Commentary

Are Grizzlies now best of West?

Originally Published: May 11, 2013
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol swatted the question away like he would a lazy jump hook shot in the paint.

This idea that his Memphis Grizzlies just might be for real, or even (gasp!) the favorites in the Western Conference now that the other three remaining teams are dealing with injuries to key players, might be all the NBA world is buzzing about.

They might even be playing like the most dangerous team in the West now that they've won six of their past seven playoff games and Mike Conley is finally starting to believe he's a top-five point guard in the league.

But this idea does nothing for Gasol and his bunch of gritty overachievers. In fact, shut down that talk right now. Don't even say it out loud.

"The tags, all that stuff, we'll leave it to you guys," Gasol said pointedly after the Grizzlies took a 2-1 lead in this Western Conference semifinal series with an 87-81 win over the Thunder in Game 3 on Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeMemphis Grizzlies
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesTayshaun Prince and Tony Allen lent a hand to Mike Conley in their Game 3 win over Oklahoma City.

"It doesn't faze us, it never has, never will."

These are the Grizzlies, after all. Who would they be without a heavyweight to take down?

No, this idea that they're starting to look like the biggest threat in the West to LeBron James' second straight title, shut that down before you mess up this grind they've got going.

"We're still hungry," Conley said after converting his second straight "save situation" with four free throws in the final minute of the game. "We're not thinking we're above anybody. We're still hungry."

Indeed, they are. As Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said before the game, "We've been here before." The second round, that is. Two years ago against the Thunder.

That season went down as a success for the Grizzlies after they upset the top-seeded Spurs. It also created expectations around here. Expectations that weren't met last season with the seven-game, first-round series loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Now that they've atoned for that one -- beating the Clippers in Round 1 last week -- it's time to get back on the climb.

"In order for us to be one of those elite teams," said the Grizzlies' ultimate grinder, Tony Allen. "In order for us to be considered a top-level team, we've got to come out here and win games, go to the next round."

It is Hollins' job to balance all that. The need for his team to believe it not only can get to the next round and beyond, but should, without smothering the Grizzlies' well-stoked fire.

On Friday afternoon Hollins was challenging his team to dream big, saying, "Hopefully we'll win a championship at the end of the year ... but that would just be a starting point. Then you want to be a perennial championship contender."

On Saturday afternoon he was back up in his team's grill on the bench, reminding his players to arm wrestle for every inch.

"Every team I've ever played on, if they're not going at each other, challenging each other, then they're not very competitive," Hollins said, brusquely.

Fortunately the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder are still way too live an opponent for the Grizzlies to be all that susceptible to a letdown. The Thunder nearly won this game despite some atrocious shooting. Really, really atrocious shooting.

"Everything was good other than we couldn't make a basket," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We missed a couple easy, easy, easy [baskets]. I wish we could get those same shots."

Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson combined to hit 16 of their 34 shots (47 percent). The rest of the team made just 16 of 54 (29.6 percent).

Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha each missed all four shots they took. Nick Collison hit just one of his four shots. Derek Fisher went 3-for-8.

And then there was Serge Ibaka. Officially he finished with 13 points on 6-for-17 shooting and played very good defense on Zach Randolph.

Unofficially, he has become the X factor in this series and perhaps the playoffs for the Thunder.

Durant has taken his game to another level since Westbrook was injured in Game 2 of the Thunder's first-round series win over Houston. He was sublime again Saturday with 25 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals.

But he just can't do this alone. It's too much, even for him. Other guys have to make shots. Have to do more than before. Or even just do as much as they'd done before.

Defensively, Ibaka has been solid, as always. But offensively, he's lost right now. The two wide-open dunks he clanked off the rim Saturday are just the most visible symptoms of the issue that has seemed to snowball on itself since he missed a putback in Game 4 of the Houston series.

"We have to get him confidence," Durant said of Ibaka. "We have to get him some shots and get him going. We can't let him put too much pressure on himself. It's all in his mind. If he thinks he's going to make those shots, he's going to make them.

"He missed a few blocks, a few layups and a few open jump shots. I have to pick him up, and that's what I've been doing."

Now, if Ibaka does get it going ... watch out.

Not that you need to remind the Grizzlies.

"That's the obvious, they're short-handed so they've become a makeshift team," Allen said. "But we've still got to respect who they are."

Across the way in the Memphis locker room, general manager Chris Wallace was smiling. He's the superstitious sort, having been through enough in the NBA to know that anything and everything can happen at any time. You must always grind on.

"I don't even want to touch that one," Wallace said when a reporter mentioned the f-word ("favorite").

"I was with the Celtics in 2002, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals [against the New Jersey Nets]," Wallace said. "We were down 27 or 28 points late in the third [quarter] and we came back.

"Well, after that game, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker pulled a Michael Jordan and led the crowd in cheers.

"[Nets point guard] Jason Kidd went room to room to his team in the hotel that night and said, 'Can you believe those guys went on the scorer's table and celebrated after the third game?'

"Talk about tempting fate. We lost the rest of the games in the series, got beat 4-2, and they swept us the next year so we got beat seven consecutive playoff games against the Nets, after those guys jumped on the scorer's table and led the cheers.

"So ... "

Wallace laughed before finishing the sentence.

No, don't call Memphis anything just yet. Please.