If the Memphis Grizzlies were still considered a sleeper coming into Wednesday’s matchup with defending Western Conference Champions Oklahoma City, they shed that tag by the time the horn blew at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Memphis has never been a team that grabs headlines. Their brand of basketball is, perhaps, not as exciting as the Thunder or Heat and they don’t pack the front page drama of New York or Los Angeles. They are built around doing the small things. They rebound well and play defense and on occasion light up the highlight reels with jaw dropping dunk. But their blue collar nature leaves them out of a lot of conversations as a potential champion.
Maybe it’s our fault in the media. We don’t want to believe that you can win a championship without a true superstar like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. We believe that stat lines mean nothing if your two best players can’t fuel your team 100 plus points most nights, but if so we are wrong. Team play still gets it done, the proof pouring out of River City right front of our eyes.
The first quarter of the Grizzlies’ matchup against the Thunder gave the impression that Memphis was severely outmatched. Kevin Durant and company ran up 30 points in the first quarter and shot 53% from the field, the highest percentage Memphis has allowed in a quarter this season. Heading into the second quarter, Lionel Hollins placed a priority on defense and his team immediately righted the ship.
In the second quarter, the Grizzlies held the Thunder to their worst period of the season forcing them to shoot 31% from the field and allowing only 15 points. On the other end, Memphis found their stroke, knocking down 56.5% of their shots and scoring 36 points to send them into half time with 56-45 lead.
The second half was a story of the Grizzlies doing what they do best, grinding. Oklahoma City came at them, but in the end Memphis was able to absorb whatever they had and would finish the night having forced 15 turnovers from one of the league’s best offensive teams. Despite Kevin Durant’s 34 points and 10 rebounds and Russell Westbrook’s season high in assists (13), Memphis held on to end Oklahoma City’s five game win streak and extend their own to six.
Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph were once a troubled pair, unable to be on the floor at the same time to create success for this Grizzlies team. Now, the team hasn’t lost since opening day, a six game period in which Gay has averaged 20 points and 6.5 rebounds to go with Randolph’s 17 points and 13.6 rebounds.
Early season shooting troubles have made it tough for Lionel Hollins’ team at times, but against OKC, they showed just how dangerous they can be if they get hot from the field, shooting 47% overall and 41% from three point land, leading Thunder Coach Scott Brooks to tell NBA.com:
“They really picked up their intensity. When you give that team an opportunity to get hot it's tough to turn 'em off."
This game was important for this Memphis team. Playing on national television against the defending Western Conference champs on the road, the Grizzlies didn’t flinch. Confidence is on high now as the second half was essentially a wash against a team that includes two of the best scorers in the league and probably the craziest atmosphere a player can find in a regular season game.
An interesting development coming out of these last six games is the resurgence of an upward statistical trend for point guard Mike Conley. Every year under Lionel Hollins, the former Ohio State Buckeye has increased both his scoring and assists numbers, until last season. In a tough year for Conley, his scoring dipped from 13.7 points per game the year before to 12.7, while his assists stayed the same at 6.5. Over the last six Memphis wins, Conley is averaging 15 and 7.
Last year was instead a banner year for Conley on the defensive side of the ball where he averaged 2.2 steals per game and he has shown glimpses of returning to that this season including a five steal performance against Stephen Curry and Golden State.
Conley may be the key to just how far the Grizzlies can go. With Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay becoming a happy marriage around the basket complemented by the powerful presence of Marc Gasol, Hollins has reliable scoring, rebounding and defense in his front court. But point guard is the most important position in the NBA today. The league is practically run by point guards and the ascension of Conley could mean serious championship talk for Memphis.
At the present time, no team in the West looks more dangerous. The Grizzlies haven’t lost a regular season home game since March 16 and are off to a 3-1 road record to start this season.
OKC joins Miami as another notch on the Grizzlies championship qualification belt for the season. They now face the undefeated New York Knicks on Friday and will go up against the new look Lakers before the month is out. If they win both of those games, Memphis can no longer be considered a fringe contender for big things season, but rather a frontrunner.