Some even wondered if they were championship contenders.
Well, take a good look at them now, because they won't be recognizable once they've been mauled in the first round by the Grizzlies -- a team no one really talks about and no one should want to play. The squad closed the season 11-2, including winning the last six. Only the San Antonio Spurs have has been hotter and, well, despite going 0-3 against them in the regular season, I don't think the Grizzlies are afraid to play them should both teams advance.
It was barely a year ago when then-No. 8 Memphis pulled off a minor miracle in beating the top-seeded Spurs without their best perimeter scorer, Rudy Gay. However, this time around it's obvious the Grizzlies are not just happy to be here, nor are they satisfied with capturing home court in a series for the first time in franchise history. Gay is healthy, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen-- two starters who missed time because of injuries--are getting back into shape, and the artists formerly known as Agent Zero can still get hot on occasion. In other words, they are more for real than people think. And the main reason they're not getting more attention heading into the postseason is their style of play, not its effectiveness.
They're offensively unattractive (only one player is among the league's top 40 scorers) and a defensive nightmare (two players in the top five for steals, two others in the top 40).
They're the embodiment of that guy at the gym who dives for loose balls and keeps burying that ugly jumper. You call his game "garbage," but no one can hear you because you are on the sideline, defeated ... again.
That's the Memphis Grizzlies.
And I love them.
"It's a big accomplishment from a historical perspective," coach Lionel Hollins said about securing home court. "I told the players it means nothing except that we get the first two games at home."
He's always that pragmatic. I remember talking to Hollins after Memphis won Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in its 2011 semifinals series against the Thunder. All he wanted to talk about was Game 4. His focus is one reason the team is as good as it is. It doesn't look back. It doesn't get ahead of itself. It doesn't place a single player ahead of the team.
He'll sit a player if he's not playing well, play a guy when he is, and none of those decisions appear to be related to the name on the back of the jersey. Randolph, the team's MVP last year, was not immediately inserted back into the starting lineup. After missing 37 games because of a torn MCL, he had to get in shape to Hollins' liking first, which apparently wasn't until the last game of the season.
When Hollins arrived in 2009, O.J. Mayo was the starting two-guard and second-leading scorer. Today, he comes off the bench, and his minutes are contingent on his play. Needless to say, Mayo wasn't thrilled about the move and has been trade bait in the past. But Hollins knows that by having the same rules for stars as he does for everyone else, he earns the team's respect. When the stars accept those rules, there is team cohesion. With cohesion, a team can start thinking rings.
And before you lose your lunch over the idea of the Grizzlies in the finals, remember this: Last year they took the Thunder to seven games with Gay in a sling, and one of those losses came in triple overtime. So you can take this team lightly if you want, but Paul only shot 39 percent against them in three regular-season games. Russell Westbrook shot 34 percent in four. His buddy Kevin Durant? Can't get an open look from 3 -- he only shot 22 percent from downtown. The Grizz went into Miami and ended the team's 17-game winning streak by 15. They smacked down Chicago by 16.
They're 22-10 since the All-Star break.
They're fifth in the league in scoring defense.
First in creating turnovers.
What's not to love?
That's because Hollins has forged together a unit that grits.
And most importantly -- wins.