After all that, there are only 6 Finals Contenders — Memphis’s Case

Posted: 04/10/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

I haven’t posted about the NBA for a while, so I’m going to go back to it today before continuing my MLB predictions (baseball’s a long season so I can take my team previewing it). I only have five teams left (Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, Memphis, Golden State) but I’m also going to make some revisions. Of the teams I’m already gone through, I have to eliminate the Wizards (too disorganized offensively), the Blazers (an Afflalo injury is just too much to overcome for a team that has already lost Wes Matthews), the Clippers (the big three is terrific, but they have no shot of beating the Spurs or Warriors without a bench), the Rockets (too much stress on James Harden, who will be defended better by guys like Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs), and, of course, the Durant-less Thunder, who might not even make the playoffs. I’m also eliminating the Raptors, who have fallen off a cliff in the second half of the season and are allowing 101.2 points per game, more than any other Eastern Conference playoff team besides the Boston Celtics. That defense just won’t cut it in the playoffs, especially with star point guard Kyle Lowry slumping. That leaves six teams who I think have a legitimate shot at making the run to the Finals: Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta in the East and Memphis, San Antonio, and Golden State in the West. Chicago with Derrick Rose has the size and defense along with the scoring to beat the Cavs, who are the big favorites, while the Hawks and their ball movement are 3-1 against Cleveland on the season. Meanwhile, the Warriors and Spurs are favored to go head-to-head for the chance to play in the Finals, but I could see Memphis returning to early-season form, playing great defense and knocking off at least one of the favorites. I’ve already talked about Atlanta earlier in the season and nothing’s really changed, so I’m going to skip them here. They are a great team and will be favored over anyone other than Cleveland in the Eastern Conference, but they will be in for an uphill battle in the ECF should they get that far. Meanwhile, I’ve already gone over the Cavs and Spurs, which means I have Chicago, Golden State, and Memphis left. Let’s talk about Memphis today and I’ll get to the other two before the playoffs start.

What happened to the Grizzlies? Just 45 days ago, they were sitting pretty at 41-14 and comfortably in second place in the Western Conference. They were a great defensive team who had just held offensive stalwarts Portland and the Clippers to 92 and 87 points respectively. They still had the tough mentality brought by Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen but were also getting scoring from Jeff Green and Courtney Lee, both very talented offensive players. In many minds, they were the favorites to win it all. Since then, they are 12-11, 7-8 against other playoff contenders. They are coming off a 36 point drubbing of New Orleans so maybe are rounding into form, but their recent performances have certainly been worrying. Many of the the same people who believed the Grizz were legitimate contenders have written them off. I’m not one of them.

I’m of the mindset that the first half of the season has a greater bearing on a team’s playoff success than the last month. There have been worrying signs, but Tony Allen, the team’s glue, has missed the past six games in the past month. The offense has floundered, averaging just 94 points per game on 45% shooting after the all-star break after putting up 101 on 46% shooting in the first half of the season. But most of that offensive drop has come because of slumps and not injuries. Conley, Randolph, and Gasol have all been less productive than they were in the first half, a trend I don’t see continuing in the playoffs, where the three have always been great. The drop isn’t a Jeff Green problem. Yes, the Grizzlies have been worse since they traded for Green, but that’s due to other factors. I think Green is good enough offensively to win a game or two for Memphis even when their star players aren’t playing well. It’s vital to have players like that, and it’s exactly what the Grizzlies have needed.

Even if Memphis isn’t hitting on all cylinders offensively, we know they are going to be a tough out. I think they have the best non-GS or SA defense in basketball, and that defense will be even better when they have their shutdown lineup of Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol on the floor. They have playoff experience, with this being their fifth consecutive playoff berth, and have made a WCF. It all depends on matchups, of course, but I favor the Grizzlies to win their first round matchup and at least put a scare into Golden State or San Antonio. And if Gasol, ZBo, and Conley are clicking, as I think they will be, why can’t the Grizzlies make it farther? They have six solid guys who they’ll feel comfortable playing in crunch time and still cause matchup problems down low. if they play the Warriors, Draymond Green will have to guard Zach Randolph, which will not end will for Green. And if they face off against the Spurs, they’re sure to make it a defensive slug-fest, one that could end up going either way. Even as people are jumping off the bandwagon, I still have confidence that the Grizzlies will turn their game up a notch in the postseason, and I think they are one of the six teams who still have a legitimate shot of making the Finals.


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