Familiarity breeds contempt, so get to know the Memphis Grizzlies

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It has been a while since the San Antonio Spurs held the no. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference, so this former familiar theme may not be all that familiar at all, but stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

On Sunday the San Antonio Spurs are set to face off against one of the most dangerous eighth seeds in recent memory, and given the Spurs vulnerabilities, it should be an intriguing matchup.

And this is not your typical eighth seed. This is a Memphis Grizzlies team that called its own shot and blatantly tanked to get to that eighth seed, specifically to play against these San Antonio Spurs (or, you know, to avoid the Lakers–which is totally understandable).

The Memphis Grizzlies are the mythological dangerous eighth seed, a young group of unknowns. And there is great fear in the unknown. So, to ease the mind of the San Antonio faithful I asked Chip Crain of TrueHoop’s 3 Shade of Blue to shine some light and drop some knowledge on the Grizzlies. Now that we’ve had a few years to evaluate the Pau Gasol trade, the Memphis Grizzlies are once again an 8th seed which is about where they were when they had the elder Gasol. Looking back, where are the Grizzlies now comparative to where they were with a healthy Pau Gasol before he got hurt and was later traded, and is this playoff appearance enough to deem the trade a success for Memphis?

No this one season by  itself isn’t enough to consider the trade a success. It’s the promise of future development however that makes it encouraging.

Marc Gasol (26), Darrell Arthur (23), Zach Randolph (29), Greivis Vasquez (23), Sam Young (25) and Hamed Haddadi (26) are all here because the Grizzlies wanted draft picks and free cash for Pau Gasol instead of some middle of the road veterans who would never have gotten the Grizzlies over the hump. The first Grizzlies playoff teams were average talent-wise outside of Pau and were getting long in the tooth. The team had not made the playoffs in two seasons when Gasol was traded as well. This wasn’t the team that won 49 games and finished 4th in the Western Conference anymore. It was a broken team. The team needed to be blown up down to the very last player and started over.

Memphis, which now has one of the youngest teams in the league, is getting better. Rudy Gay, who San Antonio didn’t have to face this season, had a breakout season setting career highs in FG%, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals and is now signed for four more seasons (until he turns 30). Mike Conley had a breakout season and is signed for five more years. Sam Young is in his 2nd season. O J Mayo is 23 and finishing his 3rd year. Darrell Arthur just turned 23 in March. Xavier Henry is only 19. Ish Smith and Vasquez are both rookie PGs behind Conley. There are only 2 players on the team over 30 years old and neither are major contributors. Shane Battier is 32 and his role would be non-existent if not for Rudy’s injury and Jason Williams isn’t even with the team right now while he treats his bad back.

The difference between the 2005-06 team (the Grizzlies last playoff team) and this one is this team hasn’t peaked yet. The future is very bright and the team has financial flexibility to sign Gasol and Randolph for the future. This team is beginning a run up the playoff standings and that makes it encouraging.

The salary space saved from the Gasol trade was given to Zach Randolph, which a few years ago would have been deemed a heavily lopsided trade. What is the difference on and off the court between the Jail Blazers Randolph and the current Grizzlies incarnation?

Age and maturity. Zach was a kid in Portland and around veterans who were not good role models either. He fell in with a bad crowd and didn’t do what he needed to do to improve as a player. Zach Randolph today is 29, has a family and is surrounded by a team that looks to him for leadership. People know that Zach won three player of the week awards this season and was player of the month in January but they don’t realize he also won the Community Assist Award in December for his contributions to the Memphis community. Basically Zach has grown up.

When Randolph was in Portland he was too young to handle the responsibility of leading a team. The same was true with the Knicks. In LA he started maturing but it was lost in the bad press and the bad team he played on. He also suffered through numerous injuries because he didn’t get in good enough shape and off-court situations that masked what he was accomplishing on the court. When Zach was healthy in both New York and LA the teams won games. When he was out they lost a lot but people blamed him for the losing.Then came the 2009 draft which the Clippers won. By drafting Blake Griffin Z-Bo was expendable. Being traded for Quentin Richardson forced Zach to look into the mirror and what he saw he didn’t like. He was now a father of a young girl and he didn’t want her to read about him in the papers anymore. He got into the best shape he had ever been in. He settled down his life off the court and the results have been fantastic for the Grizzlies.

Tony Allen was one of the biggest surprise bargains of the off season, can you tell us what he’s meant to the Grizzlies this season and what’s made him such a successful defender? How do you anticipate his matchup with Manu Ginobili (assuming eventual health) and does he fare well against jet point guards like Tony Parker?

Tony Allen was always a great defender. His struggles had more to do with injuries and the players ahead of him on the roster than his talent. In last season’s playoff run for the Celtics Allen was the defensive stopper off the bench and he was extremely effective against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. It is likely the Celtics wouldn’t have been in the Finals if not for Allen’s defensive presence.

When Allen broke into the lineup with the Grizzlies he became a presence on defense and the younger players learned from him. His effort, preparation and spirit has been infectious among the younger players and he probably has had a larger impact on the team’s success than any other player including Zach. With Allen and Randolph the young players on the Grizzlies suddenly had leaders on the team who came to play and played hard every night.

Manu however is a difficult matchup for Tony. Allen excels by overplaying on defense. Most players are more passive on defense than Tony. That is why the Grizzlies have led the league in steals this season. Manu is very smart. He knows how to create space and get fouls called. If Allen gets in early foul trouble the Grizzlies will be in big trouble. If Allen stays within himself and forces Manu to beat him from outside the Grizzlies should do well.

Lionel Hollins, of all Chris Wallace’s moves, might have been his best with the work he’s done with the Grizzlies this year.  He should be mentioned in the Coach of the Year race and is one of the better unknown coaches among casual fans. Since few outside of Memphis know who he is, describe him as a coach and what you expect from him in his first playoff series–against Popovich no less.

Well as much as I respect Chris Wallce, Lionel Hollins was a pure Michael Heisley hire. We need to give the owner credit for that decision. I agree that while Hollins’ shouldn’t win Coach of the Year he should be included in the conversation with what he’s accomplished with one of the youngest teams in the league.

Hollins has accomplished something almost unheard of in the modern NBA game. He has the team playing old school basketball. The Grizzlies don’t rely on outside shooting preferring to pound inside. They led the league in paint points by a ridiculously large margin scoring over 50 points a game every night. Teams know this about the Grizzlies too but they struggle stopping it because the Grizzlies big men pass the ball very well, even Zach Randolph! Hollins has taught the team to trust what they do well and minimize what they don’t.

Hollins is excitable as a coach and has been known to get a technical foul when he feels his team has been slighted by the refs but he also shows remarkable restraint and calm when dealing with the younger players. Hollins knows how to push the right buttons. When Conley was struggling he took him under his wing and was a father figure to him. Conversely when Gasol was struggling he challenged Marc to do more. Hollins understands his team emotionally and that helps everyone give their best effort on the court.

It’s easy to say that but it’s hard to make a team believe it. Hollins earned the players trust last season with how he dealt with the Allen Iverson fiasco. Hollins never treated Iverson any different than any other player on the team. Once Iverson’s attitude was removed from the team the players rallied behind Hollins. They believe in him. That helped this season when Hollins realized the team needed to make changes in the lineup. Mayo especially could have been a major problem when he was asked to come off the bench but everyone on the team knew Hollins was only doing this to improve the team.

I expect Hollins will continue that controlled excitement in the playoffs. His experience as a rookie PG on a World Championship team in Portland shows he has the ability to calm his emotions and elevate his play to the occasion. The team is learning that from him. If the Grizzlies lose the series fast it won’t be because Hollins didn’t prepare them or that he made poor decisions during the game. If the Grizzlies lose quickly it will be because San Antonio is just that much more experienced and talented. Coaching can’t overcome that.

    The Grizzlies blatantly tanked to drop down to the eighth seed and face the Spurs, which in all fairness with the Lakers in play was probably the right move. Still, what are your thoughts on Hollins strategy and at what odds would you put the Grizzlies’ chances of an upset?

    I believe the Grizzlies felt that it really didn’t make a big difference if they played San Antonio, Los Angeles or Dallas. All of those teams have more experience in pressure situations than anyone on the Grizzlies. The only way the Grizzlies would be able to compete and possibly win would be to have their best players well rested and ready to play. A drawn out battle in Portland with a follow up game the next night in Los Angeles would not have given the team enough time to rest and prepare for their next opponent.

    Did the Grizzlies throw the games to get San Antonio? No. Absolutely not. They tried to win those games. Both were close with a few minutes to go in the game before the inexperience of the team took its toll. However, if the Grizzlies want to win in the playoffs they needed Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Mike Conley and the rest in the best shape possible at this time of the year. It was a move to prepare the team for what is to come. Only time will tell if it was a smart decision or not.

    Is the biggest regret of the Thabeet trade now that the networks will not have a reason to show DeJuan Blair flipping him over his back in college (joking)?

    I wish that was the biggest regret.

    The difference between Memphis today and Oklahoma City today comes down to who the teams picked with the 2nd pick in the draft. Oklahoma City took Kevin Durant over Al Horford and Mike Conley. Memphis took Hasheem Thabeet over Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry. When OKC was one of the worst teams in the league they got a franchise changing player. For the four years Memphis was among the worst teams in the league they never got an opportunity for such a player.

    The one bright spot was the decision to give up on Thabeet as quickly as they did. As bad as the pick was, the decision to cut him loose fast has at least softened the blow of the deal. Without Thabeet’s $5 million plus contract the team can resign Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph much easier and that means the team can continue to develop their core which will make a difference going forward for this franchise.

    If the Grizzlies upset the Spurs, it will be because…

    San Antonio missed from the perimeter. Memphis is a poor perimeter team on both the offensive and defensive end. San Antonio will struggle with the Grizzlies inside game but for the Spurs to lose they have to miss the outside shots which will likely most often be uncontested. That is the major difference between the two teams right now. Memphis has to prevent San Antonio from getting three points on made baskets so the Grizzlies superior paint scoring can give them the advantage.

    I would be more optimistic about Memphis’ chances if I had seen the team improving on perimeter defense but so far it hasn’t happened.

    • DorieStreet

      That last point is the difference maker (along with an intense interior defense to slow down the Grizz’s frontcourt). All shooter need to be on to expose that perimeter weakness. Starting the playoffs at home should help Neal, Hill, Jefferson & Bonner in their efforts to compensate for Ginobili’s absence, and put Memphis on its heels.

    • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Len

      It’s so refreshing to hear an insider’s assessment.

      Thanks Chip Crain.

    • idahospur

      I was hoping to be Matt Bonner at a sandwich shop.

    • idahospur

      Reference to the 3 Shades of Blue link striked out.

    • http://espn.com texasj

      if bonner blair and splitter split the time for the 3rd big evenly and timmy and antonio get a majority of the mins at 1 and 2 i dont think memphis will have the “superior paint scoring”. the key is keeping bonner and blair off the court at the same time and limiting the time they each have to face off against memphis’ starting bigs. i think splitter could be fine against each of them (doubt he plays though :( ..) im seriously not worried about memphis. the spurs are a wayyyyy better team from a talent, leadership, experience, basically every standpoint. should be just as easy for the spurs to beat the grizz as it would be to beat naLeans. at least memphis doesnt have a star like paul to give us headaches.

    • Hobson13

      Excellent article. Here was the key for me:
      “for the Spurs to lose they have to miss the outside shots which will likely most often be uncontested.” You can’t leave guys like Neal, Hill, Manu, and even Bonner (playoffs or not) WIDE OPEN. Neither can a team leave RJ or Tony open for a corner 3. If the Spurs get uncontested 3’s (assuming 5 Spurs don’t go into a shooting slump at the same time) then this series will be short. The 3-ball is the great equalizer in the NBA. Hitting 3’s is the best way to blow open a game and also ensure that no opponent lead is safe.

      P.S This could potentially be a good series for Bonner to redeem himself for all his playoff disasters. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but he could be the key to how long this series lasts.

    • Bob

      It’s kind of ridiculous to say the Grizzlies tanked to get the Spurs. The same thing can be said about the Spurs. They tanked to avoid the Lakers in the semifinals. Hollins was resting his star players. Popovich supposedly did the same thing against the Lakers.

    • junierizzle

      It’s all about MANU. I have a feeling he is going to play game 1. IT’s the PLAYOFFS!!!!!!

      If Manu can play like he did last post season BEFORE he broke his nose then forget about it. SPURS win in 5.

      As for the Elder Gasol trade, Lakers got two championships out of it. Unless Grizz win at least one championship then that trade will always be remembered as a lob-sided trade.

    • idahospur

      Jesse:
      The format of this post has changed at least three times, having trouble committing? When will that sandwich shop have marble rye?

    • SpurredOn

      @Bob – how exactly did the Spurs tank to avoid the Lakers? They had the lead in the 4Q of the game in LA. Had they won, the Lakers would currently be the #3-seed, thus still on the other side of the bracket.

      Pop rested his guys to avoid what happened to Bynum that night and Manu the following night. He played his guys reduced minutes on Wednesday with the understanding that they may not play again for four days. Pop didn’t tank, he strategized. And did so quite well IMO.

    • http://sports-glory.com Sports-Glory

      Like you said if the Spurs hit the outside shots then game over for Memphis.

    • http://regularfan.blogspot.com/ Humberto

      Dear Tony Parker, please abuse Mike Conley for the easy wins. Thanks!

      Good insight Jesse thanks.

    • badger

      Great article!!

    • Ricky

      If the Spurs make it to the conference finals, and I hope they do, they will have gone through Memphis and either Denver/Oklahoma. Then, most likely to face the Lakers. Are you kidding me? I am hoping that maybe (and that is a weak felt maybe) the Spurs have been coasting a bit on defense and that the interior game on boths ends will become more credible than it has. Can pop do something with line-ups and schemes that will make the huge camp of doubters give some thought to the fact that the Spurs could come out of the West? Not sure what that would be but that is why I am not the Spurs coach and pop is. I wish we would run through memphis in 4-5 games and then welcome the second round for most likely 7 games (especially if its OKC).

    • Bob

      @SpurredOn
      I wasn’t saying the Spurs definitely tanked. I was saying that claiming the Grizzlies tanked has as much evidence as saying the Spurs tanked.

    • Dr. Who

      On a different note…

      GARY NEAL!!!!

      Is on every “best of the 2010 NBA” recaps getting tea bagged by JR Smith. I swear I’ve seen him on TV more today than ever… At least he was tryo. To take a charge!

    • lvmainman

      Great article, getting the Memphis perspective.

      I still believe if the Spurs lose any home games in the playoffs, they lose the series.

      Tiago Splitter better get 12 to 20 minutes a game in the playoffs if the Spurs hope to be successful.

    • idahospur

      I think the Spurs may gain back a home loss in the 1st round but it will definitely get tougher from there. Just reading all the predictions about Spurs losing in 2nd round to Nuggets/Thunder makes me wonder how tough that series will be. Most predict a tough 7 games with either team winning. Why won’t their exhaustion be a factor to a Spurs team that many of the same predictions have at winning against Memphis in 5. Just saying.

    • DorieStreet

      @lvmainman
      I forgot what season–but didn’t the Suns take game 1 on the road at the Alamodome vs Spurs when Stephan Marbury scored 38 pts & hit the game winner at the buzzer—–but the Spurs went on to win 4 straight/help me out fellow fans–

      s

    • lvmainman

      @DorieStreet,

      Just my opinion on this year’s Spurs. In the past they’ve lost home games but won the series, Game 6 of the Pistons comes to mind. But, this year’s team, I strongly believe if they lose a home game, winning the series won’t happen. Just a vibe that I get from watching this year’s team.

    • junierizzle

      @Doriestreet
      You’re right SUns won game 1 that year. They also dropped Game 1 to the Nuggets in 2007. I forget which round that was. But I think both those times they went on to win the Championship

      @lvmainman
      Technically SPurs don’t have to win on the road to advance but I think you’re unintentionally implying that you don’t think they can win on the road. The only home game I would be worried about is Game 1 of the WCF. They can’t lose that one. But lets worry about the Grizz first.

    • TD = Best EVER

      The Spurs will be fine this series….. and can WIN on the road…….. Really all depends on which TD shows up……. if 25 & 12 TD shows up we can WIN ANYWHERE…….and against ANYONE…….And with the days between games I’m sure that he will have a good game or 2 on the road…….. Also as far as Splitter needing 12-20 min…… not really….. the Spurs just need to win the battle of the boards(TD,Dice, DJB can see to that)…… as well as have at least 1 other player not in the Big 3 show up….. Either RJ/Hill need to average 25 or so combined and we will be fine……..

    • Alamobro

      If you really believe the Grizz didnt tank to get the Spurs, then I have some beach front property in Arizona you may be interested in.

    • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Len

      All these prognosticators who are questioning the Spurs need to just go away. In fact, all prognosticators should just shut the fk up.

      They were all calling the Spurs to get killed vs the Mavs and then they were calling for the Spurs to kill the Suns.

      They are usually wrong.

    • td4life

      TD=BE is correct, the Spurs’ playoff success depends on a HOF run from Duncan. Pop saved him for this, and now he has to go all out and shift up several gears and that includes TAKING SHOTS and MAKING SHOTS! Manu will also need to be huge as the rounds progresses, this season only will last as long as Manu and Timmy carry this group. That’s not to discount major roles from the likes of RJ, Hill, McD, and reliable production from TP, but Timmy needs to show the world what “the heart of a champion” can do, if he’s got such a heart.

    • Zach R.

      @DorieStreet,

      The series you’re referring to was the first round of the 2003 Playoffs, which was actually the first postseason at the AT&T (then SBC) Center. I still remember that Game 1 very clearly.. first the off-the-window 3pt shot from a rookie Amare to force overtime, then the Marbury shot at the end of OT. Ugh, it still pisses me off to think about it. If I’m not mistaken, the long range shooting from Danny Ferry, Stephen Jackson, and ROOKIE MANU (!) helped pull us out of that post-Game 1 funk.

      The Spurs went on to win the series in 6 games.

    • betsyduncan

      It’s been a team effort all year (when we have won)—I don’t expect anything less than for our guys to play their ‘roles’ to the hilt.
      As long as everyone picks it up and brings his own, individual ‘A’ game, I have every confidence in our chances for #5.
      Focus, focus, focus from our stars and from our bench is paramount!

    • Bruno

      If Bonner/Blair play less than 5 minutes together, Spurs have 0% chance of losing

    • Pingback: Spurs Nation » Blog brothers girding for the playoffs

    • jason

      Let’s be real, the odds of memphis winning this series are astronomical. It’d be a suprise if it lasted to 6.

      I think most of the talk about the spurs losing in the 2nd round is coming from east coast pundits who just sorta figure that the 2nd round feels about as far as the spurs can go. Frankly, I can’t think of one good reason the spurs would lose to okc. We sweapt them in the regular season by an average of 18, even their coach said we are just an abismal match up for them.

      The playoff schedule is designed to be easy on old teams like us… Look at the splits for how the spurs perform on 2, 3, 4 days rest. Ain’t no back-to-backs in the playoffs.

      As usual in years when the spurs win the championship, I’m really only worried about the WCF, but I think home court will pay off in an epic game 7 against LA and we beat an exhausted Boston team in a relatively anti-climactic 6 game finals