Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Preview: First the Jazz, then a Heat/Pacers gauntlet

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2014 at 9:24 AM

Nick Calathes and the Grizzlies bench will be crucial to carrying the next three games.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Nick Calathes and the Grizzlies' bench will be crucial to carrying the next three games.

Last week, the Grizzlies played four games in five nights and came away from it with a 3-1 record for the week, good enough to put them up a game and a half on the Phoenix Suns for the 8th and final playoff spot. After three days of rest, the Griz now have three in four nights—four in six if you count Monday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves—and two of them are against the only two teams in the Eastern Conference with a record better than the Grizzlies.

(Yes, folks, for those of you following along at home, the Grizzlies have a better record than the 3rd seed in the East, but they're barely in the West playoffs by a game and a half. By win percentage, Phoenix is better than Toronto, too, meaning the 3rd seed in the East wouldn't even be in the 9th spot in the West.)

Anyway, the Grizzlies are 7-2 in March so far, with eight games left to play before the end of the month. I predicted that they'd need to go 12-5 or 11-6 in order to still be in the playoff race when the month of March was over, and I stand by that prediction. They're well on their way to reaching that mark, but it's not going to get any easier from here on out. The rest of this week is an important stretch—three of the next four games are at home—before the Griz head out on a five game road trip, mostly out West.

vs. Utah

Speaking of teams with bad records, tonight the Grizzlies take on the Utah Jazz at FedExForum. The last time these two teams played was on December 23, and the Grizzlies took that matchup 104-94. (Griz starters that game? Mike Conley, Tony Allen, James Johnson, Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos. Jerryd Bayless played 23 minutes.)

Utah is a team that has good young players, and probably should be good in two years, but just isn't built to win right now. That said, the one stat to look at when judging whether the Grizzlies will struggle against an opponent or not is pace, and Utah is 27th in the league in pace. That means watch for the Grizzlies' defense to struggle to prevent penetration from the perimeter, and watch for the offense to struggle to execute smoothly—the same things the Grizzlies have struggled with all season against other teams that play just as slow as they do.

Gordon Hayward always seems to have a good game against the Grizzlies, clear back to when we sat around incredulous as he torched Rudy Gay once or twice during the regular season a couple of years ago. Also, sometimes I forget which one is Alec Burks and which one is Trey Burke.

at Miami

After the Jazz tonight, the next game on the Griz schedule is the first night of a back-to-back on the road at Miami. We'll get to this in more detail as the game approaches, but the Grizzlies are one of the best teams in the league against the Heat (record-wise and scoring wise) since the Big Three Era started in 2010.

As crazy as it seems, the Grizzlies are just a tough matchup for Miami. The Heat are undersized to really deal with the Gasol/Randolph tandem (especially with The Ghost Of Joey Anthony still getting so much playing time) and when the Grizzlies have a shooter get hot—remember The Wayne Ellington Game?—there's not much Miami seems to be able to do but try to win the game on offense, which the Grizzlies' defense makes harder.

Early prediction for the Heat game: Color me non-shocked if James Johnson gets some minutes guarding LeBron, and thus sets a new land speed record for fouling out of an NBA game.

vs. Pacers

The biggest test of the three, and probably happening at just the right time for the Grizzlies. Over the last two or three seasons, the Pacers have given the Grizzlies absolute fits. The two teams are so similar in mindset (not to mention in size) that at times it looks like the Grizzlies are playing themselves, falling victim to the same things the Griz typically try to do to their opponents.

What's fortunate for the Grizzlies is that the Pacers have come back to earth a bit over the last two weeks or so. I mean, don't get me wrong, they're still the #1 seed in the East, with the second best winning percentage in the NBA, but they've won four in a row against the Celtics, Pistons, and two games against the Sixers after losing four in a row to the Warriors, Bobcats, Rockets, and Mavericks.

They're beating bad teams, but one certainly gets the feeling that the Pacers are more mortal right now than they were earlier in the season. This would be a great time for the Grizzlies to notch a win over a team against which they've struggled—taking advantage of Indiana's cold spell—and set themselves up to run the table for the rest of the month. Indiana is a tough opponent, and they'll show up at FedExForum prepared to fight it out with the Grizzlies. It's up to the Grizzlies to tighten up the defense enough to out-ugly the Pacers. (It worked against the Bulls, didn't it?)

At the end of the Pacers game, the Grizzlies will have played 12 of the 17 games on the schedule for March, and they'll only have five home games left in the 2013-2014 regular season. This season has been a blur and a slog, all at the same time. From the depths of injury-related tanking discussions to figuring out which team the Griz could potentially match up with in the first round, it's all flown by, and it's racing rapidly towards its end. The race for the playoffs isn't going to be settled until the last second, so the Griz need to take care of business and win at least two of these next three games.

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