One year ago the city of Memphis was gearing up for a playoff run, their first in five long years.
They were the 8th seed in the tough Western Conference, losing a tie-breaker with the New Orleans Hornets (and their star PG Chris Paul) and scheduled to play one of the top teams in the league in the San Antonio Spurs. The Grizzlies had never won a playoff game and fans were uneasy to say the least.
Then Shane Battier hit that beautiful three-point shot in Game 1 and everything changed. Suddenly the Grizzlies were no longer the lovable losers of the NBA. Now they were that dangerous team with big time paint scorers and a ball hawking defense. The team went all the way to game 7 against the Thunder before finally falling.
Here we are a year later and things have changed. The Grizzlies didn’t sneak into the playoffs this year. They may even host a first round playoff series for the first time in franchise history. Last season the heroes were Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Who is going to stand up this year and be the hero (or goat) of this year’s playoff run?
Let’s take a look at the contenders for the label franchise hero:
Rudy Gay is appearing in his very first NBA playoff series so no one really knows what to expect from him. Rudy was the dominant offensive player for the Grizzlies during the lost years when the team went 108-220. He was leading the team in scoring last season before a shoulder injury last season. After Z-Bo rallied the team to the upset over the Spurs there were a lot of rumors that the Grizzlies were actually better without Rudy. This season however Rudy has led the team back to the playoffs despite losing Z-Bo for most of the season and has had possibly his best year ever in the process.
Since February 1st, Rudy Gay has posted a WP48 score of .129 where .100 is considered average. ESPN’s John Hollinger PER scale has given Rudy a score of 17.73 where 15.00 is considered average on the season but Rudy, like the Grizzlies started the season slow. He’s still rated as the 6th best SF in the league this season despite his slow start. According to 82games.com Rudy is among the most effective clutch scorers in the league as well averaging 51.2% from the field and 60% from the arc. Clutch games are defined as 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than 5 points.
So Rudy is a go-to player during the regular season but can he translate that type of performance in the playoffs? That has yet to be seen.
Marc Gasol started the season on fire and Coach Hollins let that fire burn… a lot. Heading to the All-Star break Gasol was averaging All-Star type of numbers and was producing at a 1.62 WP48 level. He also was playing 38 minutes a game. That was too much court time for any big man in the league.
Since the All-Star weekend Marc has seen his production decrease significantly as his 0.079 WP48 mark shows. His minutes have also dropped to around 32 mpg since the break. In the playoffs Marc will be expected to play increased time and make increased impact on the game.
The Grizzlies are an interior based team that relies on Gasol to be both a physical presence in the paint and an integral part of the passing game as well. Gasol has to make his presence felt and force the action on the offensive end, either by forcing a double team and making the pass to the open man or simply exploiting the match-up in single coverage. If Marc regains his pre-All-Star production he will be the impact player the team needs. If not then it is hard to see the Grizzlies advancing.
At times Tony Allen seems to be the glue holding the team together. At others he is nothing more than a distraction with his out of control plays. His on court play mirrors his off the court tweets as being both intriguing and baffling sometimes at the same time.
Allen is a defensive specialist and among the best perimeter defenders in the league. He’s also one of the worst lay-up shooters in the league. His outside shot is ugly but can be effective. Tony Allen’s main power is his energy level. He not only brings it to his play but the team feeds off his energy.
Allen will be asked to defend the opposing teams best offensive perimeter player and how well he does in that task will go a long way in determining how far the Grizzlies go in the playoffs.
The hero of last year’s upset over San Antonio and the clear leader of the team after Rudy Gay went down, fans of the Grizzlies were ready to ride Z-Bo’s broad shoulders all the way this year to a top 4 finish in the Western Conference.
The Grizzlies reached their goals but not riding Z-Bo’s shoulders. When Zach went down on January 1, the Grizzlies had to revamp not only their roster but their offensive schemes. The team responded to the new look. Now that Zach is back he has struggled to find his role on the team.
Zach was back in the starting lineup for the Orlando game and the team responded but Zach still didn’t have his normal dominating offensive game. With Blake Griffin, an alleged poor defender, guarding him will Z-Bo return to last season’s form or continue to contribute in other ways?
Mike Conley came into his own this season. After being criticized early in his career and castigated for his contract early last season, Mike clearly established himself as a team leader this year with career highs in assists and steals. However, his FG% (43.3%) dropped noticeably for the first time since entering the league. One thing was clear this season, when Conley wasn’t on the floor the team struggled.
Conley has the weight of the team on his shoulders right now. How he responds is vital to the team. Gilbert Arenas, Jeremy Pargo, Josh Selby and Lester Hudson aren’t answers in reserve. Conley will need to play big minutes and contribute big time while on the court. If he becomes passive the Grizzlies offense will as well. More importantly, every ounce of effort Chris Paul doesn’t have to exert on defense means more than he can exert on offense and Chris Paul is too deadly an offensive threat to allow him time off on the defensive end to rest.
Conley has been the team’s most consistently solid player since the All-Star break posting a 0.178 WP48 over that time frame. He will need to continue to be a major producer in this series and in the playoffs in general for the Grizzlies.
O J Mayo:
O J Mayo has not started a single game this season. He has been asked to play both guard positions and to simultaneously be an offensive spark plug and a floor general.
It hasn’t been easy. Mayo has struggled at times with ball control and with his shot. When Mayo’s game is on he is one of the most feared offensive players in the league, capable of hitting contested threes or aggressively attacking the basket with equal ease. When he is not on his game he can disappear or look terrible.
However, Mayo is the only player on the team who can create his own shot, get to the foul line and create opportunities for his teammates will equal ease. Rudy can hit shots. Zach can get to the boards. Conley can wreck havoc stealing the ball and hit the open man. Mayo can do all of this and more when he is on his game.
Mayo has the extra incentive, as if any is needed, with his impending free agency. A great playoff run can literally mean millions of dollars in the bank for Mayo. A poor series can cost him that as well. The pressure is on Mayo more than anyone else expected to make big contributions for the Grizzlies.
Mayo has proven to be able to handle this kind of pressure. Whether he succeeds or not this time is still unknown.
The Grizzlies have numerous players capable of stepping up in the playoffs. The team doesn’t need to rely on one person to be the guy. However, one of the above players will need to stand up for the team to advance. Who it will be is still unknown.