The Memphis Grizzlies are good.
That’s the first thing you need to know about the Thunder’s first-round opponent. Don’t let their playoff position fool you. The Grizzlies aren’t your typical 7-seed.
A season of instability and incessant injuries made Memphis have to creep into the playoffs. But the Grizzlies have gotten healthy at the right time and enter Saturday night’s Game 1 as the most dangerous low seed on either side of the bracket.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, sounding equally concerned as complimentary. “Two-seven, that means zero. It’s us against them. They’re a very good basketball team.”
These same Grizzlies needed just five games to eliminate the Thunder in last year’s semifinals. But the Thunder can take solace in knowing Russell Westbrook wasn’t around for that series as he watched while recovering from knee surgery. Memphis, on the other hand, can view the Thunder as a team it has never lost a playoff series to without James Harden on its roster. When the Thunder outlasted the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the 2011 playoffs, Harden still was a rising star coming of OKC’s bench.
That history adds acrimony to what already is destined to be a ferocious battle.
And now, after a trip to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Grizzlies are out to prove they still belong in the same conversation as the conference’s other elite clubs.
Many wrote off Memphis after a poor start. John Hollinger, the Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations and former numbers cruncher/NBA writer at ESPN.com, even poked fun at himself earlier this week for how the formula he invented while at his former employer gave the Grizzlies just a 0.2 percent chance of making the playoffs in mid-December.
Back then, though, things were looking bleak.
Memphis was 10-15 and mired in a five-game losing streak. The Grizzlies’ vaunted defense appeared to be a shadow of its former self, allowing at least 100 points in 12 of those first 25 games, and no end was in sight to their mounting losses.
But there was a reason for Memphis’ struggles.
The Grizzlies released coach Lionel Hollins from his duties after a 56-win season a year ago and went a different direction with first-year coach Dave Joerger. Although an assistant on Hollins’ staff, Joerger still had the challenge of stepping in as a new voice, with new ideas and, in some ways, new principles.
Memphis went 7-5 in its first 12 games while adjusting.
Marc Gasol then went down with an injury in game No. 13.
The All-Star center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year missed 23 consecutive games from Nov. 25 through Jan. 12 with a sprained MCL in his left knee. The Grizzlies went 10-13 without him.
A rash of other injuries disrupted the Grizzlies’ season. Point guard Mike Conley Jr. missed nine games due to ankle and thigh injuries. The Grizzlies went 4-5 without him in the lineup. Shooting guard Tony Allen missed 27 games this season, mostly because of a sprained wrist. Quincy Pondexter was lost for the year with a stress fracture in his foot just 19 games into the season.
On Jan. 7, the Grizzlies traded sixth man Jerryd Bayless to Boston as part of a three-team deal. In exchange, they received Courtney Lee. His arrival forced the Grizzlies to make another adjustment, and this time it was to its starting lineup.
But that’s about when things begin to turn for the Grizzlies. They went 33-13 after Gasol returned to the lineup, and the big man has only gotten better in each subsequent month he’s been back. Since March 1, Gasol has averaged 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 blocks and one steal.
Meanwhile, the additions of Lee and free agent acquisition Mike Miller — who surprisingly was the only Grizzlies player to appear in all 82 games this season — have given Memphis more perimeter shooting than it has had in recent years. Their presence makes perimeter defenders think twice of sagging too far to help on Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post.
After a 15-19 start, the Grizzlies finished 35-13, securing their second consecutive 50-win season and returning back to the place they belonged, back in the playoffs.
Where they’re seeded is all that’s strange now.
But make no mistake, the Grizzlies are good.
Far from your typical No. 7 seed.
“But we’re not scared of anybody, no matter who we play,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant. “We don’t fear anybody. We respect them. We know it’s going to be a tough series. But they are a team that can definitely win a championship, just like any other team in the West. We got our work cut out for us.”