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The road to the NBA Championship, part 6: Walking in Memphis

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The road to a championship is never easy, especially in the wild West, where any team can turn postseason dreams into a nightmare. Here we take a look at our final playoff contender in the series (and possible second round opponent), the Memphis Grizzlies.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

April 15, 2015

Bluff City. The Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll. Home of the Blues. The city where Elvis Presley lived and Martin Luther King Jr. died.

Sun Records started in Memphis, way back in 1952, and introduced the world to musical icons like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin' Wolf, and Roy Orbison. In 1959, a second legendary record label was born in Memphis, Stax Records. For those of you unfamiliar with Stax, it was like Motown but from the South. Some people said it was a grittier soul than the work coming out of Detroit. Booker T. & the MGs, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staples Singers, Delaney and Bonnie, and Albert King all recorded under the Stax label, which still operates today.

A lot of great music has come out of Memphis, and hundreds of songs have been written about Tennessee and it's biggest city. Here's the most recent, a gem by comedian Stephen Lynch.

Also located in Memphis is Elvis Presley's iconic mansion Graceland, which is visited by more than 500,000 tourists each year. Year after year, fans of "the King" pay homage to one of pop music's greatest icons. If you like, you can camp, attend concerts, take guided tours, or even have your wedding there.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Ever step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Of course, there are two Kings in Memphis, and the city is also home to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the place where one of our nation's greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was fatally shot. As big a music fan as I am, I can't help but feel that this is the one place in Memphis that I have to visit. I believe the work that Dr. King did was even more important than the entertainment provided by Mr. Presley. Like Chuck D once said, "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me". While I feel that Chuck is exaggerating for effect, one King was assassinated for preaching equality while the other king died on his bathroom floor in a pool of his own vomit.

We're not here to talk about music or civil rights though, despite Memphis' rich history. We're here to talk about basketball, and more specifically, the Memphis Grizzlies.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies have just finished another strong season. Their 55-27 record is good for 6th best overall (tied with the Spurs), and is the second best regular season in franchise history. The are entering their fifth consecutive postseason, this time hosting the beleaguered Portland Trailblazers in the first round of the playoffs. The winner of that series will be on a collision course with the winner of the Warriors-Pelicans series, and that makes looking at the matchup extremely relevant.

Since I already wrote an article reviewing our games against the Pelicans (sans the last two, since the article was written before our most recent games against them), and took a look at our other potential second round opponent, it's now time for the final review of Western Conference playoff teams.

On December 16th, the Warriors rolled into the FedEx Forum riding a 16 game winning streak. Boasting a 21-2 record, the team hadn't lost a game in over a month, and was coming off wins against playoff teams Houston, Dallas, and New Orleans in the same week. However, Memphis was sitting at #2 in the standings with a 19-4 record, and was riding their own four game winning streak.

The shorthanded Warriors, playing without injured center Andrew Bogut, ran out of energy in the second quarter and were outscored 33-19, leaving them down by eight at the half. Vince Carter was draining threes with Andre Iguodala all over him, Beno Udrih was running circles around Shaun Livingston, and Stephen Curry's .380 TS% looked fantastic compared to Draymond Green's .182.

The Warriors were frustrated. Their shooting had abandoned them, and they trailed the Grizzlies in eFG% .484-.458. Despite missing Bogut, they competed well on the glass and actually led in rebounding 49-48, but they gave up the extra possessions by committing 14 turnovers while only forcing 12 on their opponents. To make matters worse, they only managed to take 12 free throws in the game, while surrendering 19 to the host Grizzlies.

And this happened.

Ballgame. The Warriors fell to the Grizzlies 98-105, snapping their franchise record (and NBA season high) 16 game winning streak. When the team can't shoot, hold on to the ball, or keep their composure, they won't beat a quality opponent like Memphis on the road.

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The Warriors would play in Memphis again on March 27th, this time on a seven game winning streak and with all of their starters healthy. The results were very different this time, as Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 66 points, just 18 points less than the entire Grizzlies team scored in the game. The game was blown open in the third, when the visiting Warriors put up a 31-16 quarter.

''We defend like crazy. We take care of the ball. We move the ball. It's a pretty simple formula. It's not that simple to execute, but our guys are doing it real well.'' -Steve Kerr, March 27th, 2015


''I say just moving the ball," Thompson said of the third-quarter difference. ''It's that simple.''

The Warriors remembered their early loss to the Grizzlies, and this time dominated every facet of the game. Shooting? Their eFG% was .522 while holding the Grizz to .480. Rebounding? The Warriors led 43-40. Turnovers? Our heroes forced 19 while only giving up 14. Even free throws, which the Warriors managed to get 17 attempts compared to 15 for the hometown Grizzlies.  Dave Joerger's squad was toppled by a final tally of 107-84, though the game wasn't even as close as the scoreboard implied.

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The final regular season game between the two teams took place just a few days ago, on April 13th. This time, the Grizzlies got a taste of what games at Oracle Arena feel like, and this time they were the shorthanded team, with point guard Mike Conley out for the contest with a foot injury. Memphis was still battling for playoff seeding, with the #2 seed still up for grabs. The Warriors had already clinched home court throughout the playoffs and had little to play for that night, but the crowd wouldn't allow them to let up, and the Warriors starters responded. The energy in the building has been electric this season, and 19,596 of the loudest fans in the Association made their presence felt.

The Warriors dominated from the tip, taking a 15 point lead after one quarter of play. They extended that lead to 22 points at the half, 68-46, and then tacked on another 5 points to their margin by the end of the third. When Coach Kerr decided to rest his starters for the fourth quarter, the scoreboard said the Warriors led 93-66.

The Warriors would need that lead, as the bench proceeded to squander most of it away while Memphis put up a last ditch 41-18 fourth quarter, much to the chagrin of the Warriors faithful.

The Grizzlies managed to control the glass, leading the rebounding category 44-39, and they also forced 21 Warriors turnovers while only giving up 15. However, the extra eleven possessions weren't enough to compensate for the Warriors hot shooting, and Golden State put up a blistering eFG% of .615 while their defense forced Memphis to shoot a meager eFG% of .444. Add in the 20 free throws that each team sank, and the Warriors would escape the night with a four point victory.

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The Grizzlies boast a big, balanced squad led by Mike Conley and Mark Gasol. Defensive ace Tony Allen, offensive big man Zach Randolph, and Courtney Lee round out their usual starters, though Jeff Green has played in the starting lineup for a lot of games since the team acquired him from the Boston Celtics earlier this year.

Vince Carter, Beno Udrih, and Kosta Koufos figure to play most of the bench minutes in the playoffs for Memphis, though injuries and other situations may lead to some playing time for Jon Leuer and Nick Calathes. Rookies Jordan Adams, JaMychal Green, Jarnell Stokes, and Russ Smith fill out the bottom of the rotation, and probably won't play unless injuries or blowouts allow them to get on the floor. I don't expect some of them to even be on the playoff roster.

Memphis plays a throwback style of ball, ranking 26th in the league in pace and 29th in three point attempts. They might be the only team in the league that starts two post-scoring big men, and they seem to be lacking a consistent scoring threat from the wing. They are hoping that Vince Carter and Jeff Green can get hot enough to add points from the outside, though Courtney Lee is the most efficient option among their top options on the wing.

Despite their "grit and grind" mantra, they rank just 21st in the league in rebounds, 15th in free throw attempts, and 24th in the league in blocks. They value their possessions, ranking 7th in turnovers and 7th in steals, which helps because they are 18th in two point % despite leading the league in two point shot attempts.

Overall, their ORtg is 13th in the league, and their DRtg is 4th. Combined with the snail's pace that they play and they rank second in total points allowed. They rank 8th in margin of victory, beating their opponents by 3.14 points per game.

To beat the Grizzlies, the Warriors will need to push the pace and force Memphis to take threes. Memphis will try to turn the game into a slugfest, but if Curry, Thompson, Barnes, and Green can hit their threes, the Grizzlies will be forced to try and keep up with the Warriors and they won't be able to match the Golden State offense for seven games. Of course, if the Warriors aren't taking care of the basketball and valuing their possessions, the Grizzlies have enough defenders to make the Warriors pay.