The Memphis Grizzlies may be written off by NBA fans focused on mainline contenders, but the term "dark horse" is too easy a fallback for people to apply to the best defensive team in the league. Their burgeoning offensive production can't be overlooked.
Indeed, the Grizzlies have a bit of work to do to convince the pundits.
Defense is the obvious base for the Grizzlies' playoff run. The "grit 'n' grind" force turnovers like almost no other team can, picking pockets at a 15.5 percent rate, 0.3 percent behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 1 spot. They're 25-5 when allowing fewer than 90 points.
That the Grizz will put immense pressure on opponents in the postseason is a given. One can only express their defensive prowess so much.
Thus, they should take a more dynamic course on their path to a first NBA Finals appearance. They've gained some stability on offense since the Rudy Gay trade, as Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have empowered themselves. Fans of the three shades of blue can only hope that they continue to shine on that end.
Also, the Grizzlies must discover an iron-clad plan to defeat the top teams in the conference, as they would likely face the Thunder and the Spurs in the conference semifinals and finals.
Here's a closer look at how the Grizzlies can make shock the conference powers and meet the Miami Heat in June.
Finish No. 3 in the West
Can the Grizzlies win most of their remaining games agaist winning teams?
The Grizzlies face a couple of snags in the remaining schedule, but can still navigate these stretches to finish third in the conference.
Handling the two Western road swings is key. The Portland Trail Blazers had won five of the last seven matches at the Rose Garden before Tuesday. Wednesday's confrontation with the Clippers may seem daunting since the Grizzlies haven't beaten the Clips in L.A. in the regular season since Dec. 11, 2010.
The next trip sees the Grizz play the Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. When they tango on April 3, the Blazers could frustrate the Grizz more than in the most recent affair. The challenge from the Lakers will depend on how enthusiastic Dwight Howard is.
Memphis' last 20 games include 12 against winning teams. Fortunately, just half of those are on the road. Only two of those road contests occur outside of the aforementioned road trips.
Also, the Grizzlies haven't done too bad on the road against winning teams, going 7-9 in such games.
If they can win more than half of the rest of their contests against winning teams and slay the rest, they'll surge past the Clippers for the No. 3 spot.
Maintain a strong offensive flow through Conley and Gasol
The two most active Grizzlies players on offense haven't taken their post-Gay burdens lightly. Conley is averaging 15.1 points and 6.7 assists per game since the trade. Gasol is putting up 15.3 points and 4.8 assists per game in that time.
Gasol is taking the chance to further himself as a high-efficiency offensive star. He's tied for 15th in offensive rating, producing 116.5 points per 100 possessions.
As Chris Herrington tweeted, the trade has allowed Gasol to distinguish himself as a major player in the half court.
Marc Gasol keeps playing like this as the hub of the offense, along with what he does defensively, and we can start talking Top 10 player.— Chris Herrington (@FlyerGrizBlog) March 9, 2013
With Conley and Gasol smoothing out wrinkles and Tayshaun Prince providing more efficient offense at the 3 spot, Memphis is turning into a fairly decent offensive team. The Grizz don't get clogged in the half court by inefficient isolation plays and misguided long twos.
Their balanced scoring gives Gasol more chances to make fruitful passes or power inside.
Conley is embracing his own freedom by periodically attacking the basket.
Continued hot half-court play from these two will only turn into good things in the playoffs.
Overextend the Thunder perimeter defenders
The Thunder's starting backcourt has played impressive defense this season. Thabo Sefolosha has done his typical job, averaging 1.4 steals in just 28.6 minutes per game and allowing 103 points per 100 possessions.
Russell Westbrook has stepped up his defense, going from 105 points allowed per 100 possessions and 1.7 steals per game in 2011-12 to 104 allowed per 100 and 1.8 steals per game this season. He already has 2.9 defensive win shares, half a win share more than last season.
Kevin Durant is doing an admirable job on defense. He has four win shares, grabs 1.5 steals per game and allows 101 points per 100 possessions.
Oklahoma City has fared well this season stopping the three-pointer. They have the ninth-best three-point field-goal percentage allowed at 35.9 percent.
While the Grizzlies won't play tit-for-tat with the No. 2 three-point shooting team in the league, Conley, Quincy Pondexter and Austin Daye must do something to offset whatever edge the Thunder may gain beyond the arc. Additionally, Prince will need to flex his ability from outside by taking more than one three per game.
While this seems strange to suggest, Tony Allen needs to be active on offense. Allen, who isn't the most accurate shooter and tends to turn it over more when asked to handle the ball more, needs a fair number of touches so that the Thunder don't devote too much attention to Gasol and Zach Randolph.
In the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, the Thunder ignored the Grizzlies' perimeter players while collapsing on Memphis' inside guys.
Allen can help distract Thunder defenders by separating himself to take the ball and either rotate it quickly or burst through the lane for a bucket.
Find a way to stop Tony Parker
The Grizzlies didn't catch a break at all when the Spurs' leading scorer went down with a sprained left ankle. Originally expected to miss four weeks, Parker looks to return sooner, as Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News tweeted.
Good news for Spurs on night they got beat by 30: @tonyparker ran for 15 min. on treadmill today; even Pop thinks he'll be before 4 wks.— Mike Monroe (@Monroe_SA) March 9, 2013
Aside from allowing the Spurs to hold strong to their place atop the conference, his early comeback means more time to prepare for the playoffs. Parker will be able to use a couple games to shake off the cobwebs before bursting through the last nine or 10 games of the regular season with a full head of steam.
The Grizz may be frustrated by Parker's torturous presence when they collide on April 1. However, this presents an opportunity for them to prepare for a possible playoff showdown by trying out ways to slow down the five-time All-Star.
Parker has played out of his mind this season. He's averaging 21 points and 7.6 assists per game and shooting 53.3 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from downtown—all of which are second best in his career. He's also shooting a career-best 82.9 percent from the line.
The maestro of the Spurs' offense rarely has an off game, which makes it difficult for opponents to contain him. He has only seven games with sub-40 percent shooting.
This year, he hasn't had a problem against Memphis, as he's averaged 25.7 points per game on 52 percent shooting in three meetings.
Conclusion: Memphis can only partly prove themselves by mid-April
Before the playoffs begin, these keys are only shadows of testimonies if the Grizz answer each one affirmatively. Stopping Tony Parker on April 1 would only be a primer for trying to hold him down in a seven-game series.
If they scramble Durant, Westbrook and Sefolosha in April, they'll have a more complex challenge from them in a playoff showdown.
Conley and Gasol's progression will be tested by both the Thunder and the Spurs if the Grizz go deep in the playoffs. Proving that progress may translate to a Finals berth.