NBA Playoffs 2011: 7 Reasons to Believe in Memphis Grizzlies Beyond Game 7
First, they razed the Alamo. In a matter of hours, Kevin Durant’s inclement weather might go too.
The questions have come up often in recent basketball conversations: How to explain the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies toppling of the No. 1 seeded Spurs and another potential takedown of the favored Oklahoma City Thunder?
Is Memphis a championship-level club, and can the core continue its devastating, history-making march beyond these playoffs?
Mere months ago, Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo came to blows in an airplane after another card game gone awry. The embarrassing fracas threatened to demolish the franchise’s postseason hopes and send its momentum sprawling backward.
The team’s highest-paid player then suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Rudy Gay’s absence figured to torch the squad’s playoff chances for good.
Add to that list GM Chris Wallace giving up on sophomore Hasheem Thabeet, the No. 2 selection in the 2009 draft, after a year-and-a-half and a pair of D-League shifts.
How would Lionel Hollins—a neophyte coach with sparse sideline experience prior to his Memphis stint—handle such a young, combustible group?
Against all odds, Beale Street’s new beloved hoops squad hopes to steal away a Western Conference semifinals clash in Oklahoma City today.
In honor of Game 7, here are seven reasons to believe the hype surrounding an eighth seed that is anything but.
Record Against Elite Opponents
When the Grizzlies landed a Game 4 haymaker against the 61-win Spurs to take a 3-1 lead, the comparisons to 2007’s Golden State Warriors-Dallas Mavericks series began to flood the blogosphere. Maybe more analysts should have seen this supposed upset coming. A fellow Featured Columnist was right when he said San Antonio drew a most unfortunate matchup.
The Spurs suffered the dishonor of a first-round exit, instead of the Mavericks and Lakers. One reason to believe Memphis would also have dismantled L.A. and Dallas: a record against title contenders that ranked amongst the best in the NBA.
The Grizzlies fared well against the creme of the crop. They finished with a better mark in that category than the Miami Heat.
Boston Celtics: 1-1
Chicago Bulls: 0-2
Dallas Mavericks: 3-1
L.A. Lakers: 2-2
Miami Heat: 1-1
Orlando Magic: 1-1
San Antonio Spurs: 2-2
Miami, by comparison, was far less impressive.
Boston Celtics: 1-3
Chicago Bulls: 0-3
Dallas Mavericks: 0-2
L.A. Lakers: 2-0
Oklahoma City Thunder: 1-1
Orlando Magic: 2-2
The count, then, is this: Grizzlies 13-11, Heat 6-11
Memphis finishing with seven more victories against contenders than Miami should put things in perspective. The squad’s late-season resume included triumphs in Boston and OKC.
Just for fun, I decided to compare the 2011 Grizzlies to the 2007 Warriors. It’s not close.
Golden State was awful, or mediocre at best, against the potential champions that year. The 67-win Mavericks presented an advantageous matchup, and the season series should have clued in observers that an upset loomed. It helped that the coach was the architect of the vanquished foe.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 0-2
Dallas Mavericks: 3-0
Detroit Pistons: 0-2
Phoenix Suns: 0-4
San Antonio Spurs: 1-3
The count, after that side-by-side, is this: Grizzlies 13-11, Warriors 4-11
The next logical query: if the Grizzlies were so outstanding versus title hopefuls, why did they finish with 46 wins and grab the final playoff spot?
Memphis’ record against the cellar dwellers was not so stellar. The following defeats should answer the previous question:
Losing twice to the L.A. Clippers is not a recipe for a top-four seed. You might remember this Tyreke Evans' buzzer beater. At least three teams beat the Grizzlies with improbable, last-second heaves. The only results that mattered were the ones against the teams they might face in late April.
Memphis also finished where it did because Hollins wanted a first-round date with the Spurs. He tanked, er “rested” starters, in the final two regular season contests. A win in one of those would have pitted San Antonio against New Orleans. We might, instead, have gabbed about the Grizzlies dethroning the two-time defending champion Lakers.
Why? Consider this outfit's strengths...
Rudy Gay's Shoulder Injury
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I keep reading that the Grizzlies knocked out a No. 1 seed despite the injury to an $80 million building block.
I say the Grizzlies did it because of Gay’s season-ending shoulder surgery. The polite, talented young man has done nothing wrong. This is not an attack on his character or his manhood.
He just isn’t that prolific, even if his unit was 17-7 with him in 2011. The volume shooter and slasher took touches away from post behemoths Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. No wonder the undersized and defenseless Houston Rockets beat the Grizzlies in three of their four meetings.
When he returns, if management does not dangle his albatross contract in trade talks, he will need to adjust to the emphasis on the big fellas’. It could work, sure, but his teammates have moved on without him.
That unwanted personnel shake-up forced Hollins to retool his game plans and construct them around his roster’s undeniable strength: interior bulk and stingy half-court defense.
Lots of teams employ overrated, overpaid athletes of Gay’s ilk. Few teams start a forward and center capable of back-to-back 20-point, 20-rebound performances. Even fewer boast a defensive tandem as menacing as the Tony Allen-Shane Battier combo.
Randolph, not Gay, is the team’s best player. Gay’s presence usurped the valuable minutes Allen now provides against top-tier scorers.
The sling that limits his left arm and shoulder's mobility forced those playing behind and beside him to growl and break free and or whimper and break out the vacation plans.
Mayo, Allen and Battier chose to vociferate.
Zach Randolph's Career Renaissance
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A former punk now just punks opposing front lines. Hollins has reached Randolph in ways former coaches could not. The forward’s maturity and thirst for winning show.
Those hideous splotches of thuggish behavior and me-first egotism, which low-lighted Portland's Jail Blazer era, disappeared.
No longer a black hole, Randolph has become an outstanding teammate and a complete post player. He isn’t tall, athletic or quick, just determined.
His physical limitations make his unflappable dominance that much more impressive. He’s 6’9”, might struggle to jump over a place mat and boasts all the quickness of an 80-year-old woman with a walker.
Yet, he has managed to negate yeoman defensive efforts from Antonio McDyess, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. He routinely drained fall-away jumpers in confrontations with McDyess, even with the latter’s hand blocking his vision. He could not see the hoop when the ball left his hands and still located the bottom of the net.
Process these numbers before dismissing this piece as hyperbole: 23 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, one steal, 44 percent shooting and 82 percent from the charity stripe. His 2011 playoff averages would fit alongside some Hall of Fame inductees.
He opened in San Antonio with 25 points and 14 boards. He opened in Oklahoma City with 34 points and 10 boards. Just when Ibaka, Perkins and Nick Collison thought they had him figured out, Randolph erupted for 30 points and 13 rebounds in Game 6.
The best story in these playoffs is also his opponent’s worst nightmare.
Tony Allen, Shane Battier, Help Defense Come to Memphis' Rescue
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Do not underestimate Battier’s impact on the roster’s stabilization. His second arrival in Memphis brought stoic leadership and experience.
He also added serious defensive chops to a group primed to succeed at smothering opponents. Playing with an energetic, eager-to-help cast hides the steps he’s lost as a 32-year-old veteran.
Some of the Houston Rockets’ clueless youngsters made him look ancient. In Memphis, he’s just agitating to foes.
Allen has developed into a menacing, hellacious, strong-armed defender with the adroitness to back up the taunts and trash talk that emanates from his flapping gums. He bumps and pushes star players around, using a variety of tricks that borrow from a slew of former stopper masters.
If he cannot contain his man, he often at least succeeds in forcing the scorer to a help spot where a teammate awaits his arrival.
When focused, The Grizzlies rotate and support one another like players on a championship-level club should.
The casual fan may not appreciate the challenges involved in Memphis’ impeding Parker and Ginobili’s drives and getting out to San Antonio’s lethal three-point shooters. A single digit number of squads (maybe not even five) could have pulled off that feat.
Asphyxiating one of those components is a Herculean accomplishment. Sealing off both is the mark of a team ready to do more than win one postseason round and fade back into basketball oblivion.
Adequate help defense requires tremendous focus and the right personnel mix. Memphis has both.
Few would have guessed before April that Mike Conley would survive matchups with Parker and Russell Westbrook and on a few nights, outplay them.
His grizzled teammates have covered for the developing point guard, and the result has been the opposite of the expected layup line. When Parker and Westbrook have managed to wiggle and twist their way to the hoop, another blue jersey has been there to contest.
Westbrook was 9-of-23 in the opener. Durant finished 3-of-14 Friday night. Maybe Ginobili and Parker are not ready to tour the NBA’s insufferable retirement home. Maybe Memphis is just that good on the defensive end.
With Allen and Battier on the wings and Gasol patrolling the paint with Randolph, the Grizzlies boast the athletic specimens and the bulk to continue the elite fortification of late.
Propensity for Big Shots
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Gay hit a game-winner against the Heat in the regular season. Battier drilled a game-winning triple in the playoff opener against the Spurs.
Mike Conley entered the playoffs perceived as a point guard with no jumpshot. Now, he and his backup, Greivis Vasquez, have no problem hitting from any spot in the gym, including Hail Mary three-pointers to force extra minutes.
Most eighth seeds get one win in the first round and then go away when the going gets tough. The Grizzlies’ adolescent roster has responded on the sport’s biggest stage with a chuckle and a shrug.
Randolph crushing the Spurs’ spirit with a rare three-pointer in the final minute of Game 3? Why not?
Randolph negating forceful contests from San Antonio’s McDyess and OKC’s Perkins and Ibaka in a pair of Game 6's? Well, of course.
“We kind of expected them to fold,” Tim Duncan said of his team’s fateful first-round foe.
In most cases, an eighth seed would be in a pressure situation. If Memphis represented the average case, the Grizzlies would be fishing instead of fighting for a conference finals berth.
A scouting report amounts to a piece of crap when preparing to defend this scary bunch in crunch time. The Grizzlies have become expert flushers.
Forget what you read three months ago. What applies is now.
No way is Memphis still competing without the monstrous makes mentioned above.
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The Grizzlies trailed by four with one minute left in the postseason apex, at San Antonio's AT&T Center and won. They trailed by 16, on their home floor, against the Thunder in Game 3 and won.
They lost 99-72 in Oklahoma City to fall behind 3-2, yet recuperated in time to force a winner-take-all affair today.
Credit Hollins for inspiring and demanding resiliency. When his squad ousted the Spurs, he did not allow his players to embark on a pomposity parade. He framed the historic victory as one leap forward instead of a mile marker to savor.
His no-nonsense attitude equipped the Grizzlies for successes few outside of Memphis could have predicted. The players have responded to his hard-nosed, quitters-can-go-home approach.
To quote San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey, he's another Gregg Popovich.
Self-righteous behavior seems to rank up there, in Hollins' mind, with breaking the law. He's self-effacing when the mood calls for it and has sometimes been honest when a lie would have sounded better.
He said in an interview his son's college basketball team is too boring to watch. So much for hypocrisy.
The man who succeeded Brian Hill and Hubie Brown in an interim role can finally take off his shoes, put up his feet and breathe in some deserved job security. He signed a multi-year deal last May and should get comfy at FedExForum after this remarkable playoff run.
The GM kept saying there was a method to the madness of donating Pau Gasol to the Lakers. No one's cracking up or bemoaning that transaction now.
The deal netted Pau's young brother and the cap space that became Randolph. Another side effect: Hollins.
Shaking up the core called for a similar revolution on the sidelines. None of Chris Wallace's front office work would have mattered if his next pick to coach the Grizzlies was a flop.
Instead, Hollins has established his command and style. He invigorates his players to compete the way he did as a pro. He expects accountability and an earnest effort.
The Grizzlies are a team in his mold, with deadly claws instead of divisive excuses.
An Engaged Fanbase and a Reasonable Blueprint
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The 2007 Warriors proved a one-hit wonder, and the raucous Oracle Arena atmosphere could not propel the team to greater heights. That helter-skelter assembly was not built for sustained postseason appearances.
They qualified for those playoffs, and a date with the Mavericks, on the final night of the regular season by blowing out the Sacramento Kings.
The Grizzlies' arena has become a similarly discordant, ear-splitting hell hole for opponents. The similarities end there.
This roll call, if managed properly, can remain relevant as a late April fixture. The front office and the players must answer a lot of compelling queries. Such as:
Does Wallace shop Gay after the team reached the doorstep of the conference finals without him, or does this extended playoff stay make it all the more necessary to re-integrate the max-contract forward?
How does Hollins go about working Gay back into the lineup if the pricey player stays?
Can Randolph remain a positive influence on his best behavior, or will old habits die hard, given that he's locked into a colossal, perhaps untradeable contract?
Will Wallace exert himself to re-sign Gasol, one of this summer's sexiest free agents? The restricted tag will make it difficult to outbid the Grizzlies for the Spaniard's services. Rest assured a handful of GMs will try. Will Owner Michael Heisley spend whatever it takes to retain an essential ingredient, or is there a ballpark number Memphis will not match, should the potential salary figures get to that threshold?
If management figures out how to keep Gasol, can it pull one more financial trick and hold on to Battier? Would a Gay return eliminate too many minutes to make re-inking the Duke product economical and sensible?
If Wallace secures this core for several more seasons, the onus is on Hollins to deliver smashing results. Heisley's track record suggests he will not subsidize underachievement.
That means the players must continue assisting one another on the defensive end and committing to the little things that can get lost quicker than car keys in a cluttered room. The shots must continue to fall, and the attitude cannot waver.
If the above seems like a lot to ask of an eighth seed sans a proud history, maybe it is. The loser Grizzlies and a once detached supporter base may also have turned a corner.
In the span of a month, each has made its own unmistakable, reputation-shattering noise. The fans and players alike escaped a bad rap borne from unmatched postseason failures and meager attendance.
This all would have sounded preposterous in February. It makes sense now.
The shirts and towels at FedExForum say "believe Memphis." I do. The rest of the league should take that slogan to heart.
Durant and Westbrook may stop these bears dead in their tracks. Few would bet against the host squad in a Game 7.
History says home-court advantage matters in this situation. History has not met these Grizzlies.
This juggernaut killer might stick around awhile.