The Grizzlies did not win at Oklahoma City on Monday night, but the Grizzlies and the Thunder sure made a mess of it: the Grizzlies scored 77 points, their lowest total of the season, but they also held Oklahoma City to 86 in the process. The offense wasn't working, and surprisingly enough it didn't seem like the absence of Mike Conley was the only reason. The Thunder in general have been playing good defense as of late, and Serge Ibaka caused all kinds of problems for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, as he is wont to do.
That was an important game, but the one tonight is even more so: the Grizzlies face the Mavericks at home for the first time all season. Both previous engagements between the two teams happened in Dallas—the first in the "lost weekend" of the first two weeks of the season when the Grizzlies didn't stumble out of the gate so much as fall face-first into a mud puddle, and the second featured a starting lineup of Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Miller, and Kosta Koufos due to injuries to Mike Conley, Tayshaun Prince, and Marc Gasol.
What makes tonight so important is the Western Conference playoff race. Currently in the standings, the Grizzlies are back in 9th place, a game behind Dallas, after jumping up to 8th place for a brief moment over the weekend based on overall win percentage. A Grizzlies win tonight is critical for grabbing and holding the 8th spot. A Grizzlies loss puts that much more space between the Mavs and the Griz.
It's not going to be easy: the Grizzlies go into their third game without Mike Conley at the point, which was easy enough to overcome against the Bucks, but was clearly a factor Monday night against the Thunder. Nick Calathes has played very well while holding the Grizzlies' reins, but Nick Calathes isn't an All Star caliber player, and that sort of absence isn't so easy to gloss over.
What does work in the Grizzlies' favor, however, is Dallas' defense: the Mavericks are currently 24th in the league in (unadjusted) defensive rating, allowing an average of 108.6 points per 100 possessions, putting them in such elite company as the Nets, Knicks, Lakers, Pelicans, Kings, Bucks, and Jazz. The Grizzlies have played some other teams in that category recently, and with the Anthony Davis-sized exception of the Pelicans, they've fared well. Exploiting the weaknesses in Dallas' D is going to be the key to success tonight. We know this is a Grizzlies team that can play defense, even with Conley and Tony Allen on the bench in suits. Scoring and getting into a rhythm will go a long way toward securing the all-important victory tonight.
Other subplot to keep an eye on: Jamaal Franklin got backup point guard minutes again vs. the Thunder on Monday night. Originally, when it happened (unsuccessfully) against the Bucks on Saturday, I laughed it off as a Patented Weird Joerger Lineup Experiment™ and figured it wouldn't happen again. But. He wasn't good against the Thunder, but I've had a change of heart about the whole thing.
Franklin is a rookie who needs minutes however he can get them. There's a good chance that, if/when he evolves into a rotation player, he's going to have to bring the ball up the court. Where's the harm? If the team (and this is assuming Joerger plays Franklin over new 10-day man Darius Morris) can stay afloat while Franklin is driving, and not make too many costly bad decisions, I'm all in favor of letting the rookie learn on the job while getting some PT. If he crashes and burns, throw Morris out there after two or three minutes. If he stays afloat, let him have a little bit of burn.
No matter whether it's Franklin or Morris or the Prince/Lee/Miller troika doing the backup duties, the Grizzlies need to make sure the offense is clicking tonight to exploit the Mavericks' biggest weakness. The playoff seeding implications make this one as important as a regular season game gets.