After the Memphis Grizzlies closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 88-84, on Wednesday night to clinch a five-game series win and advance to their first Western Conference finals in franchise history, I went to bed thinking, "I bet this Grizzlies team finally gets some respect tomorrow morning."
Well, I was wrong.
Instead of everyone praising Memphis and wondering whether or not they are a threat to the Miami Heat, everything was about Kevin Durant's lackluster performance. All I heard were things like, "Durant came up small in the clutch" and "Durant disappointed me."
There was hardly any mention of the Grizzlies, hardly any credit given to their No. 2 ranked defense for holding Durant to 5-of-21 shooting in Game 5 and to 15-of-48 shooting over the final two contests of the series combined.
I don't get it. Why are we killing Durant when we should be lauding Memphis? After all, they only allowed 96.8 points per 100 possessions this season and house the Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol, an All-Defense first-teamer in Tony Allen and two All-Defense second-teamers in Gasol and Mike Conley. Oh, and Tayshaun Prince is no scrub on that end of the floor, either.
Well, I will be the one to give the Grizzlies their due: they are good. Very good. In fact, they are so good that they are the absolute last team the Heat want to see in the finals. Russell Westbrook going down with a meniscus may have been the worst thing that ever happened to Miami. You see, the Heat match up well with the Thunder.
They don't match up well with Memphis. At all.
You think the Indiana Pacers are solid up front? Well, the Grizzlies are the Pacers times two. Gasol is better than Roy Hibbert. Zach Randolph is superior to David West. This is a two-headed monster that will absolutely eat you alive if you don't have the means to stop it, and guess what? The Heat do not have those means. Not in their frontcourt.
Let's examine the things Memphis must do to capture its first NBA title this June.
Keep Gasol and Randolph out of foul trouble
This may seem pretty obvious, but the Grizzlies' two bigs are doing a heck of a job in this regard thus far in the postseason.
Throughout the series against Oklahoma City, never once did Randolph accumulate more than three fouls. Gasol? He picked up five personals in Game 3, but in the other for contests? One, three, three and two.
Z-Bo has always been rather excellent in avoiding foul trouble. Over the course of his career, he hacks only 2.4 times a game. Gasol is a little more aggressive, racking up 3.3. However, Gasol has been able to defend without slapping guys around during these playoffs, and Memphis needs that to continue.
When Randolph and Gasol are on the floor together, the Grizzlies are near impossible to guard down low. Both of them are great in the post, both can hit jumpers and both can make plays with the basketball. We all know how good of a passer Gasol is, but don't underestimate Randolph in that capacity, either. He is no slouch in that area.
Obviously, keeping from fouling may be a bit tougher in a potential battle with Miami, a team with guys that love to get to the rim and draw contact. The San Antonio Spurs, who will be Memphis' conference finals opponent, will be somewhat difficult to handle in that area, as well, as they have someone in Tim Duncan who likes to go to work in the post, and Tony Parker, who can get into the lane at will.
That's where the next point comes in, and it's...
They must rotate their perimeter defenders in and out to keep them fresh
The Grizzlies' defense doesn't just begin and end on the interior. They have what is the best trio of perimeter defenders in the league on their ballclub in Allen, Prince and Quincy Pondexter.
All three of those players have accumulated solid chunks of floor time throughout this postseason, and if Lionel Hollins can manage their minutes accordingly to make sure they have enough energy to defend the likes of Manu Ginobili, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they will represent an absolutely lethal combination.
You saw how Memphis handled Durant. Both Allen and Prince saw time on arguably the best scorer in the league, and what they did was wear him down. That 31 percent clip he shot over Games 4 and 5 was not just due to KD simply missing shots; it was a direct result of the fact that Allen and Prince were basically up in his jersey.
A squad like the Heat has two perimeter scorers who can light you up: James and Wade. Well, the Grizzlies have three outstanding wing defenders to deal with them, not to mention a great defensive point guard in Conley to harass potential opposing floor generals like Parker, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
This Memphis team has it all defensively.
They must get some outside shooting
It's fairly obvious that the way a team like Miami would defend the Grizzlies is by sending double-teams into the post, forcing Gasol and Randolph to kick the ball out the perimeter. This is where Memphis' wings come into play.
The Grizzlies ranked last in the NBA in three-point makes this season, but they also ranked last in attempts.
No, Memphis doesn't exactly have great outside shooters, but the primary reason as to why they don't launch many triples is because Gasol and Z-Bo are so dominant in the post. Why jack up threes when you can pound the ball inside and get easy buckets, right?
Still, the Grizzlies do have guys who can make the three-ball. People forget that Prince is a threat from long range. He is a career 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc, and this season he hit on 40.4 percent of his three-point tries. People seem to forget Prince can play in general. It took this vicious slam to refresh everyone's memory.
Also, Pondexter shot treys at a 39.5 percent clip, and Jerryd Bayless converted on a respectable 35.3 percent of his attempts from distance. Plus, Bayless connected on 43.9 percent of the trifectas he took from the corners, making him a very reliable threat from those spots on the floor.
This notion that Memphis "can't" make threes is a bit too extravagant. They aren't the Golden State Warriors, but they are fully capable of making you pay if you leave someone open.
Win the turnover battle
The Grizzlies were very prudent with the rock this season, ranking fourth in the NBA by turning the ball over only 13.2 times a game. They have been even better in the playoffs, registering only 10.4 turnovers a contest, No. 1 amongst postseason teams. This will be absolutely crucial the rest of the way, as the Heat and Spurs both possess the ability to score in transition, especially Miami.
On the flip side, Memphis was tied for sixth in the league in forcing turnovers.
The Grizzlies are well-known for being a team that can win "ugly," and turnovers play a big part in that. If you can create turnovers on the defensive end and limit your miscues on offense, you are going to have a good shot to win the game no matter what. In Memphis' case, a club that not only forces opponents into mistakes, but shuts them down as well, this makes the Grizzlies an extremely dangerous foe.
The last thing you want to do against the best teams in the league is be careless. Memphis fans don't have to worry about that, as the Grizzlies have shown the ability to maintain possession of the ball.
The final word
I understand that I may be jumping to conclusions here, but I already have the Grizzlies and Heat penciled in for the NBA Finals.
Beating San Antonio will be no easy feat for Memphis and Miami will get a fight from whomever they face in the Eastern Conference finals (and it will more than likely be Indiana), but I think these are the two best teams remaining.
The Spurs endured a much tougher series with the Warriors than the Grizzlies had with Oklahoma City, having played a couple of overtimes. Given that San Antonio's legs are a bit older, fatigue may definitely end up playing a factor.
As far as how I think that potential finals matchup will go, I think the Grizzlies are certainly capable of beating the Heat.
It would not be nearly as colossal of an upset as you think. It would only seem that way because of Miami's starpower and Memphis' small market.
Remember the 2004 Detroit Pistons? No one gave them a puncher's chance against what looked like an invincible Los Angeles Lakers squad, but they posed such a matchup problem for the Lakers that they dominated Phil Jackson's club en route to a 4-1 series victory.
Now I'm not saying that the Grizzlies would do to the Heat what the Pistons did to Los Angeles that year. What I am saying is that you should never underestimate the effect of matchups, and Memphis matches up incredibly well with Miami.
Think about this: who in the world on the Heat can defend either Gasol or Randolph one-on-one? The answer is nobody. The two best options would probably be Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, but Haslem is a guy who has played 15 to 18 minutes a game all season, and Anthony hardly plays at all. If either of those two sees extended minutes, it would mean that the opponent is imposing their will on Miami and forcing them to play their game.
The Heat don't like to play big. They like to roll with Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and LeBron up front to maximize their effectiveness offensively.
That isn't going to work against Memphis, and please don't tell me that James can guard one of Gasol or Randolph. He can't. He would get into foul trouble in a matter of minutes, and with Wade ailing with that shaky knee, LeBron needs to be on the floor.
As stated earlier, you would have to assume that Miami's method of attack defensively would be sending constant double-teams into the post, but there is only so many times you can do that before it burns you.
The Grizzlies absolutely love contact. They even love flagrant fouls.
This is something that the Heat are not too fond of. They have complained about how physical the Chicago Bulls are, and Memphis is bigger, stronger and more physical than the Bulls. The Grizzlies beat you up. Just ask Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
A Memphis-Miami finals matchup has "classic series" written all over it. Is it a shoo-in to occur? Of course not, as the Spurs are an outstanding team in their own right and the Heat still have one more battle in the East to take care of.
I just hope we see it.