Memphis Grizzlies fans watch the beginning of the season agonizing over how the Grizzlies will make out in the Western Conference playoffs. After a disappointing seven-game defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers last season, many wondered whether this is it for the “Grindhouse.”
The question stands whether Memphis is a strong enough team to ever make it out of the crowded West.
A Frightening Fork in the Road
The Grizzlies’ core of Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley might end up becoming utterly predictable.
The younger three, Gay, Gasol and Conley, are reaching the age at which they realize the fullness of their abilities. Gay, 25, is in his seventh season and is basically pegged as a strong scorer who isn’t quite a showstopper. His averages of 18.9 to 19.8 points per game in the last four seasons indicate that he may not reach the upper crust of scorers.
Conley is at a make-or-break point. He’s steadily improved throughout his career. He’s become a solid floor general, sharp in transition and capable of guiding his big men into big plays. Also, he’s a terrific defender who placed second in steals per game last season. The question is whether he’ll refine his distributing ability enough to become elite.
Gasol seems to be at a defining year in his career. He started to turn the corner last season, averaging 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He fell off late in the season and didn’t show up against the Clippers until the last three games.
An even greater question than whether those three can fulfill themselves is whether Randolph can fully bounce back from his partial MCL tear last season. He took time get back into rhythm, mostly coming off the bench down the stretch since the regulars had become used to starting with Marreese Speights.
Even in the playoffs, his offense wasn’t quite what it was in previous seasons, as he averaged 13.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting in the series against the Clippers.
Some might reasonably worry that Randolph’s best days are behind him. At 31, Randolph just might be edging towards the backside of his career.
Rob Mahoney of SI.com gave a haltingly dreary forecast for the Grizzlies in his best- and worst-case scenarios for this season, both scenarios seeing “things in Memphis remain more or less the same."
That the Grizzlies are capable of nothing more than a first- or second-round exit is a sad possibility. Indeed, it is a possibility. The Oklahoma City Thunder presents problems with its scoring combination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin, as well as its solid defending duo of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Just looking at the Los Angeles Lakers’ lineup gives fans chills.
With Kawhi Leonard rising and Tony Parker and Tim Duncan hanging on, the Spurs remain a team that can win almost any game it wants to win.
Still, hope remains for this blue collar team.
The Unquenchable Fire of the Grit ‘n’ Grind
For each of the worries about the Grizzlies’ core, one finds courageous affirmation. Gay came out of the gates with a terrific game against the Clippers, scoring 25 points and taking 22 shots. He pushed himself especially hard during the preseason, as though time was forever against him.
Conley is on the rise once again. He entered training camp packing new muscle. His defense has been remarkable thus far, with three steals against the Clippers and five against the Golden State Warriors. He turned it over six times against L.A., but recovered for a strong 21-point, seven-assist performance against Golden State.
Gasol has been outstanding thus far, dropping 20 on the Clips and 21 on the Warriors.
Randolph has started the year in good condition. He told the Commercial Appeal in early October he felt “100 percent healthy.” At least in the rebounding department, Randolph has started on the right note, with 15 against the Clippers and 14 against the Warriors.
He seems to be every bit the dominant rebounder he had been before his injury.
Just beyond the core, fans of the grit ‘n’ grind shouldn’t forget its fearless defensive leader, Tony Allen, who has pushed them to become a turnover-forcing dynamo. Allen makes this team great on defense by leading the charge in pressuring ball-handlers and cutting off passing lanes.
Allen has led the Grizzlies to be the No. 1 team in the NBA in steals and turnovers forced the last two seasons.
While the Grizzlies score just enough to survive, they stifle opposing scorers too much to be ignored.
While the Western leaders are tough, the Grizz can take them down. The Lakers appear to be vulnerable with Steve Nash out for the next four weeks. Besides, the toughness of Randolph and Gasol rivals that of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Marc handles Pau well inside and Randolph’s ferocity matches Howard’s strength.
Also, Gay’s scoring ability will make the aging Metta World Peace look silly.
Oklahoma City isn’t an insurmountable opponent. The Grizzlies nearly knocked them off without Gay in the 2011 playoffs. Last season, Memphis tamed Westbrook. In his fourth season, he shot 35.3 percent in three games against Memphis.
Martin is a fun scorer, but one who Grizzlies defenders can easily force into making mistakes.
While the Spurs have been amazing in the regular season, they’ve run out of steam at one point or another in their last five playoff appearances.
Conclusion: The Grizzlies Can Still Climb Higher
This isn’t a team that has plateaued. Gasol and Conley still have a bit of growth to show this season. The success of the last two years has come with either Gay or Randolph out. What is yet to be seen is how high they can reach with both in the lineup.
Anyway, this is still a relatively young team. Allen and Randolph are the only ones who are 30 or older. Aside from Randolph, the best players are either in the early part of their prime or haven’t hit it yet.
The Grizzlies can still put together a great postseason and reach the NBA Finals by exploiting matchups. Simply because they fell short the last two years doesn’t mean it’s all over.
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