The end of the NBA regular season is now eight days away and the Memphis Grizzlies are one of several teams in the Western Conference playing good basketball going into the postseason. The Grizzlies are 8-3 in the month of April, and at 36-25 overall, they sit in the #5 position for the playoffs, two back of the LA Clippers for fourth and two ahead of the Denver Nuggets. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Grizzlies, the team who upended San Antonio in last year’s playoffs as a #8 seed, to see if a bigger postseason run might be ahead this time…
I like what I see in Memphis’ overall profile. They do it with defense, ranking 7th in the league in defensive efficiency (the stat that adjusts raw point totals for tempo), and they go to the glass, ranking 9th. It’s enough to make up for an offense that’s in the bottom third of the NBA in efficiency, with its biggest flaw being a lack of a three-point shooter. Memphis has no one getting regular minutes (at least 20 a game) who is hitting 40 percent or higher from behind the arc. There are respectable long-range bombers here—O.J. Mayo hits 37 percent, good enough to justify taking the shot, as does Mike Conley, but there’s no one who’s a real threat, and no forward who can step out and pop the jumper, thus bringing opposing big men out from under the basket. Nonetheless, if you accept the fact that most teams aren’t perfect, a crew that defends and rebounds, while struggling from three, looks like a good one to me, so it’s time to move on to talk about all the positives the Grizzlies’ personnel brings to the table.
Mayo comes off the bench at the two-guard spot, though he plays starters’ minutes. He’s joined by Conley. Each are young players, under the age of 24, but experienced, having left college after one year. Each is a respectable shooter from the floor. Tony Allen provides a veteran presence as a third guard and is a solid shooter inside the arc. The team has also added Gilbert Arenas, the troubled guard who played himself out of Washington with his off-the-court issues. Think about how bad the Wizards are. Then think about how bad the off-the-court issues have to be for a potentially talented scorer to be shown the door.
The frontcourt is balanced across the board with quality. Rudy Gay at small forward is the team’s leading scorer at 19ppg and is also a decent rebounder. Zach Randolph delivers 12 points/8 rebounds a night in the power forward spot. Marc Gasol handles the center spot, scoring, rebounding and mixing in some blocked shots, and he has a quality backup in Marreese Speights, a rebounder who would be good enough to start in Miami. As a team, Memphis might not be a great offensive team, but they have a lineup that requires you to guard everywhere on the floor.
After some early struggles when Randolph was injured, Memphis has been playing well for several weeks now. We’ll hone in specifically on this 8-3 April stretch to see how they’re doing it…
April 2: at Oklahoma City (94-88): The world was watching Kentucky win the NCAA title this Monday night, otherwise the Grizzlies win in OkC would have gotten more publicity. The backcourt defense was superb, forcing 18 turnovers and the defensive effort held Kevin Durant to 21 points. Speights pulled in 13 rebounds. Just a solid effort in the un-romantic areas of basketball.
April 3: vs. Golden State (98-94): Kind of a letdown effort on the defensive end, and Memphis showed they could win if they had to hit the three-ball. Conley hit 3-of-4 behind the arc and Mayo hit 4-of-6, to give the team the narrow margin of victory.
April 4: at Dallas (85-95)—Defense lacking here, giving up 50 percent shooting from the floor and losing the rebounding battle 45-40. No shame losing at Dallas, and it’s the third straight game, but we’ve already cut some slack in these areas against Golden State. Excuses can’t apply every time out.
April 6: at Miami (97-82): No excuses necessary here, for a terrific defensive effort, holding the Heat to 40 percent from the floor Conley again hit 3-of-4 treys and Arenas knocked down four. Even without the long-range display, the defense alone earned this win.
April 7: vs Dallas (94-89): A revenge win comes thanks to aggressively getting to the free throw line, where the Grizzlies outscored the Mavericks 23-12.
April 9: vs LA Clippers (94-85): Once again, I like the defense and all-around effort. The Clips are held to 40 percent from the floor and Memphis wins rebounding 48-36 thanks to Zach Randolph and his 12. It’s enough to make me overlook the 18 turnovers.
April 11: vs Phoenix (104-93): Both teams shoot the ball well, but Memphis’ balanced front line delivers the win. Speights, Gasol, Randolph and Gay all have between 7-9 rebounds apiece and the team wins the battle 43-31.
April 12: at San Antonio (97-107): Chalk this one up to Tim Duncan having a 28/12 night. Its games like this that worry me about Memphis. They’re very well-balanced, but in the NBA playoffs that’s not always a good thing. In a star-driven league, you need the player who can put you on his back at least once in a short series. Duncan can do that for the Spurs, as can Tony Parker. Who does it for the Grizzlies?
April 14: Utah (103-98): Another game won on the foul line, 28-13. It’s worth noting that both games with a big free throw edge have come at home, and in neither case did Memphis have a big edge in other areas that often indicate superior aggressiveness (i.e., rebounding), which in turn explains free throw discrepancy. So being at home is the only explanation. I think you get what I’m implying here.
April 15: at New Orleans (75-88): As ugly as this is—and Memphis played their regulars, let’s just write this one off. Every team in the NBA has these games, this season more so than normal. And the Grizzlies’ only shot 35 percent from the floor.
April 17: at Minnesota (91-84): How about we write this one off too? The T-Wolves are without both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love and had lost nine in a row coming in. Nice individual game by Gay, with 28 points, but did we really learn anything about the Grizzlies?
To pick up on the theme I mentioned in the April 12 San Antonio game, Memphis’ strength and weakness is its balance. If we only ran through the games individually and only mentioned players who decisively impacted the game, you could get through several Grizzlies’ games without mentioning anyone. The individuals compile their numbers over the long haul and rarely stand out in a one-game situation. Gay is the closest they have to a real go-to player. In almost any other sport I’d be all over this team to make a big playoff run. But enough years watching the NBA have to tell us that a team without superstars playing in a market like Memphis is going to be viewed skeptically by the commissioner’s office, especially considering their first-round series is against either Kobe’s Lakers or the Paul/Griffin Clippers and the nation’s second-largest media market. It’s not that Memphis can’t win against these teams, but they need to be demonstrably better. I think you get what I’m implying here.