Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
The Grizzlies can't settle for another first-round exit. Lionel Hollins' contract expires after this season, and even though he has overcome obstacles with his roster each of the last three years to better the team, he still must prove that he can build on the 2011 playoff success.
Also, Tony Allen, the leader of the "grit 'n' grind" defense, will be a free agent after this season. While the Grizz have a decent chance of retaining this turnover master, they must make the most of the last of the three years in which he built the NBA's most fearsome defense.
With Allen at age 30 and Zach Randolph at age 32, the Grizz have two key players who may face downturns after 2012-13.
Beating the Clippers would in all likelihood send the Grizzlies to face the Oklahoma City Thunder for a second conference semifinals series in three years. Falling to the Thunder again, which Memphis beat two of three times in the regular season, would be another letdown.
Thus, reaching at least the Western Conference finals is the least the Grizzlies can do. As ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz pointed out, the Grizzlies improved on both ends of the court after the Rudy Gay trade.
Blossoming after the trade, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol should bring their respective evolution to ripeness by driving the team deep in the playoffs.
Prediction: Win in first round 4-3 against Los Angeles Clippers
Win in Western Conference Semfinals 4-2 against Oklahoma City Thunder
Win in Western Conference Finals 4-2 against San Antonio Spurs
Loss in NBA Finals 4-1 to Miami Heat
After grinding the Clippers through a mostly low-scoring first-round series, the Grizzlies will use an advantage on the inside, as well as their defense, to overcome the Thunder. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may shoot their way to two wins, but the Conley and Allen will force Westbrook into several costly mistakes.
Randolph and Gasol will tool Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison in the big man matchups. Gasol will surpass Ibaka with inside-out shooting and stifle the emerging offensive threat on the other end. Randolph will work off Gasol for short jumpers and dominate the boards.
In the conference finals, Memphis will face a San Antonio Spurs team that hits a wall in the series, as they did against Oklahoma City in last year's Western finals. Tim Duncan, who has had an admirable campaign with the best defensive rating in the league, will be worn down by Gasol.
Also, the Grizzlies will take advantage of the Spurs' vulnerability with the ball, as they rank 20th in turnover rate. Memphis' steals will stunt the high-scoring San Antonio force.
In each series, the Grizzlies will manage to negate their opponents' home-court advantage, showing that their 24-17 road record (third-best in the NBA) was no fluke.
In the finals, the Grizz will falter against the two words that perplex every other team—LeBron James. Tony Allen may mute Dwyane Wade, but LeBron will make Tayshaun Prince look every bit the 33-year-old man he is, scampering past, shooting over and overpowering the lanky former Detroit Piston.
James posted .322 win shares per 48 minutes, fifth-best in NBA history—a "game over" figure.
He'll put a quick rest to the best defensive efforts of the Grizzlies, once again validating his greatness.