Remember the mythical three-headed, 27-legged monster that used to hide under your bed, down the bathtub drain or in the wardrobe that leads to Narnia?
Well, the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies are scarier.
Initial returns had them with a lottery-bound record, barreling toward additional salary dumps and bungled expectations, the smothering reality of playing in a small market finally prevailing.
But that was a lifetime ago, when Marc Gasol was unhealthy and the Grizzlies were lost. Since he returned on Jan. 14, doubt has been removed, replaced with renewed faith and elevated ceilings.
Using the same grit-'n'-grind formula that carried them to the Western Conference Finals just last season, the Grizzlies have quickly regained their defensive juggernaut status, turning invulnerable protection into much-needed wins.
At 41-28, the Grizzlies are locked in a grueling battle for one of the final three Western Conference playoff spots. The ninth-place Phoenix Suns are only a half-game behind them, and the sixth-place Golden State Warriors only two games their senior.
Mathematically, the Grizzlies are guaranteed nothing. Speaking candidly, that doesn't matter. The Grizzlies are going to the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Though lower seeds typically find themselves ousted at the hands of powerhouses and contenders, these Grizzlies will be no pushover. Underdog odds won't faze them. Even when they've had the record to back their cause—last season, for instance—the buzz has been minimal.
This season especially, though, their record, their aesthetic appeal tells only part of the story.
The Grizzlies epitomize everything unsightly about playoff basketball. The way they win is rarely pretty but undeniably effective.
No matter where they finish or whom they play, they're a threat, a resolute and spirited bunch no postseason outfit—contender or pretender—ever wants to meet.
A Tale of Three Teams
MCL injuries may knock Gasol down, but he gets up again. And when he gets up, so do the Grizzlies.
When Gasol first went down in November, the Grizzlies were in the middle of a gut-wrenching loss to the San Antonio Spurs. They lost three times that night: First Gasol, then the game and finally, the war.
Surviving in the unforgiving Western Conference wouldn't be possible without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. The Grizzlies were already failing to tread water at 7-6. Losing him suggested they would drown entirely before the All-Star break.
Things certainly appeared headed in the general direction of disaster at first. Mini losing streaks were broken up by a win here and a win there, and nothing more.
Not only did the playoffs seem out of the question, but Zach Randolph's future had never been more uncertain. His impending free agency—he has a player option worth just over $16.9 million for next season—made him both a flight risk and financial liability.
Would the Grizzlies trade him, much like they did Rudy Gay last season? Would he become collateral damage in their attempt to tank toward rebuilding?
A decision was inevitably made for them.
By the time Gasol returned, the Grizzlies weren't in tip-top shape, but they did what few expected them to: survive.
Since then, there have only been reasons to believe in Memphis. There isn't a trace of complacency in the Grizzlies, who are nothing like they were before.
|A Tale of Three Teams|
|When||Record||Win %||Win % Rank||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rank|
|Since Gasol's Return||24-9||72.7||4||102.6||22||97.7||1|
Offensively, they're still broken. But while offense is imperative to legitimately contend, the Grizzlies have weathered this type of imbalance before, steering it into the Western Conference Finals.
If we use their post-Gasol injury offensive and defensive rating ranks as a basis for comparison, they aren't in any different shape compared to last season. According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Grizzlies ranked 18th and second in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, in 2012-13. Moving forward to 2013-14, the Grizzlies are coming in 22nd and first. While not ideal, it's nothing they haven't tried doing before.
Besides, we aren't necessarily talking about the Grizzlies as contenders.
Built for the Playoffs
One series. That's all the Grizzlies need to raze the Western Conference playoff picture—just like they did last season.
Look at the offensive and defensive rating ranks of the three teams they faced in the playoffs last year in comparison to theirs:
|Memphis' 2013 Playoff Opponents|
|Team||Off. Rtg. Rank||Def. Rtg. Rank|
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't have Russell Westbrook by the time they faced Memphis, and the San Antonio Spurs manhandled the Grizzlies, but look at how everything unfolded. The Grizzlies rode their defense within four victories of an NBA Finals appearance.
Defense without much offense can have that impact. It happened, and it could happen again.
Here are the offensive and defensive rating ranks of the Western Conference's top four teams this season, any of which could wind up being the Grizzlies' first-round opponent:
|Memphis' Potential Playoff Opponents|
|Team||Off. Rtg. Rank||Def. Rtg. Rank|
|Grizzlies (Post-Gasol Return)||22||1|
Nothing the Grizzlies meet will be anything they didn't face last spring—nor will it be anything they haven't been winning against lately.
Since Gasol's return, the Grizzlies are 6-3 against the West's seven other top eight teams. Below you'll see how that ranks against every other top-eight team's winning percentage against fellow Western Conference playoff-bound brethren since Jan. 14:
Nine games is an awfully small sample size, but that's exactly what the playoffs comprise: small sample sizes.
Over the course of one best-of-seven series, any defensively dominant team can make noise.
Lots and lots of noise.
Fear the Grizzlies
Be afraid of the Grizzlies. Be very afraid.
The chances of Memphis duplicating its playoff run from last year are slim, but they aren't dead. They're alive. The Grizzlies are built for playoff basketball, defending wire-to-wire, often forcing opponents into submission.
We saw how much havoc their defense can wreak in 2011, when they took down top-seeded San Antonio as an eighth-place playoff team. Then we saw it again in 2013, when they unseated the Los Angeles Clippers, riding that defensive wave into the Western Conference Finals.
That could happen again. It's possible.
Memphis' defense makes it possible.
"It started from the defensive intensity, and it was consistent," Mike Conley said after the Grizzlies defeated the Indiana Pacers, per The Associated Press (via ESPN). "On offense, we moved the ball well. We were efficient with it, but defensively, we really locked down and communicated."
Locking down defensively has rescued the Grizzlies from ruin, catapulting them back into playoff contention as every opposing team's matchup nightmare, right where they belong.
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