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The People’s Contender

The superstar-less Grizzlies reenter the playoffs with a lot of potential — and just as many questions.

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The Memphis Grizzlies enter this weekend's NBA playoffs with — absent an allegedly requisite true-blue "superstar" — all the component parts of a contender: Not one but two All-Star-certified post players (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol). A dynamic wing scorer (Rudy Gay). An "irrational confidence" bench sniper capable of altering a game (O.J. Mayo). A composed, pass-first point guard to orchestrate these weapons (Mike Conley). A bunch of versatile, hard-nosed defenders to glue it together (Tony Allen, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter). And a coach who has proven himself on the big stage (Lionel Hollins).

That configuration is bolstered by the ostensible momentum of a closing 15-4 run heading into Thursday's regular-season finale and what is, statistically at least, the Western Conference's top defense. The offense, middling all season, has been trending up following the additions of Randolph and reserve marksman Gilbert Arenas.

But, despite all that, there's reason to question the gestalt of this Grizzlies team.

Early in this closing bundle of games, when the Grizzlies ran off a series of wins against high-level teams (Lakers, Thunder, Heat, Mavs, and Clippers in a span of 16 days), onlookers started to acknowledge the Grizzlies' potential as a title-contention dark horse. But as the aftershocks of those wins caused the Grizzlies' bandwagon to swell with outside media touting the team, locals who watch the Grizzlies the closest were pulling back a little.

The overriding concern is the very foundation of last spring's thrilling playoff run — the interior duo of Randolph and Gasol, whose status heading into the playoffs is marked with mystery and doubt.

Since returning from injury last month, Randolph has been a shadow of his all-NBA form. His rebounding has been in line with his career norms but down from his superb rate in his first two Grizzlies seasons. And while he's shown signs offensively — those jab-step rainbow jumpers, the occasional quick face-up move — he hasn't been the physical force he was a year ago, getting to the rim less, relying on his mid-range jumper more, and struggling to finish over defenders when he does get into the paint.

As for Gasol, he's faded some from his All-Star first half while carrying a heavy workload and has to be the most banged-up player on the team, the recent bone bruise on his left knee following a string of more minor physical issues. While his passing has remained terrific, Gasol's scoring, rebounding, and shooting accuracy have all been on the decline since his All-Star appearance. He had 15 scoring performances of 20 points or more in the season's first 45 games — and none since.

As a tandem, Randolph and Gasol stepped up their games in last season's playoffs, their combined post-All-Star-break averages of 63 minutes, 32 points, and 17 rebounds increasing to 80 minutes, 37 points, and 22 rebounds in the post-season. Maybe they'll make a similar leap again this time, but they'd have to do so while heading into the playoffs less sharp individually and having had much less quality floor-time together.

If the team's post foundation is less steady — and, also worryingly, less central to team identity — than it was a year ago, this concern is mitigated somewhat by the sense that Gasol and Randolph are now surrounded by a better team, at least on paper; one that now boasts more perimeter firepower and more frontcourt depth (with Dante Cunningham and Marreese Speights replacing Darrell Arthur).

The increased firepower begins, of course, with Gay, who may be the only key Grizzlies contributor not yet playoff-tested but who has rebounded from an unusually rocky mini-stretch early in the month to finish with some of the best basketball of his career. And Gay's April breakout has been about more than better scoring and shooting numbers. It's how he's playing: With more decisive dribble moves — to get into the lane for short jumpers or all the way to the rim. By playing well off of Randolph's post play. By rebounding in traffic. And by making both more dynamic and attentive defensive plays, most dramatically with his game-saving blocked shot Saturday night against Portland.

It was trendy a year ago to wonder if the Grizzlies were actually better without Gay, although anyone who noticed Conley (38%), Mayo (40%), Shane Battier (39%, 2-12 from three), and Sam Young (39%, 0-4 from three) all misfire in the Thunder series realized that was nonsense. And with the Gasol/Randolph pairing unlikely to quite replicate last spring, the Grizzlies probably need Gay to remain in something close to his current groove to have a chance to make another run.

The extra perimeter punch should extend to Mayo and Conley, both of whom enter this post-season in better form than a year ago, combining for 43 percent three-point shooting on eight attempts a game in April. Additionally, Mayo's rebound from his difficult third season has included not only embracing his instant-offense sixth-man role, but increasing his potency by becoming more comfortable in a ball-handling/playmaking role — and, perhaps more importantly, having Hollins become more comfortable with him on the ball. Mayo's ability to play on the ball when Conley goes to the bench could be crucial with Arenas' effectiveness — if not availability — in doubt following a recent finger injury, rookies Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby clearly not playoff-ready, and with insurance signing Lester Hudson taking a crash-course in the team's offensive and defensive schemes.

Happily, one major area of concern on the perimeter seems to have corrected itself: Up until these past two games, defensive linchpin and grit-and-grind folk hero Tony Allen hadn't looked right. After coming back from a mouth laceration that cost him five games earlier this month, he was shooting 27 percent with more turnovers than steals. But Allen looked sharper defensively against Portland on Saturday and then unleashed a classic Tony Allen game on the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday night, with a franchise-high eight steals (and only one turnover). The last of these came off Cleveland's rookie-sensation point guard Kyrie Irving, whom Allen guarded down the stretch in a potential preview of a defensive assignment he could draw against the Clippers' Chris Paul in the first round.

An overarching concern is that the team's presumably optimal lineups — Conley, Gay, Randolph, and Gasol, with Mayo or Allen — haven't played together that much this season, and the closing stretch has been a questionable one in terms of playoff preparation. Facing a string of teams with little to play for, the Grizzlies have balanced getting key players rest with doing just enough to secure victories, and there's a worry that this at-times listless process hasn't sharpened the team's chemistry or identity. Can Gasol and Randolph be good enough? Can the team find that title-contender groove they had a couple of weeks ago? Can they just flip the switch? It's impossible to know.

But what we do know is this: This is one of the most wide-open playoff races in memory with, by generous estimates, as many as nine teams — Bulls, Heat, Celtics, Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, Clippers, Mavericks, and your Memphis Grizzlies — capable of winning a title if they catch the right breaks. Of those nine, the Grizzlies are the only one that doesn't boast either a recognized "superstar" or a championship pedigree. Despite being crowned "the team no one wants to play" by many, there's plenty of reason for the Grizzlies to carry that underdog hunger into the post-season.

Odds may well be against a playoff run as deep and dramatic as last year. But the Grizzlies are — once again — the potential party crashers; the one team this season best equipped to shake up the NBA's star system. And that's worth getting excited about.

For a detailed breakdown of the Grizzlies' first-round playoff series, see Chris Herrington's Grizzlies blog, Beyond the Arc (memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc), on Friday, when the match-up and schedule have been set.

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