Heading into the final four games of the regular season, the Grizzlies' playoff odds stand at 99.2% and their 'magic number' at one. The Grizzlies can end the suspense and secure their first playoff birth since 2006 with a win tonight against the Sacramento Kings.
Once the Grizzlies clinch their playoff spot, the rest of the season will be about jockeying for position among the bottom three seeds, where the Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets (one game ahead), and Portland Trailblazers (1.5 games up) could still finish in any order.
Staying in their current eighth slot will get the Grizzlies the San Antonio Spurs as a first-round opponent. Moving up to 7th will land the Los Angeles Lakers. Getting all the way up to 6th would set the Grizzlies up against either the Dallas Mavericks or Oklahoma City Thunder.
So, to the degree the Grizzlies can control their seeding, whom would they want to play?
San Antonio: The Grizzlies went 2-2 in the season series against the Spurs, playing all four games without Rudy Gay. The Griz won both home games convincingly while both games in San Antonio were very close. And the Spurs have been shaky late: Losing six straight games starting in late March. The Spurs — who boast a championship-tested player/coach core — may have been playing a little rope-a-dope, however. They've since won three in a row in convincing fashion and seem to be getting geared up for the post-season. And the Spurs are likely to finish the season with the league's best record. One factor here is that the Grizzlies would seem to have fewer specific match-up problems with the Spurs than the other West contenders. This Spurs team has less quality size than previous additions and the Grizzlies would likely have a frontcourt advantage with whichever starter Tim Duncan is not guarding. Zach Randolph vs. Spurs: 23/15.
Los Angeles: The Grizzlies also went 2-2 against the Lakers this season. The team's loss at Los Angeles came early in the season, when Zach Randolph wasn't playing and Tony Allen was barely playing. But of the Grizzlies two wins, one came with Andrew Bynum out and other came with Rudy Gay scoring 27 at Los Angeles. So none of those games seems particularly representative of what the playoff match-up would be. Which brings us to the final meeting between these teams, which is troubling for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies lost that one at home, on February 7th, by a score of 93-84, and that was with an 18-point contribution from Rudy Gay. The Lakers' twin towers frontcourt swallowed up the Grizzlies, who got a combined 7-28 shooting from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Lakers seem to be both the best team in this mix (they went on a 17-1 run after the All-Star break before a recent little three-game slide) and the one that poses the toughest match-up problems given their size, although Mike Conley would certainly rather see Derek Fisher in the playoffs than Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook. Zach Randolph vs. Lakers this season: 14/9.
Dallas: The Grizzlies went 3-1 against the Mavericks this season, including winning both games in Dallas. The Mavs — a team built around a great player and a good coach — have lost four straight and have a history of early playoff flameouts. They would seem to be vulnerable again and may well fall the 4th place — thus out of the Grizzlies range. Dirk Nowitzki is a big match-up problem for the Grizzlies, but this is still a team the Grizzlies have to think they can play with. Zach Randolph vs Dallas this year: 24/13.
Oklahoma City: The Grizzlies went 3-1 against the Thunder this season, though Thunder trade acquisition Kendrick Perkins didn't play in any of those games. The Thunder has gone 10-3 in games Perkins has played and his presence should mitigate the Grizzlies' frontcourt advantage. (Zach Randolph vs. Thunder: 27/13.) But given the Thunder's relative lack of deep post-season experience and the chance of having a frontcourt advantage, this would be a pretty good match-up for the Grizzlies. I tend to think the Thunder is a better team than the Mavericks and that, one game back with the tiebreaker, they have a good chance to catch the Mavs for the third seed.
Put it all together, and I think the preferences would break down like this:
1. Dallas Mavericks
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Los Angeles Lakers
What are the Grizzlies chances of getting up to the sixth seed and thus facing the Mavs or Thunder? The team doesn't quite control it's own destiny in this regard, but with a game left each against the Hornets and Blazers, it's close.
The remaining schedules:
New Orleans Hornets
at Portland Trailblazers
at Los Angeles Clippers
at Memphis Grizzlies
at Dallas Mavericks
Los Angles Lakers
@Golden State Warriors
If the Grizzlies run the table and the Hornets and Blazers win all of their games except the ones with the Grizzlies, then all three teams would be 48-34. The Hornets would win the three-way tiebreaker, getting sixth. The Grizzlies would win a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Blazers in this case, so if the Grizzlies run the table and the Hornets lose one of their other three games, the Grizzlies can get up to #6. This is likely enough for the Grizzlies to go all out over these next two home games, at least, especially since they still need to clinch a playoff spot.
The Grizzlies should be prepared to ditch this strategy heading into next week's two road games, however. If the #6 seed looks out of range at any point, I would recommend sitting Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in either or both of those games and limiting Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. I wouldn't "tank," but there is no incentive to move up from #8 to #7 and a big incentive — once a playoff spot is secured — to protect the health of the team's top four players.