"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.
Note: I'll have a season-ending column in this week's print edition of the Flyer and will have a playoff-series preview and other end-of-regular-season/beginning-of-playoffs content up later in the week.
The Lead: The Grizzlies ended their home regular-season slate in style, with a win against division and playoff-seeding rival New Orleans that was so thorough and decisive that the entire Grizzlies starting five sat for the entire fourth quarter. The win, in which the team shot better than 60% and every Grizzlies player scored, with seven players notching between 8 and 18 points, sent a large crowd home happy and set the stage for a playoff run, though the seeding and opponent is still very much in doubt.
Are the Grizzlies ready? I asked Tony Allen, who has more significant playoff experience than anyone on the team. He smiled and shrugged. "It's here," Allen said. "There's no looking back or nothing. It's here. You got to get prepared for it."
When the time comes, the spotlight may be brightest on Lionel Hollins, who will be making his first post-season appearance as a head coach, and point guard Mike Conley, who will not only be running the team but will be doing so for probably 40 minutes a night given that his two back-ups — discounting an injured Jason Williams — are both rookies.
Conley said after the game that he was glad to get some extra rest tonight and would welcome reduced minutes in the team's final two games if it made sense, but that knew he'd be carrying a heavy burden in the post-season.
The Grizzlies clinched their first playoff birth since 2006 with a 101-96 win over the Sacramento Kings. The Grizzlies conclude their regular-season home schedule Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets, one of two teams (along with the Portland Trailblazers) with whom the Grizzlies are still competing for playoff positioning.
More on Friday night's game and the final stretch of playoff preparation later this weekend.
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?
When Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins moved O.J. Mayo to the bench early this season, the intent was to give his team something it hadn't had since Hollins took over a year-and-a-half earlier: A bona fide sixth-man. Someone who could be counted on to play significant minutes off the bench and provide consistent production.
Well, the Grizzlies have, indeed, had a strong sixth man this season, but it hasn't been Mayo, who missed 10 games to league suspension and has been an erratic performer all season. Instead, it's been third-year forward Darrell Arthur.
When Zach Randolph was out early on, Arthur stepped up, opening the season with six straight double-figure scoring games. When Rudy Gay was injured in mid-February, Arthur again stepped in to fill part of the scoring void. And he's provided strong play at both ends behind Randolph and Marc Gasol all season.
Offensively, Arthur has emerged this season as a deadly pick-and-pop threat, increasingly his shooting percentage on jumpers from 35% last season to 43% this season and helping provide floor spacing on a team that doesn't shoot many threes. He's also been better on the block and off the dribble, showing a developing jump hook and a penchant for quick face-up moves against bigger players, resulting in a bump in his shooting percentage on interior shots from 54% last season to 66% this season.
My series of posts on Grizzlies players as year-end-award contenders continues with Tony Allen as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (or, more realistically, the league's all-defensive team).
ESPN's John Hollinger beat me to this with a terrific — albeit Insider-restricted — piece yesterday naming his own all-defensive team. Hollinger has Allen as the starter at two-guard and asserts that Allen would have a case for Defensive Player of the Year if he had been starting all season. (Hollinger also lists Rudy Gay among his honorable mentions at small forward, recognizing Gay's generally under-appreciated defensive improvement this season.)
But I'll elaborate a little on Hollinger's case for Allen:
His individual defense: As good as James Posey was during his one great year for the Grizzlies, I don’t think this team has ever had as destructive an individual defender as Allen has been this season. And though he built his reputation as an off-the-bench stopper for a brilliant defensive-team in Boston, including doing strong work on Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals, I doubt Allen has ever been as good defensively as he's been for the Grizzlies this season.
We've seen Allen have possessions where he's dismantled elite offensive players ranging from 6'0" point guard Chris Paul (switching over and forcing a desperately needed turnover late in an eventual home loss in early March) to 6'10" forward Kevin Durant (bottling him up completely on a crucial late-game possession during a rousing road win in early February). And we've seen the kind of help defense where it feels like he's guarding the entire other team.
With the season winding down, I'm going to spend the next couple of days looking at the league's various year-end awards and making the case for Grizzlies players who deserve to be part of the conversation in each category. Up first, Zach Randolph's undersung career year and his candidacy for all-NBA honors:
Zach Randolph had a career year in his first go-around with the Grizzlies, rehabbing his reputation, making his first all-star team, and becoming a team-leader and fan favorite. Randolph's surface stats were in line with his career averages — he's Mr. 20-10 — but he was a better, more efficient player than he'd been in previous stops, a case I made in this long mid-season piece.
Well, Randolph has bee even better in his second season with the Grizzlies, even if this new "career year" hasn't registered as strongly.
In his primary areas of contribution — as a scorer and rebounder — Randolph has repeated last season's performance — even improved on it a little bit. Randolph is once again averaging 20 points a game, but this time with a shooting percentage — .502 — that is the second best of his career and his best since becoming a starting player in his third season. Randolph is shooting more jumpers this season, but not more threes, maintaining last season's reasonable decline in three-point shooting after growing far too fond of the shot in his time with the Knicks and Clippers. And while he's shooting roughly the same percentage from the perimeter (40%), the big difference has been that he's making his interior attempts at an even higher percentage, improving from 58% to 64% in the paint, per 82Games.com.
The Lead: Tuesday night, the Grizzlies moved one step closer to their first playoff birth since 2006, but it wasn’t because of anything they did. Roughly 15 minutes after a frustrating, controversial loss to the Clippers, the Grizzlies players sat in their lockers, watching the final minutes of a game in Houston, where the home-team Rockets were being upset by the Sacramento Kings. The Rockets' loss reduced the Grizzlies' "magic number" from 3 to 2.
Earlier, out on the FedExForum court, the Grizzlies gave their most lackluster home performance in at least a month, squandering a 13-point second-half lead with poor shooting, bobbled passes, and a failure to either exploit or counter fourth-quarter match-up problems.
But the poor basketball for 47-plus minutes was overshadowed by a chaotic, confusing finish. After Mike Conley scored on a fastbreak drive to cut the deficit to one, the Clippers had the ball, up 82-81, with 29.5 seconds left on the clock. With, apparently, 0.2 seconds left on the 24-second shot clock, Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe and the Grizzlies' Tony Allen collided in the lane, a few feet beyond the restricted circle.