Are Memphis Grizzlies' Dark-Horse Days Already Over?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 13, 2013

The Memphis Grizzlies have been a trendy pick to make some noise in the Western Conference playoffs this season, but after a 91-87 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, it might be time to re-evaluate their fitness as a dark-horse contender.

The Grizzlies didn't play particularly poorly against the Clippers. In fact, they slowed the game down to their preferred pace, kept things physical and hounded Chris Paul into a pedestrian 13-point, five-assist night. But they essentially stopped scoring in the fourth period, which allowed the Clips to go on a 14-0 run to steal the game.

The loss dropped Memphis into a complicated tie with L.A. for the fifth spot in the West. Though the two teams have identical 54-26 records, the Clippers technically own the No. 4 spot by virtue of their status as division leaders and because they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Technically, L.A. ranks ahead of the Grizzlies in the standings, but after watching the two teams tangle for the fourth time this season, it's hard to think of them as anything other than equals.

Going forward, the Grizzlies' playoff position is hardly set. Depending on a few variables, the Clippers and Denver Nuggets could shuffle ahead of them, or the Grizzlies could end up finishing as high as the No. 3 seed.

But focusing on the present, it's worth asking if it's really fair to strip the Grizzlies of their status as sneaky contenders just because they've fallen to the Clippers—a team they're likely to see in the first round—three out of four times this season.

The fact is that the Grizzlies still have an awful lot going for them, and their profile as a gritty defensive squad figures to play even better in the playoffs than it has during the regular season.

Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote:

The Grizzlies fear no one, they might have the league’s best overall defense (only Indiana can make an argument), and they always play Oklahoma City tough...a lot of people around the league view the Grizz as the Western Conference team with the best shot at upsetting Oklahoma City, even if those same people don’t really think Memphis is a title contender on the same level as San Antonio. The NBA's weird that way.

Well, far be it from me to disagree with NBA executives, but Memphis has had some recent success in the postseason against the Spurs, having beaten them in a first-round series two years ago.

And there are still more reasons to keep believing in the Grizzlies. Surprisingly, one of those reasons has to do with the team's ability to score.

Considering the way its offense has improved since Rudy Gay left town (the Grizzlies upped their offensive efficiency from 102.2 points per 100 possessions in February to 105.8 in March), Memphis isn't quite as one-dimensionally dependent on defense as its reputation suggests.

Don't be mistaken; defense is still the team's calling card, and April hasn't been kind to the Grizzlies' offensive numbers. But thanks to Mike Conley's increased aggression as a scorer and Marc Gasol's skills as a facilitator, Memphis' offense looks to be sound enough to compete in the playoffs.

Really, the analysis of the Grizzlies' chances to contend shouldn't be much different after their loss to the Clippers than it was beforehand. Memphis still has great size, elite defensive numbers and an offense that should be good enough to get by.

If there's a reason to be pessimistic, it has to do with Memphis' struggles against the Clippers. But the version of the Grizzlies that has emerged since the Gay trade has soundly beaten L.A. in one game and narrowly lost the other.

So it turns out that Memphis is still very much worthy of its label as an under-the-radar contender. In fact, if teams start to buy into the erroneous notion that they've somehow slipped lately, it could allow the Grizzlies to sneak up on their potential playoff opponents.

In short, Memphis' dark-horse status remains firmly intact.