Thursday March 24th, 2011

BOSTON -- The Grizzlies haven't made the playoffs since 2005-06, and they've never won a playoff game. But they came here Wednesday and looked more playoff-ready than the contending Celtics in a 90-87 victory.

"They play physical basketball right now,'' said Boston center Nenad Krstic, who continues to start while the Celtics await the return of Shaquille O'Neal. "I don't think we adjusted very well.''

Who would have thought that the Grizzlies would be establishing the standards that define playoff success? Boston coach Doc Rivers had been hoping Memphis would help his team return to its core values.

"We have to get back to protecting the paint; they're No. 1 in paint points," Rivers said before the game. "We have to get back to our transition D; I think they're seventh in the league in fast-break points. And then we have to get back to dominating on the boards, and I think they're [sixth in offensive rebound percentage]. You couldn't pick a better team to play right now because they challenge all the things that we have to get better at.''

The Grizzlies are a traditional low-post team in a league that has grown obsessed with perimeter play. Memphis used its inside size advantage against the Celtics to outrebound them 43-37, including an 11-4 edge on the offensive boards.

But the most impressive trend for the Grizzlies was their 52-26 dominance in points in the paint. They've now outscored opponents in the lane for 19 straight games (by an impressive 18.2 points per game), the longest such streak of the new century. This is a young team that is establishing the oldest traditional standards of NBA success around the low-post skills of power forward Zach Randolph (20 points and 12.5 rebounds), center Marc Gasol (11.6 and 6.8) and backup big men Darrell Arthur and Leon Powe, who added 13 points off the bench to help finish off the Celtics.

It works because Randolph has matured as a passer, which has in turn enabled leadership skills that were hard to find earlier in his NBA career, when he was known as a black hole who couldn't deal with a second defender. Leadership doesn't require charisma or rhetoric, as Randolph has learned.

"It's definitely not [based on] personality -- it's what you know out there on the court and what you do,'' he said. "I used to try to play through the double team, and now I get the ball out faster, before it gets to me, to find open guys shots.''

The Grizzlies also benefit from the experience of young point guard Mike Conley, who grew up feeding entry passes to Greg Oden in high school and college -- prehistoric skills in this era of guards who have been raised on dribble-drive basketball.

"We are one of the few teams who play through our bigs so much,'' Conley said. "The bigs have to be ready to seal the man off, and you have to be ready to make the pass at the right time. A split second off the timing can cause a turnover, it can cause a three-second violation, it can cause them to get bumped out so they're not in scoring position anymore, and then it just turns into an isolation play. You'd rather have your big guys being able to just catch it and turn around and dunk it or lay it up.''

Memphis has obscured its weakness -- it ranks No. 29 in three-point percentage -- by focusing on its biggest strength, while also improving its defense this season.

"If you have somebody you can go to in the post, I think most coaches would love to do that first and play inside-out with a post player," coach Lionel Hollins said. "I think the game is still about getting to the basket. With the college game and everybody shooting threes, they come to the pros and that's what they want to do. But the teams that are able to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket and get to the foul line and get the other team in foul trouble are still the teams that have consistent offense night in and night out.''

The Grizzlies, who will play the rest of the season without injured 20-point scorer Rudy Gay, lead Houston by two games for the eighth playoff spot and trail No. 7 New Orleans by a half game in the West. You'll be able to tell that Memphis has turned the corner this year when you see Hollins, his staff and players removing the beards they've been growing since March 2. They've agreed to not shave until a playoff berth has been clinched, which is why Hollins has postponed the team picture until sometime next month when, he firmly believes, they'll have celebrated, shaved and begun to look like themselves again.

Now, let's move on to your questions ...

Kyrie Irving is projected to go among the top two picks in this year's draft, yet he's played a measly 10 games this season for Duke. Remind me: What's the point of the draft's age limit when players really don't even need to play a year in college? -- Eric, Durham, N.C.

Well said. To Irving's credit, however, he has spent a year on a college campus, and he has attended Mike Krzyzewski's practices and game breakdowns. He has been exposed to an environment that can only help him.

I've been ambivalent about this age-rule question. On the one hand, I understand the view of players who wonder why they should be forced to attend college when they might prefer to start their pro careers. Many of the league's best players -- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Amar'e Stoudemire and others -- haven't been set back by jumping from high school to the NBA.

On the other hand, as long as the agreement is collectively bargained, the owners and players have the right to agree that an extra year of maturity is good for the players. The question would take care of itself if there were some kind of viable pro league that could give players a substantial salary (as opposed to the money paid by the D-League) for a year or two before they entered the NBA. Right now, the only option is to play professionally in Europe, which is a harsh environment for American teenagers.

If the commissioner were to allow for a significant difference in rookie salary based on years of college experience or completed degree programs, what effect would this have? Would that even be legal? -- Tim Tierney, via Facebook

I can't imagine it would withstand a legal challenge, and I surely don't see the players going for such a standard. As much as the NBA would like to see every player earning a college degree, the personnel scouts don't take academic standing into much account when they're rating the prospects for each draft. Even if you were to reward a player some kind of bonus for staying in school for an extra year, that bonus likely wouldn't make up for the full year of salary the player lost. Nice idea, Tim, but it's a non-starter.

Brad Stevens has led Butler to unprecedented success and many schools are clamoring for his coaching expertise. Do you think he'd have any success in the NBA? -- Nathan, Indianapolis

Stevens -- like most of his peers in college -- would face a rough transition to the NBA, where most of the players make more money and have more job security than the head coach. College coaches are used to having control over the locker room; in the NBA, however, coaches must earn the respect of players. In addition, coaches who have made the transition from college to NBA will tell you that the pro game is much more sophisticated strategically.

I don't think any coach who lacks NBA experience -- even someone as talented and self-assured as Stevens -- would have success unless he was able to spend several years as an NBA assistant before taking control of a franchise. A guy who could do very well in the NBA is former Utah coach Jim Boylen, whose college experience is supplemented by 13 years as an NBA assistant, including 11 years alongside Rudy Tomjanovich during the Rockets' championship era.

What players should the Cavaliers target in the draft? -- Kevin Glenn, via Facebook

This is an easy one, Kevin: They should draft the best players available. They're not going to draft based on position, because they need everything. If they hold their current ground at Nos. 1 and 8 (the latter from the Clippers) in the first round, they'll be looking at either Irving or Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas with the first pick. If that's the case, I'd guess the favorite would be Irving for his leadership skills at a position that has become important in the league. But the results of the May 17 lottery will help make that decision for them.

How would the Kings' possible move to Anaheim affect this summer's labor talks? -- Bobby, London

Little effect. The Kings are making plans to leave Sacramento because they couldn't agree with local government on a new arena. The one aspect of their potential departure that will come up this summer is the idea of funding new facilities in future. Government money is going to be hard to come by for future projects, which means the NBA may have to help individual teams finance new arenas. That fund would have to be created as part of the new CBA and revenue-sharing plans that are currently under negotiation.

In talking about the Spurs' recent losses, why does no one mention that the season is a long one and the Spurs hammered the same teams as hard or nearly as hard and have either the lead in the season series or tied it? The Spurs' record is 11-6 against the top-tier teams in the league with a positive point differential -- and Tony Parker was returning from an injury and/or the Spurs had played very difficult schedules coming into each of those losses. Too much is made of "revenge games" and too little emphasis is placed on the body of work, overall record and point differential that portend much more for playoff and title success. -- Peter, Bethesda, Md.

You have to admit the revenge games are interesting, Peter, and they do play a role. You often hear coaches saying how difficult it is to overcome an opponent's need for revenge after having clobbered it a few weeks earlier. But I agree with your view, and I do believe enormous attention is paid to the body of work going into the playoffs ... and no team has done better work this season than San Antonio.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.