May 15, 2011

Memphis Grizzlies are The Expendables

No matter what happens in tonights/tomorrow morning's Game 7 between the OKC Thunder & the Memphis Grizzlies, one thing is for sure: The Grizz have more than impressed this post-season. For a franchise that had never even won a single playoff game, to finish 8th in the Western Conference standings, and still find themselves just a game away from a place in the Conference Finals is nothing short of amazing.

But what makes this feat even more amazing is that the Grizzlies, unlike the other teams still surviving in the playoffs (Bulls, Heat, Thunder, Mavericks), have done it with a roster full of misfits, rejects, and expendables. Unlike Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Dirk Nowitzki, the Grizzlies don't have a single current all star on their squad. And it was this roster that defeated the best team in the West, the Spurs in the first round, and it's this roster that is now taking the Thunder to a deciding game in the second round.

Leading from the front is obviously Zach Randolph, the much-maligned power-forward who bounced around the league carrying on him a reputation of being a nutcase and a selfish, incomplete player. Randolph was only the 19th pick in the 2001 draft, and after his third year in the league, he started to build an impressive offensive repertoire. As he traveled from Portland to New York to the LA Clippers to Memphis, Randolph's production remained consistent, but he was never considered to be an elite power forward. He has only one all star appearance and his highest individual honour has been a single All-NBA third team appearance, which only happened this year.

And yet, he has been one of the most valuable players in this post-season, peaking at just the right time in his career in terms of maturity and talent to carry this unfancied side this far.

Randolph's frontcourt mate is Center Marc Gasol, the less popular brother of Pau, who is considered to be one of the greatest Euros to ever play in the NBA. While Pau won rings and accolades, Marc slowly gained a reputation as being one of the most solid if not spectacular NBA big men. But Marc was also considered an 'expendable' three years ago - he was drafted by the Lakers as the 48th pick, but his rights were traded to Memphis with a few others in exchange for older brother Pau. It is funny to think that this year, Marc has been far more valuable than his older bro.

While Zach and Marc may do all the scoring, the real reason why Memphis are troubling the Thunder so much has been the defense of Tony Allen on Thunder superstar Kevin Durant. Guarded by Allen, one of the best man-to-man defenders in the NBA, Durant's efficiency has fallen way off. He had early troubles in his career as a Celtics off the court, as he was involved in a shooting incident where he was accused of 'breaking another man's eye socket'. But just like Randolph, Allen's on-court reputation was impeccable: He was an important part of the Celtics side that reached the 2010 Finals, but Boston considered him expendable come summertime, leaving the door open for Memphis to swoosh in and sign him. He has since become the heart and soul of his rugged side, giving them the toughness they have needed - before Durant, Allen was responsible for tough D on Manu Ginobili in the first round.

The next case is of swingman OJ Mayo, who has had his own brushes with controversy. Despite being an unstoppable high-school talent, Mayo's reputation was tarnished when he was accused of receiving improper from his college, USC. He was still the third pick in the 2008 draft (by the Timberwolves) but with his character in question, he was traded away to Memphis. This year, Mayo, who in his youth was compared to Kobe Bryant, was humbled when asked to play off the bench. The core of this Grizzlies side nearly self-combusted when Mayo was invovled with an altercation with Tony Allen on an airplane, but the situation was quickly resolved and the team found its chemistry again. But Mayo's troubles didn't end, as in January, the NBA suspended him 10 days for testing positive for banned substance Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). The Grizzlies nearly traded him away at the trade deadline, but the attempted trade for Indiana Pacers' Josh McRoberts failed because both teams ran out of time.

But the prodigious talent seems to have left behind his issues for the playoffs, where he has been an important contributer whether off the bench or when in the starting lineup.

There are several other cogs to this complex Grizzlies side. There is Shane Battier, the offensively limited, but defensively brilliant small forward, who has time and again taken the responsibility of guarding the opposing team's best players. Battier was only brought back to Memphis from Houston in the mid-season, and its no coincidence that this intelligent glue-guy is behind this team's surprising rise.

There is Mike Conley Jr., who came into the league as an afterthought at the point guard position but slowly and unspectacularly worked his way to a stable starting role for the Grizz. The Grizzlies even game him a surprisingly large contract extension at the beginning of the season, but he has so far repaid (kind of) their faith.

Then there's second year man Sam Young, probably the least known starter for the Grizzlies. Most teams would've ignored him - and they did, since he was the 36th pick by the Grizzlies, but despite averaging just over 7 points a game, Young's range and work ethic have suddenly made him crucial for this Memphis side.

This core is surrounded by the likes of Greivis Vasquez, Darrell Arthur, and Hamed Haddadi, players who are surprising many onlookers by being important contributers to Memphis' deep playoff run.

But what is perhaps as interesting as what the Grizzlies have is who the Grizzlies lost. They started off last season with a certain Allen Iverson on their team, who is by far the most popular player to ever wear a Grizzlies jersey. Alas, Iverson's issues with coming off the bench made this a short alliance - he only played three games for the Grizz before his contract was terminated. The team continued their rise without him.

The other 'absent' piece is Rudy Gay - on pure talent, perhaps the most valuable player in the Grizzlies franchise, and the one who has come closest to representing the team as an all star. Gay was averaging nearly 20 points and over six rebounds a game this season before his year was cut short after only 54 games. He was counted out for the rest of the season, and without him, the Grizzlies were doubted even to make the playoffs, much less be on the verge of a Conference Finals date. But that is how basketball works sometimes - Memphis found addition in the subtraction, and without Gay dominating the ball in the perimeter, they found a simple and effective system in going to their post players first and spreading the floor around them. And viola! - the Grizzlies became a better team without their (former) best player!

So, who knows how far the Grizzlies can go? Will tonight beat the end of their fairytale season? Or will they beat the Thunder in Game 7? Will they cause match-up problems for the Mavs? NBA Finals? This team consists of players who have fought personal demons, rejection, and low expectations throughout their career. But against everyone's predictions, they have bounced back, and now, no one will predict it against them to keep soaring.

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