If the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs entered the playoffs as the prohibitive favorites in the Western Conference, then perhaps no team was a trendier pick than Memphis. The Grizzlies had won six straight entering the postseason, had finished April 13-3 and, with a healthy Zach Randolph back in the starting lineup, once again had its go-to post scorer. What we learned after their stunning 27-point collapse against the Clippers in Game 1, though, was that the Grizzlies may lack a true closer.
Randolph can be that guy, as can the limitlessly talented Rudy Gay. O.J. Mayo is another capable scorer in the clutch. But the truly elite teams -- like OKC with Kevin Durant and the Spurs with Tony Parker -- have an unquestioned closer, the one guy to whom they can turn late in games when a bucket is needed.
During the final nine minutes of Game 1, Memphis shot 1-for-14 from the field. In 18 trips down the court, they scored a measly three points and were outscored 26-to-1 to end the game. The Grizzlies tried anything and everything; the Randolph post-ups failed, as did Gay's isolation from the perimeter and pin-downs on the block. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol's screen-and-roll, which had worked for much of the game and most of the season, was defended by LA with superior quickness and lethal trapping.
Memphis won't enjoy any playoff success if it doesn't defend. The old mantra that every team in the NBA makes a run may still ring true, but losing a 21-point lead entering the fourth quarter is a joke. For the sake of argument, let us assume that their defensive failure Sunday night was an aberration. After all, the Grizz rank fifth in the league in points allowed. But if they cannot score at crunch time, then that's a legitimate issue moving forward. The obvious choice for clutch scoring is Gay, who leads the team in points. Gay also shoots 51.2 percent in such situations, according to 82games.com, which specifies clutch scenarios as those in the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than 5 minutes on the clock, when neither team is ahead by more than five points.
But perhaps Gay isn't the right choice, at least not for this series. Individual games dictate who and when teams turn to stars. Very few players in this league can get to the rim like Gay does, but when you penetrate and draw the defense, the right play is often to kick the ball out. And Memphis cannot shoot the three: The Grizzlies are 28th in the league in three-point attempts, with only 12.9 per game, and convert just 32.9 percent of those attempts, which slots them 25th in the league. In other words, Gay simply doesn't have viable options around him on the perimeter, as evidenced in Game 1 with the flammable Nick Young.
The Grizzlies' blueprint for offensive success in last season's playoffs, when they dismantled the Spurs in six games without the injured Gay, was to pound the ball relentlessly inside to Gasol and Randolph. Their 45.2-point average in the paint this year is one of the best in the league, albeit down from their 2011 mark. And while conventional wisdom tells us that feeding the paint generates double-teams and forces kick-outs, LA's strategy in the series opener, particularly late with Reggie Evans defending Randolph, was to play the Memphis bigs straight up.
On one hand, Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins has the luxury of two legitimate go-to threats at closing time. Gay and Randolph are superb shot-creators and both do so in very different ways. But to win consistently at this level, you must have an unquestioned closer -- and all we have to do is look at LeBron James and the Heat. Right now, it remains unclear who exactly that guy is for Memphis.
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