UPDATE: The Spurs have now announced that both Tim Duncan and small forward Kawhi Leonard will be out for tonight's game.
There are only four regular-season games left at FedExForum this season and tonight's is a doozy. It's a rematch of what I consider this season's best game — the January 11th overtime Grizzlies win — and one in which both teams are fighting for playoff positioning and the Grizzlies are trying to tie a franchise record with win number 50.
Three things on the brain about tonight's game:
1. How will Pop play it?: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is notoriously protective of his stars during the regular season, so it will be interesting to see how he approaches this one, the second half of a back-to-back set after last night's surprising home loss to a Miami Heat team playing without Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Tim Duncan — having an under-appreciated fountain-of-youth season — hasn't hit 65 total minutes on a back-to-back set since opening weekend. He played an uncharacteristic 35 minutes last night. So, if the Spurs stay to form, he may be limited tonight. The younger Tony Parker has topped 70 minutes in back-to-backs a couple of times this season, but has more typically been kept to 60 or fewer minutes. He played 37 last night. And the third member of the Spurs' star trio, sixth man Manu Ginobili, is already out with a hamstring injury. The Spurs are 1.5 games up on the Thunder in the race for the West's top seed and are now three games back of the Heat for overall homecourt in the playoffs. How much does this game mean to them?
2. Are the Griz back in a groove?: The Grizzlies, by contrast, enter the game in a better place, having corrected both a 1-3 since an overtime win over the Thunder and a more troubling five-game road losing streak with a 2-0 weekend against the Rockets and Wolves. The team's post-halftime defense returned to lockdown mode (16- and 17-point third quarters allowed). Zach Randolph broke out of his slump (35 and 19 on 11-23 shooting). Marc Gasol looked uninhibited (42-13-10 on 16-24 shooting). Mike Conley concluded an near-All-Star quality March (34 and 13 with 6 steals on 13-26 shooting). And the bench was a big boost in Minnesota. The Grizzlies will need a strong closing kick — and some luck — to get homecourt advantage in a first-round series. A win tonight would be highly encouraging in that regard.
3. Set your DVRs: You may want to keep this game around for awhile in case it ends up being a second-round playoff preview. If the Spurs maintain the top seed with the Grizzlies staying in the four/five game OR if the Spurs slide to second and the Grizzlies get up to third — and if both teams win their first-round series — then they could face-off again in a few weeks. The odds of all of that coming together are not likely, but the scenario is very reasonable.
4. Marc Gasol vs. Tim Duncan: Savor it: Assuming Duncan plays, tonight's game will feature what should be the First- and Second-Team All-NBA centers in Duncan and Gasol. I'm conflicted on the order — the playing-time disparity evens out Duncan's mild per-minute superiority — but these have absolutely been the two best traditional big men in the NBA this season. And each is a tough, skilled joy to watch. All that is good about basketball lives here.
Scoreboard Watching: Heading into tonight, the standings for the 3-4-5 seeds in the West look like this:
The Nuggets are idle tonight. The Clippers are at home against the Indiana Pacers (9:30 p.m. tip). So, a win tonight would bring the Grizzlies even with the Nuggets record-wise and maintain at least a one-game lead over the Clippers in the loss column.