How the Memphis Grizzlies Defy Conventional Notion of Championship Contender

Tom Firme@TFirmeAnalyst IIMay 24, 2013

May 19, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots during the third quarter as San Antonio Spurs center Boris Diaw (33) defends in game one of the Western Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Fans may mistake the Memphis Grizzlies' strained march much of the way through the first two games of the Western Conference Finals for that of a team that doesn't belong in the conference finals. However, the Grizzlies have earned their way to the conference finals.

They won frontcourt matchups in the second round against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Thus far, the Grizz have put up impressive offensive numbers.

Indeed, not everyone's awoken without squinting to a world in which the Grizz make the NBA's final four.'s Matt Moore tried to hush someone on Twitter who thought the Grizzlies weren't for real.

A few aspects to the Grizzlies throw fans for a loop. They don't have a big-time scorer. Memphis isn't in the top four in their conference. They've moved past the trade of their leading scorer. Here's a look at why these haven't shaken the Grizz.

No overwhelming scoring talent

Whether the casual fan happens to catch a Grizzlies game or pick up a stat sheet, he or she might feel let down by the absence of the a killer scorer. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph won't barrel down the lane and throw it down in an opponent's face. Randolph isn't that type of athlete.

Gasol, who takes 20.9 percent of his shots at the rim, according to, prefers to take mid-range jumpers.

Also, Gasol isn't a shoot-first player. He kicks it out when he sees that a teammate may have a better shot.

Mike Conley only turned into a scorer after the Rudy Gay trade. Conley averaged 16.9 points per game to finish the season after the trade and is averaging 17.4 per game in the playoffs. His career high before this season was 13.7 per game in 2010-11. Whether he's capable of posting Deron Williams-esque lead guard numbers has yet to bear.

Gay had been that talent, but he never fulfilled himself as a scorer. He hung between 18.9 and 20.1 points per game for five years. Before being traded, he managed just 17.2 per game on 40.8 percent shooting. Additionally, Gay never took more than 16.3 shots per game in a season for Memphis.

The Grizzlies would be one of those rare teams to reach the NBA Finals without a dynamic scorer. They'd be the first since 2001-02 New Jersey Nets to make the finals without a 16-points-per-game player.

Anyway, Memphis' hard-driving defense, which ranked second in opponent turnover rate and defensive rating this year and led the league in opponent turnover rate the previous two, allows it to live without much scoring. With such a tough defense, the Grizz don't need to ask someone to stack up points.

Living down trading the leading scorer

That the Grizz lack such a scorer doesn't diminish their contender status. Many questioned the logic of dealing someone with Gay's scoring ability after it happened—and some still do, as The Commercial Appeal's Kyle Veazey noted via Twitter.

But the volume of scoring in one man's hands doesn't matter if it makes the offense less efficient. He produced 104 points per 100 possessions in 2011-12 and 97 per 100 before the trade this year.

Also, as Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out, the Grizzlies offense became more efficient with Tayshaun Prince's efficient low-usage play.

The Grizz shot 45.9 percent from the field after the trade, compared with 43.8 percent beforehand.

As's Rob Mahoney said, the Grizz have kept this up in the playoffs, shooting significantly better than in last year's first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Also, the Grizzlies had the second-best offensive rating in the first round, as stated.

Teams don't often achieve great playoff success after making a dramatic trade. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, which were Rasheed Wallace's third team for the season, were one exception.

Surviving with an eight-man rotation

Lionel Hollins' crew is going deep in the playoffs with a short bench. It only has eight players with double-digit minutes per game.

No other team in the last four postseasons made the conference finals without nine or more with at least 10 per game.

Hollins is leaning particularly hard on Conley and their starting big men. Gasol is playing 40 minutes per game, 0.2 fewer than LeBron James, who leads all those still in the playoffs. Conley is averaging 37.8 per game and Randolph is putting in 36.4 per game.

The burden the Grizz put on their leading bigs is surprising. Darrell Arthur, the third Memphis big man, is putting in 11.8 minutes per game. Their fourth, Ed Davis, gives a mere 6.1 per game.

They never put such pressure on Gasol and Randolph in the playoffs before. Last year, Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham received more than 15 minutes per game, combining for 40 per game. Arthur played 15.5 per game in 2011.

Indeed, Arthur suffered injuries this season and shot 35.7 percent in a two-month stretch from Jan. 23 to March 23.

With that and the loss of other big men in midseason trades, Hollins seems reluctant to turn to backup frontcourt players.

Some may wonder when that will wear on Gasol and Randolph.

Overcoming not having a top-four seed in the playoffs

Before the playoffs, I had harped on the Grizzlies' need to get home-court advantage for the first round.

That turned out not to be a necessity. First, the Grizz won a franchise-record 24 road games in the regular season, good for fourth in the league.

Second, Memphis quelled fears that its post-Gay roster might not fit. As noted before, it's shot better and has been more efficient offensively without Gay.

Third, finishing within four games of first place and becoming the second team to land fifth place with 56 wins lessened the damage of missing out on the home-court spot.

The odds aren't in favor of the Grizzlies becoming the first team outside the top four to make the finals since 1999, but commentators haven't ruled them out.'s J.A. Adande spoke of their never-say-die attitude when trailing by double digits in the third quarter.

Moore and Zach Harper talked in a podcast about Memphis' ability to rattle Tony Parker.

Conclusion: Cutting against the grain wouldn't kill the Grizzlies

Sitting outside these conventional ideas won't bring Memphis down. Instead of having one high scorer, the Grizz have three putting up 17 per game.

Falling behind 2-0 to the Spurs didn't happen simply because San Antonio is the No. 2 seed and the Grizz are the No. 5 seed. Memphis didn't succeed in the areas that made it a contender. Its defense failed in Game 1 and allowed 61 points between the second and third quarters of Game 2.

It also didn't shoot well, hitting 43 percent in Game 1 and 34 percent in Game 2.

If a comeback series win surprises people, it should be as a result of the fact that the Spurs blew a 2-0 lead in consecutive conference finals, not Memphis' low seed or scoring configuration.


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