Playground Bullied 

Grizzlies will survive the late-season, but could get pushed around in the playoffs.

Sunday night, after watching his team blow out the Los Angeles Lakers by 20 points, Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello was given a chance to lavish praise on his team's interior play at his postgame press conference. The Griz had just outrebounded the Lakers 54-41 and outscored them in the paint 58-32. But Fratello demurred, instead offering the facial-expression equivalent of a shrug and wondering aloud: If his team couldn't dominate paint in this game, when would it be able to?

And he was right. The Lakers were playing without their starting power forward, Lamar Odom, one of the league's top 10 rebounders, and without starting center Chris Mihm, a seven-footer who has been one of the league's most improved players this season. Backup center Vlade Divac has been on the injured list since early January. And burly backup power forward Brian Grant played only five minutes before being ejected after a shoving match with Pau Gasol. The frontcourt players the Lakers were left with were either too small, too slow, or -- unbelievably --too weak to contend with the Grizzlies' frontline, even with Stromile Swift sidelined by an irregular heartbeat.

The Grizzlies had a good weekend, ending a three-game losing streak with wins at Milwaukee Friday and at home against the Lakers on Sunday. And they gained a much-needed game on the fast-approaching Minnesota Timberwolves for the Western Conference's last playoff slot. Heading into Tuesday night's game against the Denver Nuggets, it shaped up like this: If the Grizzlies could play .500 ball the rest of the way (5-5), then Minnesota would have to run the table (8-0) to overtake them. The Timberwolves have a favorable schedule but little margin for error. And despite a rough final stretch, the Grizzlies should be able to cobble together enough wins to survive.

But even if the playoffs look like a safer bet now than they did a week ago, the Grizzlies' recent struggles are a reminder of a crucial weakness that could do in the team come playoff time and that needs to be addressed this offseason.

The Grizzlies are no longer the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA, as they were last season. But they've improved to only 26th out of 30 teams in that department and, given their recent play, could be eyeing the bottom again before too long.

This modest improvement is largely the result of coaching: Since taking over the team in early December, Fratello seems to have chosen to sacrifice a little of the team's running game for better team effort on the boards. Personnel-wise, the Grizzlies certainly couldn't have expected much improvement. Exchanging Bo Outlaw for Brian Cardinal improved the team offensively, especially from the free-throw line, but despite Cardinal's toughness and workmanlike game, he isn't much on the boards, with his lack of size and athleticism and perimeter-oriented offensive game.

Last season, Grizzlies fans became far too accustomed to seeing beefy opposing big men bully their team. Names such as Jahidi White, Greg Ostertag, and the dreaded Erick Dampier must still give some fans nightmares. And if the team's recent three-game losing streak had a common thread, it was that each opponent unleashed just this type of player: New Orleans' stalwart frontcourt tandem of Jamaal Magloire and P.J. Brown combined for 27 rebounds, 10 on the offensive boards. Chicago's 6'11", 285-pound, Eddy Curry bulldozed Gasol and Lorenzen Wright en route to 25 easy points. And against Seattle's rugged if not exactly skilled frontline, the Grizzlies gave up 19 offensive rebounds while allowing center Jerome James (7'1", 270 lbs.) to repeatedly back down to the rim and lay in shots.

If Jerry West sticks around for the next offseason, he should make adding a bruiser to this roster priority number one. A rough-and-tumble role player should be available for half the cash it would take to resign Swift, a player whose potential is overstated at this point and who simply isn't a good fit on a team already committed to Gasol.

In the short term, these rebounding problems loom large as the playoffs approach. And potential matchups with Phoenix's quick-off-the-floor athletes (Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire), Seattle's quartet of bruisers (James, Reggie Evans, Nick Collison, and Danny Fortson), or San Antonio's dominant star (Tim Duncan, if healthy) all suggest an early exit. n

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