Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Endgame: Thoughts on "Tanking" and Potential Match-ups

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 10:32 AM

"Tank" Job?: The Grizzlies lost 102-89 on the road to the Portland Trailblazers last night. The losing wasn't unexpected — I thought that was the most likely outcome regardless. But how it happened was surprising. The Grizzlies — in what seemed to be a last-minute decision, given the nature of Tony Allen's tweets during the day — decided to sit Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, eventually citing nagging injuries as a reason.

After the New Orleans Hornets lost to the Utah Jazz earlier in the week, the Grizzlies were in control of their seeding destiny: Winning the last two games would have assured them of the #6 seed. The wrinkle was that the team didn't yet know what opponent the #6 seed would give them.

By sitting Allen and Randolph, the Grizzlies all but abdicated their claim on the uncertainty of the six seed, which Portland claimed with a victory. (It should be noted, however, that the players who took the court seemed to play to win. The game was tied at halftime and was still up for grabs until the final minutes.)

One of two decisions was made here — or perhaps a combination of two decisions: On one level, the Grizzlies may have decided that a match-up with the Spurs (which would happen at #8) is preferable to a match-up with the defending champion Lakers (which could happen by moving up) and may have decided to choose certainty over risk.

A second factor may have been the decision that there's more incentive to keep key players healthy and fresh than to move up between the 8th and 6th seeds. After all, whichever seed the Grizzlies land will make them a road underdog against a 56-62 win team.

My suspicion is that Lakers avoidance was the biggest motivator and that this was very much an "organizational decision" rather than an individual decision by head coach Lionel Hollins. But, at the very least, Hollins' apparently testy post-game interview may have been easier had he merely cited the second rationale: "We don't care who we play at this point. We think it's more important to make sure our top players are fresh for the post-season."

I was — and am still — rooting for a Dallas match-up, in part because I think they're the most vulnerable and in part because that's the only match-up in which I'd be able to swing a trip for the opening games. But that second rationale is something that actually makes sense to me. It's an approach other teams have taken (see: Spurs and Celtics, both recent title winners) and those who haven't have shown the risk: Both the Lakers' Andrew Bynum and the Bulls' Joakim Noah suffered injuries last night. (Noah's minor; Bynum's to be determined.)

Who do you really want to play?: If the Grizzlies have decided to settle for a Spurs match-up rather than risk a Lakers one, you can't help wondering if that's the right decision. I too think a healthy, focused Lakers team is a tougher match-up for the Grizzlies, but are these Lakers healthy or focused? The Spurs' recent losing streak looks like rope-a-dope now — Tim Duncan missed most of those games. By contrast, the Lakers seem to be in legitimate disarray and now could be dealing with the loss or at least diminution of Bynum. It may sound odd, but from a Grizzlies' perspective, I think I'd fear a healthy Bynum — because of his ability to neutralize the Grizzlies' post game — even more than Kobe Bryant. If Bynum is out or even hobbled, I think the Lakers might be the better match-up.

Watch Party: A small note about last night's game: I went to the public watch party at the Hi-Tone Café that the Grizzlies threw in conjunction with Goner Records. This was the first one of these I'd ever gone to and I was shocked at the size of the crowd. (One team employee I spoke to last night noted that it was the biggest he'd seen for one of these events.) There were probably a hundred people there — at least half a dozen wearing their "Grit Grind" — and the mood was great. The team's decision to sit Randolph and Allen elicited some uncertainty. But, as my man, local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, tweeted from the event: "At Griz watch party at the Hi-Tone. crazy up in here. No one knows to cheer for a win or a loss, but we all know to cheer for Haddadi."

Remaining Scenarios: Three games tonight are relevant to the Grizzlies: The Dallas Mavericks host the New Orleans Hornets at 7 p.m. Then, at 9:30, the Grizzlies play at the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers play in what could be the last game ever for the Sacramento Kings. There are four potential outcomes that could come from these games:

Grizzlies Lose: Get the 8th seed, play the Spurs

Grizzlies Win/Hornets Win: Get the 8th seed, play the Spurs

Grizzlies Win/Hornets Lose: Grizzlies get the 7th seed, but their opponent would depend on the outcome of the Lakers-Kings game, happening concurrently. The Grizzlies would face the Lakers if the Lakers win but the Mavericks if the Lakers lose.

What to Expect Tonight: Even if Hornets lose early, the Grizzlies won't know going into their game with the Clippers which opponent winning could give them. So I would expect something similar to last night — resting key players (they've already announced Randolph won't play; presumably Mike Conley's minutes will be reduced at least), playing the game out with heavy minutes from the bench, and taking whatever comes. The one caveat here is if bad news emerges on Bynum. If the Grizzlies know a win will get them the 7th seed and know that moving up would result in a match-up with either the Mavericks or a Lakers team without Bynum, I would think there would be extra incentive to win.

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