The Memphis Grizzlies’ season got off to a slow start, thanks to a serious injury to their defensive backbone Marc Gasol. Could their low seeding see them knocked out of the playoffs before their time?
The Story So Far
After making the Western Conference Finals last season, the Memphis Grizzlies entered the 2013-14 season as one of the teams to beat in the West. However, after star centre Marc Gasol suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee, Memphis fell down the standings and was left fighting for a playoff berth until the 11th hour – the Grizzlies went 40-19 with Gasol in the lineup and 10-13 without him.
When Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, was forced out of the lineup, the Grizzlies held a 7-6 record. Memphis did well to cover for the loss of their defensive anchor, going 10-13 with the big Spaniard out of the lineup.
But with a 17-19 record, Memphis had dug themselves a hole that would prove difficult to dig out of in the super-competitive Western Conference.
The Grizz wheeled off four stretches of at least four consecutive wins over the final stages of the season – including a 9-1 stretch upon Gasol’s return.
Most importantly, Memphis closed the season with a five-game winning streak, securing a playoff berth in their second-to-last game (eliminating the Phoenix Suns from the race for the eighth seed) and jumping Dallas for seventh place with a win over the Mavericks in the final game of the season.
Despite the slow start, the Grizzlies finished the year with their second consecutive 50-win season, the third in franchise history.
Memphis has built their identity around the philosophy of “grit and grind”. They aren’t a pretty side, and they don’t pour in points – 27th in points per game (96.0) – but they know how to play to their strengths.
They play the slowest pace in the league (89.9 possessions per 48 minutes), but that is more out of necessity than anything. Memphis’ offence revolves around the physical low post presence of Zach Randolph (17.2 points – team high – and 10.0 rebounds per game (eighth in the league) and the high post distribution of Gasol (14.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game – second amongst centres), hardly the most athletic pairing in the league.
Point guard Mike Conley continued to grow in his role running the team’s offence, posting a career-high 17.1 points per game to go with 6.1 assist (17th in the league) and 1.5 steals a night (18th). Any doubts surrounding his contract extension should be completely disregarded by now.
Meanwhile, Courtney Lee (11.0 points per game) added some much-needed scoring after joining the team midseason, and Tony Allen (Aka the Godfather of Grind/Grindfather) was his usual menacing self on the defensive end of the court.
James Johnson (7.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game) filled the void left by Quincy Pondexter (stress fracture in right foot/out indefinitely) once he was forced off the court due to injury.
Postseason Performer to Watch
One thing the Grizzlies desperately lack is outside shooting.
They finished the season dead last in three-point field goals made (400) and attempted (1127), while hitting the few they made at just the 18th best clip (35.5%).
That ineptitude from beyond the arc is exactly why Memphis brought back Mike Miller once the Miami Heat waived him.
His regular season production wont blow you away – 7.1 points per game – but he was by far Memphis’ best perimeter shooter, hitting a team-high 46.3% from downtown.
Miller also led the Grizzlies in triples drained (107) despite playing the eighth-most minutes per game on the team (20.8). The two-time NBA champion nailed only two less threes than Lee, Johnson, Tayshuan Prince and Nick Calathes combined for the whole season.
He does have a history of injury problems, and he is far from in his prime, but he is only two year’s removed from nailing seven triples in the title-clinching game of Miami’s first championship of the Big Three Era.
He is a proven playoff performer and he will need to step up and spread the floor to prevent teams from collapsing on Memphis’ frontcourt this postseason.
Memphis are a much better team than their seventh-placed seeding suggest.
If they had not lost Gasol for such a large stretch, it is not unreasonable to imagine them holding home court advantage right about now.
They saved themselves from facing the rampaging San Antonio Spurs in the first round thanks to the win against Dallas on the final day of the season, but the consolation prize is not much better.
Memphis will now face the red-hot Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in round one.
The Thunder won the season series between the two 3-1, and will be a tough matchup for the less athletic Grizzlies.
Memphis held opponents to a third-best in the league 94.4 points per game this season, but against Oklahoma City they gave up a whopping 100.5 points a night – their fourth worst performance against the 29 other teams – while only scoring 93.5 points of their own each game – their tied-eighth worst output of any matchup.
Allen and Conley are great defenders, and there are not many better rim protectors than Gasol, but Memphis will find it extremely tough to stop Durant and Russell Westbrook from scoring.
In another dimension, the Grizzlies would not be facing the likes of OKC until at least the second round. Unfortunately, their slow start to the season cost them valuable position in the standings and will ultimately see them bundled out in the first round.
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