Look out Western Conference, Here Come the Memphis Grizzlies

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014

USA Today

Remember the Memphis Grizzlies, the Western Conference afterthought who appeared to be dead in the water after going 5-9 in December and falling four games below .500 entering the new year? 

Well guess what: Dave Joerger's squad has come roaring back into the playoff picture after back-to-back wins against the Houston Rockets, including a 99-81 blowout victory on Saturday night. 

Now two games above .500, Memphis has won eight of its last 10, is 9-3 in January and trails the Dallas Mavericks by only a game-and-a-half for the conference's eighth and final playoff spot.

Following Saturday night's thrashing of Houston, the Grizzlies are scoring 105.3 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 98.5 in January—considerable improvements over season-long marks of 102.5 and 103.5, respectively, per NBA.com

In addition, the Grizzlies own a net rating of 6.8 through 12 games this month, per NBA.com, which represents a 12.2 point-per-100-possession improvement from December. 

Those numbers make one thing abundantly clear: The Grizzlies have turned the corner. 

The last two games have confirmed as much. After holding the Rockets to 87 points on Friday, Memphis imposed its will from start to finish and suffocated the Rockets again on Saturday, limiting them to 37 percent shooting from the field and 28 percent from three. 

What's arguably more impressive is that the Grizzlies have been able to dictate pace against a Rockets team that ranks No. 7 overall in terms of possessions produced per 48 minutes and that is renowned for its uptempo style of play. On Friday, only 86.8 possessions were created, according to Basketball-Reference.com, which is more than three possessions fewer than the Grizzlies' league-low mark. 

And if you want to know the secret behind the Grizzlies' resurgence, all you need to do is look at the boost they've received in the personnel department. 

Ever since center Marc Gasol returned from a sprained MCL, Memphis has gone 5-1, including two wins over the Rockets and a triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Coincidentally, the Grizzlies' recent home-and-home sweep of Houston has been the team's only two Southwest Division victories this season. 

The under-the-radar addition that deserves more attention, though, is shooting guard Courtney Lee, who was acquired from the Boston Celtics on Jan. 7 to replace the injured Quincy Pondexter on the wing. 

MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 25: Courtney Lee #5 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots against the Houston Rockets on January 25, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this phot
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Since Lee's arrival, the Grizzlies have gone 7-2, scoring an average of 96.7 points per night—up a full point from their season average. And while it wasn't the flashiest of moves on the surface, Chris Wallace, John Hollinger and Co. were savvy enough to pick up a perimeter shooter who has seamlessly fit in and helped effectively space the Memphis offense. 

"I'm super comfortable," Lee said following Friday's win, according to The Associated Press (via NBA.com). "From Day 1 when I came in, coaches told me to go out and play my game. Everybody that's playing is on the same page. We're just playing the right way."

Also consider that Lee is averaging a career-high 15.3 points per game, which ranks third among all Memphis players behind Mike Conley and Zach Randolph.

Courtney Lee's Shot Chart
Courtney Lee's Shot ChartNBA.com/stats

Sure it's only a nine-game sample, but combine Lee's production with that of role players like Mike Miller, Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos, James Johnson and Nick Calathes, and it's hard not to be impressed with the formidable rotation that the Grizzlies have constructed. 

And boy did Joerger's bench come to play on Saturday.

Koufos, Calathes and Johnson all finished in double figures on a night when Memphis' second unit outscored Houston's, 44-27. When everyone is in sync and the reserves can complement the tenacity of Randolph, Conley and Gasol, this club is an absolute nightmare to try to solve. 

Remember, this is a Memphis team that's one year removed from a trip to the Western Conference Finals and that thrives when it's allowed to hunker down in the half court and grind out victories. The Grizzlies don't specialize in glitz and glam, and they don't need to in order to make life miserable for opponents. 

So while there's still plenty of work to be done, the Grizzlies and their torturous style of play could make life very difficult for Western Conference title contenders when April rolls around.