The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the West’s leading juggernauts this season, despite not having the traditional star power that most of their conference rivals have. Many analysts are hesitant to predict that the Grizzlies are a true championship contender because we have seen it all before. The Grizzlies are a well coached team, committed to defense, with just enough scoring to win in the regular season. But come playoff time, there is another year that they haven't had the talent to reach. So why is this year different?
The first difference is the emergence of Marc Gasol as a two-way star. Much has been said about his defensive prowess. But this is the first time in his career that he has been featured as the first option offensively. His size and versatility make him an incredibly tough assignment. At 7”1’, it takes a true big man to keep him from dominating from the low post. His basketball IQ makes him a worthy focal point of the offense from the high post. His ability to consistently knock down shots from anywhere inside the three point arc provides spacing for his teammates to operate in the paint. Simply put, he has become the prototypical offensive center. He is averaging a career high 19.6 points per game and shooting at 49.9%, his highest since 2011, while posting a career high 25.6% usage rate. He has more responsibility this season and has more than lived up to expectations.
The second reason the Grizzlies are looking more like contenders than pretenders is the fact that in a league full of scoring guards, the Grizzlies boast the best defensive backcourt in the league. They are something like the “Anti-Splash Brothers.” Tony Allen and Mike Conley are both intelligent and relentless defenders that consistently frustrate the most prolific of scorers. Their ability to force opponents out of the paint and into bad shots leads to transition opportunities for the Grizzlies and is the foundation of their early offense.
The last reason to jump on the “Grit-and-Grind” bandwagon is the fact that they are a veteran team. No moment is too big for them. They understand and emphasize their strengths while identifying and compensating for their weaknesses. They have a level of chemistry and savvy that can only be rivaled by the elite teams in the league. Big wins over the Warriors and Spurs (in 3OT) last week are evidence that they can beat teams playing at the top of their game. Despite lacking that dominant wing scorer that they have coveted for so long, they find ways to score when it counts. Rather than having one player play the role of the closer, they close games as a team.
The most fun characteristic of this Grizzlies team is that they are a bit of a throwback team. They play from the inside out and don't rely on the pick and roll to create offense. Defensively, they have a trust for one another that few teams have. As long as they stay healthy, they will be a tough out for anyone come playoff time. At the end of the day, Grit-and-Grind may lead to glory.