With their magic number for the playoffs reduced to one against a Minnesota Tim-berwolves team ready to pack it in, the odds of the Memphis Grizzlies missing the playoffs are microscopic. What once looked like a vicious late-season test is now tune-up time: a chance to work injured players (Stromile Swift and James Posey) back into the lineup and smooth over poorly timed locker-room tensions (Jason Williams and Bonzi Wells). In the meantime, let's hand out some end-of-season backslaps (and wristslaps):
Team MVP: Shane Battier. Battier is a better player than he was during his rookie season, even if his per-game averages suggest otherwise. In this volatile season, he's been a team savior many times over. With the team decimated by injuries, Battier's been durable, missing only two games. With last season's MVP, James Posey, perpetually hobbled, Battier stepped back into the starting lineup to provide stalwart defense. When the loss of Pau Gasol and Stromile Swift threatened to deprive the team of an inside game, Battier unexpectedly emerged as a post option, providing points and getting key opponents in foul trouble through grit and guile. And with delicate team chemistry continually ruptured by ill-tempered teammates, Battier's focus, maturity, and willingness to sacrifice have been more valuable than ever.
Runner-up: Lorenzen Wright. Battier isn't the only player who's been virtually injury-free and has stepped up when others have gone down. As late as January 20th, Wright was shooting under 40 percent from the floor, an entirely unacceptable performance from a starting NBA center. But when Gasol went down a couple of days later, Wright took off, delivering probably the best stretch of play of his career and at the exact moment when his team needed it most.
Disappointment: James Posey. Down the stretch last season, Posey emerged as a borderline All-Star -- Ron Artest without the baggage. With a chance to prove it wasn't a fluke, Posey instead delivered a lost season. Whether injuries begat poor conditioning or vice versa, Posey hasn't been right physically all season, and the fierce forays to the basket, shutdown defense, and efficient three-point shooting that made Posey a local hoops folk hero a year ago have disappeared.
Surprise: Dahntay Jones. As a rookie a year ago, Jones looked like an athlete in search of definable basketball skills. But he came into camp with a radically improved jump shot and demonstrated a knack early on for knocking down the corner three. Combine that one simple skill with athleticism and defense and you can have a solid NBA career. But lately, Jones has been flashing a more well-rounded offensive game, scoring on mid-range shots, in the post, and, most impressively, on strong drives to the hoop. Going into next season, there should be only two options for Jones: a regular spot in the rotation or a valuable sweetener in a key trade.
Wish Granted: Mike Miller. Since coming over in a mid-season trade two years ago, Miller had never been healthy in a Griz uniform. In the preseason, with then-Coach Hubie Brown holding him out, fans had every reason to expect more of the same. But Miller has missed only six games, all from a concussion, not back spasms or bum ankles. Along the way, the prettiest jump shot in the NBA has finally found net with the frequency long expected. The only player in the NBA shooting better than Miller from both the floor and the three-point line is Phoenix's MVP candidate Steve Nash. And at 25, Miller still has a chance to get better. This season, he's still sprinkled too many single-digit scoring nights amid his offensive onslaughts. Next season the goal should be fill it up every night.
Wish Denied: Jason Williams. Remember all those warm and fuzzy stories about the crusty old coach (Hubie Brown) and the wild-child point guard (Williams) getting on the same page? Never mind. Hopes that Williams had finally turned the corner and corralled his considerable talent and volatile temperament have been dashed. Williams is arguably the second most talented player on the team, but at 29 and with each season a deja-vu experience, it might be time for the Griz to make a change.