When compiling playoff predictions, just about everybody is giving San Antonio, Los Angeles, Dallas and Oklahoma City free passes into the West's second round. They should take another look, because Memphis is for real.
Yes, those Memphis Grizzlies. They’ve quietly become a legitimate threat to pull a first round upset in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Grizzlies have been world-beaters this season taking down the Mavericks (3x), Thunder (3x), Lakers (2x), Spurs, Magic and Heat (before their tears and current five game skid).
Early on this season, they even took the Celtics to overtime, before falling 116-110.
Like most young teams in the NBA, Memphis got off to a slow start (8-14), but coach Lionel Hollins has them surging as of late. Since Jan. 21, the Griz are 17-5.
If you’re wondering, the Celtics are 16-6 in their last 22 and the Heat are 13-9, but that’s a whole other story.
At 36-29 Memphis is sitting in eighth place in the Western Conference, however, they’re just half a game back of the seventh place New Orleans Hornets and two back of the Portland Trail Blazers for sixth.
The scariest part about this for the Western Conference elite may be that they’ve continued their strong play even after losing their second leading scorer, Rudy Gay (19.8) to a dislocated shoulder on Feb.16.
Old Friend Tony Allen has been thrust into a starting roll and has taken full advantage of it, averaging 13.3 points a game (up from his season average of 7.8) since Gay was sidelined.
Memphis has been getting contributions from everyone, with five players averaging in double figures: Zach Randolph (20.2), Gay (19.8), Mike Conley (14.0), Marc Gasol (11.8), O.J. Mayo (11.8).
Randolph has quietly — or maybe given some of his career headlines — not so quietly, become one of the best forwards in the NBA, averaging 20.2 points a game and a career high 12.9 boards a game. There aren’t too many big men that you can consistently expect to get 20 and 10 from. Randolph’s been an absolute menace on the offensive boards, grabbing just under five per game.
Then, there’s the team defense. The Grizzlies are first in the NBA when it comes to takeaways, as Conley, Allen and Gay are all averaging more than a steal per game. That number’s only going to improve with the acquisition of veteran swingman Shane Battier. Memphis is winning the battles that matter –turnovers and offensive rebounding– and other teams, if they haven’t already, should take note.
If the season ended today Memphis would travel to San Antonio to face the aging Spurs. Here’s what the match-ups would look like:
Zach Randolph – Dejuan Blair
O.J. Mayo – Manu Ginobili
Rudy Gay – Richard Jefferson
Marc Gasol – Tim Duncan
Mike Conley – Tony Parker
Tony Allen – George Hill
Shane Battier – Gary Neal
Here's the match-ups the Griz win: Zach Randolph – Dejuan Blair, Rudy Gay – Richard Jefferson, Bench.
Here's the match-ups the Spurs win: Marc Gasol – Tim Duncan, O.J. Mayo – Manu Ginobili.
How Mike Conley plays against Tony Parker could be the difference in the series.
Now don’t get me wrong. The Spurs are an NBA best 51-12 for a reason – Gregg Popovich and his team are no strangers to playoff success. But wasn’t it just two years ago that an up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team took the Celtics to seven games?
If Memphis continues to play the way they have as of late, the Dallas Mavericks, who currently sit in second place in the West, would be a more likely destination, and the Mavs have failed in all three of its attempts to knock off the Griz. So, why don't the Griz have a shot?
They’re young, athletic, hungry, have nothing to lose, and can use the time tested "no one believes in us" mantra as motivation. Lookout.