The Memphis Grizzlies emphatically notified the NBA that they're ready for the playoffs, hushing a Utah Jazz team that was on its last breath of playoff life. By holding the Jazz to 70 points in the finale, the Grizzlies loudly challenged the West's high-scoring playoff teams to try to push triple digits on them.
The Grizzlies will try to bulldoze their way through the playoffs with grinding defensive play supported by balanced scoring. A trip to the NBA Finals would make them the first team in 11 years to do it without a player averaging 16 points per game.
For the second straight year, the Grizz will face the Clippers in the first round. Memphis will try to make up for the series of breakdowns that caused them to lose in seven games to L.A. last year. Turnovers, offensive failures and poor coaching decisions were among reasons for the collapse.
Now, a different Grizzlies team marches into the postseason, looking to show that defense still can win a championship. Follow along to see how the Grizz could make it happen and what type of trials stand before them.
This Grizzlies squad might be a strange team to be in position to make a deep playoff run. They stumbled after a fast start, going 8-8 after starting a league-best 12-2.
In the winter, persistent trade rumors opened the possibility that Memphis' front office could scuttle any fight for the finals. However, trading Rudy Gay only made the Grizzlies stronger and more efficient. Gay had been struggling through a down year, scoring 17.2 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, the Grizzlies switched Gay's inefficient, high-usage offense for Tayshaun Prince's low-usage, relatively clean game.
The Grizzlies took a few games to adjust after the deal. Then, they won 14 of 15 and 26 of the last 34.
Gay's departure empowered a few players to grow in their offensive games. Jerryd Bayless averaged 12.1 points per game after the trade, compared with 7.6 per game beforehand. Mike Conley has amounted 16.9 points per game since the trade, compared with 13 per game before Gay left.
Conley has 17 20-point games, including 13 since Gay's been gone.
Defense has been the key once again for the Grizz. They're No. 2 in defensive rating and turnover rate. Memphis has allowed less than 90 points 42 times, winning 37 of those contests. They have four players in the top 16 in defensive rating and two in the top six in steals percentage.
This was the Grizzlies' most accomplished regular season yet. They won a franchise-record 56 wins, including a first ever winning road record. Going deep in the playoffs after shipping their leading scorer could be another big accomplishment.
Marc Gasol vs. DeAndre Jordan
Whether Gasol wins the matchup with Jordan isn't a question in this series. The question is what he'll do with his advantage on his clunky foe.
Gasol is much more skilled and versatile than Jordan. He can hit mid-range shots and long twos, while Jordan struggles to defend away from the low post. Gasol, who shoots 45 percent from between 10 and 16 feet and 50 percent between 16 feet and the arc, should test the Texan from that distance.
Also, Gasol can use advantageous positioning in the high post to open up the offense when Chris Paul closes in on Mike Conley. If Memphis can work this to success, they'll overextend the Clippers' defense time and again.
Mike Conley vs. Chris Paul
This battle pits the man atop the heap of elite point guards (Paul) against a quietly brilliant floor general (Conley). Conley was successful against Paul last year, partly due to Paul's injury during the series. He averaged 14.1 points and 7.1 assists per game with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Paul averaged 20.4 points and 7.1 assists per game, but turned it over 2.5 times per game and had a mere 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
One interesting aspect to watch is which one will dictate the pace of the game. Both run their teams at slow methodical paces. Paul's Clippers average 91.1 possessions per 48 minutes (19th in the NBA), whereas Conley puts the Grizzlies at 88.5 per 48 (the league's slowest).
What people must watch for is which one will throw the other off. Both are among the best at forcing turnovers. Conley leads the league in total steals, but is third in steals per game and fourth in steals rate. Paul is tops in steals per game and second in steals rate.
Game 1 in Los Angeles (Saturday, April 20): Grizzlies 88, Clippers 85
Game 2 in Los Angeles (Monday, April 22): Clippers 99, Grizzlies 93
Game 3 in Memphis (Thursday, April 25): Grizzlies 93, Clippers 85
Game 4 in Memphis (Saturday, April 27): Grizzlies 85, Clippers 84
Game 5 in Los Angeles (Tuesday, April 30): Clippers 101, Grizzlies 90
Game 6 in Memphis (Friday, May 3): Clippers 95, Grizzlies 92
Game 7 in Los Angeles (Sunday, May 5): Grizzlies 89, Clippers 83
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.