Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy after beating the heavily favored Miami Heat in six games in the best-of-7 NBA Finals last year.
However, when asked which teams could challenge the reigning world champs in the Western Conference as the postseason draws near, among the teams the Mavs owner mentioned was the Memphis Grizzlies
The Mavericks lost at Memphis, 96-85, on Feb. 29 in a game in which Dirk Nowitzki returned to the locker room less than a minute into the second quarter with a back injury he suffered after taking a jump shot during pregame warmups.
Although the shorthanded Mavericks were without their leading scorer and last year’s NBA Finals MVP for a majority of the contest, Cuban said he’s mostly impressed with the job Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has done with a Grizzlies team that came within a game of advancing to the conference finals a year ago.
“You know, they’re just a team of talent and the Grizzlies play extremely hard,” Cuban said before the Mavericks’ game against the San Antonio Spurs Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
Last year, Memphis, after finishing 46-36 during the regular season, entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
However, for the first time since 2007, when eighth-seeded Golden State stunned the top-seeded Mavericks in a best-of-7 series format, the Grizzlies shocked the Spurs, four games to two, in the first round before going the distance with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals, eventually falling to the Thunder in seven games.
What was even more intriguing for the Grizzlies is that last year’s thrilling playoff run occurred with small forward Rudy Gay sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury he suffered days after the All-Star break. This year, though, the Grizzlies appear destined to secure home-court advantage at least through the opening round.
Memphis (25-19), which lost, 119-110, at Sacramento Tuesday night, is currently fifth in the Western Conference playoff race, trailing the fourth-place Los Angeles Clippers by a half game, the third-place Lakers by two games, and second-place San Antonio by just four games. The Thunder have a firm hold of first place in the West with a four-game lead over the Spurs.
But with Memphis power forward Zach Randolph and Gay having returned for last Friday’s home game against Toronto after recent injuries, Cuban senses the Grizzlies — with their 1-2 punch back in the fold at a pivotal stretch in the season unlike last year — have emerged as serious contenders to come out of the West.
If the playoffs began today, the Grizzlies would face the Clippers in the opening round. As for the Mavericks, winners of four straight, they would face the Lakers, whom they host Wednesday night.
“They don’t get into the flow of the game,” Cuban said of the Grizzlies. “They create the flow of the game. And a lot of that is attributed to the job Lionel Hollins does.”
Although Cuban was highly complimentary of the Grizzlies’ success over the past year, Mavs shooting guard Jason Terry contends Memphis isn’t the team many are watching intensely as teams vie for playoff spots.
“Memphis is solid,” Terry said. “They had a key injury in Zach Randolph. But everybody’s talking about Oklahoma City.”
So what about the reigning world champs?
“People are writing us off and thinking this team can’t do anything,” Terry said. “The standings will take care of itself. But we’re out to prove (everyone) wrong.”