The Memphis Grizzlies began to show their NBA Finals capacity by rattling off four straight wins to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. Their superior interior presence, offensive efficiency and defense will make them tough to beat as they move forward in the bracket.
The Grizzlies have gained some recognition as a possible NBA Finals team. ESPN Forecast gave the Grizz a 33 percent chance of winning the Western Conference finals after a predicted defeat of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
However, Memphis has more than a shadow of a hope to take down the top seeds of the West to earn a meeting with the Miami Heat. This small-market team is more than an average No. 5 seed, considering they finished within four games of the top-seeded Thunder and two games of the second-ranked San Antonio Spurs.
Here's a look at how the Grizzlies will become a finals runner-up, based on a few keys and the matchups they'll encounter in the playoffs.
Keys for the Grizzlies
The Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph combination
The glinted samurai sword of the Grizzlies lies in the frontcourt. Gasol and Randolph form the toughest inside duo in the NBA.
Gasol is a terrific all-around center. Coming off a Defensive Player of the Year honor, he's having the best season of anyone at the 5-spot. He averaged 15.2 points and 4.5 assists per game after the Rudy Gay trade. His field-goal rate belies his ability to knock down shots from various angles inside the three-point line.
Gasol was fifth in the league in defensive rating, allowing 98.5 points per 100 possessions.
Randolph is one of the most outstanding rebounders, placing fourth in rebounds per game and first in offensive rebounds per game. His defensive ability grew by leaps and bounds this season, as he allowed 99.5 points per 100 possessions.
Together, they're nearly unbeatable. Gasol and Randolph play off each other on both ends. They create mirrored looks on offense and deftly make plays for each other. On the other end, the 31-year-old follows his younger teammate to cut off attackers. The Spaniard sometimes recovers for his partner.
Thus far, they've been strong. Randolph is averaging 20.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, while Gasol is amounting 17.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
The 12-year veteran had scored at least 23 points in four straight games before settling for 18 in Game 1 against the Thunder. Gasol has scored 20 in three of the last four games.
This pair will only become more fearsome with each ensuing game.
Mike Conley runs a clean offense for Memphis. The Grizz were eighth with a 13.3 percent turnover rate and committed the fifth-fewest turnovers. Conley had a 2.58 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The team sparkled in this department in the first round. They averaged 9.8 turnovers per game and had turnover rates below 10 percent in three games. Conley had a spotless assist-to-turnover rate of five.
Memphis did a decent job controlling the ball in Game 1 in Oklahoma City, coughing it up 11 times. Darrell Arthur had three turnovers in just 12 minutes, while Randolph also had three miscues.
Since Memphis' 91 points on Sunday was closer to the norm than their No. 2-ranked offensive rating in Round 1, according to ProBasketballTalk.com, error-free offense is especially important.
That the Grizzlies have the most treacherous defense in the league is no secret. They finished the regular season second in defensive rating, with four players in the top 15 in the category. Opponents can seldom keep the ball safe against Memphis, which were second in opponent turnover rate and had two players in the top six in steals rate.
The Grizzlies managed the Clippers' attack fairly well. Memphis held L.A. to fewer than 104 points per 100 possessions in three of six games. The Clippers' 113-point onslaught in Game 1 was the only real scare to the "grit 'n' grind" defense. The Grizz forced 12.2 turnovers per game.
After grabbing just five steals and forcing 10 turnovers in the series opener against the Thunder, the Grizzlies should inflict more chaos on their conference semifinals opponent. Besides, Tony Allen only saw 20 minutes on the floor on Sunday.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Grizzlies and Thunder are good matches for each other. The Thunder push a high-tempo scoring regime to counter Conley's grinding pace. The trio of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are capable of playing up to the level of Randolph and Gasol.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies' defense is among the few that can neutralize the Thunder. Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye have the length and discipline to match up with Kevin Durant. Reggie Jackson emerged as a scoring option with Russell Westbrook out, but Tony Allen and Mike Conley will pressure him immensely.
Durant shouldered the load in Game 1, as he and Kevin Martin were the only players for Oklahoma City with more than 12 points.
The Grizz forced the Thunder to do what they wanted them to. Durant mostly had to settle for outside shots. Ibaka and Perkins struggled to find satisfactory angles, leading to a combined 2-of-16 shooting.
A successful "grit 'n' grind" defensive stand will suffocate every player aside from Durant. The league's No. 2 scorer takes care of the offense to a great degree, but the Thunder will pay for not having Russell Westbrook to carry a high volume of scoring behind him.
Aside from Durant and Martin, the Thunder shot 12-of-40 (30 percent) from the field. As a team, they shot 5-of-15 (33 percent) from three-point range. Those figures will persist as the Grizzlies silence this potent scoring team.
San Antonio Spurs
After taking down the Thunder, the Grizz would likely face the Spurs, who they beat in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
This would be an appropriate time to take on this well-balanced shooting team. The Spurs have hit a wall after the first round of four of the last five postseasons since their last title. After winning 20 straight games through Game 2 of the conference finals, the Spurs flailed through four straight losses to the Thunder.
In 2010, the Spurs failed to keep up with the Phoenix Suns in a four-game sweep in the conference semifinals.
San Antonio attacks with a variety of marksmen. For the amount he shoots, Tony Parker is remarkably accurate, hitting 52.2 percent on 16.5 field-goal attempts per game. Kawhi Leonard, who doesn't shoot as much as he could, hits 49.4 percent from the field. Danny Green drains 44.8 percent from the field and 42.9 from downtown.
Manu Ginobili, who averages 11.4 points per game, has been surprisingly healthy lately. Depending on whether he holds up, he could make this squad a bit more of a threat.
Tim Duncan, another bellwether, is shooting a subpar 50.2 percent from the field. He shot 51.7 percent in the first round, but would be worn down from Gasol's pressure if they meet in the conference finals.
While the Spurs' shooters will meet their limit, Miami's won't get enough in this postseason. The Heat were tops in field-goal percentage and had the second-best three-point clip. They had four players shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The Heat started slow from outside, shooting 33 percent from long range in the first round. Then again, this wasn't an issue when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks by double digits in each of the four games. Overall, the Heat shot 50.3 percent from the field.
Conley, Allen, Darrell Arthur and Tayshaun Prince defend the three ball well. But the defending champions have too many options for them to try to stop. With LeBron James, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis aiming for triples at various moments, the Grizz will be overwhelmed.
A popular argument supporting Memphis in a series against Miami is their rebounding advantage. Indeed, the Grizzlies have superior size and rebounding ability, standing among the best in offensive and rebounding rates while the Heat are in the bottom seven in both categories.
However, the Heat's effective shooting nullifies that argument. If Miami takes away rebounding opportunities with a high shooting clip, then the Grizz can't capitalize on that advantage.
Above all, LeBron won't allow any team other than his to walk away with the crown. He silenced his critics by pulling the Heat back from a series deficit against the Indiana Pacers and pushing them past the Boston Celtics before rocking the Thunder for the title last year.
Winning his fourth MVP award in the last five years, LeBron demonstrated his ability to rally his team. His .322 win shares per 48 minutes—0.031 more than the next player—showed how much more he affects a team's chance to win than anyone else.
The king's burning fire will overcome the best efforts of the Grizzlies' defense.
Hence, the best for which Memphis can hope is an NBA Finals foray.