by John Huffstetler
The general consensus regarding the NBA's Western Conference is that Oklahoma City, San Antonio or either LA squad will advance to the NBA title. Most experts overlook the potential for Memphis to reach the finals, but they are the strongest, most well-rounded team in the conference. The recent return of star big man Zach Randolph has keyed a 7-2 run over their last nine games (following a 1-4 mark in his first 5 back while they regained their cohesion), including road wins over Miami, OKC, and the Lakers. In a conference littered with high quality post players, Memphis might have the best post pairing in Randolph and Marc Gasol. While Randolph's true shooting and rebounding %'s have dipped this year following his long injury, he is slowly regaining his form in time for the playoffs. If he can perform offensively at a level similar to last year where he neared the league lead in offensive rebounding while scoring 20 ppg, the Grizzlies major weakness this regular season (22nd in offensive efficiency) becomes a strength in the playoffs. Randolph's return also bodes well for Marc Gasol in the playoffs. The defensive and rebounding stalwart has attempted to fill the void offensively in Randolph's absence; as a result, his true shooting % declined 4.3% this season to a number atypical of Gasol's entire career. Randolph's return allows Gasol to focus on his more comfortable role of rebounding and shutting down opposing post players on defense.
The biggest reason Memphis should be considered the favorite in the Western Conference is their spectacular defense. They rank first in the West in defensive efficiency, which is due to the aforementioned Gasol and elite perimeter stopper, Tony Allen. He can single-handedly shut down the opponents best perimeter scorer on any given night. His presence alone gives the Grizzlies a chance to win any game because he can force a Durant or a Bryant to have an "off night" and earn Memphis a victory. Rudy Gay and Mike Conley have also proven to be capable on-ball defenders in the league, giving Memphis a formidable backcourt defensively.
The return of Randolph remedies the issue of poor offensive efficiency, but another major concern at the beginning of the season for Memphis was their lack of shooting threats. They rank 29th in the league in % of points scored beyond the 3-pt line at 12.7%; however, they recently added much-maligned former star Gilbert Arenas to the roster to give the team more of an outside threat. His addition to the line-up along with recent shooting improvements from Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo have sparked the Grizzlies once anemic 3-pt attack. In the games since Arenas joined the team, Memphis has averaged 7.16 3-pointers made, which is more than 3 per game higher than their season long average of 4. If they continued this pace for an entire season, they would rank in the top 12 of the entire league. Clearly the addition of Arenas has helped the Grizzlies improve dramatically from beyond the arc. With the signing of Arenas and the return of Randolph, the Grizzlies look poised to make a deep playoff push and potentially represent the Western Conference in the NBA finals.
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