Did the Memphis Grizzlies Get That Much Better, or Did They Get Lucky?

Tom Firme@TFirmeAnalyst IIMay 29, 2013

May 25, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen (9) Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) and Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph (50) take a walk off the court in game three of the Western Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs at FedEx Forum. San Antonio Spurs defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 104-93, and lead the series 3-0.  Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Gasol could do no more than pound the scorer's table after the Memphis Grizzlies' most glorious campaign ended in a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. They had won a franchise-record 56 games, rallied past the Los Angeles Clippers and bowled over the Oklahoma City Thunder en route to their first Western Conference Finals series.

But their biggest playoff series ever ended in a sweep, just like their first ever—also against the Spurs.

Hence the reason for the Defensive Player of the Year to let out his frustration in front of the scorekeepers and press members.

While the ending was deflating, it didn't diminish the Grizzlies' proud run. They overcame adversity like the previous two years, moving past the trade of their leading scorer and averting another injury scare with Gasol's abdominal tear.

Tony Allen, the self-ascribed "Grindfather," led a Memphis defense that gave a season performance like no other in franchise history.

Although the Grizz took advantage of injuries to Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook, neither the Clippers nor the Thunder could do much to stop Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Here's a breakdown of a few of the reasons why Lionel Hollins' crew was anything but an accidental contender.


The Grizz were better without Gay

As Memphis slugged through their muddled shooting, some observers drifted into a mental abyss. That territory enabled them to believe that their offensive fortunes would have been different if Gay were still on the roster.

Dallas Mavericks beat writer Dwain Price was one victim of this line of thinking, as he expressed via Twitter.

This group conveniently forgot that the Grizzlies were much better without Gay. The Grizzlies shot 45.5 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from three-point range after the trade, compared with 43.5 and 34 percent, respectively, beforehand.

After adjusting to Gay's departure, this scrappy squad became one of the hottest teams in the NBA, finishing 26-8.

As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out, the Grizzlies became more efficient without Gay, swapping his inefficient play for Tayshaun Prince's efficient, low-usage play.

ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz noted that the post-Gay starting lineup had a higher offensive rating and was more fluid without Gay's isolation plays.

Mike Conley, Gasol and Jerryd Bayless came into their own after the trade. Gasol had 14.7 points and 4.5 assists per game after the trade, compared with 13.6 points and 3.6 assists per game beforehand. Conley had 16.9 points per game after the trade, 3.9 more than when Gay joined him in the backcourt.

The Ohio State product also had 13 20-point performances after the deal, nine more than before.

Bayless scored 12.1 per game after the trade. His average was a mere 5.8 before the deal.

John Hollinger and Chris Wallace washed their hands of Gay when he was in the midst of his worst season. The seventh-year pro averaged 17.2 points per game and shot 40.8 percent from the field for the Grizz before the trade—both career lows. His field-goal mark was 4.5 percent lower than his career mark entering the season.

Gay's 97 points per 100 possessions were worse than any other Grizzlies player who entered at least 40 games this season.

Those who remember Gay's 2012 playoff performance would be averse to believing Memphis' luck would have changed with Gay in the lineup. In his only postseason, while he averaged 19 points per game, Gay shot 42.1 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from three-point range. He produced just 99 points per 100 possessions.

Fans who wished it was Gay who took the shot at the end of regulation in Game 3 against the Spurs instead of Conley forget that Gay missed potential game-winners in Games 1 and 3 against the Clippers last year.



Beating the Thunder was about the post battle, not Westbrook

A popular notion in the last couple weeks is that the Grizzlies beat the Thunder because Russell Westbrook was out.

This is an easy trap into which fans can fall. Russell Westbrook was Oklahoma City's second-highest and the league's No. 6 scorer with 23.2 points per game. He averaged 27 per game in the 2012 NBA Finals.

Indeed, Westbrook's scoring could have helped the Thunder. He would have been far more potent than Reggie Jackson, who put up 13.8 per game in the series.

However, the presence of Westbrook would have made no difference against Gasol and Zach Randolph. The double-headed post monster overwhelmed the Thunder frontcourt, combining for 37.8 points and 18.9 rebounds per game.

Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka did little to stop them. Ibaka matched Gasol with 8.4 rebounds per game, but Collison and Perkins combined to swipe 8.2 misses off the pane per game.

Collison, who had previously been the best match for Randolph, shot himself in the foot by racking up fouls. He fouled out in Games 2 and 4 and averaged 5.2 per game.

Also, Perkins was often in foul trouble. He had four or more fouls in three games and averaged 5.6 per 36 minutes.

Westbrook's presence wouldn't have addressed the prowess of the Grizzlies frontcourt.

The three-time All-NBA Second Teamer isn't a difference-maker on the boards. His 5.4 rebounds per game are great for a guard, but he wouldn't compete with Randolph on the glass.

Also, Westbrook isn't the type of defender to face up with Gasol or Randolph, let alone keep Conley from making the initial pass to Gasol when the Spaniard sets up on the high post.


The "grit 'n' grind" defense was better than ever

The essence of the Grizzlies is their defense, which was better than the first two years of the Tony Allen era.

The Grizz placed second in defensive rating with a franchise-best 100.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. They also set franchise records in effective field-goal rate allowed (47.5 percent).

The four full-season starters were all among the best on that end. Gasol, Allen, Randolph and Conley all finished in the top 17 in defensive rating. Allen led the way, placing fourth with 98.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Each one also set career-best marks in that category.

In the conference semifinals and conference finals, the defense held up. Memphis allowed 89.8 points per game against the Thunder. After Kevin Durant put up 71 points in the first two games, they forced him to shoot 35.8 percent from the field en route to 24.3 per game in the last three games of the series.

In contrast, Durant averaged 30.8 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting in the 2011 conference semifinals against the Grizz. He failed to shoot 40 percent just once that series.

After allowing 105 points to San Antonio in Game 1, the Grizz allowed 90.4 per 48 minutes in the last three games.

Indeed, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan overpowered Memphis.

But the Grizzlies wouldn't have hung around in the last three games if their defense hadn't made up for woeful shooting.


Conclusion: Grizz prove capable of staying strong

The Grizzlies entered the playoffs a scary threat and left as weary as the teams that fell in the first two rounds. In between, they showed themselves to be not just a hard-working pest, but a fearsome contender that won't go away, even after this season.

The grinding defense halted two potent offensive teams and restricted the second-best scorer in the league. They did what hardly any team has ever done—dump its top scorer and become a better contender.

Memphis will validate this run next year. Conley and Gasol, who Lowe hailed as the NBA's best center, are just entering their primes. Randolph, who began to condition himself properly in the offseason in the last two years, has a couple good years left. Quincy Pondexter and Ed Davis have growth yet to come.

As Hollinger told NBA.com, he's yet to fully integrate his analytics-based philosophy in the Grizzlies' schemes. The coming steps will make them more efficient.

Like any team, they have questions. Allen and Hollins hit the open market with plenty of suitors. Hollins told The Commercial Appeal he hopes to stay, as did Allen.

As Conley, Gasol and company further evolve and perhaps welcome helpful new pieces, the Grizz retain their shot at challenging the Miami Heat.


Advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.


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