Friday, April 5, 2013

Deflections: Playoff Race, Game Recap/Preview, Postseason Awards

Posted By on Fri, Apr 5, 2013 at 10:01 AM

Quickish hits on a handful of notable Griz topics:

The Grizzlies are still trying to shoot past the Nuggets in the race for the three seed.
  • The Grizzlies are still trying to shoot past the Nuggets in the race for the three seed.
The Playoff Race: To the disappointment of Grizzlies fans everywhere, the Denver Nuggets' near-indestructible homecourt advantage held last night against the Dallas Mavericks, despite the Mavericks leading for most of the fourth quarter. Big defensive plays from Corey Brewer and a game-winning drive with two seconds left from Andre Iguodala secured the win for Denver and denied the Grizzlies a chance to control their destiny in pursuit of the third seed.

Current projections now have a one-game gap between all three teams, with Denver finishing at 56, Memphis at 55, and the Clippers at 54 wins. That would make the Grizzlies technically a fifth seed, but with homecourt advantage over the Clippers in a first-round series. The tough thing for the Grizzlies is they have to be a game better than the Nuggets due to tiebreakers, and are now a half-game back with only seven to go. That's an increasingly thin margin of error.

Those projections don't, however, take into account the knee injury to Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari last night. While Nuggets fans worriedly await medical tests today, most assume the injury will sideline Gallinari for the remainder of the season. Any other outcome would be a surprise. Gallinari is the team's second-leading scorer. They're already playing without top scorer Ty Lawson, who has a tear in the plantar fascia in his right heel, but is expected to be back for the playoffs, if not before.

The Nuggets are probably deeper and less dependent on individual players than any team in the league, but this double blow is a pretty severe one. Could it knock them off their game enough to allow the Grizzlies to sneak through to the #3?

Here are the remaining schedules for all three teams in the 3-4-5 race:

Grizzlies (51-24):
at Lakers
at Kings
at Rockets
Clippers (b2b)
at Mavericks

Clippers (50-26):
at Hornets
at Grizzlies (b2b)
at Kings

Nuggets (52-24):
at Mavericks
at Bucks

The Game Behind and the Game Ahead: A few thoughts on the Grizzlies' 94-76 win Wednesday night in Portland:

1. It was great to see Zach Randolph effectively fight for deep post position early in possessions. It doesn't really bother me that we haven't seen that kind of effort as consistently this season as in the past. (Age is a mother, y'all.) But hopefully this was a preview of more sustained physicality to come in the playoffs.

2. Ed Davis: 12 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes. His athleticism and finishing ability make him a good fit in a lineup that now often has three (Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tayshaun Prince) and sometimes four (Jerryd Bayless) quality ballhandlers and creators on the floor. It's a matter of consistency. In the playoffs, the Grizzlies need to get a positive contribution every night from Davis or the similarly inconsistent Darrel Arthur.

3. Mike Conley's upward trend continues with 20 points on only 11 field-goal attempts.

4. Marc Gasol's 29 minutes was certainly a big improvement on the heavy workload he's carried even after his abdominal tear injury. But this was an 18-point win and Gasol's minutes were still one shy of a team high. A Conley lay-up at the 5:07 mark gave the Grizzlies a 17-point lead, but Gasol stayed on the floor another two-and-a-half-minutes, through several other stoppages in play.

The Marc Gasol-Dwight Howard match-up could be key tonight.
Tonight, the Grizzlies face what could be one of the toughest games they have left, in Los Angeles facing the Lakers, who have only a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz in the battle for the conference's final playoff slot.

The Grizzlies have beaten the Lakers twice in Memphis this season and the Lakers, playing .500 ball over the past few weeks, aren't really closing strongly. But I worry about the center match-up tonight, where Dwight Howard (20-15 over his past five games, on 66% shooting) is getting healthier as Marc Gasol is banged up. I could see Howard going nuts tonight, which would be bad for the Grizzlies in this game and could be bad for Gasol in terms of postseason award consideration (see below). The Grizzlies need to press their depth advantage, pressure the Lakers perimeter (Steve Nash may be out), and get another physical Zach Randolph performance against Pau Gasol.

The Keyon Dooling Signing: The out-of-retirement guard made his Grizzlies debut with two end-game minutes against the Blazers on Wednesday night. I'm fine with this signing. If you're under the tax, there's no reason not to fill up open roster spots for the postseason, to guard against injury if nothing else. And Dooling, despite being inactive this season, is still only 32 years old and has post-season experience. Dooling played 212 playoff minutes for the Celtics last spring and shot 11-28 (39%) from three-point range. Dooling had been pretty bad in the regular season and hasn't played in close to a year, but if he can get in reasonable game shape he's got a chance to give the team viable three-point shooting, viable ball-handling, and decent defense in spot minutes.

Anyone who regularly reads this space or follows me on Twitter knows I would have preferred more aggressive development of Tony Wroten Jr. this season, but given where Wroten is, Dooling — if in game shape — is probably a better option for now. And, for depth purposes, he would have been a good signing regardless. The real question is going to be whether the Grizzlies are better off with Dooling in short stretches or just giving all those minutes to Jerryd Bayless.

Postseason Award Candidates: Jerryd Bayless has certainly played like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate the past few weeks, but has come on too late to really be a contender. And though he made his second All-Star team, Zach Randolph isn't going to be an All-NBA candidate. That leaves us with, by my count, four Grizzlies candidates for post-season awards:

Marc Gasol: In all likelihood, Gasol is about to do what Randolph did two seasons ago — make an All-NBA team after being passed over for the All-Star game. But which team? There's some fear that a lot of voters may reflexively cast ballots for Dwight Howard, who is again leading the league in rebounding but hasn't, by any attentive measure, had a particularly positive season. Similarly, Brook Lopez's scoring (a position-high 19.1 average) shouldn't obscure his deficiencies in most other areas of the game. Rather, the first-team center slot should come down to Tim Duncan and Gasol. Duncan has probably been a little better overall — though is actually somewhat less versatile. But by the end of the season, Gasol is likely to have played about 700 more minutes. And that sounds like a tie-breaker to me. (As for the rest of the first team, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul are locks. For the other guard spot, I suspect Kobe Bryant will get the nod. James Harden and Tony Parker are also good contenders. But I wonder if we aren't underrating Dwyane Wade a little bit, his elite season being obscured by Lebron James' historic play.)

I'd also give Gasol my (non-existent) vote for Defensive Player of the Year, but I'm a bit of a booster where his game is concerned. Gasol's the anchor of the NBA's second-best team defense — very good in one-on-one assignments and seven-foot-tall-Battier brilliant in a team context. The biggest rival for the award should be Bulls' center Joakim Noah, who plays a similar role on similarly good defense. Gasol doesn't really fit the profile — springy shot-blocker, a la Serge Ibaka — that voters typically go for on this ballot, but the field is wide open enough this year that maybe he has a shot. Other contenders: Duncan, Roy Hibbert, Larry Sanders, Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen.

Lionel Hollins should be a strong Coach of the Year candidate.
Tony Allen: If Allen could get a first-team All-Defense nod last season playing 26.3 minutes per game, why can't he repeat playing 27.1? Allen's steal rate is down a little — 10th in the NBA per-minute — but he still might be the most feared perimeter defender in the NBA.

Mike Conley: Conley, second in the league in steals and the tip of the spear for the league's second-best defense, probably has a shot at making the All-Defense team as well, though second team is probably his ceiling. I also feel strongly that he should get some Most Improved Player consideration, though I doubt his per-game stats are quite improved enough for that. Refusing to consider second-year players for this award (sorry, Nikola Vucevic, Tristan Thompson, and Chandler Parsons), I think my (fictional) ballot would look like this: 1. Jrue Holiday, 2. Greivis Vasquez, 3. Conley, 4. Paul George, 5. Robin Lopez (sneaky good this year).

Lionel Hollins: Hollins doesn't know from steady waters. Once again, he had to navigate his team through some in-season upheaval — this time an early season ownership change and a massive mid-season roster overhaul he had publicly discouraged. But the Grizzlies have secured a franchise record for regular-season wins with two weeks left to play. That's got to be worth some Coach of the Year consideration. He'll get it, but my guess is the winner this season will also be the person for whom I would vote — Denver's George Karl, who's crafted a fast-paced, no-stars style that's made his team virtually unbeatable on its home floor. My ballot: 1. Karl, 2. Hollins, 3. Mike Woodson, 4. Erik Spoelstra, 5. Gregg Popovich.

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