Over the past week, I have been trying to convince myself that I don’t have “Mean Girls-type” feelings about the Memphis Grizzlies. But I do. I keep giving them the “Do they even go here?” treatment.
I feel like if I were to hold a massive assembly for all the players in the NBA, it would go just like “Mean Girls” . . . “Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by LeBron James.” Then I’d slowly look around while every single hand in the room shot up in the air.
The Miami Heat are the “Plastics” of the NBA. Everyone knows they’re the most popular team in league, and the favorites to win a second trophy in two years. Every morning, we arrive at school to watch LeBron, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh strut down the hall, while everyone else in the league cowers in fear. This classic scenario has played out for 12 straight wins, even in a close win in double overtime over the Kings Tuesday night.
What we really need right now is the NBA version of Cady Heron. And in case you’re not already familiar with the plot of “Mean Girls“, here’s the scoop: it’s about an awkward high school student, arriving at a new school and confronting the social fabric of the status quo. In order to gain popularity, we witness Lindsay Lohan’s Cady become popular after being accepted by The Plastics–the cool girls–and eventually get the best of them.
In the NBA, Cady is best personified by Memphis, the only team in the NBA capable of beating Miami in a seven game series. When they’ve met and Miami has gone small, Memphis stayed large. Marc Gasol and Zach “Z-Bo” Randolph represent something Miami has trouble defending: low post scoring and a true perimeter game. More impressive, Memphis hasn’t lost a step since trading Rudy Gay to Toronto; in fact, they’ve gone 7-2 since the trade. These Grizzlies are Cady Strong.
So what does this mean now that the playoff picture is starting to take shape? Memphis facing Miami in the Finals will require some major upsets to happen, but it’s not unthinkable. Could Memphis beat San Antonio? Absolutely. They did it two years ago. Memphis also matches up well against Oklahoma City, especially now that they’re without the James Harden third option. Russell Westbrook can’t drive into the lane effectively against Z-Bo and Gasol, which leaves Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant as their primary scoring option; not a bad problem to have, but still not ideal for the Thunder.
Defense isn’t like offense. It’s not sexy. We don’t get to see LeBron vault through the air from the three point line for a dunk. It’s not a patented Kobe Bryant fadeaway jumper. It isn’t giggling as JaVale McGee does something incredibly stupid, yet still miraculously scores. Defense happens when shots don’t get made and when jumpers go contested. The Memphis Grizzlies play defense-first basketball and for purists like me, it’s beautiful to watch.
Tayshaun Prince and Mike Conley work gracefully clogging passing lanes in tandem. It’s almost 2-3-2, like something Tom Izzo‘s Michigan State teams run, but not a true zone. Z-Bo and Gasol have played together long enough to understand where they need to be on the floor and that frees up Conley to use his quickness for steals.
When we talk about underrated shooting guards, Tony Allen tops my list, for the entire NBA. He quietly goes about getting 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks per game. That’s not something any normal shooting guard does but in Memphis’ defense-first setting, his skill set is extremely disruptive to opposing offenses.
NBA pundits like to make the league a player-driven thing and to a point, they’re right. No matter what you think about the superstars, it’s still a team game, heavily dependent upon who is guarding who, where they are, athleticism and coaching. Miami may have eye-popping PER numbers, but Hollinger’s system does a poor job accounting for defense and everyone is aware of it. If Memphis can survive the West, they’ll give Miami seven games they aren’t prepared for. Just like Cady gave The Plastics.