With a dramatic win over the San Antonio Spurs Monday night, the Memphis Grizzlies set up a first-round playoff match-up with the Phoenix Suns and, perhaps more importantly, erased some of the bad karma from an awful road trip last week. The Grizzlies will head into their second postseason appearance with a little momentum and will be facing an opponent that virtually everyone associated with the team feels the Griz match up well with.
Phoenix might be the most exciting team in the league and might own the league's best record, but no one thinks they're the kind of juggernaut that previous league-wide win leaders have been. They're beatable. And here's how the Grizzlies can make it happen:
The phenomenal success of the Suns this season has been built on one big acquisition and one big idea: The team acquired Steve Nash, who rivals Jason Kidd as the best pure, up-tempo point guard in the game. They surrounded him with a small but outrageously athletic team -- ostensible shooting guard Quentin Richardson at small forward, ostensible small forward Shawn Marion at power forward, and ostensible power forward Amare Stoudemire at center. Going against the prevailing grain of NBA strategy, they rolled them out onto the court and let them run. The result has been the most exciting fast-breaking team since Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers of the '80s.
Phoenix will fast-break at every opportunity, not only on missed baskets but on made ones too, if the opposing team relaxes for a second. No team in the league is as likely to convert a turnover at one end into a made basket at the other.
One of the biggest reasons the Grizzlies have been so competitive against the Suns this season is that they've done a good job limiting their turnovers, reducing their season average by more than two a game against the Suns. In the two Suns games in which the Grizzlies equaled or surpassed their season turnover average -- December 23rd at Phoenix and March 20th in Memphis -- they lost. In the two games in which they kept their turnovers down -- January 19th at Phoenix and February 1st at Memphis -- the Grizzlies won.
The Grizzlies can limit Phoenix's transition opportunities by reducing turnovers, but they can't stop them from running. So the Grizzlies have to do a good job of defending the three-point shot in transition.
When you think of fast-break basketball, the image that likely comes to mind is a flashy pass leading to a big dunk. You'll see plenty of that from the Suns, with Nash finding Stoudemire, a thunderous power dunker, in the open floor. But Phoenix might be most dangerous on the break because of the team's knack for finding open three-point shots. The Suns have Johnson (the second-best three-point shooter in the league this season) and Richardson (the three-point shootout winner over All-Star weekend) spotting up on the break. And if Nash can't find those two, there's always power-forward Marion, also an adept three-point shooter. And if all else fails, Nash (a Top 10 three-point shooter this season himself) can pull the trigger.
The Grizzlies need to get out on Phoenix's shooters, even if it means giving up a highlight dunk or two. Phoenix is the best outside shooting team in the league, and the Grizzlies will be better off giving up two points than three.
As with turnovers, you can trace the Grizzlies' success against the Suns this season to their ability to defend the three, holding Phoenix below their league-best 39 percent in Memphis' two wins and allowing them to shoot better than that in their two losses.
If the Grizzlies have success in those two areas -- limiting turnovers and defending the three -- they should be competitive against the Suns. But to win, the following three areas are musts:
This series isn't exactly a clash of the titans on the boards, as Phoenix and Memphis are 29th and 28th (out of 30 teams), respectively, in rebounding percentage. Phoenix's small frontline and lack of physical rebounders/defenders is the main reason why most observers think the Grizzlies match up better with Phoenix than the other elite teams in the West.
But even if Phoenix isn't terribly big, they are extremely athletic. With Pau Gasol and Stromile Swift back to 100 percent and the team not having to rely on slow-of-foot Brian Cardinal, the Griz should be able to hold their own on the boards, but Stoudemire's and Marion's quickness off the floor still makes the Suns dangerous on the offensive glass.
This has been an ugly area of late for the Grizzlies, with starter Jason Williams either pouting on the bench or throwing up bricks on the court and with backup Earl Watson's already sketchy ability to run the offense regressing. The Grizzlies'point-guard tandem doesn't have to outplay MVP candidate Nash in this series, but they certainly have to be better than they've been over the past couple of months.
With his tough-nosed defense, you'd think Watson could be a key player with his ability to harass Nash, thus slowing down the league's most effective offense. But the reality during the regular-season series was that Watson's offensive deficiencies were more of a factor than his ostensible defensive attributes. Watson's averaged three turnovers in only 16 minutes a game against the Suns, and his deplorable play in the Grizzlies' home loss in March got him yanked in favor of third-stringer Antonio Burks.
Williams, on the other hand, has thrived offensively against the Suns (not coincidentally, Nash is a poor defender), pumping his season scoring average from 10 to 16 and shooting well. With Williams' success against the Suns coming up against a long shooting slump, something's got to give.
There might not be a better reason for optimism in this series than the fact that the Grizzlies have gone 2-2 against Phoenix despite getting little production from Gasol.
Gasol was fine in the first game against the Suns, but he played hurt in the second game, sat out the third game due to injury, and played only 15 minutes in the fourth game.
But Gasol looks close to 100 percent now, having scored in double figures in 11 of his past 12 games, and there's no reason he can't thrive against the Suns. Gasol should be able to use his five-inch size advantage to score against Marion in the post. And even if Phoenix decides to guard Gasol with Stoudemire, it should still be a favorable match-up: The Suns' young star may be emerging as a dominant offensive player, but that production hasn't translated to the defensive end yet. Actually, the Sun player best equipped to defend Gasol is probably seven-foot reserve Steven Hunter, who has averaged only 14 minutes a game but could play a bigger role in this series.
If the Grizzlies can do all of the above, they could well pull off a playoff upset. Of course, given the likelihood of significant player turnover this off-season, along with the equal likelihood of a series loss, perhaps how the team fares in the coming week is less important than how a few particular players fare. Going forward, four players seem to comprise the core of this team: Gasol, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, and James Posey. You know what you're going to get from Battier. Posey could be an important player in this series, theoretically, with his ability to both hit threes and defend the perimeter, but more likely his lost season will come to a quiet close.
So that brings us to Gasol and Miller: With immense offensive skills and plenty of room for growth (they are only 24 and 25 years old, respectively) they're the two most important players on this roster. The Grizzlies need Gasol to confirm that he can be a reliable playoff scorer (and a better showing defensively and on the boards wouldn't hurt either). Miller has struggled mightily in 12 postseason games with Memphis and Orlando. Does he have the mental makeup to match his physical tools? He's been healthier and more effective this season than ever in his career and over the past month has emerged as the big-time scorer his skills have always suggested he could be. For these players, the next few games pose a big test. •