A Memphis Grizzlies team capable of gaming matchups on its way to the Western Conference Finals faces some tough reflection after their "grit 'n' grind" defense faded against their best matchup.
The Grizzlies will swallow unsettling truths as well as find some consolation after their second first-round exit in three years.
On the other hand, Marc Gasol is a dependent star, and the Grizzlies are running out of time to become more than just a team others don't want to face in the playoffs.
Joerger needs growth but is already good
The Grizzlies' first-year head coach marked his beginning well with 50 wins and two Coach of the Month honors.
He was responsive enough to enable Zach Randolph offensively after the 32-year-old took 10.9 shots per game in the first eight contests. Afterwards, Randolph became the team's leading scorer.
The Grizzlies were in the bottom third defensively after Gasol suffered an MCL sprain, but Joerger kept them from falling off the map.
Crediting Joerger for showing poise through tough times, Tayshaun Prince told The Commercial Appeal (subscription required): "You go through your ups and downs as a first-year coach. It's how you handle them and how you come out of them that makes you a better coach."
Losing the first-round series doesn't entirely fall on his shoulders. He managed the game better than Scott Brooks, who threw away timeouts as though he were the rookie.
Besides trying to match the Oklahoma City Thunder's spacing with a small lineup in Game 7 instead of sticking with a big interior by starting Jon Leuer, Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos, he made keen personnel moves. Joerger unleashed three-point threats Beno Udrih, Mike Miller and Courtney Lee. In close games, he aptly switched Miller and Tony Allen possession by possession.
The Memphis Flyer's Kevin Lipe declared that the Grizz "refused to stop fighting until the last buzzer sounded." Joerger is partly responsible, keeping Gasol and Conley in the game and pushing the ball in the fourth quarter despite a 20-point deficit.
Conley proves himself
The 2013-14 season may have been one of numerous injuries to quality point guards, but the season saw Conley break the position's top five. He combines solid overall shooting with high usage and efficient floor leadership. Conley had a 54.5 percent true shooting percentage, a 24.6 percent usage rate and an 11.5 percent turnover rate.
After becoming a lead guard by necessity in the second half of 2012-13, Conley cemented himself as a real scorer. He averaged 18.5 points per 36 minutes with 26 20-point games.
Overall, he wasn't quite as good as usual defensively. His steals rate was 2.4 percent, which was a 1 percent drop yet kept him in the top 20. He allowed 106 points per 100 possessions but was four points better after Gasol's return from injury than before.
Conley provides a nice combination of offensive and defensive production, which is uncommon among the better point guards in the league.
Gasol's offensive limitations
The Grizzlies needed attacking performances from their two stars in Game 7, Conley and Gasol, with Randolph out, but Gasol didn't explode. He took the requisite number of shots for the moment but made seven of 20, including two of the last 15.
One can hardly be surprised by his struggle taking a ton of shots. Gasol averages 9.9 field-goal attempts per game for his career. He's only taken 15 field-goal attempts 24 times in his six-year career.
Moreover, Gasol doesn't have a strong shooting preference. In his last 35 games, he averaged 12.1 shots per game with 3.8 assists per game. Last season, he had 10.9 shots per game with four assists per game.
Therein lies his ceiling as an offensive player. The 29-year-old has shot 48.4 percent from the field in the last three seasons as a superior mid-range marksman but has been content with being a No. 3 option while passing off frequently. Lipe wrote:
Even when Marc Gasol knows he's the first offensive option and has been told to take as many shots as he feels he needs to take, he's still going to pass the ball to Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince in the corner.
Since the Spaniard won't become a primary scoring threat, he needs an aggressive frontcourt scorer who enables his neutral decision-making.
Randolph has played that role, leading the team in field-goal attempts per game and usage rate this year and leading full-season Grizz players in 2012-13.
Gasol had a career high in shots per game in a year with optimal conditions for him to do so, considering he had two to three other shooters in the starting lineup.
Whether the Grizzlies retain Randolph or find another big man, they must give Gasol an interior partner capable of shouldering a scoring load.
Playing pest for too long
The grind-era Grizzlies have made four straight playoff appearances but advanced past the first round just twice.
After reaching the Western Conference Finals last year, they took a fall to the Thunder that is much easier to explain than the 2012 seven-game loss to the Vinny Del Negro-coached Los Angeles Clippers.
Three times the Grizzlies lost by double digits while their defense succumbed to the league's top scorer, Kevin Durant, unable to grind him as in Games 2-5. After shooting 37 percent in those four games, he scored 69 points on 56.1 percent shooting as the Thunder piled on more than Memphis could handle.
Like each of the three years prior, this wasn't simply a scrappy underdog looking to upset a title contender. The Grizz entered the playoffs a hot second-half team with a top-notch defense that pundits warned would scare the West's best.
On March 24, Bleacher Report's Dan Favale warned Western teams, "Be afraid of the Grizzlies. Be very afraid."
Ultimately, this grinding squad with a strong but not breathtaking core took a bow that national commentators watched with a shrug.
"They were bound to lose anyway," wrote CBS Sports' Zach Harper.
Memphis' front office may contemplate whether this is too long a stagnation for a team with its level of core and defense.
Some would readily argue that a coaching change and key injuries occurred during that time.
However, this team, while composed with the balanced talent of the 2000s Detroit Pistons, doesn't keep reaching the conference finals despite coaching changes. Whereas the 2003-04 Pistons won a title with a new coach, this Grizz squad fell backwards.
Also, recent NBA Finals teams had no problem making the Finals despite injuries to their core. Last year, the San Antonio Spurs came within a minute of a title, putting in the past lengthy regular-season absences of Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Miami Heat have dealt with Dwyane Wade's ailments for the past three years.
Marc Gasol had returned from injury in January and regained some offensive rhythm by February. Still, he shot 40.5 percent from the field against the Thunder and allowed 107 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies allowed an uncharacteristic 108.9 points per 100 possessions.
Memphis can take heart in a couple aspects of the season. They caught fire after Gasol returned from injury, jumping from 12th to seventh place in the West. Joerger led them to their second straight 50-win season in his first year.
Still, the grinding defensive team failed to make another deep playoff run, even with Conley affirming his offensive ability and Gasol renewing their defensive prowess.
For the first time, the team-no-one-wants-to-play label hurts for Memphis. After four years with the tag, that becomes more of a stigma than a point of pride.
Being that pest means that an opponent eventually knocks them out. In order to become a true contender, the Grizzlies must evolve past simply scaring playoff foes.
Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.