I know what you fans are thinking. We have defeated the dreaded L A Clippers. Past demons of playoff failures have been eradicated. All is well in the world. There is nothing left to fear. This is the Year of the Grizzlies!
And you would be wrong.
Just like it took more than one exorcism to clean the house in the movie Poltergeist, the Grizzlies are going to need to do more than just beat the dreaded Clippers to clean away the stains of past playoff failures. Sure beating the Clippers in 6 games makes you feel good but the Grizzlies must rise up and do battle with a memory of playoff failure again.
This time with a more innocent appearing foe but also one possibly more dangerous than the Clippers.
And like the Clippers, these teams have a history that is not kind to the Grizzlies.
It was two years ago. The Grizzlies had pulled an amazing upset as an 8th seed defeating the #1 seed. The Spurs, the first team to defeat the Grizzlies in the playoffs in franchise history, were taken down in just 6 games. The final nail being driven home at FedEx Forum. The Grizzlies were officially team to be feared. The franchise had come of age. That joy continued into Game 1 of the Conference Semi-Finals where the Grizzlies met another up and coming team and they beat them, convincingly on their home court. We all thought, “this was going to be our year.”
And then we lost the series. We lost in 7 games. We lost despite epic battles. Little known players became heroes and well known players built on their legacies. But make no mistake, when the Grizzlies left the court that night after falling in Game 7, the Thunder had taken more than just the series. They had taken our future. In the span of just a few weeks the Grizzlies went from being a team with a future to a team that won a fluke series. The Thunder became the league darlings. The Thunder got the advertising dollars. The Grizzlies got nothing.
And I know what you are saying now. That was two years ago. That was when the Thunder had Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies didn’t have Rudy Gay much less Tayshaun Prince. That was before Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year. That was before Mike Conley matured. That was before Zach Randolph returned to his 2011 playoff form. That was before the Grizzlies won 56 games this season including 2 of 3 against the Thunder. The old wounds don’t apply anymore.
But breaking each argument down shows the fallacy of this way of thinking.
The Thunder don’t have Russell Westbrook:
Don’t fall into the trap that the Thunder without Russell Westbrook aren’t as dangerous as the team was with Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, for all his individual excellence, has at times cost the Thunder games. His ego made him think he should be the man. Now everyone on the team knows Kevin Durant is the man. That unity at the end of games makes the Thunder more dangerous in many ways.
Sure the Thunder struggled in the first few games after Westbrook was injured but they did win two more games against the Houston Rockets after his injury. It takes time for teams to overcome major losses. When they do they sometimes are more dangerous than they were before the injury too.
Remember that the Grizzlies lost three straight games after the Rudy Gay trade, including one to the Thunder, before the Grizzlies started to win again. Likewise the Thunder have adjusted from losing Westbrook and are now starting to win again.
Don’t forget that the Grizzlies improved after the Rudy Gay trade not because Prince was better than Gay but in spite of that. The same could hold true for the Thunder.
The Grizzlies didn’t have Rudy Gay much less Tayshaun Prince:
It is true that the last time the Grizzlies met the Thunder they didn’t have Rudy Gay. However the team did have Shane Battier, an intelligent defender who could score in double figures from time to time. In many ways, Battier is similar to Tayshaun Prince in the role he plays on the team.
And Kevin Durant is better today than he was two years ago. He has routinely crushed Prince in their match-ups this season both with Detroit and Memphis. In the team’s last meeting on March 20th Durant didn’t shoot great (11-28) but still managed to score 32 points on an off-shooting night. Don’t forget Prince was lit up by Matt Barnes for 30 points in Game 6 of the Clippers series. Imagine how many points Durant could score if he gets hot one night.
That was before Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year:
This is a great honor and one that really deserved to be given to the team as much as to Gasol. Gasol was the quarterback on a superb defensive team. Gasol will most likely be defending Kendrick Perkins most of the time. Perkins is not an offensive threat any more than DeAndre Jordan is an offensive threat for the Clippers. That means while Gasol will be able to shut down his man, the Thunder couldn’t care less if a team shuts down Perkins. The Thunder live to score on the perimeter. With the loss of Westbrook they won’t have a dominant penetrator anymore so Gasol will be calling out plays far more than making them in this series.
That was before Mike Conley matured:
Mike Conley isn’t a shrinking violet offensively anymore. He has matured and is now a play-maker in more ways than just passing. However, Conley has been struggling offensively as well. He shot 40.8% from the field and only 28.6% from the arc against the Clippers. Now a lot of that can be explained by noting that Conley was being guarded by Chris Paul who forced him to play harder on defense and offense but the fact remains that Conley needs to put that performance behind him. Mental toughness has been an issue with Conley in the past. He can’t allow it to be the case in this series because Conley, not Gasol or Randolph has the clearest advantage on paper among the Grizzlies starters.
That was before Zach Randolph returned to 2011 form:
Randolph did play like the Randolph of old against his former team, but that was against his former team. He was fired up to prove the Clippers made a mistake trading him after drafting Blake Griffin. Randolph has struggled all season against the Thunder’s big frontcourt of Ibaka and Perkins and has performed even worse against Nick Collison, the Thunder’s best bench big man. For the Grizzlies to win the series they will need Randolph to turn that around in the playoffs.
That was before the Grizzlies won 56 games including 2 of 3 against the Thunder:
This is actually a strong argument until you break down the games between the two teams. The Thunder actually outscored the Grizzlies in those three games and in the one close game the Thunder came as close as possible to beating the Grizzlies in the Grindhouse despite poor shooting nights from Durant and Westbrook. If not for a miraculous tip by Gasol at the buzzer the Grizzlies would have lost that game. The Thunder made numerous silly mistakes down the stretch as well including Durant dribbling the ball out of bounds at the end of regulation and Westbrook missing the game clinching FT in OT. You can’t count on those types of errors in the playoffs.
The old wounds don’t apply anymore:
This is the most terrifying issue facing the Grizzlies in the Conference Semi-Finals. Before the season people said the Grizzlies had to make the second round for the season to be viewed a success. That’s been accomplished. People said the Grizzlies needed to get redemption over the Clippers. That’s been accomplished as well.
Now the team has to attempt to reach unchartered territory against the team that represented the Western Conference last season in the NBA Finals. If the Grizzlies are content with achieving what they have so far then they will find it very difficult against a team expecting to be in the conference finals and potentially could be NBA Champions. The Thunder aren’t content to be in the semis. They expected to go much farther. This series will be a competitive and scrappy as the last series. The loss two years ago in the playoffs doesn’t have to be the motivation but something does and that is simply the easiest one to call on.
This series will be as physical as the Clippers series was. This series will have an all-pro getting the calls against the Grizzlies just like the Clippers series did. This series will come down to who wants it more, just like the first round did. The team and the fans can’t sit back and relax now. There are still demons in the Grizzlies playoff past that need to be exercised.