The Grizzlies' road from here to the playoffs is a long one and an arduous one. After the All Star break, there are 30 games left. Thirteen of them are at home. They'll play eight back-to-backs.
It's not just the schedule. The Griz find themselves locked in a death-battle for the last Western Conference playoff spot with the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns and the somehow-not-dead-yet Denver Nuggets — a fight no one, this writer included, thought they'd be in when we were all sitting around prognosticating about how this year would go.
It's been a weird year for the Grizzlies, and it's been a weird year to be writing about them. A perfect storm of expectations and underperformance (both avoidable and not) has thus far meant that each week feels like a different team. A big home loss to a bad team, and it feels like all is lost. A convincing road win over one of the West's best teams, and it seems like the whole Internet is writing about how good the Grizzlies are, how dangerous, how underreported.
The dizzying thing about this year is that the Grizzlies, who are underreported now, won't be so in a week — in fact, they probably won't exist at all. Someone will get hurt and the starting lineup will change. One guy will fall out of the rotation through no fault of his own, his minutes squeezed because someone else is a better matchup. The style of play will change from night to night, sometimes dragging the game into the mud and pounding the ball through the post and other times riding on 3-point shooting and raw athleticism around the rim, sometimes suffocating the other team with trademark Grizzlies defense, and other times scoring so many points the other team can't keep up.
The fluctuating identity has suited this group of players, who have shown steady progress over the course of the season (or, at least, they did, until a January 31st injury to Mike Conley's ankle sidelined him for a significant stretch) while adjusting to each other and while first-year coach Dave Joerger adjusts to the rhythms of the NBA season on the fly. But it hasn't made for a dependable team or a coherent narrative around the season.
That lack of a coherent narrative this year (not to mention the blowout losses and the string of injuries unprecedented in recent Grizzlies history) has been a shock to the system of fans still riding high on last year's "grit and grind" successes. At times, it's felt like last year's Conference Finals trip was the worst thing that could've happened to this year's team, saddling them with expectations that were higher than they should've been for a team that was going to have to adjust to a new coach, a changed system, and a Western Conference that got better from top to bottom.
No matter how turbulent the season has been so far, from the All Star break on, the Grizzlies are going to have to get from here — coming off a particularly rough stretch without Conley — to "there" in a hurry. The struggles early in the season have left them with little margin for error as they try to climb the standings into the top eight and stay there. In their favor are their wins over the Phoenix Suns, but that's tempered by the fact that they've already lost to the Mavericks three times. If they can get into the playoffs, there's little doubt they'll be fierce competitors and a team that no one would want to face. But given the rocky road they've encountered so far this year, it seems unlikely that the Grizzlies' fate will be decided anytime soon. This season feels like it's going to go down to the wire.
As frustrating as it's been to watch this team at times, there have been moments of unadulterated basketball bliss: James Johnson flying to the rim for a putback that no one but James Johnson thought he'd even attempt. Marc Gasol returning in a win over the Thunder and making Kendrick Perkins look bad (yet again) while doing it. A short-handed team making a furious comeback to force the Spurs into overtime at home that was as close to a moral victory as it gets in the NBA. No matter how the season turns out, there are joys to be found in it, even now, before the Grizzlies have to buckle down and push for the playoffs.