The Memphis Grizzlies are in the position of a hot team that can play its way into particular playoff matchups. With the fluidity of lower Western Conference seeds and lack thereof in higher seeds, the Grizzlies can easily find themselves pitted against teams they may or may not want to play in the first round.
More space exists between each of the top four seeds than that which separates the fifth- through ninth-place teams. Each of the top four West teams have a couple of games of separation, whereas four games separate the five teams behind them.
While the Grizzlies have spent recent weeks hovering among the two lowest seeds, the vulnerability of the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors may allow them to vault to the fifth or sixth spot.
That might not be the best opportunity. Here are breakdowns of the desirability of first-round matchups with each of the top four seeds.
The Thunder do very well in a small enough set of areas on offense that the Grizzlies can stop them. They have two star scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and a strong complementary scorer in Serge Ibaka.
However, the Grizzlies counter the scoring leaders with their best defenders, with Marc Gasol on Serge Ibaka, Tony Allen on Durant and Mike Conley on Westbrook. Allen aided the Grizzlies' defeat of the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals last year by holding Durant to 35.8 percent from the field.
Westbrook shot 58 percent from the field in both games against Memphis this season, but he shot 41.5 percent against them in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals.
Ibaka shot 57 percent from the field in 2012-13 but 37.7 percent against in last year's series.
They have a few three-point shooters but don't often feature many at the same time. Durant, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher shoot better than 35 percent, but Butler and Fisher play the same ball-handling role.
When asked on the Eye on Basketball podcast which team the Thunder most want to avoid, CBSSports.com's Royce Young said:
Gotta avoid the Grizzlies. ... They can grind you down. It's like they're a team that's built for the postseason. ... It's such a contrast to what the Thunder try to do. They could try to match up and play big with them, but kind of the backfire to that is that you have Kendrick Perkins on the floor for 30 minutes.
Young alluded to how well the Grizzlies play positional matchups with the Thunder. Oklahoma City has strong big men, but they're not easy to use against the Grizzlies. Kendrick Perkins' ineffectiveness was on full display when he had 12 points, 18 fouls and 10 turnovers for the series against the Grizzlies last year.
The attack of Gasol and Randolph, combining for 37.8 points overwhelmed Perkins, who allowed 104 points per 100 possessions for the series, the most among Thunder big men.
Steven Adams was effective against the Grizzlies on Feb. 28. He helped hold Zach Randolph to 5-of-14 shooting and grabbed four offensive rebounds.
However, Scott Brooks might not feel good about playing the rookie for substantial minutes against an experienced playoff team against whom the Thunder have struggled.
That will likely keep him behind Nick Collison in the playoff rotation.
With no clear readiness of the Thunder's interior rotation to improve in a playoff series against Memphis or great leaps in Westbrook's shooting, they aren't much different from the team that struggled to beat the Grizzlies in 2011 and were swamped by them last year.
A series against the Clippers would be easy enough if DeAndre Jordan were still an underwhelming center. Jordan shot 45.5 percent from the field and allowed 112 points per 100 possessions in the first-round series against the Grizzlies last year.
However, Jordan has been one of the most improved players in the league. He's leading the league in rebounding and stands third in blocks per game and ninth in defensive rating.
Seth Partnow of the ClipperBlog pointed out that Jordan is doing a better job of contesting shots at the rim.
That would complicate the Grizzlies' ability to pound it inside the way they did last year in beating the Clippers in six games.
Much of the facilitation in that series went through Mike Conley. Conley averaged 8.3 assists per game and had a 38.7 percent assist rate. Gasol had only 3.3 assists per game, 0.8 fewer than his season average.
Gasol would need a more proactive passing approach to beat Jordan. His assist rate for the 2012-13 playoffs was 4.6 percent lower than his regular-season rate.
That may be difficult since Gasol took time to gain comfort in the offense after returning from injury. He's averaging 3.7 assists per game since the All-Star break, which is still disappointing for the Spaniard who dished out 4.6 per game after the break last year.
Among the Clippers' offensive improvements, Blake Griffin is no longer a liability shooting away from the basket. He's shooting 38.4 percent on long twos, 4.1 percent better than last year.
The Grizzlies succeeded in forcing him to take bad perimeter shots in last year's series. He took 21 percent of his shots outside 15 feet and made 28.6 percent. That they could force Griffin into these mistakes is possible, but they would need to defend him closer to force them.
Griffin and Jordan have improved, but their reserve big men don't help. Neither Ryan Hollins nor Glen Davis fill in much, as they combine for 20.2 minutes per game. Also, both pull down fewer than seven rebounds per 36 minutes.
Thus, the Grizzlies can grind the Clippers' frontcourt down, as long as they become more creative in doing so.
The Rockets pose a number of potential problems for the Grizzlies.
They have an array of three-point shooters, with six shooting 35 percent or better.
Omer Asik and Dwight Howard are both imposing forces inside. Both pull down more than 12 rebounds per 36 minutes.
But neither of these are scary enough to stop the Grizzlies.
Asik and Howard would only match Gasol and Randolph if they appeared together, but they don't. Houston's pair has only seen 104 minutes together. In that time, Howard has shot 5.5 percent worse.
The Rockets' starting power forward, Terrence Jones, has grown tremendously as a shooter. He's hitting 54.7 percent from the field, 9.5 better than last year. However, his 104 points allowed per 100 possessions while playing with one of the best interior defenders is unimpressive.
If Gasol and Randolph were to attack Jones in the playoffs, they may find an opening that Howard won't help.
In the two games against Memphis in which Gasol played, Houston had limited success from long range. On Jan. 24, it shot 41.2 percent with Chandler Parsons shooting 10-of-14 and the rest of the team hitting 4-of-20. The next day, it shot 28.1 percent.
The Spurs are the team the Grizzlies most want to wait before facing. The same dichotomy exists of the Spurs having a much greater variety of shooters than the Grizzlies.
The Spurs have seven players who shoot better than 37 percent from beyond the arc, while the Grizzlies have three who shoot better than 36 percent, two of which are guaranteed to play regularly. Another talented outside shooter may surface if the Grizz decide to use Beno Udrih.
San Antonio's role players are tough to stop.
The difficulty of matching up with Tiago Splitter looms. Splitter averages 8.5 points per game on 54.7 percent from the field and 10.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. He was a troublemaker in the Western Conference Finals against the Grizzlies last year, shooting 68.2 percent from the field and allowing 100 points per 100 possessions.
Even if Tim Duncan isn't as strong as in years past, Splitter's growth makes the Grizzlies' inside attack difficult.
Kawhi Leonard hasn't become less dangerous since hitting 59.4 percent in that series. He's hitting 51.7 percent from the field and taking on a somewhat greater role, holding an 18.2 percent usage rate and 11.8 shots per 36 minutes.
Leonard makes a big difference defensively. He's allowing 98 points per 100 possessions. Sam Amick of USA Today pointed out that the Spurs allow five fewer points per 100 with Leonard on the floor.
Leonard told Amick:
When we won or lost games, it was about just seeing how I can help and work off our top three guys—Tim, Tony, and Manu—just see how I could help them out on the floor. Now I'm trying to be more active on the floor ... on the offensive end and bringing energy on the defensive end, so it could get us going early.
Leonard alluded to an important development. As the Spurs' Big Three step back in their winter years, role players like him assert themselves.
More action from Splitter and Leonard would spell trouble for the Grizzlies in an opening-round series.
Statistics are current through March 30 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.
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