NBA playoffs preview: Grizzlies need peak Conley to contend with Warriors

Evaluating the second-round series between the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies. 
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Matchup: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Season Series: 2-1, Warriors

Efficiency rankings:

Golden State (Off. Rating: 2, Def. Rating: 1, Net Rating: 1)

Memphis (Off. Rating: 13, Def. Rating: 4, Net Rating: 11)

The Matchup​

In broad strokes, this is a classic old school vs. new school confrontation. The Grizzlies’ style fits the traditional playoff model, with an offense that revolves around the low-post work of their two big men, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and a defense that’s especially stingy in the paint. The Warriors are exactly the opposite, with an offense predicated on spreading the floor, the long-range shooting of guards Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson, and a switching, scrambling perimeter D that creates turnovers and leads to transition points.

The Warriors beat the Grizzlies twice in three tries during the regular season, but it would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from that. Golden State center Andrew Bogut didn’t play in the Warriors’ loss, and Memphis didn’t have point guard Mike Conley or wing defender Tony Allen when Thompson went off for 26 second-quarter points in one of the Grizzlies’ losses. There are those who believe that the Warriors’ style can’t win a championship, and there are some who think that the Grizzlies’ approach is too old-fashioned to win a title in today’s NBA. The outcome of this series will provide ammunition for one of those arguments.

The Case For The Warriors

Why is Golden State favored? Do the math—the Warriors make threes and the Grizzlies make twos. Memphis was 29th in the league in both three-pointers made (5.2) and attempted (15.2) per game. Golden State, meanwhile, led the league in three-point percentage (39.8) and was second in three-pointers made (10.8). The Grizzlies are a solid defensive team overall, but three-point defense is their one weakness, and Curry, Thompson, and friends are well-equipped to take advantage of that.

The Warriors are just a bad matchup for Memphis with their ability to play small lineups that will cause problems for the Grizzlies’ front line and their firepower in the backcourt, which becomes an even bigger issue if Memphis point guard Mike Conley doesn’t play (more on that below). Memphis will have a hard time containing all the facets of the Warrior offense, and the Grizzlies don’t play fast enough or shoot threes well enough to keep up.

The Case For The Grizzlies

In Gasol and Randolph, Memphis has more than 500 pounds of bulk to throw around in the low post. They’re quite capable of getting Warrior center Andrew Bogut into foul trouble or at the very least wearing him down; and without Bogut, the Warriors are small—maybe too small to keep Gasol and Randolph from taking control of the paint. The Grizzles are built to play the kind of grind-it-out basketball that playoff series tend to feature, and they have been relatively successful at it in postseasons past.

The Warriors took advantage of New Orleans’ playoff inexperience in the first round, but there will be no such advantage against the battle-tested Grizzlies. If Memphis can slow the pace down and hit the offensive boards well enough to keep the Warriors’ transition game from getting into gear, they could piece together an upset.

The Matchup

Mike Conley. With all due respect to Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih, who filled in admirably at point guard for Conley, the Grizzlies will be badly overmatched in the backcourt as long as he is sidelined. Conley underwent surgery after suffering facial fractures against Portland that kept him out of the last two games of the first round.

Tony Allen is an elite defender, but he can’t check Curry and Thompson at the same time, and the Warriors will surely try to attack with whichever of the two Allen doesn’t guard. If Conley does make it back with anything close to normal effectiveness, it becomes a fairer fight in the backcourt, and his teammates will get better shots because of his playmaking ability. A relatively healthy Conley would make the series far more interesting.

Telling Stat: -52

Zach Randolph’s plus/minus against the Warriors during the regular season was -52. This indicates that Randolph is a man without a matchup against Golden State. Draymond Green has a quickness advantage against him on offense, and Green is so skilled at defending bigger players like Randolph in the low post that the Grizzlies don’t have as big an advantage there as they normally would. The Warriors are sure to test Randolph’s ability to defend on the perimeter.

Consider, for example, the problems they will present for the less-than-nimble ZBo in Curry/Green pick-and-rolls. For the Grizzlies, it won’t be pretty. It’s worth noting that in the Grizzlies lone victory over Golden State, it was the performance of their bench, which went on a 20-0 run with Randolph off the floor, that made the difference. Memphis will have to figure out early in the series whether Randolph can be a positive factor for them, and be prepared to adjust accordingly.

The Pick

Warriors in five.The Warriors are healthy, they’ve had plenty of rest after sweeping New Orleans in the first round, and they have had lots of time to prepare for the Grizzlies, whom they have known would be their likely opponent ever since Memphis took a 3-0 series lead against Portland last Saturday. The Grizzlies have only three days to get ready for the Warriors, and they have to deal with the uncertainty over Conley’s availability.

Even if he’s on the floor, it’s hard to imagine that Conley will be able to play at peak efficiency, which means the Grizzlies won’t either. Throw in the Warriors’ home-court advantage at rowdy Oracle Arena, and this series shapes up as a tall task for Memphis. The Grizzies are proud, tough, and resourceful enough to make the games close, but probably not enough to hold off the Warriors, who played their best game of the playoffs in the final game of the Pelicans series. Golden State may be just hitting its postseason stride, and if that’s true, it will be a short series.