<
>

With or without Conley, Griz face tall task

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Yes, they indeed do math in Memphis.

In fact, one of the brightest minds in the modern NBA analytics revolution is former ESPN guru John Hollinger, now a prominent executive in the Memphis Grizzlies’ front office.

So the doomsday data is not a foreign concept for Memphis.

The Grizzlies have seen all the numbers. They’ve been inundated with the metrics and understand how their second-round playoff series against Golden State is supposed to play out. According to computations -- and those who vehemently vouch for them -- the Grizzlies would be lucky if they aren't swept by the top-seeded, historically dominant Warriors.

“That’s fine,” Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said of the long odds facing his team in the conference semifinals. “This ain’t our first rodeo. This ain’t the first time the national media are saying we’re not going to win a game. We’ve been here before. We’re going to focus on us and take care of us.”

There isn't a more extreme clash of styles in the playoffs than what’s expected to play out between Randolph’s plodding, methodical and physically imposing Grizzlies and the fast-paced, floor-spacing and sharp-shooting Warriors when the best-of-seven series starts Sunday (ABC, 3:30 ET) at Golden State.

But among the biggest variables affecting the Grizzlies entering Game 1 is the status of point guard Mike Conley, who missed the final two games of the previous series against Portland after undergoing surgery Monday to repair multiple facial fractures. Conley attended practice and traveled with the team Saturday, but the Grizzlies have not offered any definitive update on his availability for the series beyond officially listing him as doubtful for Sunday.

Conley still had significant facial swelling when he attended Wednesday’s series-clinching victory over Portland two days after a surgery in which plates were inserted below and above his left eye. He sustained the injury in a Game 3 victory April 25 in Portland, when he was inadvertently elbowed in the face by Blazers guard C.J. McCollum. Conley has indicated he hopes to return at some point against the Warriors, but his coach and teammates have remained coy -- perhaps strategically -- about his progress.

Memphis coach Dave Joerger was asked before the team left Memphis if he expected Conley to play.

“I don’t,” Joerger said. “But only because that’s the way I look at the world as a head coach: Expect the worst, and if something better happens, then ... You don’t want to go through the doctoral thesis of playoff prep, scouting-wise, without a guy with you. You want to absorb that and get the adjustments being made on the practice court or shootaround court, seeing stuff live. He’s definitely all-in mentally.”

Depending on the teammate questioned, Conley either spent the past two days practicing and on the verge of a return or nowhere to be found. All-Star center Marc Gasol suggested he hadn’t seen Conley and knew nothing about rumors his point guard had been testing protective masks, a step that wasn’t expected until swelling subsided substantially. But then shooting guard Courtney Lee told reporters Conley would be back and the Grizzlies would be facing the Warriors “with a full army” for Game 1.

“We’ll have Mike back,” Lee said. “We feel good about our chances. Just having him back is a boost.”

With or without Conley, the Grizzlies are in for a daunting task.

The Warriors appear to hold every conceivable advantage, which is largely why everyone from oddsmakers from Las Vegas to well-resourced metrics specialists view this as a cakewalk right into the conference finals.

League MVP frontrunner in Stephen Curry spearheads a Warriors team that led the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency. Curry and Klay Thompson are dropping 3-pointers at a better rate than some players shoot free throws. Their bench consists of at least two reserves who would start on most playoff teams.

The Grizzlies expect to counter the impressive analytics with experience and intangibles.

The Warriors set a franchise-record with 67 wins but have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs with their current core of Curry, Thompson and Andrew Bogut. Memphis is in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season and looks to reach to the conference finals for the second time since 2013.

Speaking of numbers, facing the No. 1 seed doesn’t faze the Grizzlies, who twice knocked off top-seeded teams in Oklahoma City in 2013 and San Antonio in 2011. So what does it all mean heading into the current series against Golden State?

Pretty much nothing, beyond fodder to fill the game notes.

That’s also why the Grizzlies aren’t getting too worked up by the lopsided analytics that detail the Warriors’ edge entering the series. Numbers in this sense are descriptive but not necessarily predictive.

This series will be played out on the court, not through some computerized simulation. It will dictated by whether Curry and Thompson, who each posted 50-point games this season, can dominate from the perimeter, or whether Randolph and Gasol, the league’s most productive interior tandem this season, are effective enough to punish the Warriors inside and control tempo.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” said Gasol, who averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and five assists in in the first round against Portland. “At this point in the season, you can adjust and do a few tweaks. But that consistency comes into play. You’ve been doing something consistently for a long time, especially this year, so you want to keep doing that as a team.”

Their regular-season meetings don’t necessarily paint a full picture of what to expect in the postseason. Memphis lost two of three to Golden State, but neither team was at full strength for all three meetings. The Warriors were without Bogut when the Grizzlies won 105-98 at home in December. Conley was sidelined while Gasol played through a sprained ankle when the Warriors won 111-107 in April.

Now, the Grizzlies want to simplify their approach against the NBA’s most difficult team to defend. They’ve placed an emphasis on getting back in transition on defense to limit fast-break opportunities and then scrambling to the perimeter in hopes of disrupting Golden State’s 3-point barrage.

Prioritize those two areas, and then live with the results.

“They’ve got a court full of shooters,” Randolph said. “Our defense has to be clicking on all cylinders. If they’re hitting with hands in their face, that’s all you can do. They’re going to try to stretch us out.”

Stretching out the Grizzlies won’t be much of a problem for the Warriors, but psyching them out won’t be easily accomplished.

“I have confidence in my team,” Gasol said. “I know we have talent. We have competitiveness. I have no doubt in my mind we can win against anybody. They shoot a lot of shots. They make a lot of shots, and a lot are tough. But you don’t get out of character and do stuff you’re not built for. You have to be you.”

The Grizzlies don’t enter this series with an identity crisis. They know who they are and respect the heavily favored opponent that swept New Orleans in the first round and has won 20 in a row at home.

“We understand what we’re up against,” Memphis wing defender Tony Allen said. “We know what the stats and everything say. It’s going to be a great battle, and we look forward to the challenge.”

On paper, the Warriors’ spreadsheets insist Memphis is next in line to be shredded.

All the numbers and statistical-driven naysayers certainly say so. The Grizzlies study and value metrics too. But they share just as much faith in their base formula for success.

It’s grit over matter, grind over data.