Priming for Playoff Push
The Grizzlies have reached the unofficial halfway point of the season. 52 of 82 games have been played, so my college level-ish math skills tell me 30 games remain. The break comes with opportune timing. Marc Gasol aggravated his left knee sprain last Wednesday at Orlando in an 86-81 win over the magic. Mike Conley continues to nurse a sprained ankle, and Tony Allen nears his return from a nebulous wrist injury that has sidelined him for 20 consecutive games.
The injuries have been a nuisance, and fans wonder where a healthy Grizz team could be in the playoff race versus where it currently stands. At 29-23, Memphis trails both 8th seed Golden State and 7th seed Phoenix by 1½ games, and 6th place Dallas by 2 games. Furthermore, the Rockets, Clippers, and Trailblazers claim the 3, 4, and 5 seeds respectively, with all three holding a 6½ game cushion over the Grizzlies. This means Memphis is well within striking distance of a number of playoff scenarios and match-ups, all contingent on performance and of course good health.
A Note on Tiebreakers
If a tie were to occur between the Grizzlies and any Southwest division foe (most likely Dallas and Houston at this point), the Grizzlies will ultimately lose said tie based on NBA tie breaking rules, which state that a tie between two divisional opponents is first decided by head to head results, and, in the case of a season series tie, record against divisional opponents determines the higher seed. At 2-11 in the division, and with only 3 Southwest games remaining (New Orleans, San Antonio, and Dallas), Memphis has dug too deep of a hole should that scenario emerge. Thus, even the season series split with Houston would prove futile when comparing overall divisional records. Despite the shortcomings against regional rivals, the fact that people such as 5 time NBA Champion Steve Kerr are already dubbing Memphis as “the team nobody wants to play” is a further testament to the competitiveness and quality of the Southwest division.
Injuries Have Made Team Stronger
While many people wonder where the Grizz “could be”, I look at where the team is now, and where they began the season. The additions of Courtney Lee and James Johnson improved the roster on both sides of the floor. In Tony Allen’s absence, Courtney Lee has provided solid defense and reliable, timely three point shooting. James Johnson appeared out of nowhere, showing an uncanny ability to get to the rim, guard the perimeter, and block shots at will. Marc Gasol’s early exit provided invaluable experience for Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer.
Then there is the polarizing topic of Nick Calathes. Say what you will about the Greek-American and former Florida Gator, but most if not all NBA rookies require an adjustment period, and while there may be too little time left in the playoff race to endure an “adjustment period”, signs point towards Calathes turning the corner. Since we flipped the calendar to February, Calathes has scored double digits in 6 of 7 games, showing to be more capable from 3 than originally thought. He is 9 of 22 from beyond the arc in these seven games for a .409 3P%. His deceptive size (listed at 6’6″ in your programs) can create matchup problems as well. Again, in February, Calathes has one game with 1 steal, one game with 2 steals, and two games with 3 and 4 steals each. Do the arithmetic, carry the one, and that’s 18 steals in 6 games. Not too shabby.
Still, turnovers remain an issue. 6 against Cleveland in a loss, 6 against Dallas in a loss, and 4 against Atlanta in a tight win on the road. Let’s be real for a second, no one is arguing that Calathes is a starting point guard for this team. He has been thrust into a starting role for an indefinite but brief period. Mike Conley will return after the All Star Break, so it’s not like the team is counting on Calathes to lead the Grizz into the playoff hunt. Even then, the transfer window remains open until the trade deadline passes next Thursday, February 20th at 2PM Central time. So, time remains for possible upgrades if the front office desires to do so. However, history can be linked between the front office and Calathes. A Memphis Flyer article from June 2013 noted what would have happened “If Holliner Had Made The Picks”.
The Remaining Hurdles – A Look at the Schedule Down the Stretch
Only 13 home games remain in the regular season, and 17 on the road. The standings graphic above shows the Grizzlies have actually produced results away from home, with a 15-9 record outside of FedExForum. On the other hand, a 14-14 record in Memphis has left something to be desired. Home headliners include the second game out of the break, February 21st against the Clippers, where the first 5,000 fans receive the highly anticipated GRIZZLIES fake neck tattoo. In March, games against the Trailblazers and East leading Pacers loom, in what should be a defensive clinic. Finally, the season winds down in April with ESPN broadcasted games against Denver and Miami, and the season finale against Dallas which could turn into a 1 game series “play in” scenario.
February 28th will be the first big road test against the familiar Thunder in OKC. A jam packed March gives way to 17 Grizz games, with 11 coming on the road. An ESPN game in Chicago comes March 7th. March 21st brings the first matchup of the year against reigning champ Miami. Then, another ESPN game in Utah on March 26th kicks off a 5 game road trip that extends into April. Opponents include Golden State, Portland, and Denver. Furthermore, games in San Antonio (on NBATV), Los Angeles (Lakers), and Phoenix await.
Bottom Line: It’s going to be a long tough road to the finish. 17 of the 30 games remaining come against playoff teams by my count (East and West), and more games on the road than at home as already noted (which could be good if the first 52 games indicate anything). In my opinion, the Grizzlies boast way too much experience compared to Golden State and Phoenix, teams Memphis has performed well against this year. With the team looking for its 4th consecutive playoff birth led by an incumbent core, it seems unthinkable that this team would not reach the playoffs. A stellar stretch run could see the Grizz fighting for home court advantage. If injuries continue to impose their will, then Memphis in May will seem a little empty this year.
To be honest, I am not concerned about the playoff race. It will play out, and the best teams will earn their place. It will be a heated race right up until the spot has been clinched, but confidence is key. The only thing I am really worried about is what the new growl towels will look like.