In the end, it was an absolute demolition job.
The Memphis Grizzlies continued their fairytale post-season by destroying the Western Conference favourites, the Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-1 to advance into the Conference finals. The 88-84 victory to ensure their advancement was typical of the gritty determination they have shown throughout the season. Now, the team who had recorded just one Playoff series win in their history until this season, has a real chance of winning the West and quite possibly an NBA Championship.
They have never claimed to be the most popular or fashionable team that's ever graced a court. They are tough, workmanlike and work very well as a unit. These traits might not get you the Nationally televised games or the endorsement deals, but it does bring you success. It may have taken some time, but Memphis are now reaping the rewards for sticking to their principles and are finally getting the praise their performances have deserved for some time.
One of the catalysts for the team's success has been the exceptional play of their Power Forward Zach Randolph. 'Z-Bo' has always had talent, that has never been in question, it is his commitment to his profession that has come under scrutiny throughout his career. Randolph has always enjoyed life off-the-court, the concern has been just how much he has enjoyed. This was evident in New York, where his undoubted talents weren't utilised as the Knicks would have like, due in part to Randolph's love for the New York City nightlife. He was eventually traded to the Clippers for next to nothing.
If there is one City that can rival New York for it's nightlife, it's Los Angeles. This proved to be a temptation Randolph couldn't resist and his performances were suffering as a result. After a suspension for punching an opponent, Randolph was traded to Memphis in July 2009 for Quentin Richardson, such was their eagerness to rid themselves of the troublesome forward. It was the wake-up call Randolph needed and the penny seems to have finally dropped for him in Memphis. He is a two-time All-Star and a fierce interior presence who is capable of influencing games significantly on both ends of the floor.
Last night in Oklahoma was no different. Randolph dominated on the block, finishing with 28 points, 14 rebounds and 2 assists, driving his team over the finish line. He has an infectious personality and it is evident his teammates rely on him to be their emotional leader, a role he may have shunned away from in the early stages of his career. Randolph, now 31, realises that there isn't much longer to make a lasting impression on the game he has taken so much from and he won't have a better opportunity to make it to the Finals.
The Grizzlies have more than just Randolph at their disposal. They also have the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol. Marc, the younger of the Gasol twins, has always had to deal with the comparisons with his older brother. While Pau was winning multiple rings with the Lakers, Marc was struggling to make a name for himself in the league. After some initial growing pains, he is now flourishing. He is widely regarded as one of the top three Center's in the league and also provides efficient scoring to go along with his stifling defense. How ironic that the roles appear to have been reversed between the two brothers, with Pau's struggles this season well documented. When Gasol and Randolph are playing well consistently together there isn't a frontcourt in the entire league that can live with them.
The emergence of Mike Conley has also been a key contributing factor in Memphis' success. Conley was a highly touted prospect out of Ohio State and alot was expected from him when he was drafted 4th overall in 2007. He has struggled at times to live up to the hype surrounding him but this season has seen a total transformation in his fortunes. He has turned his career around and is now the floor general the Grizzlies were hoping for when they selected him in the top 5. The most notable improvement is in his distribution and timing of his passes. His on-court vision and trust in his teammates has grown with each game this season and this will need to continue if he is to lead the Grizzlies to the NBA finals. Conley, in his sixth year in the league, is showing the kind of maturity a seasoned veteran should and we cannot stress the importance of Conley's influence heading into the business end of the season.
When Memphis traded away their top perimeter scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto in return for Tayshaun Prince, the consensus was that they would be weaker for it. This was seen as a cost cutting measure as they looked to the future. Prince, in the twilight of his career, wasn't expected to make a significant contribution and was a definite downgrade from Gay's supreme talents.
How wrong we were.
Prince is a winner, having won Championships with the Detroit Pistons and his experience has been a monumental addition to a team familiar with failing in the post-season. He has always been known for his lock-down defense and has done a fantastic job since his arrival of installing a winning mentality in Memphis. Prince's length is the key to his defense, he has incredibly long arms and he knows how to use them, causing his opponent to adjust their shot on almost every possession. This was already a hard-nosed defensive team and the addition of Prince turned out to be a masterstroke in the slowed-down games the Playoffs bring. Gay can only watch on, wondering what might have been as he tries to bring the struggling Raptors back to relevance.
Can the Grizzlies really go all the way and claim their first NBA Championship? They have certainly shown that they are capable. They have made short work of their first two Playoff series so far. What's even more positive is that they were severe underdogs in both series'. They are a resolute unit and found the weak spots in both teams and were relentless in exploiting those weakness. There is an underlying nasty streak to this team, a character trait that will stand them in good stead if they are to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy.
The Thunder simply missed Russell Westbrook more than they initially thought. He is one of the few players in the league that can win games single-handedly and the Thunder thought getting by with just Kevin Durant would have got them through the series. They seriously underestimated either Westbrook's importance to the team or Grizzlies resolve. Either way, they were embarrassed and saw their dream of going one better than last year completely capitulate.
The Grizzlies will now have a few days to rest and prepare for the Conference finals while the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs look to be going the seven games in the closest contest of the Playoffs so far. The Spurs would be a far better match up for Memphis as they have the potential to bully their ageing front-court while also trusting Tony Allen and Conley to contain the Spurs' most dangerous scorers in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
The Warriors would provide a much sterner test. Their front-court is vastly underrated and would not be intimidated like the majority of other teams. They also have one of the elite scorers in the game in Steph Curry, who has been unguardable in these Playoffs. The Grizzlies physicality may cause him problems getting to the basket and his mid-range game could be his Achilles heel. If they could contain Curry then they would have an outstanding chance of defeating the inexperienced Warriors team.
In all likelihood, it will be the Miami Heat awaiting them in the Finals, should they be fortunate enough to get there. The Heat have been as dominant as any team in living memory this season and it's going to take something very special to beat them over a seven-game series. The Grizzlies do match-up well with the Heat, they are weakest in their interior and if Conley can get the ball to Gasol and Randolph in the post they could have some joy. Stopping MVP LeBron James and Dwayne Wade is almost impossible, if anyone can do it you would have to say it would be Prince and Allen. They have been given the responsibility of guarding premiere players in Playoff games before and would relish the opportunity to do so when the stakes are at their highest. So, things aren't as bleak as they seem when examining the chances of a Memphis Championship.
This has been the Cinderella story of the post-season so far however, even the most optimistic Grizzlies fan would admit the odds are stacked against them if they are to do the improbable.
That, as always, suits Memphis just fine.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_