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Classifying the NBA’s Playoff Contenders, Part 3

The NBA Playoffs tip off this weekend. While 19 16 teams are currently jostling for playoff positioning, they’re not all equal combatants in the NBA’s marathon postseason. Here’s group three of our playoff classifications.

“Here if you need us”

Memphis Grizzlies
Last year, the 8th seeded Grizzlies bullied the top seeded San Antonio Spurs out of the playoffs in the 1st round. This year, the Grizzlies have been getting plenty of respect and attention as a possible playoff “sleeper.” (How a team is considered a “sleeper” with their track record and that roster is beyond me.)

With the addition of Rudy Gay (who missed the 2011 postseason) and the return of Zach Randolph from January knee surgery, Memphis is certainly poised to make a run at the Western Conference title. In fact, when you look at how the Grizzlies match up against other Western Conference foes, it’s reasonable to think they’re the team in the West best suited for the playoffs. The Grizzlies are big, physical, and play the finest defense in the conference. They have perimeter defenders to lock up OKC’s guards, San Antonio’s scoring combo of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. Furthermore, the Grizzlies have the interior size and strength to exploit the Thunder and compete with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum while giving Tim Duncan and the Spurs thin front line all kinds of fits.

So why are the Grizzlies listed here and not with the top tier contenders? Uncertainty. Although Randolph is back in Memphis’ lineup, he’s not back to the unstoppable level he was at a year ago. With Randolph still hobbled and the absence of the undervalued Darrell Arthur, the Grizzlies aren’t as imposing down low as they were a year ago. Additionally, the road to the Western Conference finals for Memphis will probably go through San Antonio.

Fittingly, the Spurs pose the worst matchup for the Grizzlies (or so I think). Unlike last season, Manu Ginobili appears to be fully healthy and San Antonio added some much needed toughness to their frontcourt. Combine those improvements with the elevated play of Tony Parker and Gary Neal, and I think the Grizzlies will struggle to score enough points to eliminate the Spurs for a second straight year.

All in all, if there’s one team from this group that could reach the conference finals and flirt with an NBA title, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies. But even they’ll need to catch some breaks.

Los Angeles Clippers
Did I just write off the Clippers without much thought by advancing the Grizzlies to the 2nd round against San Antonio? Yes, yes I did. Three things often decide playoff games; defense, a go-to-player, and experience. The Clippers can claim only one of those three.

Anyone who’s watched the Clippers this season knows they’re a disaster down the stretch in close games. Blake Griffin is a very good player for 3 ½ quarters, but when push comes to shove, he’s irrelevant. Here’s why: 1. Griffin can’t play with his back to the basket. 2. He hesitates in the closing minutes because he can’t convert free throws. 3. Too often he looks to pass without even pretending he’s a threat to score or attack the rim. In other words, outside of Chris Paul, the Clippers are a lost bunch in tight games. (Reason #1 the injury to Chauncey Billups was so devastating.)

Granted, having Chris Paul as your go-to-player is a pretty good deal. He’s the best point guard in the league when it comes to smarts, leadership, and running a team. If it weren’t for Paul, the Clippers would again be lottery bound. Unfortunately for Clipper nation, the Clippers will most likely luck into the toughest 1st round opponent of any of the top four seeds in either conference. The Grizzlies are bigger, tougher, and know exactly what it takes to win in the playoffs. More importantly, Memphis won’t shy away from putting Griffin on his rear when he recklessly attacks the rim. This is the playoffs. If you want to posterize someone, it’s going to cost you. Think of Tony Allen as the tax collector.

Indiana Pacers
I think the Pacers are a better team than the Clippers. They’re deeper, smarter, and more disciplined. Unfortunately, the Pacers play in the Eastern Conference where the two heaviest favorites reside, so Indiana’s chances of sneaking into the NBA Finals would require them to shock the world not once, but twice.

I like the Pacers for the same reasons I like the Grizzlies. The Pacers are tough as nails and have absolutely no fear of the Bulls or Heat. Where the Pacers will struggle, though, is in those moments when a team looks at its star and says, “Take us home.” The Bulls have Derrick Rose. The Heat has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Pacers have… Danny Granger? Yeh, that’s not cutting it. Lacking a true facilitating point guard also hurts Indiana.

Regardless, the Pacers have the potential to pull off a shocking upset in the 2nd round if they get a spectacular series from George Hill and Roy Hibbert, but more importantly, they’ll need Paul George to come full circle as a defensive menace. As talented as George is, containing LeBron and/or Wade for a full series is a tall order for a player as young and inexperienced as George.

Dallas Mavericks
I kept the Mavericks in this group out of respect for what they accomplished last season even though they probably belong in the “We may cause ulcers, but nothing terminal,” class.

Needless to say, it’s been a rough season for Dallas. As Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird all did after winning a title, Dirk Nowitzki came into the season disinterested and out of shape… wait, that doesn’t sound right. Oh yeah, that’s because world-class champions don’t show up fat and slow. (Seriously, Dirk. Way to claw and fight your way out of the “he’ll never win a title” scrap heap last year and then follow it up by rolling around in dog poo this season with the worst numbers of your career. I don’t know how to say, “shaking my head” in German, but if I did, I’d put it here.)

Even with Dirk taking half the year off and losing Tyson Chandler to free agency, and despite Lamar Odom secretly sabotaging the Mavericks as retribution for last May’s sweep of the Lakers, the Mavericks still fought their way into the playoffs as a 6th or 7th seed. And that is why I kept the Mavericks as fringe contenders.

Confidence is vital in the postseason. In all likelihood, the Mavericks will face either the Lakers or Thunder in the opening round of the playoffs. If you recall, Dallas eliminated both the Lakers and Thunder en route to winning the title in 2011. Are the Mavericks the same team from a year ago? No. In fact, without Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson’s defensive prowess, Dallas is significantly worse. However, that confidence and championship experience will at the very least give Dallas a fighting chance. And who knows, maybe Dirk will stop playing like he’s still hung-over from last June’s celebration and play like the superstar that drained every clutch shot and carried his team to a championship. How do you say, “anything is possible” in German?

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