Entering the NBA playoffs, the Grizzlies were considered a contender. Then again, so were the other seven postseason teams. And that's not hyperbole.
After falling behind the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0, expectations were abated. Game 1 was a two-way disaster while a tightly contested Game 2 was a harbinger of Memphis' penchant for falling just short in the playoffs.
But then everything changed.
The Grizzlies secured two straight victories at home before returning to the Staples Center with a vengeance. They won Game 5, suddenly finding themselves up 3-2.
In the midst of a complete about-face, Memphis' ability to streak past Los Angeles is no longer being doubted. Instead, their ability to creep into the NBA Finals is—in a good way.
Memphis was considered a contender, but never in the same context as the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder, or even the Clippers. Before and after the Rudy Gay trade, the Grizz were a dark horse, a team capable rattling the cages. They weren't going to make it to through to the finals.
Led by the talented interior stylings of Gasol and Randolph, nothing could now be farther from the truth.
Injuries have hit opposing teams hard. The Golden State Warriors lost David Lee, the Denver Nuggets are down Danilo Gallinari and pining for a fully healthy Kenneth Faried and the Thunder are without Russell Westbrook. Blake Griffin is fighting through ankle issues as well.
This cataclysm of abrasions brings a whole new meaning to the Western Conference being wide open. If it wasn't before, it certainly is now.
To be clear, the Grizzlies can't be considered absolute favorites. With the west sitting as it now does (Westbrook-less), the Spurs—even without Tiago Splitter—hold that honor. Credence must even be given to the suddenly fallible Thunder.
But the Grizzlies? They deserve our undivided attention and respect, too.
Since falling behind two games to none, they've been unstoppable on both sides of the ball. Not just on defense—on offense, too.
Memphis has scored at least 94 points in each of its last three games, eclipsed 100 in its last two and relinquished more than 90 points just once. Now the Grizzlies find themselves one victory away from doing what they couldn't last year—advance.
Complementary performances from Mike Conley and Tayshaun Prince have paralyzed Los Angeles' defensive attack, but the real story has been the displays put forth by Gasol and Randolph.
Over the last three games (all wins), the two have combined to average 45.7 points, 20 rebounds, five assists and 2.3 blocks while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
For the postseason, the Grizzlies are outscoring the Clippers by an average of 15.2 points per 100 possessions when both Z-Bo and Gasol are on the floor together. Los Angeles has simply had no answer for either them. Not DeAndre Jordan on defense, and not Griffin on offense.
Their performances have allowed the Grizzlies to take control of the series against a touted contender. The Clippers aren't a joke, on either side of the ball. They, along with the Spurs, Thunder and Miami Heat were the only four teams in the league to rank in the top 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency during the regular season.
Memphis has had an answer for these Clippers and has the potential to find an answer for the Spurs, Thunder or whomever else they would have to face en route to a finals berth. A feasible finals berth.
It's not a stretch to deem the Grizzlies the most whole of teams remaining out west. They don't run the deepest of rotations, but they're not missing any starters like the Spurs, Thunder, Warriors and Nuggets are. And with the way Gasol and Randolph have been executing on the offensive end, they're a tougher out than we initially imagined. Even for the Thunder and Spurs.
There's actually a case to be made that the Grizzlies are already superior to the Thunder. Memphis went 2-1 against Oklahoma City during the regular season and allowed Kevin Durant and friends to surpass 90 points just once. And that was with Westbrook. The Thunder won't have him if these two teams meet in the second round.
A Western Conference Finals victory would then have to go through the Spurs—or Warriors or Nuggets (take the Spurs). Memphis was 2-2 against San Antonio during the regular season, 3-0 against Golden State and yes, just 1-3 against Denver.
The Grizzlies can beat these teams. They already have (though not consistently). And that was prior to an onrush of injuries and the Grizz establishing offensive fortitude. They can flat-out win.
Can they sneak their way into the NBA Finals, though? Absolutely not.
If the Grizzlies play their way toward the finals, there will be no tiptoeing or stealth maneuvers involved.
They're not a secret anymore. They're for real, a faction to fear.
They're a contender, in every sense of the word. No "dark horse" allocation necessary.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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