The Grizzlies had a two-day break following Wednesday's listless home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and return home tonight to face the Denver Nuggets, who got big performances from Danilo Gallinari (39 points on 14-23 shooting), Andre Iguodala (20-8-4), and Kenneth Faried (19 rebounds) in a strong 106-85 win in Dallas last night.
1. The Brutal, Crowded West: With the Grizzlies muddling around .500 since their 14-3 start (4-5 since) and the Clippers, Thunder, and Spurs streaking (the Clippers and Thunder are a combined 29-2 over their past 31 games; the Spurs have won four in a row after a mid-December hiccup; these teams now have the three best records in the NBA), the Grizzlies seem to have slipped into the second tier in the West. Meanwhile, the Nuggets, despite an ostensibly disappointing 8-9 start, have worked their way into the second tier, sitting at 17-14 despite having played more than twice as many road games (21) as home games (10)
The playoff odds system new Grizzlies VP John Hollinger set up at ESPN currently projects the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Rockets, and Warriors to be within two games of each other in the fight for the #4 seed, with the Nuggets currently projected to get it. (And both the Lakers and Timberwolves, recovering from their early injuries, have a very good chance to get in this mix.) In that regard, this game could be particularly important because the Grizzlies have already lost twice to the Nuggets and another loss here would give the Nuggets a head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams.
It's also an important game for the Grizzlies from a momentum/piece of mind standpoint. The team is coming off two pretty bad losses in a row (with that road drubbing in Houston preceding the Sixers game) and, after tonight, will play five of their next six on the road. There's real danger than the team's recent slide down the conference standings could continue.
2. Cruisers vs. Bruisers: The frontcourt tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is the Grizzlies' strength, but there's evidence to suggest that these two relative plodders struggle with super-athletic frontcourts, with half of the team's eight losses coming against the Clippers' Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Hawks' Josh Smith and Al Horford, and the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee (twice).
The Denver duo out-boarded Randolph and Gasol on the offensive glass 12-6 in the previous FedExForum game, a 97-92 Nuggets win, and Randolph hasn't seemed comfortable in either game, averaging 11 points on 40% shooting with zero — zero — free-throw attempts in 71 minutes against the Nuggets. Gasol shot 2-10 in the last meeting between the teams. Meanwhile, Faried is averaging 11.5 rebounds (five offensive) against the Grizzlies and McGee and center tag-team partner Kosta Koufos are combining to average 15 rebounds and nearly 60% shooting in two games against the Griz.
3. Point Guard Play: The main reason the Grizzlies have struggled lately is also the reason the team no longer has the look of a true contender — an offense that's slipped from Top 5 to middle of the pack (16th). And while the reasons for that slippage are varied, so much of it starts with point-guard play, which should be particularly important against the Nuggets. Mike Conley (38% shooting and four turnovers a game) and Jerryd Bayless (31% shooting) have not been good against the Nuggets, and when they're not good, the Grizzlies generally aren't good. On the season, Conley is shooting 47% with 2.4 turnovers in wins and 35% with 3.9 turnovers in losses, while Bayless is shooting 47% from the floor and 43% from three-point range in wins and only 23% from the floor and 17% from three in losses.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, feature one of the league's most interesting change-ups at the point, with jitterbug starter Ty Lawson giving way — or pairing up with — brawny veteran reserve and certified Griz killer Andre Miller off the bench. As with the frontcourt, the match-ups here are tricky for the Grizzlies.