Why the Memphis Grizzlies will not win the championship

David Friedman Columnist

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    Can the Memphis Grizzlies bounce back in Game 2 of their NBA playoffs series against the San Antonio Spurs? (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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    The Memphis Grizzlies own the second-best record in the tough Western Conference. They have the league’s top ranked defence (giving up just 95.7 ppg) and their methodical, low post-oriented offense seems ideally suited for the slow style of play often featured in the postseason.

    However, the Grizzlies will not make it to the NBA Finals and, if they catch the wrong match-up, they could fall in the first round for the second year in a row.

    The Grizzlies have a fatal flaw that has ended their recent postseason trips and will ultimately send them home without the championship trophy yet again in 2015.

    The name of the game is basketball – literally, put the ball in the basket – and the Grizzlies are not proficient enough at this most basic skill.

    The Grizzlies’ shooting outside of the paint is particularly deficient and in a seven game series a smart team is going to force Memphis’ worst shooters to take a lot of shots outside of the paint.

    Under the guidance of Coach Lionel Hollins, the Grizzlies quickly improved from being a lottery team in 2010 to being a legitimate contender. Then, new team owners/executives emphasized “advanced basketball statistics,” made some personnel moves based on those numbers and also began offering unwanted advice to Hollins about how to coach the team.

    The Grizzlies declined to offer Hollins a new contract in the summer of 2013, letting him go after the best regular season (56-26) and best playoff run (an appearance in the Western Conference Finals) in franchise history.

    Last season, with Hollins’ replacement Dave Joerger at the helm, the Grizzlies slipped to 50-32 as starting center Marc Gasol missed 23 games. Gasol returned in time for the playoffs and many people described Memphis as a team that nobody wanted to face.

    Oklahoma City did not mind facing Memphis. The Thunder double-teamed the Grizzlies’ big guys and hounded Memphis into .417 field goal shooting. Memphis’ two dominant post players – Gasol and Zach Randolph – shot .405 and .404 from the field after shooting .473 and .467 during the regular season.

    Gasol and Randolph struggled to get open looks because the Thunder crowded them and dared anyone else to make a shot. In 2013-14, the Grizzlies ranked 19th out of 30 teams in three point field goal percentage (.353). That number plummeted to .290 versus the Thunder in the first round.

    The Thunder held the Grizzlies below 90 points in three games while eliminating Memphis. In a game four loss at home, the Grizzlies failed to score 90 points even after a five minute overtime period!

    Nothing has changed this season. The Grizzlies rank 25th in three point field goal percentage (.333).

    Why does this not hurt the Grizzlies in the regular season? It does hurt but the pain can be masked because of the differences between regular season play and postseason play.

    Not only does the competition become tougher in the postseason but the regular season features long road trips, teams play four games in five nights, players battle fatigue and a particular opponent may be hot or cold on a given night.

    In the postseason, there are no long, extended road trips and no back-to-back games, so teams lock in on each other’s weaknesses and attack them mercilessly until the weaker team folds.

    When Randolph fights for position in the paint in the postseason, he will have a big guy behind him and a smaller guy “digging” for the ball. Randolph will either shoot under duress or else pass the ball back to a teammate who did not shoot well from the outside during the regular season and who is not likely to become a pinpoint marksman in the crucible of playoff pressure with the shot clock running down.

    The Grizzlies have their formula. They fired a good coach to stick with that formula and they are not likely to change their ways. The numbers may convince them that they are on a championship path but the eye test – and even some rather basic but essential numbers regarding shooting – reveal the Grizzlies’ fatal flaw.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.