With eight wins in their last nine games, some NBA pundits believe the Memphis Grizzlies are the favorites in the Western Conference to advance to the NBA Finals. The teams split the season-series this year, indicating the margin between the two is rather slim. The difference — as in most series — will come down to small adjustments and key performances from the supporting cast. Here's some story lines that may be important to monitor.
Trick or Treat.
With Tony Allen, you really don't know whether you are getting the trick or the treat. Allen's performance varies, oftentimes shifting many times during each game — he's either a staunch perimeter defender, with a penchant for gambling successfully in the passing lanes, or he's an overaggressive offensive non-factor that cramps the floor for his teammates. There isn't much in between. Case in point: Oklahoma City lackadaisically completely forgot (or simply didn't care) to defend Allen in transition during Game 5. Mike Conley easily found Allen, and he converted on a three-point play that stretched the lead to eight points with 1:26 remaining in the final period. Earlier in the same game, Allen threw a shirt in the direction of Derek Fisher, drawing an unnecessary technical foul when Memphis held a double-digit lead.
But for the most part — occasional missteps aren't surprising anymore — Allen has been an incredibly valuable cog for Memphis. His defensive acumen is obvious; Memphis is allowing 98.7 points per 100 possessions, around their season-mark, and 109.3 when Allen sits during the playoffs, per NBA.com. Additionally, just about any two-man combination including him — Conley, Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince, etc — is crushing the opposition defensively. It isn't even fair.
San Antonio isn't immune to Allen either. During the regular season, they were 19.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Allen on the court. The San Antonio Spurs also shot worse from every location on the floor and they corralled less of their own and Memphis' misses overall, per NBA.com. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins is trusting Allen more thus far, which is mostly a positive, but it does give Tony Parker, or whomever needs it at the time, a chance to breathe on defense, since Allen can't contribute much aside from weak-side cuts. Allen has been a treat and needs to eliminate his mental errors to give Memphis a real chance in this series.
Mike Conley's emergence.
With Rudy Gay out of the picture — and his possession stalling isolations eliminated — Conley has more offensive responsibility in the Grizzlies offensive hierarchy. He hasn't been a true star, and Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph precipitate much of the offense still, but his play has been a revelation and a huge reason Memphis is in position to make the NBA Finals. Conley's shooting efficiency numbers are down across the board, a trade-off the Grizzlies will live with because he's facilitating the offense better (7.6 assists per game during the playoffs), and limiting turnovers. His pick-and-roll game has developed to the point where he can consistently attack a defense on either side of the screen with either hand, too. If the offense stagnates a bit, and Gasol and Randolph have little room to breathe in the post, Conley is a reliable isolation option if need be, which only frees the rest of the offense to do what they best.
Gay was still very much part of the picture when Memphis played the Spurs in the regular season and Conley wasn't as confident as he is now; it's worth noting, however, that Memphis scored an abysmal 74.7 points per 100 possessions without Conley against the Spurs. If Conley falters offensively, the Grizzlies don't have much ancillary weapons to give ample support.
Jerryd Bayless is an enigma.
Bayless is everything Allen is not. He can score, handle a light offensive load and handle the ball as a secondary option but his defense isn't too reliable. His minutes have dropped to a shade under 20 minutes per game during the playoffs and he's only made 36.3 percent of his shots — Allen, meanwhile, is shooting 45.2 percent. Memphis' starting lineup has been excellent on both sides of the ball in the playoffs but once you replace Allen, it gets more dicey and the unit somehow allows 23.4 points per 100 possessions more with Bayless in his place.
Yet, despite his shortcomings, Bayless could be an X-Factor this series. In minutes Conley shares with Bayless, he makes a higher percentage of his shots (44.8 percent compared to 34.7 percent with Allen at 2-guard), due in part because he's able to get to the restricted area more often. Defenders can't crowd Conley on forays to the rim like they can when Allen is stationed on the perimeter. The defensive difference does make this a difficult decision but perhaps Bayless can give the Grizzlies an extra offensive punch alongside Conley.
Which Memphis team do we have here?
Truth is, the Spurs have no idea who they will be playing Sunday afternoon. They split the season series with Memphis at two — with each win coming before the Gay deal. Memphis beat the Spurs soundly in the series finale without Gay but that isn't a big deal because the Spurs missed Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard due to injury. Game 1 will be totally different.
So how different is Memphis now? On the margins, not entirely so — Memphis' offense improved by 2.9 points per 100 possessions, up to 18th, and the defense remained tough. But stylistically — Gasol and Conley generate more offense now — they've changed, likely for the better. The Grizzlies rarely shoot 3-pointers so they rely heavily on Conley to break the defense down and Gasol to provide freelance creativity from the elbow. It's worked wonderfully so far but it does give them less margin for error.
But guess what? Though Gay's absence may seem like it hurts their crunch-time productivity, since Gay could create his shot whenever, that hasn't materialized. Memphis was a middling "clutch" team prior to the trade, per NBA.com, but they've jumped to fourth in net rating since, outscoring the opposition by 16.4 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of five-point margin (or fewer). San Antonio can't expect to have an easy time closing out the Grizzlies at the end of games.
On the road again.
Only the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder won more road games than Memphis this season. They nearly etched out a victory in San Antonio in early December, only to lose by four points in overtime. Memphis is comfortable on the road. They took Game 1 in San Antonio two years ago and that set the tenor for the rest of the series. Nothing will come easy, even at the AT&T Center.