The Memphis Grizzlies' playoff seeding outlook portends one of the lowest spots, but that shouldn't trick anyone into believing their shot at advancing is dim. Observers must keep in mind the Grizzlies' resilience and ability to overcome low playoff seeds.
In the "grit 'n' grind" era, the Grizzlies have rendered their playoff seed meaningless. In 2010-11, the Grizz became one of the few No. 8 seeds to upset a No. 1 as they toppled the San Antonio Spurs in six games. Memphis followed that by forcing the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games.
Last year, the No. 5 Grizzlies rolled past the Thunder in five games, stifling Kevin Durant and pounding them in the post.
Some might have written off the series win against Oklahoma City, but they keyed a major playoff factor that is often in their favor.
Last year, Gasol (19.4 points per game) scored more than Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka combined (18.6 per game). Collison and Perkins both had more fouls than points.
Gasol and Randolph combined for 19.2 rebounds per game, 2.6 more than the trio wearing sky blue.
Kevin Durant would find Tony Allen guarding him on most possessions. Allen held Durant to 35.8 percent shooting in the last three games of the series.
The Clippers pose a closer matchup than the past two years, in which they squared off in the first round. DeAndre Jordan has become a premiere defender. However, Gasol is a playmaker who may still baffle him.
Blake Griffin is becoming a solid all-around shooter who can reasonably hit perimeter shots, having made 38.1 percent of his long twos this year.
Whether he can sustain himself in the playoffs is a question, as he endured injuries in both first-round series against Memphis.
That raises the question of depth for the Clippers. Their bench is thin inside with Ryan Hollins and Glen Davis, who see 7.9 and 12.1 minutes per game, respectively, and combine for 5.7 points per game.
Hence, Memphis may wear L.A. out.
The Spurs are a difficult matchup with their array of shooters. They have seven players shooting 37 percent from long range, compared with two for the Grizzlies.
Also, Tiago Splitter is a tough defender who causes problems for the Grizz. Splitter allowed 100 points per 100 possessions in last year's Western Conference Finals. According to Sporting News' Sean Deveney, he held Randolph to 1-of-5 shooting in Game 2 when defending him one-on-one. Splitter is allowing 101 per 100 this season.
Tim Duncan retains his defensive ability. He's fourth in the league at 96.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Performance with Gasol active
Judging the Grizzlies with a plain look at their season record and figures would distort their ability.
Since Gasol returned on Jan. 14 from a knee injury, the Grizz are one of the best teams with a 27-12 record.
Once he stepped back onto the hardwood, Memphis rediscovered its grinding defense. Allowing 102.5 points per 100 possessions, they're locking down as well as any team in that span.
In a SheridanHoops.com video, Chris Sheridan pointed to their defense as one reason why Memphis is the most likely lower seed to go deep in the playoffs.
His teammates are benefiting defensively. Mike Conley is allowing 104 per 100 possessions since Jan. 14, five fewer than beforehand. Allen has allowed 102 since then, three points less than before. Randolph, who generally gets help from Gasol, is allowing 103, five fewer than before.
Gasol's comeback has boosted Randolph's shooting. The power forward's effective field-goal percentage is 47.7 percent since Jan. 14, 5.6 percent better than beforehand.
That Randolph's figure would jump with his frontcourt mate back seems natural. Their chemistry is innate. They look for each other on offense.
"Zach knows that when I get the ball in the post, my first read is him. And I know it's the same with him. We understand the game the same way," Gasol told CBSSports.com's Matt Moore last year.
An overwhelming frontcourt combination
The Grizzlies likely will follow the same formula as in the past three years, funneling the offensive action to Gasol and Randolph while hoping they get enough perimeter help.
Last year, they prevailed through two series while focusing on the interior pair. In the first-round triumph against the Los Angeles Clippers, Gasol and Randolph combined for 38.2 points per game and 35.7 percent of the Grizzlies' field-goal attempts. Against the Thunder, the duo had 37.8 points per game.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs exposed Memphis' reliance upon them. They held Gasol and Randolph to a combined 25.3 points per game, with Gasol shooting 39.7 percent and Randolph making 30.2 percent from the field.
Also, the Spurs showed how the Grizzlies couldn't use their perimeter shooters to distract attention from the starting big men. With only Conley posing a serious scoring threat besides the aforementioned pair, San Antonio could attack three players and dare the rest to take what shots they could.
This year, the Grizzlies have more than Quincy Pondexter acting as a decoy for the core on the outside. Mike Miller is logging substantive minutes and standing fifth among the NBA's three-point shooters.
Courtney Lee is a veritable No. 4 option in the lineup. He takes 57.6 percent of his shots outside 15 feet and hits 55.7 percent of his long twos while figuring as an average downtown shooter at 34.5 percent.
At the edge of rotation is Jon Leuer, a stretch-4 shooting 48.9 percent from long range.
Having this additional floor spacing and outside shooting relieves pressure on Gasol and Randolph and makes it easier for them to maul opponents in the paint.
Still, Randolph seems eager to will the Grizzlies to a deep playoff run if need be. He's loosened his 32-year-old frame to lead the team in scoring and usage rate. While others past their prime may slow down, Randolph's 26.2 percent usage rate is his highest since 2008-09.
Those numbers underlie his desire to fulfill his ultimate goal as a Beale Street bruiser as he approaches his option year.
"I want to try to win a championship here. Winning takes care of everything," he told The Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery (subscription required).
Not many playoff teams have a frontcourt pair to match Gasol and Randolph. Blake Griffin has refined his game while DeAndre Jordan is finally becoming the player the Clippers hoped he could be. The Spurs and Houston Rockets both have a couple solid big men who don't excel together the way the Grizzlies' big men do.
The Grizzlies have reestablished themselves since mid-January as the team no one wants to play in the postseason. That they may be the No. 7 or 8 team won't relegate them to simply being a first-round pest.
Gasol has restored their defensive primacy while enabling Randolph to find the shot that eluded him for most of the first half. Their matchup capacity demonstrates how they're geared towards the playoffs.
When the postseason tips off, a major item to watch will be how the most intimidating interior duo forces itself past foes.
Statistics are current through April 3 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.
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