Who the heck are these Memphis Grizzlies, and can they actually win an NBA title?
Fans in Oklahoma City and the rest of America are learning Lionel Hollins' defensive-minded group is much stronger than its No. 5 seeding would indicate.
For starters, the Grizzlies' defensive core is built around three elite stoppers.
Marc Gasol won 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors, but he wasn't even the top vote-getter in the coaches' All-Defensive team tally. He and point guard Mike Conley earned second-team honors, while scrappy swingman Tony Allen received well-deserved first-team recognition.
These physical, mentally tough Grizzlies were down 0-2 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and then dug in their heels. Gasol and Zach Randolph helped Memphis beat L.A. by double digits in four straight games, effectively turning Lob City into "Sob City" in a week's time.
These days, they're in the process of toppling the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
Kevin Durant had a couple monster games to start the series, but as usual, Memphis made adjustments and has since slowed the superstar down and hindered the Thunder attack.
Allen garners plenty of defensive praise, but Tayshaun Prince has been critical in helping him slow down the Durantula. His length and craftiness are underrated.
At the point, Conley held his own against Chris Paul in Round 1 and is now picking apart Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook-less backcourt. He's posting 19.3 points, 5.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game in Round 2, and his eight three-pointers have helped the Griz stretch the floor when it matters most.
He's helped on the perimeter by Jerryd Bayless, who's dangerous as a shooter and a slasher, especially in the open floor.
Mix in some clutch scoring and stubborn defense from Randolph, aka Z-Bo, and you have the ingredients for something special.
ESPN NBA Insider Chris Palmer thinks it's Larry O'Brien Trophy kind of special.
I agree with him.
Let's not forget that this playoff run wasn't a guarantee after Memphis traded Rudy Gay January 30, as he was the highest-scoring player on the team at the time.
It turned out to be an addition-by-subtraction scenario, as the club was no longer hampered by his inefficient shooting and lack of facilitation.
Including the playoffs, the Grizzlies are 34-14 without Gay, and they're currently on the cusp of advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
These Grizzlies are definitively better than the Memphis team — led by Gay in minutes, field-goal attempts and points per game — that lost in the first round a season ago. They execute more evenly (the Grizzlies have scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions in this year’s playoffs compared with 99.6 in the 2012 postseason), shoot more accurately (they’ve posted an playoff effective field-goal percentage of 47.3, up from 44.9 last year) and even defend more aggressively.
Memphis' offensive identity lies in the paint, where Randolph and Gasol get copious touches.
Hollins' crew took a massive chunk of its shots from within eight feet in the regular season:
Similarly, a huge portion of the Grizzlies' playoff attempts (44.5 percent) come from the interior:
Compare those with a team like Oklahoma City, which took just 34.2 percent of its shots from that range in the postseason:
That difference in priorities makes it easier to understand Memphis' 3-1 series lead.
The Grizzlies simply do what it takes to win and live by the adage "defense wins championships." Gasol defends the paint religiously and is willing to do whatever it takes to stop opponents.
Even if it involves using props.
Memphis will be a tough club to top if it advances to the conference finals, especially the way it's been playing at home lately.
The FedExForum turns into a raucous "Grindhouse" every postseason, and the Grizzlies have fared well there and taken care of business on their home floor.
Scott Brooks' Thunder face a huge uphill battle if they want to come back in this series. They face a Memphis group that knows how to control a series once it gets a grip on it.
Predictions for Rest of Playoffs
- Grizzlies easily advance past Thunder: OKC might squeak one out at home in Game 5, but Memphis will certainly put its foot down in Game 6 on the strength of its home-court defense.
- Grizzlies over Spurs in six: In the Western Conference Finals, the combination of Gasol and Z-Bo will counteract Tim Duncan, while Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless will keep San Antonio's perimeter busy.
- Grizzlies take Heat to at least six: It's tough to bet against LeBron James, but Memphis' size will give Miami fits, and Conley will outplay the likes of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Expect the Griz to win at least a couple games against the defending champs, if not the whole enchilada.
Bottom line: The San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat must take note.
Don't sleep on the Grizzlies.
Follow Dan on Twitter for more NBA Playoff talk: @DanielO_BR