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Memphis’ Road to the Western Conference Finals

How should the Grizzlies approach the stretch run to give themselves the best shot at being in the WCF?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Grizzlies fandom, circa 2013, was at an all-time high. In 2011, we upset the number #1 seed in the first round of the playoffs; it was our first appearance since 2006, but we fell short in the WCF semi-finals to a star-studded Oklahoma City team. In 2012, the Memphis Grizzlies surrendered a 24-point lead with under 8 minutes left in the first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers; the Clippers then went on to close out the series in 7 games.

This was a very dark time, but it was not all bad. We had wasted a whole season’s worth of hard work, only to fall victim to a lackluster 2nd half effort in the very first game of the playoffs, which ultimately did us in. Ironically, this was also the sliver of hope. Ever since that moment, if a team was to beat the Grizzlies in the postseason, it was going to have to be because they were better. The Grizzlies were never going to lose a postseason game due to a lack of effort ever again.

2013 arrives. The Grizzlies and the Clippers finished with the same regular season record of 56-26 with the Clippers finishing ahead of the standings because of their 3-1 head-to-head record versus the Grizzlies. With a losing H2H record and having been eliminated by the same team a year just a year ago, a lot of other cities and teams would be nervous. The Grizzlies were READY. The Grizzlies then went on to beat the Clippers in a “battle royale-like” 6 games, and then got to extract revenge on their 2011 eliminators in the very next round. And before you know it, the Memphis Grizzlies are in the Western Conference Finals, who would’ve thought.

But oh sweet Karma. The San Antonio Spurs swept the Grizzlies in their first playoff series versus the team since the upset in 2011. Ever since 2013, the dying question among Grizzlies fans is, “How do we get back?!”

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Advancing in the NBA playoffs requires a talented team of individuals, camaraderie between the individuals, undivided attention to detail, and precise execution. Even if all of those things fall into place, a team is still subject to defeat at the whim of luck. Luck comes in many different mediums, rather it be health, tight officiating, or even seeding. That’s why it’s important for the Grizzlies to do everything in their power to control what they can regarding the playoffs. In 2015, the Grizzlies finished with the same record as the Spurs, and it came down to the very last game of the season. If the Grizzlies had lost, they would've been the 6th seed instead of the 5th.

This would've placed them in the same bracket as the Rockets, Clippers, and Mavericks. But more importantly, this would have quarantined Golden State and San Antonio and put them on a crash course path to the WCF Semis. This is a purely subjective conversation to have, but some people preferred the Grizzlies get a “guaranteed and rather swift” playoff series win over the Blazers, considering we swept the regular season series versus Portland.

Others you talk to would’ve preferred a rematch against a noticeably better Clipper team, and then a bout with the Houston Rockets in the WCF semis; we split the regular season series versus both teams. It’s completely revisionist history now, but I was leaning toward the 6th seed, mainly because I felt great about a playoff series between the Grizzlies and any team other than the Warriors or Spurs; but that’s beside the point.

If the Grizzlies continue to play hard throughout the rest of the regular season; they will be able to control their own destiny, to a certain degree, on what route they want to take in the Western Conference playoffs towards the end of the season. This is where I advise them to choose wisely. How much do you weigh home-court versus the quality of opponent? How much do you weigh team fatigue versus overall preparedness? All of these factors are vital to playoff success and I will take a look at where I believe the Grizzlies are poised to make a deep playoff run.

As good of a team Utah is sitting at the 4th spot in the West, they are no doubt the weak link of all the teams at the top half of the playoff standings in the West. They are either tied or are losing the regular season series versus all of the other 7 teams currently in the top 8 seeds. Granted, they have been injured quite a bit this season, but that is all the more reason to chase them as a potential playoff match-up. They are a relatively young team, with little to no playoff experience, that has been bitten by the injury-bug this late into the season. This would make for a perfect first round match-up versus the Grizzlies and a rookie head coach in David Fizdale to get the ball rolling, as I believe there are no “safer” brackets to pick and choose this go-around, which brings me to my next point.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

I believe the 6th thru 8th seed in the West is a complete death trap. The Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets have all elevated their games again this year. The Warriors added Kevin Durant. The Spurs have turned Kawhi Leonard into Michael Jordan; and the Rockets have taken the numbers game to new and elite heights. It is imperative that, not only do the Grizzlies need to wake-up and not fall into the 7th seed, they need to get out of the 6th seed ASAP. Not only would this keep them from facing Golden State, San Antonio, or Houston in the first round, but it would keep them from having to play all three if Memphis does pull off unlikely upsets.

With the 3rd seed looking very out of reach, the 4th and 5th seeds in the West look very ideal right about now, considering the circumstances in the NBA. Kevin Durant’s injury makes you look at the Western Conference Playoff race a lot different now. While Golden State may still be able to upend Denver without KD or a healthy KD, the Nuggets are still the best rebounding team in the NBA. This is a lovely playoff match-up for a team awaiting to play Golden State in the 2nd round. Watching an already fragile KD get beat-up in the paint for several games, before running into a Grizzlies team that is going to do the exact same thing is a sight to see for Grizzlies fans.

Based on what I could gather from how this season is playing out, I conclude that the Grizzlies must play their hearts and minds out these next 10 to 12 games, to determine if they can rest some of their key guys to prepare for a deep playoff run. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, but if after a few weeks the Grizzlies look poised to fall into either the 4th or 5th spot, they can take a load off and start mentally and physically preparing themselves for the playoffs rather than still fighting for seeding. At this point, they could even position themselves to make sure they play the Jazz in the first round. Either one of those seedings would be ideal for the Grizzlies to make a push for the Western Conference finals. If the Grizzlies stay put at 6 or fall, I am afraid the playoff hoopla will be over rather quickly.

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