Their odds of beating the San Antonio Spurs during the first round of the NBA playoffs are a number that is seemingly infinity-to-1.
The unrecognizable and injury-riddled Grizzlies, however, aren’t succumbing to persistent pessimism. Just as presidential candidates analyze paths to victory, the Griz are tossing around the possibilities of shocking the world as a No. 7 seed knocking off the No. 2 seed when their postseason series tips off Sunday at 7 p.m. in AT&T Center.
To a man, the Griz acknowledge they likely will have to play a perfect game each time out. They know what to expect from veterans such as Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Matt Barnes and Chris Andersen.
When asked who the X factor is for the Griz in this series, coach Dave Joerger sounded as if reserve guard Lance Stephenson will have the biggest burden in terms of putting Memphis over the top.
“Certainly Lance with his ability to get to the basket and make shots,” Joerger said. “As things grind down a little bit in the playoffs, baskets are hard to come by. To go get your own shot is tough. But Lance can get baskets.”
Stephenson has flourished with freedom to create off the dribble. He’s one of the team’s strongest playmakers with guard Mike Conley (sore Achilles) and center Marc Gasol (broken foot) unable to play.
Stephenson is primed and ready to fill an offensive void that complements Randolph, the Grizzlies’ go-to guy. He considers Memphis a fit and is motivated by appearing in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, when he had sort of a coming-out party with the Indiana Pacers.
“The playoffs are so fun. Every possession counts. I like those situations,” Stephenson said. “The coaching staff puts me in positions where I can succeed and help the team win. I always had the confidence. I feel like I can make something happen for myself or my teammates. I just like to win. I always try to do my best to create.”
Memphis will likely lack firepower to keep up with San Antonio with 3-point shooting. The Grizzlies’ goal is to try and compensate with solid defense and squelching the Spurs’ ability to go on long runs.
That’s where Stephenson could play a major role. His ability to attack one-on-one by creating scores or assists off the dribble will help the Griz put pressure on the Spurs.
“Coach Joerger will tell me to play with your team first and we’ll go to you at the end,” Stephenson said. “He lets me know how he wants to play at the very beginning and that’s very helpful. My goal is just to play hard.”
The Griz have mostly relied on energy and a never-say-die mentality the past two months. A rash of injuries have reduced their talent level.
But Stephenson averaged 13.6 points on 46-percent shooting in the postseason with that 2014 Pacers squad. Joerger has often looked to Stephenson to get a basket at the end of quarters. And when the Griz trailed 100-99 with eight seconds left on April 9 in a home game against the Golden State Warriors, Joerger called Stephenson’s number.
Stephenson was stopped on a drive to the basket and missed a jump shot after recovering the basketball. But Joerger doesn’t regret the play call because of Stephenson’s unique skills.
“He can go get a shot. That’s the thing,” Joerger said. “You look at the number of guys you have who can go create their own shot, he’s one of those guys who can go get it.”
Stephenson’s challenge is to prove he can play with teammates in organized sets.
His productivity is unquestioned.
Stephenson was acquired along with a first-round draft pick in February for Jeff Green. He wasn’t a good fit with the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s been a shot in the arm for the Griz, averaging 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists over his 26 games with the team.
The Grizzlies own most of the leverage in the seemingly low-risk, high-reward gamble that is Stephenson. Memphis owns a $9.4 million team option for the 2016-17 season.
Stephenson acknowledged that he occasionally thinks about every Griz game as an audition.
“When you play hard and focus on your game and what you need to do to help the team, the (contract) part takes care of itself,” Stephenson said. “If you worry yourself, it starts to mess with you while you’re playing. You can’t control if a team wants to pick you up. You can control playing hard and getting in the gym early and getting that faith from your teammates.”
There is no question that Stephenson is looking to use this Griz stint to erase bad perceptions of his game based on his last two stops, in Los Angeles and Charlotte. Stephenson left Indiana for Charlotte as a free agent and was traded after one season.
Charlotte coach Steve Clifford once said that his team’s lack of perimeter shooting prevented Stephenson from having the spacing he needed to drive into the paint and get the layups that had made him effective as a Pacer. Stephenson no longer settles for jump shots and has been allowed to aggressively attack the rim.
That’s the good for Stephenson in Memphis. The bad has been Stephenson’s sometimes selfish play, which is why Joerger benched the guard April 5 in a win over Chicago. The Griz ended a six-game losing streak that night but reinvented Stephenson in the process.
“I took it as a learning experience. The guys were playing so good and I got a chance to see how they move the ball and how the game came so easy for them,” Stephenson said. “I didn’t take it as ‘I’m not playing so forget this.’ To see how the team was flowing helped me out a little bit.
“My goal is to have that trust in a team and find a home. I want to feel like I’m appreciated and people like me around and that I can help the team win.”