Last night was pretty much a worst-case scenario for the Grizzlies and the playoff hopes they're clinging to for dear life. The Spurs reduced the Grizzlies to a smoldering pile of rubble, sure—you're lying if you say you didn't at least predict that as a possible outcome. What hurt the Grizzlies that much worse is that the Phoenix Suns beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to move into the 8th spot, a whole game ahead of the Grizzlies, who would be on the outside looking in (and picking 14th in the draft) if the season ended today.
The Grizzlies—even with the new starting five of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol—still have no answer for the Spurs, and for large stretches of last night's game didn't even look like they were equipped to fight back. They lost by 20 points, and even that felt like a mercy killing, especially after a retina-searing 26-10 first quarter.
It's maddening that the Spurs are able to do this to the Grizzlies at will. I saw a lot of conversation on Twitter about how Popovich & company were still punishing the Grizzlies for the 2011 playoff upset, and that may be partly true, but it misses the overall picture: the Spurs are a basketball killing machine this season, fanatically obsessed with returning to the NBA Finals and winning the title they missed by one Ray Allen 3-pointer last year. There is no quarter given to the NBA's weaker teams, and unfortunately for the Grizzlies, lately they've been playing like one of the NBA's weaker teams.
So much of this game was garbage time that it's hard to speak intelligently about what happened. I'll attempt it anyway:
• The starters weren't any good together, which normally would be so routine I wouldn't mention it, but this was a different starting lineup: the Conley/Lee/Allen/Randolph/Gasol five I still think is probably the Grizzlies' best lineup. The problem against San Antonio is that Tony Allen always seemed to end up with a wide open shot that he couldn't help but take, with predictable results. The Spurs absolutely suffocated the Grizzlies' interior game, just like they always do, and the Grizzlies couldn't shoot well enough from three—Lee attempted zero 3's, Mike Miller attempted 2, and neither of them made one—to stretch them out. Stop me if you've heard that one before.
• James Johnson got an extended amount of run, eventually taking Tony Allen's place at the small forward spot. I usually don't like the deployment of Johnson at a wing position, preferring him as a 4, but last night he played well, scoring 20 points on 7-11 shooting. His defense on Kawhi Leonard wasn't great (Leonard was 12-13 from the floor for 26 points), and he had two or three lapses in awareness that Tayshaun Prince certainly wouldn't have made, but Prince also probably wouldn't have scored 20. There's room for Johnson in this rotation, and everyone knows it. It's good to see Dave Joerger coming around to the idea, even as he's having to play Johnson through some uneven stretches.
• Zach Randolph was 3-9 from the field, for a final stat line of 8 and 6 with 4 turnovers. After the 2011 playoffs, the Spurs figured Z-Bo out. His slow (but nonetheless real) physical decline from that playoff series—the Pinnacle of Z-Bo-nosity in my book, in terms of on-the-court performance anyway—has only made it that much harder for him against the Spurs. Either way, he's a huge drag on the team in games like this, against the only team that can really remove him from the picture completely. Ed Davis may not have put up stellar numbers, but he was much more effective, probably because he wasn't a fixture of the offense and instead roamed around the rim doing Ed Davis things.
• The Grizzlies now pretty much need to win out to make the playoffs. They can maybe afford to lose to Miami if Phoenix is going to drop three or four games—but Phoenix was supposed to drop the OKC game, and they didn't. My gut tells me, still, that the Grizzlies are going to be in a situation where they have to beat Phoenix and Dallas in the last two games of the season to get in, and I worry about that. I don't question this team's desire to win, not in the least, but I do question their focus, and I do question whether they're going to be able to execute consistently enough to beat a Phoenix team that's better than the 3 times the Grizzlies beat them and turn around and do the same to the Mavericks, whom the Grizzlies have yet to beat this year.
Not to be all doom-and-gloom, but the Grizzlies are not in a position of strength headed into the last five games of the season. If they'd won even one more game on their recent road trip—especially the Minnesota game that felt so winnable but for the gassed starters out there walk-jogging around like grandpas on the beach—they'd be in better shape. Having the tiebreaker with Phoenix means they only need to tie the Suns' record to move ahead in the standings, but even that's going to be tough. They can do it if they tap into some as-yet-unseen resource of mental acuity. As much as I don't like to say it, I'm not sure I like their odds.