Back away from the ledge, Grizzlies fans. I’m here to tap the reset button on the 2012 playoffs.
Two weeks ago, radio host Brett Norsworthy asked me — live, on the air — if I thought the Memphis Grizzlies could reach the NBA Finals. I’m expected to have a stance or opinion when thrown a question by Stats (or his partner, Dave Woloshin), but with this query lobbed my way ... I paused. Longer than is comfortable on live radio. I eventually offered a tongue-stumbler, along the lines of, “I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but ...”
No more waffling. Why can’t these Grizzlies reach the NBA Finals? No stumbling here at my keyboard. I believe Memphis can win the Western Conference championship. However crushing Sunday night’s Game 1 loss may feel this morning, it was Game 1. In the first round. Here are five points in the Grizzlies’ favor:
• Trending Upward
Finishing the regular season on a roll matters in the NBA. Last year’s champs — the Dallas Mavericks — won their last four games, a convincing righting of a ship that was listing to the tune of four straight losses in early April. Memphis won its last six games this season, and needed every victory to secure the franchise’s first home-court advantage in a playoff series. Among the six teams the Grizzlies beat, only one (Orlando) will compete in the playoffs, and the Magic is without its best player (All-NBA center Dwight Howard). But so what? Winning is infectious. The core of this team’s roster (even Rudy Gay in a coat and tie) enjoyed a big taste of the playoff pie last spring. They’re surely excited at the chance for another run, but in no way timid before the brighter lights. And if they needed the proverbial postseason wake-up call, consider it delivered in the fourth quarter of Game 1.
• Thievery Doesn’t Slump
The Grizzlies have three of the top 15 steals leaders in the NBA in Mike Conley (136), Tony Allen (104), and Rudy Gay (95). The NBA playoffs are as much about disrupting an opponent’s attack as they are about executing with the ball in your hands. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin give the Los Angeles Clippers a star swagger that the Grizzlies can’t claim, but you have to believe Paul and Griffin aren’t dancing at the prospect of finding their shots under the kind of duress the Grizzlies will provide. (For the duration of this column, we’ll ignore that now-infamous fourth quarter.)
• Role Players Elevated
The extended absence of stars have but one silver lining: Reserves build new credentials. There’s no way Marreese Speights starts 54 games and averages 22.4 minutes for Memphis had former All-Star Zach Randolph not been sidelined for 38 games this winter. In the first round, the Grizzlies are tasked with slowing down the rim-rattling Griffin, and it will take a committee of defenders, including Randolph ... and Speights. It’s not so much if an NBA team is fully healthy, but when they are. If Randolph can approach his level of play from last year’s postseason run (and he wasn’t close Sunday night), Speights will mean unforeseen depth, especially on the defensive end.
• Home Court Grind
I like the intangible contrast of Memphis fans vs. Los Angeles fans. These are two franchises with very few notches on their playoff bedposts. Fans in the Staples Center (for at least Games 3 and 4) will include a few celebrities interested in being different (from the Laker crowd). Fans in FedExForum will (still) be interested in seeing their team prove they belong among the highest ranks of the world’s greatest basketball league. And I believe such an edge can rub off on players.
• Winnable West
It wouldn’t be fair to call the Western Conference weak. Not with the likes of San Antonio (10 wins to finish the regular season), Oklahoma City (three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant), and the Lakers (Kobe, again, and an energized Andrew Bynum) in the mix. But do any of those teams look unbeatable? (Granted, Memphis was 2-9 against the trio this season.) Should the Grizzlies get by the Clippers, they’ll likely face San Antonio in a rematch the Spurs would relish. But I still like Memphis youth against the aging top seed. Then, presumably, the Thunder or Lakers in the conference finals. Too much speculation with but one playoff game in the books. But to answer Brett Norsworthy’s question two weeks late (with a question of my own): Why not?
And let’s remember, ye of little faith: Just as it’s hard to blow a 27-point lead in a playoff game, it’s hard to build a 27-point lead in a playoff game. I’d like to think the real Grizzlies were playing over the first three quarters of Game 1.