Can the Grizzlies Beat the Thunder?

Defense wins in the playoffs, but can Memphis' skills stop talent as good as Kevin Durant?

As noted in numberFire’s NBA Playoffs Preview, the Memphis Grizzlies, per the algorithms, were most likely to bow out after five games in their opening series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That could still happen as the series is tied at one game apiece, however, the Grizz don’t look like your typical number seven seed. Or at least one you’d see in the Eastern Conference.

The Grizzlies have what I’ve always believed is an essential championship quality, a core three (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley) that can score the ball even in crunch time. As Paul Pierce said, you can’t buy that at Costco. But there's more to the Grizzlies than just those top three guys. They have intangibles in the forms of Courtney Lee and Tony Allen (both big ball hawking guards), and Mike Miller, who has shown that he can still be a dead eye shooter with unlimited range. If they can get Tayshaun Prince healthy, that would be more help for them on the defensive end.

All of that doesn’t change the fact that they’re facing one of the top NBA teams in the Thunder, who have their own three-headed monster. But the Grizzlies do have the parts to slow the Thunder down and potentially steal this series in six or seven games.

Marc Gasol Must Be Healthy

The Grizzlies were miserable at the beginning of this season, starting out 15-19. However, over the last two-thirds of the season, they were one of the best teams in the NBA, winning 73% of their last 48 regular season games. The reason for their slow start in my view relates directly to Gasol missing the majority of those contests. In the games that Gasol was out with injury, the Grizzlies were 10-14. When Gasol came back, the Grizzlies started to win. A lot.

Gasol really does provide a tremendous lift to the team. He handles the ball at the high post on a lot of possessions, and he is a tremendous passer for a big man. On the season, he averaged 14.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1 steal and 1 block per game. He contributes in so many facets of the game, and is irreplaceable on the Grizzlies.

There was another stroke of luck for the Grizzlies this year as well. When Tony Allen was injured about half way through the year, Memphis was able to acquire Courtney Lee from the Boston Celtics. Lee stepped right in and filled Allen’s role until he returned healthy. Now they have the benefit of playing Lee and Allen for long stretches each game (as we’ve seen during the first two playoff games), which has benefitted their team defense.

Defense First Mentality

The Grizzlies calling card is on defense. As a team, they rank seventh in numberFire’s defensive efficiency rankings. They have last year’s defensive player of the year in Gasol, and two athletic wings who can defend athletic guards like Russell Westbrook and unstoppable forces like Kevin Durant. Neither of those two players can be shut down, but both Lee and Allen have the ability to make things difficult for them. They are both about 6’4” with long wingspans, and each weighs about 210 to 220 pounds. They, along with Tayshaun Prince (if he’s healthy), give the Grizzlies a fighting chance to defend the Thunder’s two studs.

A great example of this was during Game 2 of the series with the Thunder. Allen ended up with four steals, but in watching the game it seemed like he was getting deflections all the time. The deflections are just as important as steals since they’re disruptive to an offense and make it more difficult for an opponent to run its offensive sets. Creating frustration for Westbrook and Durant and disrupting their offense can be a team’s most effective weapon against the Thunder.

Mike Conley Must Match Russell Westbrook

During the regular season, Conley was okay against the Thunder through four games, averaging 15 points, 8.3 assists and 3 turnovers per game. He didn't shoot the ball well, however, posting a 36.6 field goal percentage. His relatively lackluster numbers were a contributing factor to the Grizzlies lack of success against the Thunder during the regular season (they were 1-3).

So far in this series though, Conley has been vastly improved, and is doing a masterful job handling the ball and initiating the Grizzlies offense. He’s averaging 39.5 minutes per game to go along with 17.5 points, 11.5 assists, 6 rebounds and only 1.5 turnovers. He's also shooting better, having made 13 of his 32 field goal attempts (which includes 0-9 from downtown). With the pressure he faces on the court, the assist-to-turnover ratio is seriously amazing. Conley is making that team go and for them to challenge the Thunder and win this series, he’ll have to continue to post similar numbers. If he can, that will help neutralize Westbrook's ability to take over a game.

Can They Pull the Upset?

I believe that the Grizzlies have the talent and defensive scheme to win this series, but if you look at the rotations through the first two games, the Thunder are giving eight to nine people significant minutes while the Grizzlies are playing a very short bench. It’s really a six-person rotation right now. Over a seven-game, hard-fought series, that'll wear a team down. And it's is probably what will allow the Thunder to escape from the first round.

With that said, this could end up being a seven-game series, and if Tayshaun Prince comes back to play some significant minutes, maybe that will even everything out from a depth perspective. Currently, our numbers have the Grizzlies with just a little over a 36% chance of winning this first-round series.