How They Got Here
• Golden State: The 67-win Warriors entered the postseason as favorites via their plus-10 average point differential and elite efficiency at both ends of the floor. They did very little in the first round that should change people's minds. Although the New Orleans Pelicans played well in bunches and were about six minutes from pulling off a blowout victory in Game 3, the Warriors controlled the series and pulled off a convincing sweep. It was impressive in large part due to the varied nature of each win — Game 1 was a pretty standard blowout until the Pelicans made a late charge behind Anthony Davis, Game 2 required them to grind out a win, Game 3 was one of the more improbable comebacks you'll ever see, and Game 4 was like a more extreme version of the opener. Through it all, the Warriors proved their shooting, defense, mental toughness — all the qualities that made them such a formidable regular season team, really — will carry over to the playoffs without too many problems.
• Memphis: It's not a great insult to the Grizzlies to say that they caught a break in the first round. The Portland Trail Blazers were not a typical No. 4 seed — they clinched it by winning a weak Northwest Division, didn't even have homecourt advantage, and limped into the postseason with several key players absent. On the other hand, the Grizzlies defined the series even when they weren't playing particularly well, in keeping with their longstanding talent of controlling tempo and locking down opponents. From Game 1 through Game 5, Memphis set the terms of engagement. They turned LaMarcus Aldridge into a high-volume sometimes-scorer, exploited the Blazers' terrible perimeter defense, and basically did everything a team needs to do to win a playoff series.
The problem is that it came with a cost. Mike Conley entered the series having missed the last four games with an unspecified but apparently very uncomfortable right foot injury (presumably something related to the plantar fascia) but looked plenty capable to start the series. Unfortunately, he left in the third quarter of an eventual Game 3 win with a face injury that required surgery to repair several fractures around the left eye. Conley missed Games 4 and 5, and the Memphis offense appeared worse without him to direct traffic. He still looked quite bruised when interviewed during Wednesday's clincher, and it's fair to guess that he will miss Game 1 and possibly more of the series with Golden State.
Head to Head
The Warriors won two of the three meetings, although each was different enough that we need to go into some detail explaining them. The lone Grizzlies win came in the first meeting, a 105-98 win on December 16 at FedEx Forum that ended Golden State's franchise-record 16-game winning streak. It was typical of the previous few seasons' matchups between these teams in that the Grizzlies controlled tempo and got the Warriors out of what they do best — it was atypical in that they started the second quarter on a 20-0 run. Stephen Curry shot only 1-of-10 from deep in one of his worst games of the season, and Draymond Green went 2-of-11 from the field in a tough matchup with Zach Randolph. It was even harder because of the absence of Andrew Bogut, out with a sore right knee. It was a very different Grizzlies team, too — they were a little less than a month away from trading Tayshaun Prince for Jeff Green.
The other two at least featured the rosters we'll see in this series. The second was a standard 2014-15 Golden State Warriors beatdown — 107-84, March 27, Steph Curry, on the road, with the candlestick. The third meeting was the penultimate game of the season for both sides and a scary story for any Grizzlies fan who wants to imagine life without Conley, who missed it with his foot injury. The final score doesn't look so bad — 111-107 to Golden State — but the Warriors were up 27 heading into the fourth quarter before Steve Kerr rested every player of consequence.
Likely Starting Lineups
The Warriors will trot out the same starting lineup that has vaporized the NBA this season. On the perimeter, MVP candidate Stephen Curry mans the point and gives the offense its shape even when he's not handling the ball, Klay Thompson occupies the other backcourt spot as a lights-out shooter and quality defender and Harrison Barnes takes the other side as a versatile option on both sides of the ball. Center Andrew Bogut patrols the paint and serves as a terrific screener and gruntwork guy on offense, ensuring that the Warriors never play four-on-five even though he rarely scores outside of two feet. Draymond Green is nominally the power forward but more accurately described as the player who allows the team to play with fluidity at both ends. His abilities to defend several positions and shoot from the outside allow Kerr to plan for different opponents without sacrificing any of the team's strengths.
The bench is led by veteran defender and spot-up shooter Andre Iguodala, backup guard Shaun Livingston, and scoring big man and charge-taker Marreese Speights. Given the matchup with Memphis, it's likely we'll see a lot of backup center Festus Ezeli and perhaps even former All-Star forward David Lee, who became a non-rotation player this year. Leandro Barbosa is available for instant offense, too.
The Grizzlies will approach the series the same way with or without Conley, although he will be missed for as long as he's out of the lineup. He is the offense's most credible perimeter threat, a master of controlling tempo, and the organizer of the first line of defense. It is very hard to imagine the Grizzlies challenging in this series while he is unavailable. Nevertheless, if he can't go he will be replaced by usual third point guard Nick Calathes, a limited offensive player but a skilled defender who most closely approximates Conley's stabilizing presence. Beno Udrih remains the first guard off the bench, and he's primarily a one-on-one scorer. Starting shooting guard Courtney Lee is a solid all-around player who starred in the Portland series and could take on more offensive responsibility in this one.
Memphis continues to be best known for their frontcourt, particularly the interior duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The latter is the best all-around center in the NBA, a capable facilitator, scorer, and defender who should battle with Bogut on a nightly basis. Z-Bo is the key defensive matchup for the Warriors in this series due to his brawn on the block — he could see either Green or Bogut depending on what Kerr expects of Gasol. Tony Allen is not much of a scorer but will play a big role in this series as a perimeter defender, primarily on Thompson but likely often on Curry, especially when Conley is out.
The bench is not nearly as deep as that of Golden State, but several players contribute in meaningful ways. January acquisition Jeff Green changed the team for better and worse — he's the versatile wing scorer they lacked and provides the option of going small by playing power forward, but the defense (i.e. the whole Grizzlies identity) became less dominant after his arrival. Kosta Koufos is a good third big, and Vince Carter is still around to come off the bench, hit a few shots, and maybe even dunk once or twice for old time's sake.
• Tempo: It should be clear after these past six months that the Warriors are not a finesse-only team dependent on outside shooting and fastbreak baskets for wins. Nevertheless, they played at the fastest pace of any team in the NBA this year and thrive at high speeds. It's not clear that the Grizzlies (26th in pace) will control this series if they manage to slow things down, but it does seem apparent that they can't win if the Warriors play at their preferred speed. Memphis is simply too slow and lacking in shooting to beat Golden State on its terms, no matter how much Conley manages to play.
• Z-Bo vs. Green: If anyone doubted that pending restricted free agent Draymond Green was a max player, he clarified things with a terrific performance against Anthony Davis in the first round. Davis was excellent, but Green limited one of the true superstars of the NBA for many key stretches and made a sizable impact on offense, as well. Green sits at the center of this series, too, although not necessarily in the way many might think. While Zach Randolph seems capable of bullying Green on the block, the fact is that he drew Bogut when he was healthy this season (which makes sense, because Gasol is the more mobile player of the Grizzlies duo). But Green is a nightmare matchup for Randolph at the other end, where the 33-year-old Z-Bo will need to guard the perimeter and figure out some way to hassle Curry in various pick-and-roll scenarios. He has to prove serviceable on defense if the Grizzlies are going to be the proactive team in this series.
• Conley vs. Health: Let's be blunt — the Grizzlies have no chance in this series if Conley can't play. Golden State is too good to be beaten by the likes of Calathes and Udrih, and the Grizzlies rely on Conley for too many skills to handle the best team in the NBA without him. The Grizzlies are going to need to win a road game to take this series, and if Conley is out for Games 1 and 2 (or even just one), their odds of doing so decreases dramatically.
Yet there's also another aspect of his health beyond the facial fractures. Conley played well against the Blazers before leaving Game 3, but we still don't have a great sense of how much his foot problems are limiting him. Portland offered such little challenge to Memphis that he didn't have to play more than 30 minutes in either of the first two games. While Damian Lillard is a tough cover, there's no guarantee that Conley is capable of chasing Curry around the court for 40 minutes. It's a different series if Conley comes back early and proves he's near full health, but he better do so quickly if the Grizzlies want to move on.
How Golden State Could Win
Green turns Randolph into a serious defensive minus. Conley misses at least two games or comes back too early. No one gets hurt. Bogut stays out of foul trouble. Curry avoids any more 1-of-10 nights from deep. Thompson proves that his strong performances against the Grizzlies were not dependent on Allen's ill health.
How Memphis Could Win
They manage to slow down the game. Conley misses one game at most. Randolph and Gasol force Green to become a post defender. The Blazers turn out to be better than we thought. Vince Carter reprises his 2000 dunk contest form in Oracle Arena. Jeff Green has a few of those crazy scoring games that convince certain fans he's on the brink of stardom. Courtney Lee continues to score 17 ppg at a very efficient rate. Allen smothers Thompson, Curry, and anyone else he guards.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 7 out of 10. This number depends largely on how much you like watching the Warriors. Conley's questionable availability appears to have taken a lot of the competitiveness out of this series, but the Grizzlies are too proud not to put up a fight. However, it's a fair bet that Golden State is too good for there not to be one blowout — this just doesn't look like the world's best matchup for Memphis. This series could end up as more fascinating than it is competitive, because the return of Conley and a superficially stark battle of styles provides plenty of opportunities for fun narrative. The problem is that there's only so much drama to be derived from a series in which the better team proves its superiority early on.
Prediction: Warriors in five.
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