The Grizzlies made an impressive comeback at home last night against OKC. The Thunder led 46-29 midway through the second quarter before the Grizzlies slowly began to chip away at the deficit. By the start of the fourth quarter the game was tied and, after the two teams played each other to a draw in the fourth period, the Grizzlies finished off the Thunder in overtime. Now with a 3-1 lead in the series, the Grizzlies seem to be, at least for the time being, Western Conference Finals bound.
Now, let’s talk about something that happened months ago. Memphis traded away their best offensive player, Rudy Gay, mid-season in a three-way trade that gave them Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince. The trade, motivated basically entirely by $$, was dumb from a basketball perspective when it was made and is still dumb. The Grizzlies are tenacious, tough, and they don’t panic. I love them. But, their weakness is undoubtedly their ability to manufacture points. They have had enough players step up on the offensive end in the playoffs so far to win games, but they are sunk when they don’t get contributions from a number of places. Their offensive style won’t be sustainable against high caliber defenses all playoffs long. If they haven’t missed an instant offense guy in the playoffs so far, they will.
The Grizzlies are making a great run right now. They might be the toughest, most well coached team left in the playoffs. As a result, they are getting some undeserved credit for making the Gay trade. (Even the usually spot-on and always entertaining Sports Illustrated blog The Point Forward has jumped on the bandwagon, making the case from a statistical perspective.) Part of the argument from The Point Forward is that in the past Gay slowed down the offense which in turn led to bad shots. As a point of example, in the past I frequently used to make the argument that the Celtics were a better team without Rajon Rondo this season. I was able to back the argument up by using statistical improvements the Celtics made after Rondo’s injury. In the end however, I feel this argument was comprehensively and unconditionally disproved by the Celtics’ play in the first round. The Celtics needed Rondo to make things happen offensively. Just as the Grizzlies will likely miss Gay’s ability to do the same in the very near future.
You see, in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, offenses tend to stagnate, usually as a byproduct of staunch defense by an opponent, and a team needs a go-to guy. Much like the Celtics (who have seen Paul Pierce regress considerably as a closer in the past season or two), the Grizzlies lack a finisher (Z-Bo used to kinda be able to swing it too). Sure, the Grizzlies have made up for that by sharing the ball lately, but they also have been largely able to stay out of close games (in large part this is a result of opponents’ injury issues, but I will get to that). It is certainly true that Gay could slow Memphis down on offense. But still, in the playoffs, great defenses will eventually slow down an offensive attack either way. Which is why, in the playoffs, at one point or another, any team needs a guy who can get big buckets. With the Grizzlies now looking like contenders (something their management likely didn’t foresee when they made the trade) they are almost certainly going to wish they had a high caliber scorer like Gay to go to.
The other problem with the blog from The Point Forward is that it compares the postseason offensive production of this Grizzlies team to the one from last season. Firstly, that Memphis team, which lost a heartbreaking seven game series with the Clippers, was playing a Lob City team that had a healthy Blake Griffin. If Blake Griffin hadn’t stubbed his toe, and by that I mean hurt his heel, the Grizzlies quite possibly might have lost in the first round again this year. With Griffin ineffective, the Grizzlies’ massive front line gained a big advantage against LA that was key to their eventual winning of the series.
Also, Memphis is getting phenomenal production from Mike Conley in the playoffs this season, in semi out-of-nowhere fashion. Defenders of the Gay trade might say that Conley’s offense has flourished as a result of the trade. That is poppycock though–Conley only attempted 14 field goals per game in the first round. Conley’s usage has increased a bit, but he still has been much better offensively. And, even a hot Conley is not nearly the scorer that Rudy Gay is. In short,this was a very different Grizzlies team in a very different situation than the one they were in a year ago.
So, the Grizzlies turned the result from last season with the LA Clippers, thanks to hot shooting, great defense, and the Griffin injury. Now, in the second round, they are in control again, albeit against a Thunder team without Russ Westbrook. Even with the Thunder playing sans Westbrook, I still think that Memphis has been even more impressive in the second round. The first reason I say that is that OKC is a much better defensive team than LA. The Grizz have still found enough offense to win against the Thunder. The second impressive thing that Memphis has done vs. the fighting Kevin Durants is that they finally won a very tight playoff game. The Grizzlies had lost to the Clips by two in the only close game of the first round and lost game one against the Thunder when they couldn’t close things out late after leading all day. Last night was an overtime contest, the pinnacle of close games, and the Grizzlies managed to pull out the W–their first nail-biter win of the playoffs.
Right now, the Grizzlies are probably the favorite to win the west in some circles, and for good reason. They rock. They are sharp, big, play terrific defense, and have even given Kevin Durant fits. They are not only contenders to win the west, but they are a rich-man’s Bulls, that team that stole game one vs. the Miami Heat. (Side note: the Bulls managed only 65 points in a loss against against the Heat last night. I guess not having any good offensive players catches up to any team eventually.) Memphis deserves praise. But, let’s not get carried away and start extolling an unwise trade made with the sadly ever-present factor in sports that is money in mind. The Grizzlies have gotten this far thanks to a flurry of injuries to the best of the west. Now they have a chance to take advantage. Things would be a whole lot easier for them if they still had Rudy.