through the offseason after the Olympics as he worked to up his inside game. Allen had knee surgery in the offseason after experiencing soreness last season. The 2012 All-Defensive first-team selection is past his knee ailments, according to The Commercial Appeal.
If Memphis' starters stay healthy, they could pose challenges to the favorites in the conference. A rising Gasol and a healthy Randolph will rival the duo of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. A strong Gay will overpower the Lakers' declining defensive leaders, Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant.
Conley's added strength will allow him to match up better with Russell Westbrook. Having both Gay and Randolph in full form will overwhelm the subpar Oklahoma City defense.
The Grizzlies have been a dismal three-point shooting team in recent history. Memphis has placed in the bottom 10 in three-point field-goal percentage the last five seasons. Last season, the Grizz were 25th with a 32.6 percent mark.
O.J. Mayo (36.4 percent) and Mike Conley (37.7 percent) were the only helpful shooters from beyond the arc.
Gay, who was a 35.4 percent shooter from downtown entering last season, came back from his elbow injury with a rusty shot from long distance. He shot just 31.2 percent last season.
Gilbert Arenas, who was signed late in the season to boost Memphis's three-point profile, hit just a third of his 39 three-point attempts in 17 games.
The Grizzlies struggled mightily from long distance against the Clippers. The team shot 28.9 percent from beyond the arc in the series, including a mere 19.4 percent after Game 1.
Gay, Conley and Mayo were the only ones to take more than five three-pointers in the series. Conley hit half his long-range attempts. Mayo hit 29.2 percent. Gay drained a paltry 21.1 percent.
Fortunately, the Grizzlies have more capable three-point shooters now. Along with Conley, Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby pose a significant threat from downtown. Bayless shot 42.3 percent from three-point range last season.
Selby is starting to show some potential as a three-point shooter. He hit 64.3 percent in the summer league and has hit 5-of-10 in three preseason games.
Ellington hit 39.5 percent and 39.7 percent in his first two seasons, respectively, before dropping to 32.5 percent last season.
The Grizzlies will be hoping that Ellington and Gay will bounce back.
With four or five imposing three-point shooters, the Grizzlies could become more dynamic on offense. Having guys to distract the focus from the three main scorers—Randolph, Gay and Gasol—and space the offense will be very beneficial. Also, it will bail out the offense when it falls flat, as it sometimes does.
Conclusion: Memphis Has the Tools to Give a Legitimate Fight in the Playoffs
Whether Memphis lacks the pieces to challenge the best teams in the West isn't an issue. Gay, Randolph and Gasol provide a fine trio of scorers. With Bayless, Selby, Marreese Speights, Darrell Arthur and Ellington, the bench is deep. Conley and Allen form a tough perimeter defending duo.
The question is whether the pieces will come alive when it counts. Health issues might trouble Memphis. The possibility that the defense could fail in the playoffs is a little scary. Offensive troubles could undercut a strong defensive performance.
Nevertheless, the Grizzlies should be able to make the above keys come together to give them a shot against the Lakers and Thunder.