The Golden State Warriors looked unbeatable in the regular season. They went 67-15 with a +10.4 point differential in one of the toughest conferences in NBA history, separating from a pack of four 55+ win teams. When they blew out the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1, the second round looked like the same story. Stephen Curry received the MVP award before Game 2, but the real story was the return of Mike Conley. With a full roster, Memphis has won the last two games and put the Warriors on the ropes. Blink and you could swear this was 2011, when the Grizzlies stunned a 61-win San Antonio Spurs team in the first round.
Over the last five years, Memphis has racked up frequent flyer miles criss-crossing the West in April and May. They are no strangers to the playoff battles - they have beaten the Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers and they have lost to each of them too. In that time, they have perfected a formula that gives them a puncher’s chance in any match-up, despite not having the gaudy win totals of their competitors. They have no reason to be afraid of the Warriors - they upset a No. 1 seed with homecourt advantage twice before. The scary part for Golden State is this could be the best version of the Grizzlies yet.
Everything starts with Marc Gasol (7’1 265) and Zach Randolph (6’9 260), one of the biggest and most skilled frontcourt duos in the NBA. In a league moving away from post play, Gasol and Randolph are two of a dying breed, floor-bound bruisers who play the angles and who know how to operate in tight spaces in the paint. Z-Bo put on a clinic in the post in Game 3 - using a quick first step and a step-back jumper to score on bigger defenders like Andrew Bogut and clearing space with his shoulder to score over smaller defenders like Draymond Green. He had 22 points on 15 shots and forced the Warriors to abandon their defensive identity and send double teams at the post.
One of the reasons that Golden State has been such a dominant defensive team is they didn’t have to send help anywhere. Bogut (7’0 260) and Green (6’7 235 with a 7’1 wingspan) are two of the best interior defenders in the NBA and their ability to shut down the paint and extend out on the pick-and-roll gives the Warriors perimeter players the luxury of pressing up on their man on defense, which creates tempo and forces turnovers. It was the opposite dynamic in Game 3, as Golden State had to hedge in the paint, crash down on the entry pass and give up open shots on the perimeter.
That’s what Memphis does to opposing teams in the playoffs. An inability to defend the post is no longer a huge problem in the regular season since few teams in the modern NBA play two big men who can score with their back to the basket. Defending a team that can get efficient offense from the post is a much different dynamic than one that likes to spread the floor and run pick-and-rolls. It’s going to be an uphill battle to beat the Warriors at their own game. The Grizzlies have won the last two games by imposing their style of play.
That’s why Mike Conley is so important. It doesn’t matter how good your big men are if your guards keep turning the ball over. When he was out in Game 1, Nick Calathes couldn’t handle the Warriors defensive pressure, going 0-4 with 3 turnovers in 21 minutes. Golden State had 22 points on 14 Memphis turnovers and they ran the Grizzlies off the floor. When Curry and Thompson are walking into open 3’s on transition, the other team has no chance. Upsetting Golden State starts with having a PG who can control tempo by holding the ball, getting the team into sets and running very selectively. Conley had eight assists on two turnovers over the last two games - that’s the ratio Memphis needs.
You can see the difference in the final scores. Golden State won 101-86 in Game 1. Memphis won 97-90 in Game 2 and 99-89 in Game 3. This is not a team built to win a frenetic uptempo game. The more possessions each team has, the more it favors the Warriors. It’s the same dynamic as the Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers series over the last few seasons. Miami won those games because they could dictate tempo with LeBron and Wade’s ball pressure and force the Pacers guards into turnovers and forced shots, allowing them to get easy run-outs the other way before the Indiana big men could set up the defense. If the Pacers had a PG like Mike Conley, it might have been a different story.
With Conley able to get the ball into Gasol and Randolph, the adjustment for Steve Kerr in the 2nd half of Game 3 was to send help to the post and force Memphis to beat them with passing and shooting. Perimeter shooting has been the Achilles heel for the Grizzlies in the postseason. The Spurs swept them out of the 2013 Western Conference Finals because they played no respect on Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, daring the two to beat them from the 3-point line. Where this Grizzlies team is different is the number of weapons they have on the wing.
Courtney Lee’s Game 3 numbers don’t jump off the page (11 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists on 9 shots) but they were crucial to the win. Memphis acquired him last season in a trade from the Boston Celtics and he has the perfect skill-set for this team. At 6’5 200, he’s a prototype 3-and-D SG who can guard all three perimeter positions, knock down open 3’s and put the ball on the floor and attack a close-out. He gives them a second shooter along with Conley to open up the floor for their big men and Tony Allen. In the modern NBA, you might be able to get away with one non-shooter on the perimeter but not two.
The other additions on the wing - Jeff Green and Vince Carter - had more up-and-down performances in Game 3, but they give the Grizzlies a dimension they have not had before. At 6’9 235, Green has the size to play at PF and the athleticism and ball-handling ability to slide over to SF in bigger line-ups. He can create shots off the dribble, albeit not very efficiently, and he gives the Grizzlies another option late in the shot-clock. Vince is running on fumes at 37 but he’s still capable of knocking down shots, moving the ball and crashing the boards. There’s no one on this Memphis team stealing minutes like Tayshaun was. If you are going into a series with a starpower disadvantage, you can’t afford to have any weak spots in your rotation.
Everyone the Grizzlies played contributed in Game 3. Beno Udrih and Kosta Koufos were huge in the first half, getting out in transition and taking advantage of the defense of Marreesse Speights. Udrih is a veteran PG who can create shots against second-string opponents, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and knows how to play within himself. Koufos is likely headed for a starting job somewhere else this off-season. He had 8 points, 6 rebounds and 1 block on 4-4 shooting in only 15 minutes and he gives them another huge body (7’0 265) to throw at smaller teams.
Dave Joerger couldn’t have drawn up the victory any better. The guards took care of the ball and knocked down 3’s while the big men dominated in the paint and controlled the glass. The wild card is Tony Allen, one of the best defensive players in the NBA and a guy whom you never know what you will get on offense. Golden State mostly left him open and he was able to do just enough to make them pay, with 8 points on 8 shots. He also balanced out his 5 turnovers with 4 steals. His defense is so important to what they do that they just need him to play even on offense.
Nevertheless, for as well as the Grizzlies played on Saturday, the series is far from over. The Warriors missed a lot of open shots and they got nothing from their starting big men, who combined to score 8 points on 12 shots. They will probably try to get Bogut and Green going early in Game 4, which should in turn give the guards a chance to get more shots in rhythm instead of taking wild heaves off the dribble. They still have home-court advantage so all they need to do is steal one game in The Grindhouse and they can force Memphis to try and win a Game 7 in Oracle.
The Grizzlies don’t have anyone who can take over a game on offense - they have to win as a team and if even one guy is off the whole formula can fall apart. That was their undoing against the Thunder in 2011 and 2014, both series they lost in seven games. With Tony Allen forced to stay on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook dominated his match-up with Mike Conley and took over the action. We have yet to see Curry and Thompson go nova in a series like KD and Russ but it would be by far the simplest way for the Warriors to win.
At the same time, even when going against two legitimate superstars at the peak of their game last season, the Grizzlies were still almost able to pull off the upset. There were four OT games in a row in that series and who knows what happens if Steven Adams doesn’t draw a punch from Z-Bo that got him suspended for Game 7. This is a team that has been together for five playoff runs and they seem to be getting better and more in-tune with each other every time.
If Memphis is ever going to get over the hump out West, now is the time. All of their best players are still near their peak - Conley is 27, Gasol is 30, Randolph is 33, Allen is 34. Conley and Gasol are playing the best basketball of their careers while Randolph and Allen still have enough athleticism to hold off the aging process. They are older, wiser and more experienced than they were five years ago but they are still young enough to where they can put those lessons into practice.
The bracket opens up for them if they can pull off the upset. Memphis probably assumed they would have to beat Oklahoma City and San Antonio to win a championship and now they don’t have to beat either. Spin it forward and all of their best players will be a year older next season and the road to the NBA Finals could be much harder. The Thunder should be healthy, the Spurs could get LaMarcus Aldridge and the Rockets and the Warriors will have more playoff experience together. This Golden State team is still new to the playoffs. There will be many more playoff runs from the Splash Brothers. Who knows how many the Grit N Grind Grizzlies have left?
The best-case scenario for the Grizzlies could be that this series becomes like the 2011 Western Conference Finals when the Mavs beat the Thunder. Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler were still in their primes while Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion had enough gas in the tank to run with Durant and Westbrook. A year later, Oklahoma City swept them out of the first round. That’s how quickly a title window can close in the NBA. The Grizzlies could build another elite team around Gasol and Conley but Allen and Randolph don’t have many miles left on their bodies. All older teams in the NBA are in a race against time in a league where the average career is only 4.5 seasons long. That’s especially true for Memphis, who play a throwback style to an era vastly different than where the league is going.
Maybe there’s no stopping the waves of change. Maybe the Warriors can force turnovers, run pick-and-rolls and knock down 3’s to the point where the Grizzlies semi-inefficient two-point shots can’t keep up. Maybe a team with two traditional big men can’t win a championship in a spread pick-and-roll pace-and-space league. Memphis plays the antithesis of the style Miami and San Antonio used in the last two NBA Finals and it certainly seems like more teams will be built like Golden State than like them in the future. A Grizzlies' win in would be a victory for every power forward without a three-point shot looking to stay in the league.
A basketball fan who believes in progress would favor Golden State. Memphis is an inherently conservative team, one built on the notion that there are eternal truths in sports, that games slow down in the playoffs, that bigger players can impose their will over the course of a series, that great defense beats great offense, that throwing the ball into the post at the end of games will always be the safest way to generate clean looks, that you can’t win championships by shooting jumpers without an inside game. To paraphrase William F. Buckley, the Grizzlies are standing athwart NBA history, yelling Stop! Or, in Tony Allen’s case, First-Team All Defense!