Saturday brings the Playoffs to conclude a hectic season. How great is it that April basketball did not let the final seeding be completely decided until the last game? NBA schedule guy? We owe you a candy bar.
The Grizzlies, in April, finished with a 13-3 record and an 88-76 swamping of Orlando to clinch the 4th seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They enter into the first round of the playoffs against a limping Los Angeles Clippers team that managed to hang on.
What kind of chance do the Grizzlies have against the Clippers? If they get through the Clips with a win, how far can they go in the playoffs? Sure, they're a good team - but can they make it all the way?
Yeah. They can. And they will.
Bold claims for a small-market team, right? You probably think I'm just writing this to generate page views on the site. Maybe if I pump enough key words into this article, Straight Outta Vancouver will be the most-visited site on SBNation. Enough dry humor: the claim appears to be an outrageous and unsupported one that is written in a fit of excitement of being a Grizzlies fan and watching the Playoffs approach.
They're small-market team - yeah. But look under the surface. The rag-tag group without a clear superstar doesn't appear on commercials, gets no love by major sports media, and has a fraction of followers on Twitter (minus Tony Allen - the most interesting man on Twitter). But the team is tough. The team is hustle. That's what can win in this league: not endorsements.
The Grizzlies are, arguably, the best defensive team in the league. Grizzlies defense leads the league in forced turnovers (17.1 per game) with giving up only 14.5 per game (leage-leading difference of -2.6). The defense is led by Tony Allen (5th best stealer in the league), Mike Conley (2nd in the league), and Rudy Gay (16th in the league) and does not stop.
Opponents average just 93.7 points on 44-percent shooting this season.
This isn't new - the Grizzlies were the first team to lead the league in both steals per game and forced turnovers per game for consecutive seasons since the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Seattle SuperSonics. The pressure, the dog fights, the grit and grind: these things have come to define the Memphis Grizzlies. Every opposing shot is earned. Every possession has to be a careful one.
When small-market teams come into the playoffs, they are often immediately counted out due to lack-of-experience. Sure, this is only the Grizzlies fifth time in the playoffs; for some players (i.e. Rudy Gay), it's their first playoff appearance ever.
However, the (then 8th seeded) Memphis Grizzlies beat the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of last year's playoffs and took the Oklahoma City Thunder (now the West's second seed) to seven games - falling only one short of the Western Conference Finals. This was done with Rudy Gay sitting on the sidelines in a sling and absorbing himself in the playoff atmosphere that comes with San Antonio, Memphis, and Oklahoma City and players like Manu Ginobili, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook.
More to back the Grizz up in the first round: four critical Clippers' (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye, and Eric Bledsoe) have never played in a playoff game before. Compare that to the Grizzlies, who not only have notable playoff performance experience (2011 Zach Randolph), but also have a ring on the court (Tony Allen with Boston).
It has to stand for something that an 8th seed small-market team looked Greg Popovich, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan and all their "professional NBA experience" in the eye, and sent them. home. It has to stand for something that an 8th seed walked into NBA-finals favorite Oklahoma City and took them to an anybody's game game 7, and lost a tough nail biter.
Taking a step off the court, the players have a guy named Lionel Hollins standing with a clipboard and orchestrating a masterpiece. I remember hearing an interview with Coach Hollins after Memphis beat the Thunder in Game 3 in the 2011 WC Semis - all Coach wanted to do was look ahead to Game 4.
That's the attitude with which he leads the team - the attitude of always looking forward, never looking back. The team doesn't get ahead of itself. It doesn't put any one player above anybody else. When the team wins, it's because the team performs: not because a single player has a breakout.
Lionel Hollins, because he lives in this attitude, isn't afraid to sit players if they're not doing well. No coaching tactic changes because of the name on the back of the jersey. Look at the 2012 Zach Randolph situation. After being the team's unanimous MVP last season and playoffs, he came back and suffered a knee injury on January 1. After coming back from the injury, his numbers are down and he is not playing close to what he can be playing.
What does Coach Hollins do? Benches him. As I write this, Zach Randolph has still not earned a spot in the starting lineup.
The 2009 O.J. Mayo situation. When Coach Hollins first arrived in 2009, Mayo was the number 2 starter and the team's second-leading scorer. In 2010, because of lack-luster performance, he was moved to the bench player. When it happened, O.J. expressed his discontent. He let people know he wasn't happy. But he always ended his remarks with one thing: "...if this is what's best for the team, I'm all for it. If it betters our team situation, I've got to deal with it."
By having the same rules for stars as he does for everybody else, Lionel Hollins earns the team's respect. Once players on the court start accepting these rules, there is team chemistry.
With team chemistry, rings are brought home.
Imagine being the back-up quarterback behind Peyton Manning. Peyton Manning has never been a quarterback that stops improving. Manning continually seeks not only to beat his opponent, but to continually improve every aspect of his own game: his mechanics, his tactics, and his overall knowledge of the game. If you were the backup quarterback, what do you do to get Manning's job, knowing that he is trying just as hard to improve himself as you are to get better than he is?
The Grizzlies are the same way - they don't play with a "better-than-you" mindset. At the end of each night, they look to their own game, study the holes, and try to improve themselves for the sake of the team. They try to out-play and out-hustle themselves. There's not one player to look to in crunch-time - the entire team wins, or the entire team loses. In 21st century NBA, that attitude is rarely seen.
The players that make up this unit have grown to be standout, standup guys that have nothing but the future ahead of them. At the top of the court you see Rudy Gay and Mike Conley - who, after being signed to a highly disputed, "irresponsible" contract, is maturing in his role as point guard and averaging 6.5 assists per game. That's the 11th best in the league - of players currently in the playoffs, he's the 6th best. Oh yeah, he's 24 years old.
Go outside and you see Tony Allen - the league's most entertaining player and arguably the best defender. He's one of the only players that can shut down Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Kobe Bryant - all in the same game. After doing that, he'll be subbed out for a couple minutes, only to later throw towels into the stands when any member of the Grizzlies hits a jumper.
Go inside and you have the rejects of the league. The sandlot. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Marreese Speights (who the 76ers thought was so bad they didn't grant him a minute on the court before being traded to Memphis in January to fill in for Randolph's injury). As an opponent, before you can comprehend what happened, either a 7'1" Spaniard, a player innocently thrown into a drug situation, an outcast 76er, or a combination of the three will post you up and blow a slick one by you.
Then, there's everybody else. The 7'2" Iranian, Hamed Haddadi. The "who are you" dangerous duo of Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham. The infamous Gilbert AgentZero Arenas, who receives a satire-filled standing ovation every time he steps on the court, but is still convinced that he's got juice left in him and is out to prove it.
They closed the season with an 11-2 record and a six-game winning streak, including wins against the Thunder, Heat, Mavericks, and Clippers. Even though they dropped three games to the Spurs this season, I don't think the Grizzlies are afraid to step on the court with any team.
Take a good look at the 2012 Memphis Grizzlies while you can. When it's all over, you're going to look at them with much more respect than you think you are.
Before you count them out, count them in - even if you have to force it past the media. They'll shock you, and you'll fall in love with them in the process.
Here's to the 2012 playoffs, Grizzlies. See you in the finals.