When people discuss the Western Conference playoff race, they often talk about the Splash Brothers in Golden State. They talk about James Harden as an MVP candidate in Houston. They talk about the defending champions making one more run in San Antonio. And they talk about the Thunder overcoming adversity in Oklahoma City.
All worthy topics.
Very few people, however, talk about the Memphis Grizzlies (42-16), who are the No. 2 seed in the West and trail the Warriors by just four games for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
If you’ve been surprised by how well Memphis has fared this season, well, you shouldn’t be. The Grizzlies sure aren’t.
“I think we’re right where we planned to be, honestly,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley Jr. said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “We looked at our schedule in the offseason, and we told ourselves that we need to get off to a quick start and give ourselves some breathing room – because in the Western Conference, man, any night you can lose to any team. And if you get off to a good start and you give yourself a couple game lead over other teams, it allows you some leeway in the second half of the season when the grind really, really starts to happen. We’re excited with what we’ve done and happy to be where we’re at.”
The Grizzlies rank 15th in the league in scoring offense (99.8 points per game), which is certainly respectable. They also have five players averaging double figures, including Conley, who is second on the team in scoring (16.5 points per game) and first in assists (5.3).
But make no mistake. Memphis hangs its hat on defense. In fact, the Grizzlies, who are allowing just 95.7 points per game, have the best defense in basketball.
“We don’t best teams by 20 points,” Conley said. “We tend to hang around and win by five or six at the end of games. That’s because we stick to our defensive principles. And no matter if our offense is working or not, we know that we can stop you on one end and just hope we can make some shots when it counts. So I think the defensive aspect of it is always our No. 1 priority.”
While some teams out West – such as the aforementioned Warriors, Rockets and Thunder – have relatively young teams, the Grizzlies do not. Zach Randolph turns 34 in July. Tony Allen turned 33 in January. Marc Gasol, 30, is a free agent after this season.
The Grizzlies’ window is still open, but it’s starting to close a bit.
“We’re trying to win now,” said Conley, 27. “I think if you asked me a couple years ago, I’d say we have three or four years to get this thing done. And now that guys are starting to mature and age in our careers, we understand that the time is now. We have to do it soon. We have Marc coming up on a contract. Zach’s getting older. Tony’s getting older. We added Vince Carter, who makes us older. We got a lot of vets on this team, so it’s not like we’re getting any younger.”
Memphis has two more games with Golden State, meaning the Grizzlies have a realistic chance of closing the gap and being the top seed in the West. If that were to occur, maybe Memphis would finally get the respect it deserves.
“I wish we could pinpoint that,” Conley said, trying to explain why his team is often overlooked. “It’s tough for us. We are in a smaller market. We don’t have many big-name guys or superstars per se. But we have a great team. We have a great team both offensively and defensively, and we’re more than deserving to be in that conversation as one of the contending teams out of the West. It sucks that we get overlooked, but I think we at the end of the day like it that way. We just sneak up on you when playoff time comes and people are like, ‘Oh yeah, Memphis is pretty good.”
Regardless of where the Grizzlies finish in the standings, they will very likely play San Antonio (36-23) or Oklahoma City (33-27) in the first round.
Conley was asked which team he’d rather face.
“Man, that’s playing with fire both ways,” Conley said, laughing. “Listen, I don’t want to bite my words. I’ll tell you what: I don’t want to play San Antonio or Oklahoma City. They’re both fantastic teams. Oklahoma’s getting on the winning track now with the way they’ve been paying. And San Antonio, I feel like they’re going to get it going here shortly and run off like 17 in a row. So you never know what’s going to happen with them.”