The Memphis Grizzlies have never been big on subtlety, which is why it's so strange that they've managed to re-enter the playoff picture in an absurdly difficult Western Conference so quietly.
This is a team built on physicality, an appropriate calling card given the mascot. Defense will always define the Grizzlies, and the ability to stifle opponents with sound scheme and consistent effort hasn't changed during their recent surge.
It's not just stopping power that has Memphis pawing at the No. 8 see in the West, though.
A combination of factors helped the Grizz to an NBA-best 12-3 record in January, and despite a couple of unfortunate injuries, they're looking equally dangerous as the All-Star break approaches. Memphis has to get there first, but this is a team fully equipped to give its first-round playoff matchup a real scare.
El Oso Grande
Everything in Memphis starts and ends with Marc Gasol, so any discussion of the Grizzlies' "sleeper" status must first touch on the big Spaniard's critical importance.
The Grizz floundered without their centerpiece, compiling a 10-13 record in the 23 games Gasol missed while recovering from a sprained MCL. Since his return on Jan. 14, Memphis has gone on a 10-4 run. This is not a coincidence.
And while you wouldn't necessarily know it from Gasol's individual numbers (he's one of the league's ultimate "conventional stats don't matter" guys), the Grizzlies' overall record and vast defensive improvement in recent weeks paints a clear picture of his value.
At the risk of understating his case, Gasol is a key figure in Memphis' defense. His precise rotations, rim protection and constant communication pull taut the string that connects the other four Grizzlies on the court. Because of his absence earlier this year, the typically stingy Grizz barely rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
But in the month since Gasol has returned, nobody has suffocated opponents more thoroughly than Memphis. Per NBA.com, its defensive rating of 95.2 points per 100 possessions since Gasol's comeback is tops in the league—better than the excellent units in Indiana and Chicago.
If that narrative seems familiar, it's because the Grizzlies finished the 2012-13 season just a fraction of a point behind the league-best Pacers in defensive rating.
Funny how slotting the reigning Defensive Player of the Year into the rotation helps shore up defensive efficiency, huh?
But There's More
Let's face it: The Grizzlies are never going to be an elite offensive team with this roster. There's just not enough athleticism or shooting for anything much better than "average" to be a realistic goal. But the key addition of Courtney Lee gives it a chance to take a significant step toward mediocrity on O.
Lee has been terrific since coming over from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Jerryd Bayless. He provides the spacing and knockdown shooting necessary for Gasol and Zach Randolph to do work at the elbows and low blocks, respectively.
Courtney was a huge, huge piece. People overlook him. But it’s key that he’s able to stretch the court for us. With me, him, Mike Miller out there, it gives Zach and Marc more space. Having a lot of guys that could space the court, we didn’t have that going on before. And he can definitely lock up defensively.
The numbers clearly support Conley's position: Lee is in positively elite company as a shooter this season:
Courtney Lee one of two NBA players shooting 50/40/80 and qualified for FG% and 3FG% leaderboards. Other is Kevin Durant.— Ross Wooden (@RossWooden) February 10, 2014
In some cases, he's all alone at the top of some very important leaderboards:
Nobody expected Lee to be quite this effective, but there was reason to believe he'd fit well in Memphis. Always a guy who thrived when his role called for limited, specific contributions, Lee has blossomed as a three-and-D wing.
He's not a shot-creator and probably shouldn't be trusted to handle the ball unless absolutely necessary. But Lee can bury open shots and punish teams in transition. Fortunately, those are exactly the things the Grizzlies need from him.
Good Now, Better Later?
Memphis is moving closer and closer to playoff position, and we may not have even seen the real surge yet. That's because the Grizzlies still haven't enjoyed an extended stretch of full-strength play.
Gasol missed a couple of months, Tony Allen has been out since Jan. 3 and even Conley—the team's second-best player—has been sidelined with a sprained ankle since Jan. 31.
If everyone gets healthy between now and the end of the season, this team will start to look awfully dangerous.
And as head coach Dave Joerger—still occasionally relying too heavily on the safety blanket of unproductive veterans—gets more comfortable with cutting the minutes of guys like Tayshaun Prince, there's a good chance Memphis' offense will pick up considerably.
Plus, there's still untapped talent hiding somewhere inside Ed Davis. James Johnson looks like a rotation mainstay, and Allen's impending return will reintroduce a little edge to the squad.
Optimism about the roster aside, there's also the fact that Memphis will take on nine Eastern Conference opponents in its next 12 games. That soft spot in the schedule will provide a perfect opportunity for the Grizzlies to come together as they fatten up on inferior competition.
Seemingly every week, a new upstart emerges looking to lay claim to the title of "team no high seed wants to face" in the playoffs. Well, there's nothing new about these Grizzlies; they made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, and you can make the case they're primed to head into this postseason with a better, more balanced roster than they had in 2012-13.
Everyone knows not to feed the bears, but you probably shouldn't sleep on them either.