Last week, the Grizzlies conquered the toughest part of their schedule with a 5-2 record in a murderous seven-games-in-nine-nights stretch. Now, with the team playing its best basketball, with the roster as whole and healthy as it's going to get, and with the schedule lightening up considerably in the final weeks, only an entirely unexpected collapse is going to keep the Grizzlies from returning to the playoffs this spring. (ESPN.com's John Hollinger has the team's playoff odds up to 99.6 percent.)
Starting tonight, with a crucial home game against a Los Angeles Clippers team 1.5 games ahead of the Griz in the standings, the final weeks should be about playoff positioning: Can the Grizzlies move up and secure homecourt advantage in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history?
With that in mind, let's look at the 10 teams remaining in the Western Conference playoff race: Where they're at today, how their schedule sets up in the final weeks, and where they may end up:
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 12
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 0
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 7
Outlook: The Spurs play the Lakers three times in their final dozen games, but two of those are at home. Of their six road games, only one — April 17th against the Lakers — is against a team with a record above .600, but that road schedule does include a three-games-in-the-nights set, where you would imagine they will rest their vets in one of those games.
Prediction: I like the deep, focused Spurs to mostly keep up their torrid current pace and ride a moderate remaining schedule to the top seed in the West for the second straight year. Final record: 49-17, first seed.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Games Left: 10
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 0
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 6
Outlook: The Thunder lost three in a row before getting back on track with last night's home game against the lottery-bound Raptors. The team's strength-of-schedule isn't that bad the rest of the way. They've got three games left against Sacramento and half of the playoff contenders they play are of the low-end variety (Milwaukee, Phoenix, Denver). But there's a five-game road trip in there that starts in Minnesota and then goes to the West Coast for four games.
Prediction: The Thunder lost the season series to the Spurs, 2-1, and that tiebreaker will be the difference. Final Record: 49-17, second seed.
“Seven of nine!,” a smiling, near-punch-drunk Joerger exclaimed, “This is it right here! Day off tomorrow!”
Here's betting Joerger was even more excited a few hours later, after the Grizzlies lead from buzzer to buzzer in beating the division rival Mavericks in a game with playoff implications and playoff atmosphere.
The Grizzlies finished the toughest stretch on their schedule — seven games in nine days, six against playoff contenders, five on the road — with an unlikely 5-2 record. And despite dramatic road wins against Finals favorites Oklahoma City and Miami, this last one was perhaps the most meaningful, strengthening the team's hold on the #5 position in the West — and positioning them for a move toward #4 — by not only gaining back the game the team lost against Dallas earlier in the week, but more importantly securing a tiebreaker against them by taking the season series 2-1.
“It was huge,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We're three up on them now in the loss column and with the tiebreaker it's more like four. It's going to be a tight race, but we have to keep winning.”
“If you had told us we'd be 5-2 in that stretch, we would have been happy about it,” Mike Conley said. “But we feel like we're getting better. There's been a lot of growth on this team in the past couple of weeks.”
The Grizzlies built a 20-point lead in the first quarter and while the Mavericks chipped away — drawing to within one when a three-pointer from Vince Carter made it 63-62 late in the third quarter — the Grizzlies never lost their lead, making plays down the stretch to keep a multi-possession lead until the shot-clock was off and the Mavericks were forced to foul.
Paired with Friday night's 15-point win in Miami, the Grizzlies beat both teams from last year's Finals in back-to-back games, without ever trailing. Now that's a good weekend.
Making the weekend even better was that both wins featured strong performances from the team's previously struggling stars — Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay, who had both played very poorly in the three-games-in-three-nights stretch earlier in the week.
Randolph followed his 14 and 14 off the bench against Miami with another double-double, a more efficient 15 and 11, with 4 assists.
And Gay's breakout was even more dramatic. After having his least productive three-game stretch in more than three seasons, Gay lead the Grizzlies with 17 points against Miami, pairing the scoring with solid defense that only started with his three steals. Gay was even better Saturday against Dallas, scoring a game-high 25 points on only 15 field goal attempts, along with 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
The Grizzlies ran out of gas in the fourth quarter last night, playing their third game in three days and fifth game in six days on the road against defending champions who really needed that win as they look toward a road-heavy finish.
The Grizzlies couldn't find the energy and chemistry in the fourth quarter this time, especially after Tony Allen hit the deck and then the locker room after an inadvertent elbow from O.J. Mayo opened a gash in his mouth that required stitches. The Grizzlies had already lost a fourth-quarter lead with a 10-0 Mavs run in the middle of the quarter, while Allen was on the bench. Trailing by three with five minutes left when Allen headed back to the locker room, the Grizzlies then watched the Mavs go on another 9-0 run to put the game away.
Merely losing a game in this situation, given the schedule and the opponent, isn't that big a deal. More troubling are a couple of trends that continued in the game:
After a good first quarter — 3-4 shooting and active transition play on both ends highlighted by breaking up a 2-on-1 break and blocking a shot at the rim after forcing Dallas to reset — Rudy Gay wilted as the game wore on, finishing with 8 points on 4-12 shooting with 2 rebounds.
The Lead: For more than three quarters Tuesday night it looked as if the Grizzlies were going to follow up one of their best wins of the season (94-88 over the Thunder Monday night) with one of their worst losses.
The Grizzlies have been terrific on the second night of back-to-back games this season, but coming off the intense road win in Oklahoma City they played down to their competition in this one. Facing a depleted Golden State team starting three rookies, in the middle of a five-game losing streak, and looking ahead to the lottery, the Grizzlies trailed 79-70 to start the fourth quarter. Thirty seconds into the final period, a Quincy Pondexter turnover and a Brandon Rush three-pointer pushed the Golden State lead to 82-70 and Lionel Hollins called an immediate timeout.
A minute later, Hollins finally found a combination of players ready to dig in and fight: O.J. Mayo, Gilbert Arenas, Tony Allen, Dante Cunningham, and Marc Gasol. That group went on a 22-6 run over the next seven minutes, spurred by heady, interchangeable backcourt play on both ends from the Mayo/Arenas duo, 9 points (on 4-4 shooting) from Cunningham, and an intense — and heretofore missing — blast of team defense.
A late, fatigue-inspired substitution of Mike Conley and Rudy Gay for Arenas/Mayo (Mayo re-entered after a rest) threatened to stall momentum, but Gay's putback dunk with a minute-and-a-half to play partially redeemed what had been a poor performance to that point and essentially sealed the game.
It was something of a mini-me version of the crazy early-season game in Golden State, where the Grizzlies trailed big before going on a ferocious fourth-quarter run to win the game. And it was one the team really had to have, to keep from negating their good work the night before in Oklahoma City.
“They don't have, really, something to play for, so they were just jacking up shots. Taking bad shots and making them,” Marc Gasol said afterward, bluntly but accurately. “They were playing without conscience, and we knew that coming in. But we finally got stops and rebounds and got the win.”
The Grizzlies enjoyed one of their best wins of the season last night, returning to “the birthplace of grit and grind,” as Pete Pranica put it before the tip, to end the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder's six-game winning streak despite the absence of Mike Conley and Dante Cunningham and subpar games from Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph.
Of course, this happened on a Monday night, right in the middle of our Monday-Tuesday production cycle at the Flyer, so I wasn't able to get into the game until I was done with print deadlines. But I want to get a few rambling observations down before the team takes the court again tonight, at home against the reeling Golden State Warriors. (Reminder: We're giving away two tickets to the game. Enter here. Drawing at 3 p.m.)
The Season Series/The State of Things: The Grizzlies went 1-3 against the Thunder in this season's series after pushing them to seven games in last spring's playoffs. If that feels like regression, consider this: All four games came down to the final couple of minutes, with the Grizzlies playing without Zach Randolph in two games and without Mike Conley in the other two, while the Thunder have been relatively whole.
The Grizzlies come home after their rousing road victory last night against the Western Conference's top team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As the playoff race enters the final month, the Grizzlies will try to keep their current winning streak alive at FedExForum tonight against the reeling Golden State Warriors.
If you want to hail the conquering heroes, we can help out. We're giving away two lower-bowl tickets to tonight's game. Click here to enter. The drawing will be at 3 p.m.