The Philadelphia 76ers aren't in Westeros, but winter is here in the form of a grueling seven game road trip against Western Conference (i.e. better) opponents. First up is the Memphis Grizzlies for an 8:00 tip at FedEx Forum.
The Grizz are an interesting team within the NBA landscape. First off, they're very good, solidly entrenched in what most observers deem a four-team class atop the West hierarchy (along with the Thunder, Clippers, and Spurs). Second of all, they've been good for awhile and have slowly trended upward. The memorable playoff upset of the top-seeded Spurs in the spring of 2011 set them up to be a top four team out West last season before bowing out (and memorably choking Game 1, thanks to the work of one Swaggy P) to Lob City in seven games. This year, they hope to combine both regular season and playoff success into a title.
Make no mistake, too: As one of those four teams, Memphis is capable of getting to the finals and winning it all. If this were to happen, it would be a major blow to the conventional wisdom that "You need a superstar to win it all," so don't think part of me isn't rooting for it. Right now, the 2004 Detroit Pistons are the only major exception to the generalist, lazy, and annoyingly accurate theory. There haven't been a ton of "Pistonesque" teams that have had a shot at a title since the Chauncey-Rip-Tayshaun-Sheed-Ben core was broken up, but the current group of Grizzlies definitely do.
Like any "non-superstar" contender, the Grizzlies are solid everywhere. Defensively, and this should be of major interest for tonight's game, they turn their opponents over at a ridiculously high rate. The Sixers' one strength on offense is taking care of the ball, and even though we've written about how that could actually be hurting the team, keeping the turnovers down is probably a prerequisite for any chance at a Sixers' win in Memphis tonight. What's really impressive about the Grizz is that despite forcing turnovers at such a high rate, they aren't gambling and therefore giving up easy shots, ranking in the top five in effective field goal percentage.
On offense, the Grizzlies are a balanced unit that's above average in scoring despite playing a slug it out, half-court pace. Marc Gasol is just a ridiculously good player, a big man who scores efficiently as well as the rare guy you can legitimately run the offense through at the high post. Zach Randolph is a match-up nightmare on the blocks. Rudy Gay is overpaid, but he definitely has value with his length and ability to get his own shot. Finally, Mike Conley runs the team, defends really well, and makes threes.
Suffice it to say, I'm not very optimistic about the Sixers' chances tonight. The only player that will have a mismatch on offense is Thad Young (and yeah, that mismatch is just as bad or worse on the other end) so he is going to have a big game. Jrue Holiday played very well against Brooklyn and he's going to have to play better than Conley, which will be hard. Pretty much anything from Evan Turner would be gravy tonight, because Tony Allen is a tenacious perimeter defender, in the same class as Iguodala. Luckily, he's a horrible offensive player, so doubling off him could help slow down other Grizz players. Could we possibly see some more zone tonight after Collins went to it with some success against the Nets?
On a serious note, Memphis stole possibly my favorite basketball writer on the internet in ESPN's John Hollinger and made him Vice President of Basketball Operations. Good move, but man, I'm bummed he doesn't write a daily column (PER Diem) anymore.
Oh yeah, Marreese Speights comes off the bench for Memphis, and we'd be remiss not to mention that all Speezy wanted for Christmas is someone to #FreeBoosie.
Tip is at 8:10ish, and check out Straight Outta Vancouver for the Grizzlies' perspective.