If anyone is used to the underdog role, it's the Memphis Grizzlies. For much of the regular season, however, the Grizz played ahead of the pack, and they seemed to have a little trouble handling it. It was new. It was different. The Grizzlies have always performed at their level of competition, it seems. One night, they would get beaten by the Detroit Pistons. The next night, they would pull out a win in Houston. The expression "playing to your level of competition" has seemed to apply to the Memphis Grizzlies, literally.
Going into their first round match up against Portland, Memphis had home court advantage, and they capitalized on it. They appeared more comfortable playing ahead rather than behind, as they have in many postseasons past.
Well, the days of playing ahead are over for Memphis. Now, they face the #1 seeded Golden State Warriors, who are favorites to make it out of the West and maybe even win the title. They've had an historic season that can only be bookended by a championship, in their minds. After sweeping the New Orleans Pelicans, the Warriors have been waiting for over a week now to play the Grizzlies.
Now, Memphis is being met with doubt and complete disbelief by analysts around the league. And how could you entirely blame them when the status of the Grizzlies' star point guard, Mike Conley, is completely uncertain? He could return this afternoon, in a few days, or not at all. Is Memphis pulling an upset impossible? Not at all. Anything can happen in a playoff series; Mike Conley could return, or Memphis could force Golden State to play Grit n' Grind basketball. But to grab a win on the Warriors' home court, the Grizzlies are going to have to focus on several important points this afternoon:
Keys To Victory
1. Force Your Pace And Guard The Boards
Golden State was ranked second in offensive efficiency at 100.7, while Memphis ranked 26th in pace at 94.2 during the regular season. Yet, oddly enough, Golden State tied with New Orleans for last in pace this postseason, while Memphis is tied for 13th. Don't be fooled, though. Golden State loves to run the ball and get out on the fast break. In this series, it's going to be paramount for Memphis to control the pace of the game. They can't afford to let Golden State run up and down the court and make wide open threes. The Grizzlies need to slow it down and play their inside-outside game. In addition, playing the Grizzlies' pace includes limiting Golden State's fast break points. Golden State has a turnover ratio of 11 in the postseason, while Memphis ranks first with an average of only 7.9. Memphis must continue to value every possession and limit the fast break points for the Warriors by not committing unnecessary turnovers.
The Grizzlies have to be careful to get back on defense. If they fail to do so, Golden State is great at pushing the ball down the court and passing to the open shooter for a three:
In this play, the Grizzlies had four guys back when Golden State pushed it up the court, but Marc was planted in the paint. Someone should be on Thompson at all times in this situation. There's no one even near Thompson, and he cashed in on the open three pointer. If the Grizzlies can slow down the pace, these types of situations will be less common, and that will greatly benefit the Grizz.
In addition, the Warriors thrive on second chance opportunities, and the Grizzlies allowing Golden State to grab offensive rebounds could be a huge difference maker on Sunday. Zach Randolph, Kosta Kuofos, Marc Gasol, and Jeff Green are going to need to be at the top of their rebounding games in order to pull out a win. The Grizzlies did a good job of limiting second-chance opportunities for the Portland Trail Blazers as the series progressed, but if Memphis doesn't guard the boards, Golden State will surely capitalize. It's also important for Memphis not to allow the Warriors to grab long defensive rebounds and break out running on the fast break. The Grizzlies, having the advantage on the inside, need to grab some offensive rebounds of their own and score off of them.
2. Limit The Splash Brothers
Steph Curry is averaging 33.8 points per game this postseason, and Klay Thompson is averaging 25.0. If the Grizzlies have any hope of stealing a win at Oracle Arena, they're going to need to limit at least one of the Splash Brothers. Tony Allen will surely be deployed on one of them, but who will defend the other? If Mike Conley doesn't return, players like Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes will have to play defense against these high-flying shooters. Nick has proved a capable defender, but he's going to have to be at the top of his game when playing against Thompson and Curry. The Grizzlies cannot afford to have Klay and Steph both going off for 30+ points Sunday afternoon. Tony Allen is going to need play lock down defense, and it's going to have to be a team effort to suppress these two Splash Brothers.
The Grizzlies have to be careful of the Warriors' screens, which often result in a wide open three by Klay or Steph:
Mike got caught by the screen here, and Zach is standing back instead of rushing up to help. The result:
...An open three for Steph. The Grizzlies should always go over the Warriors' screens, which they have failed to do the past couple of regular season meetings. Unlike many teams, Golden State won't miss open threes. The Grizzlies need to make the Splash Brothers' lives difficult in order to have a chance for success.
3. Zach Randolph vs. Draymond Green
Draymond Green is having the best postseason of his career as he's averaging 15.8 points and 12.8 rebounds in the four games he's played so far. He's also averaging 41.5 minutes in those games. If he continues to play those type of minutes, I expect Zach Randolph to wear him down as the game goes on. This is perhaps the most intriguing match up in the series, as Zach Randolph is a true "power" forward, while Draymond Green is more of a stretch forward who likes to shoot threes and spread the floor. This match up will definitely be a battle of wills. If Z-Bo can force his bully-ball style of play on Green, then it would be a huge advantage for Memphis. Towards the end of the game, Green could be so worn down that his threes won't fall, and Steve Kerr might be forced to rest him more, which would be a disadvantage for the Warriors. On the flip side, Green could have Zach Randolph chasing him around the entire night and thrive on the three point line. No doubt, this match up could very well swing the series to a large degree. This postseason, Randolph is averaging 14 PPG and 8.4 rebounds the past four games. However, he was guarded by the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, and I'm sure he'll be happy to be guarded by the smaller Draymond Green. Z-Bo is going to need to win this match up in order for Memphis to grab a victory.
Whether or not Mike Conley will be able to play Sunday, the Grizzlies have to stick to their style of basketball and protect the three point line. If they focus on playing their pace, limiting the Splash Brothers, and guarding the boards, then Memphis has a good chance of pulling an upset at Oracle Arena. Otherwise, it might be a long game... and a short series for Memphis.
The Grizzlies will come out ready Sunday afternoon and won't lack energy. The Warriors' crowd will be fired up, and so will its players. The Grizzlies will do a good job slowing down the game and protecting the boards, and Zach Randolph will have +15 points and +10 rebounds. Steph and Klay will continue their hot shooting, and it'll cause a lot of problems for Memphis if they're shorthanded. However, Tony Allen will step up, and Courtney Lee will continue his hot shooting streak. Z-Bo will take advantage of the match up with Draymond Green. It'll be close down the stretch, but Memphis will do a good job forcing the Warriors to take difficult shots due to their lock down defense.
Prediction: Memphis 95, Golden State 92