The 2013 NBA Playoffs' Elephant in the Closet

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The 2013 NBA Playoffs' Elephant in the Closet
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Now that the Memphis Grizzlies have taken hold of the series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, this one-time doormat can no longer be ignored. Memphis' contender status is beginning to become audible.

National commentators are starting to notice the team that scares all others.

ESPN Forecast gave the Grizzlies a 60 percent chance of making the NBA Finals, after granting them a 33 percent shot at the beginning of the conference semifinals.

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In an SI.com roundtable discussion, Ian Thomsen declared the Grizz to be the likely finals team from the Western Conference. However, he shaded it with the injury factor, saying, "...injuries to [Russell] Westbrook and the [Los Angeles] Clippers' Blake Griffin have surely helped."

Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles raised the possibility that Memphis could be the biggest threat from the West to the Miami Heat while calling the men in the three shades of blue "overachievers."

That people don't factor the Grizzlies into the group of contenders is completely understandable. They don't have a player recognized by national media members to be a star. ESPN play-by-play analyst Mike Tirico remarked during Game 1 that the Grizz don't have a star, which triggered this tweet from Grantland's Zach Lowe.

Marc Gasol may not strike many as star material since his core stats don't jump off the page. He only averages 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and four assists per game. But his great play is expressed by what basic numbers can't say.

While some would call his 49.4 percent field-goal clip subpar for a center, it's just fine since he takes numerous jumpers, hitting 44.1 percent from 10 to 16 feet and 48.8 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point line.

Mike Conley is also largely overlooked because of his assist numbers. Conley averaged 6.1 assists per game, including 7.1 per game after the Rudy Gay trade. Two things complicate those numbers. First, he shares facilitation responsibilities with Marc Gasol.

Second, the Grizzlies are not a spectacular shooting team. Before the Gay trade, they shot 43.8 percent from the field. Afterwards, that number improved to 45.9 percent.

Additionally, the 25-year-old runs the slowest offense in the league, with a pace of 88.4 possessions per 48 minutes.

While it weighs down his numbers, that's part of the genius of Conley. He wears down opponents on defense, and then breaks them down once he gets his team in the half court.

Heavyweight hoopers and their teams are judged to a greater extent by their scoring abilities. The Grizzlies' leading active scorer is Zach Randolph with 15.4 per game. If Memphis makes the finals, they'd be the first team since the 2001-02 New Jersey Nets to do so without a 16-points-per-game scorer.

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Just scoring 20 points in a game is praiseworthy for a Grizzlies player since they only had two 30-point performances in the regular season.

But that's not the point for these grinders. Memphis defends rapaciously at every position. Every Grizz starter allows 102 or fewer points per 100 possessions; four finished the regular season in the top 15 in that category.

Gasol and Randolph have shut down Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, holding them to 30.8, 14.3 and 28.6 percent shooting, respectively. Ibaka's miserable shooting caused CBSSports.com's Royce Young to tweet this during Game 3:

The Grizz have also limited Reggie Jackson, who the Thunder expected to pick up some of the slack with Westbrook out. Jackson averaged 12.7 points per game in the first three contests with Memphis after averaging 17.3 over the last four against the Houston Rockets.

Kevin Durant isn't immune to the sinking teeth of the Grizz. He finished with 25 points in Game 3, but missed eight of his last 11 field-goal attempts.

Perhaps pundits like Shelburne will continue to label this team that's never reached the conference finals "overachievers." Maybe a series win against the Thunder would be dismissed because one of OKC's dynamic scorers was injured.

At least they'll acknowledge that the spector of the "grit 'n' grind" is rising. Fortunately, they've awakened to the fact that the Grizz ripped apart a former flavor-of-the-month team in the Los Angeles Clippers and lead the top-seeded Thunder.

Even though folks have noticed the noise coming from the closet, they'll mostly be taken aback when the Grizzlies break out of the West, having dismantled each of the conference's favorites.

 

Advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.

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