For the first time in five years, the Memphis Grizzlies are playoff bound. And if some expected this all along (my preseason prediction: 46 wins, 8th seed), the journey was far from predictable.
Many players stepped up. Some stepped back. And a career reserve worked his way from the bench into the starting lineup, helping reverse a bad start and becoming one of the NBA's best stories.
As this is written, with two games to go, the Grizzlies could still fall anywhere from 6th to 8th in the Western Conference standings and face any of four opponents. But regardless of where the Grizzlies eventually land, three pairs of team figures will likely determine if this year's Grizzlies team can break the franchise's 0-12 playoff drought. Or go even further:
The Cornerstones: It's been said that NBA teams take on the personality of their best player or players, and this year's Grizzlies are surely an example of that. You see it in style of play: The Grizzlies lead the league in points in the paint and are 6th in offensive rebounding. That's Zach Randolph — the beast on the block. The team tops the league in steals and opponent turnovers. That's Tony Allen — a wild, brilliant, improvisational defender.
But, more so, both players are tough guys with magnetic personalities leading what is now a tough team that has proven to have strong fan appeal. And both have remade their careers in Memphis.
Randolph is the foundation. A controversial journeyman with eye-popping stats, Randolph remade himself as a team leader and fan favorite in his first Memphis season, while becoming a more efficient scoring and rebounding machine: He used fewer possessions to get the same 20-10 averages. And while it has generally gone unnoticed nationally, Randolph has been even better this season, becoming a much more dangerous passer and more committed defender than ever in his career.
In the post-season, Randolph will lead the way, but — as long as his teammates come along for the ride — the Grizzlies will be better served using him as the centerpiece of a balanced attack than by force-feeding him extra shots. Randolph has shot 55 percent in wins and only 44 percent in losses this season — his efficiency is key.
Allen, as Randolph's sidekick, has emerged as the team's emotional leader and tone-setter.
If Randolph settled down in Memphis, Allen has broken out. Allen won a title with the Boston Celtics, but as a bit player. After a month riding the bench for the Grizzlies, Allen has gradually emerged as both a leading man and a folk hero — a towel-waving, trash-talking, bouncing bundle of basketball joie de vivre that has inspired teammates, captivated fans, and confused opposing players.
The question for the Grizzlies will be whether the helter-skelter defensive style Allen has fostered can be as effective in the post-season, when games tend to slow down and possessions become more precious.
Hands on the Wheel: If Randolph and Allen are this team's stars, the playoff spotlight may shine brightest on the two men steering the ship: head coach Lionel Hollins and point guard Mike Conley. Hollins is an NBA lifer who has established himself this season — if he hadn't already — as a quality head coach, but he will be leading a team into the post-season for the first time and could find himself matched up against an all-time great such as the Lakers' Phil Jackson or the Spurs' Gregg Popovich.
As for Conley, the fourth-year point guard has had his best, most consistent season. But Conley had problems early this season with turnovers and poor free-throw shooting in clutch situations. Those areas haven't been issues during the season's closing stretch, but Grizzlies fans are still going to wonder how Conley will react to playoff pressure. And, while Randolph and Allen have been the team's best players, Conley is perhaps the team's most indispensable, backed up by two rookies. Conley may be asked to play 40 minutes a night in the playoffs.
The X-Factors: While the Grizzlies will need good performances from Randolph, Allen, Hollins, and Conley to compete in the post-season, they'll need more than that to pull an upset. The team has held up well — but hasn't, as some seem to think, improved — since losing Rudy Gay. But the Grizzlies will miss their young star most in the post-season, where Gay's ability to create and make tough shots would have been a badly needed asset. For the team to regain the upside it lost with Gay, it will need big series from two players who have had disappointing regular seasons: Marc Gasol and O.J. Mayo.
There's probably more reason for optimism with Gasol, who has been good this season, but much closer to the quality center he was as a rookie than the borderline all-star he was in his second campaign. Gasol has finished strong, averaging 8.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 58 percent shooting over his past 10 games. Perhaps just as importantly, Gasol has lately been playing with a swagger and chippiness we haven't seen all season but which will be needed in the post-season.
A strong performance from Gasol will be the key to the team's power game working in the post-season. Offensively, he'll often draw the other team's secondary post-defender, and the Grizzlies are a better team when they can exploit this potential mismatch. At the other end of the floor, Gasol needs to be the team's back line of defense and will often need to take the other team's best post scorer.
As for Mayo, his troubled season has been well documented. But though his shooting has been erratic, Mayo has shown flickers lately, raising his scoring average by four points a game from March to April. The Grizzlies lack floor-spacing shooters in their starting lineup. Off the bench, Darrell Arthur has been effective from mid-range while Shane Battier's corner three-point shot has been an underutilized weapon. But Mayo is the one player on this roster capable of making shots from anywhere on the floor. If he manages to find his groove in the heat of a playoff series, the Grizzlies might have a chance to shock the league.
For a playoff series preview after the Grizzlies' first-round opponent is decided, see the Flyer's Grizzlies blog, Beyond the Arc, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.