To write off the Memphis Grizzlies because of the hot play of the Los Angeles Clippers and favored status of the Oklahoma City Thunder is too easy. That would downplay the Grizzlies' defense and the Clippers' inherent weaknesses.
No one can deny the superiority of the Grizzlies' defensive play. With their dedication to forcing turnovers, they can disrupt even the most potent offense.
Tony Allen and Mike Conley are the truest stoppers on the perimeter. Allen has become the fiercest perimeter defender in the league. His aggression both on and off the ball is unparalleled. He slows ball-handlers and closes off passing lanes with remarkable effectiveness.
Conley is almost as effective in creating chaos for opposing attackers. He shows similar aggression to Allen on the ball, standing second only to Chris Paul in steals.
Rudy Gay feeds off their energy to force turnovers.
With Zach Randolph having a career year defensively, the Grizzlies have a show-stopping pair on the inside to complement that which patrols the outside. Randolph is allowing a career-low 98 points per 100 possessions. This is an unheard-of figure for someone who has been blasted for being lax on defense.
His defensive uptick has been a great aid for the already stellar Marc Gasol. The Spaniard center is an effective shot-blocker. Generally, he stands his ground on the inside, refusing to allow opposing big men leverage.
Since the "grit 'n' grind" have begun to combine splendid interior defense with crushing perimeter action, the Grizzlies have made themselves even more of a nightmare for opponents come playoff time.
The Clips show similar aggression in suffocating opponents. Paul is an amazing stopper on the perimeter. DeAndre Jordan provides solid one-on-one defense. Matt Barnes is the same type of do-it-all defender as Allen.
Barnes' defensive aggression has apparently spread throughout the team thus far. The Clippers are tops in the league in forcing turnovers.
But one must wonder if they can maintain this commitment throughout the season.
At any rate, it's difficult not to look at Vinny Del Negro's team without a center-cannot-hold view. Del Negro has such trouble keeping players happy that they may turn on him like they did last year. If the team loses, its heat starts to flag, and fingers will probably point toward Del Negro.
Also, one must keep an eye on the growth of Blake Griffin. He's taking a lower proportion of shots at the rim than in his first two seasons. He's taking less than 40 percent of shots at the rim, whereas he attempted almost half at the rim last year.
However, that doesn't mean he's more effective than before.
He was a terror against the Grizzlies in last season's playoff meeting. But if he doesn't commit to the inside and lacks effectiveness, then Gasol and Randolph will eat him up.
Now, the Thunder seem almost unstoppable this season. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been as electric as ever, and Serge Ibaka is emerging as an offensive threat. Ibaka is averaging 14.3 points per game on 56.5 percent shooting. He's opened up the Thunder offense in ways never before imagined.
Kevin Martin has jelled with his new team, averaging a remarkable 15.6 points per game off the bench. He's making Oklahomans forget about James Harden.
Stopping Martin won't be nearly as tough for the Grizzlies as stopping Harden. Martin has the sort of hitch in his motion that Allen swoons over.
As for Ibaka, he'll be a double-team target for the Grizzlies' big men since Kendrick Perkins is a non-factor on offense.
Matchups are central to winning playoff series. As long as the Grizzlies control these matchups with their intimidating defense, they'll be able to impose their will against favored teams in the West.
Disclaimer: Statistics are current through Dec. 31 games.
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