With a 1-4 record in April heading into tough season-closing games against the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves and with Pau Gasol, Bonzi Wells, Stromile Swift, and James Posey all nursing injuries, the Memphis Grizzlies are limping into the playoffs figuratively and literally.
As of this writing, it isn't clear who the team's first-ever postseason opponent will be. A date with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs seems most likely. (When an opponent is settled, you can read my breakdown of the matchup at MemphisFlyer.com.) But regardless of who the Grizzlies play in the first round, there are a few issues that will be key. Health is an obvious factor, and it will be interesting to see how Hubie Brown will alter his 10-man rotation in the postseason: Will Gasol and Posey get more minutes? (Likely.) Will Jason Williams continue to give way to Earl Watson for fourth-quarter defense? (Depending on match-ups and the flow of the game, quite possibly.) Will all five of the Grizzlies big men see action? (I'm guessing yes.)
But there are two things that have been consistent about the Grizzlies all season and aren't likely to change in the playoffs: The team gives up too much on the boards but gets it back with spirited defense and ball control. This year's Grizzlies rank dead last in giving up offensive rebounds, which will be a particular problem if Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, or Kevin Garnett come calling. But factor in the team's ability to pick up steals (first in the league), block shots (second), an emphasis on "deflections" that comes across like religious fervor, and Jason Williams' ability to create offense without turning the ball over, and the Grizzlies have been able to negate their lackluster boardwork. If these elements cancel each other out again in the postseason, then the X factor that will determine whether the Grizzlies can be competitive might be outside shooting.
Brown has said that the key to coaching in the playoffs is the ability to get your three best scorers open looks in the right spots. But this begs the question of exactly who the Grizzlies' three best scorers are. Gasol is the obvious first option. Posey has emerged since the All-Star break (17.5 ppg) as a potent scorer, but he's more effective when getting points in the flow of the game -- from spot-up threes, from the foul line, off cuts to the basket, on the break, and off his own steals --than on plays run for him.
To make a run in the postseason, the Grizzlies need to get some offense from the two-guard position, where both Mike Miller and Wells are capable of putting up 20 every night. But there are plenty of questions: Both have been plagued by back problems --Miller by severe spasms that he seems to have recovered from enough to play effectively; Wells by more minor but also more recent pain.
Wells is a high-volume, low-percentage shooter: He requires a lot of shots to get his points and takes a lot of long two-point shots, which broadcasters and writers who like to talk about the "mid-range game" approve of but which is actually a low-percentage way to score. But his toughness and aggressiveness on offense might well give him a postseason edge on the unselfish-to-a-fault Miller. Wells once scored 40 in a playoff game; Miller was ineffective in eight postseason games with Orlando. Miller is a better pure shooter than Wells, with much deeper range, and if he finds his shot in the playoffs, he could be the proverbial "difference-maker." But Miller's meek offensive performance this season, injuries aside, gives fans plenty of reason to be skeptical.
One thing is clear: For the Grizzlies to have a prayer of advancing past whatever Western Conference behemoth they face in the first round, outside shots have to fall. If you look at the difference between the Grizzlies' wins and losses, three-point shooting is where the most glaring disparity lies. In wins, the Grizzlies have shot 38 percent from downtown, with Posey, Miller, Wells, and Shane Battier all shooting 40 percent or better and Williams at a solid 36 percent. In losses, the team's three-point shooting is a dismal 28 percent, with only Posey poking above the 30 percent plateau.
If neither Miller nor Wells steps up his scoring in the postseason, the role of primary perimeter scorer will fall to Williams, who just might be able to handle it. Williams is the team's most erratic shooter but also its most clutch shooter, hitting big fourth-quarter threes all season. In the playoffs, every quarter is the fourth quarter. If Williams shoots like it, maybe the impossible -- the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round -- can happen.