There were encouraging moments for the Grizzlies last night in Portland. Despite 1-4 shooting, Gilbert Arenas looked promising in a 12-minute debut stint. He looked good physically all things considered, was active defensively (2 steals), and made plays, especially in the pick and roll (his three assists were augmented by a couple of feeds — both to Marc Gasol I think — for lay-up attempts that drew fouls). Zach Randolph did some Zach Randolph stuff in the first half. Despite my ongoing concerns about fatigue, Marc Gasol was sharp offensively (a team-high 22 points and 3 assists on 8-13 shooting). And Tony Allen's effectiveness (17 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) was rewarded with full starter minutes (34), though he did lose his dribble and turn the ball over on a crucial late possession.
But none of that was enough. With Mike Conley (5-16 shooting, only 1 steal) and Rudy Gay (10 points on 4-10 shooting) having subpar games and the Grizzlies giving up way too many open three-pointers (Portland was 10-25 from deep), the Grizzlies lost again, their fifth loss in their past seven games and fourth to a team currently outside the playoff picture. Now the Grizzlies will play seven of their next nine on the road, mostly against playoff teams.
Clearly the Grizzlies' chemistry is a little off with rotation changes provoked by Randolph's return, but the biggest problem seems to be flagging defensive intensity. When the Grizzlies did built a lead against Portland in the third quarter (where they outscored the Blazers 25-17) it came from a familiarly hectic, harassing defense that turned the Blazers over and got the Grizzlies in transition. That's this team's identity and lately that defensive level hasn't been on display with enough consistency.
If there's a silver lining to these recent struggles it's that most of the Western Conference is having a similar rough patch. The Mavericks are 5-5 in their past 10 and will play four of their next five on the road, all against playoff teams. The Nuggets are 4-4 in their past eight and begin a seven-game road trip today. The Rockets have won two in a row, but are only 5-7 so far in March. The Clippers, who the Grizzlies play Saturday, have lost three in a row and could be on the verge of a coaching change. Even the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder have been playing .500 ball for the past couple of weeks.
But, below the post-season cutoff line, the Jazz are on a five-game winning streak and the Suns, despite losing two straight, are 9-4 in March.
The result has been some tightening in a Western Conference playoff race that was showing separation a few weeks ago. Despite their recent struggles, the Grizzlies are still sitting in the fifth seed and are only a half game out of fourth and home-court advantage in the first round. But their cushion for even making the playoffs at all is down to a single game. Only 1.5 games currently separate 4-9 in the West.