Quickish hits on a handful of notable Griz topics:
Current projections now have a one-game gap between all three teams, with Denver finishing at 56, Memphis at 55, and the Clippers at 54 wins. That would make the Grizzlies technically a fifth seed, but with homecourt advantage over the Clippers in a first-round series. The tough thing for the Grizzlies is they have to be a game better than the Nuggets due to tiebreakers, and are now a half-game back with only seven to go. That's an increasingly thin margin of error.
Those projections don't, however, take into account the knee injury to Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari last night. While Nuggets fans worriedly await medical tests today, most assume the injury will sideline Gallinari for the remainder of the season. Any other outcome would be a surprise. Gallinari is the team's second-leading scorer. They're already playing without top scorer Ty Lawson, who has a tear in the plantar fascia in his right heel, but is expected to be back for the playoffs, if not before.
The Nuggets are probably deeper and less dependent on individual players than any team in the league, but this double blow is a pretty severe one. Could it knock them off their game enough to allow the Grizzlies to sneak through to the #3?
Here are the remaining schedules for all three teams in the 3-4-5 race:
at Grizzlies (b2b)
Organizations and coaches love it when a plan comes together. For Conley, the preseason plan was to play less while doing more — reduce his playing time some while having him become more dynamic and productive and having him hold up better late in games.
The playing time hasn't actually changed much — Conley's minutes per game are down very slightly, from 35.1 to 34.6 — but the better and more sustained play the team hoped for from Conley has indeed materialized.
I wrote in that season preview piece that Conley, more than his higher-paid and more-celebrated teammates Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, would be the key for this season's Grizzlies. The reasoning was that the Grizzlies had, arguably, the least dynamic backcourt rotation among NBA contenders as the game is evolving to be more guard-oriented. Conley had to play at a high level to keep up, no matter how strong the Grizzlies were in the paint.
As the season's progressed, I've half-jokingly been tracking what I call “the Conley Correlation,” and it's held up:
Conley, in wins: 16/7 on 47% shooting, 38% from three, +12
Conley, in losses: 12/5 on 37% shooting, 33% from three -6
(All stats, unless otherwise indicated, from NBA.com or ESPN.com.)
No other player's individual production has been as sure an indicator of team success. And as the Grizzlies inch toward the best regular season in franchise history, one of the biggest reasons they've gotten there is because Conley is also having his best regular season.
The Lead: For a half, this sequel to the best game at FedExForum this season threatened to be the worst. But it was saved by a frenetic fourth, a thrilling finish, and a big closing performance from Mike Conley that sealed the season's 50th victory, tying a franchise record.
For the first 24 minutes, the Grizzlies were in the mud — and not in the good way — against a Spurs team missing three of its four best players (Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Manu Ginobili). Even in building an early nine-point lead, the Grizzlies offense was awkward, and by the time the bench began to cycle through they looked like they'd just met up before the game, ending the half with 37 points on sub-32% shooting and a (lucky to be only) seven-point deficit.
In the third quarter, the Grizzlies played their normally super-effective starting lineup for close to nine minutes and managed to cut all of one point off the Spurs lead.
The fourth started poorly, with a Danny Green steal setting up a Gary Neal three-pointer. But then Jerryd Bayless did what sixth-men are supposed to do, giving the team a burst of energy and offense by scoring or assisting on three straight buckets to cut he deficit down to three. The rest of the way was a dogfight, with missed free-throws (3-6 down the stretch) and Tony Parker keeping the Grizzlies at bay.
Man of the Match: But with five minutes to go, Mike Conley put the team on his back. A lefty scoop lay-up brought the Grizzlies within two, then a bounce feed to Marc Gasol on the baseline sent Gasol to the line to tie it up. The Spurs rebuilt a four-point lead, but Conley sliced it in half with a jitterbugging drive down the lane. Down three with under a minute to go, Conley got a feed from Jerryd Bayless on the left elbow extended and knocked down a long one to tie the game.
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.