MikeCheck: Ailing Grizzlies regroup as historic back-to-back set looms

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

The last time David Fizdale was inside the AT&T Center before the Grizzlies’ game against San Antonio, he was asked how it felt to be one of the only rookie coaches in NBA history to open their careers 2-0 against Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“Give it some time,” Fizdale said, refusing any part of the accomplishment. “That 2-0 can go to something like 2-11 really quick. We know what Pop’s teams can do to you. I saw that first hand back in Miami (as an assistant coach) during those two years we met in the Finals.”

Fizdale also wasn’t quite ready to look at the remaining showdowns on the schedule between the Grizzlies and Spurs as a potential first-round playoff preview.

Too many games were remaining.

Too much time was left.

Yet, two weeks have since passed and the Western Conference standings have stood relatively still. If the Grizzlies intend on changing their position in that pecking order, these next two games are crucial to upward mobility. Memphis (42-35) wraps up two key regular-season series in a back-to-back set that starts with Tuesday’s visit to face the Spurs (59-17) followed by Wednesday’s home game against the Thunder (43-33).

Two victories would give the Grizzlies a 2-2 split of the season series with both the Spurs and Thunder. More importantly, it would place Memphis in prime position to overtake OKC for the No. 6 seed, which would secure a first-round playoff matchup with No. 3-seed Houston. Two Memphis losses in these next two games would all but secure a clash in the opening round against the No. 2-seed Spurs. A split of any sort in the two games would leave the Thunder ahead of the Grizzlies, who close their schedule with home games Friday against New York, Sunday against Detroit and next Wednesday against Dallas.

Although the Grizzlies have already clinched their seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs, looking ahead to any potential postseason matchup against the Spurs or Rockets is a fruitless exercise for a team still searching internally for answers. Just when it appeared Memphis was progressing toward a promising end to the regular season, it responded with yet another pathetic loss.

We just don’t want to get comfortable and complacent right now…When you’re going into the playoffs, you want to play your best basketball and have everybody on the same page.

The latest setback came in Sunday’s stunning setback in Los Angeles against a Lakers’ team that has incentive to lose as many games as possible to retain their protected lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. It was the Grizzlies’ 10th loss of the season to a collection of lottery-bound teams in the Lakers, Kings, Pelicans, Knicks, Nets, Magic and Timberwolves.

“We just don’t want to get comfortable and complacent right now,” Grizzlies forward Vince Carter said of the latest up-and-down stretch. “When you’re going into the playoffs, you want to play your best basketball and have everybody on the same page. From here on out, we can fine tune and get younger guys ready. Games like (those against the Spurs and Thunder) will be like a playoff atmosphere.”

That’s likely to be the case more so against the Thunder on Wednesday rather than Tuesday’s game against the Spurs, who are closing in on their fourth 60-win season since 2010. They’re on course to become the first team since Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s to post at least four 60-win seasons in a decade. Both San Antonio and Memphis could be without key rotation players due to a combination of nagging injuries and rest.

The Grizzlies have upgraded center Marc Gasol and power forward JaMychal Green to questionable against the Spurs. Gasol has missed the past five games with a strained left foot, but has gone through progressively intense workouts over the past week. Team officials have said the approach taken with Gasol is more as a precaution than a serious concern as the playoffs loom. Green has missed the past three games with a sore shoulder, and guard Tony Allen is also listed as questionable after being struck in the eye late during Sunday’s game against the Lakers.

As has been the case throughout the season, the constant lineup changes in response to various injuries have prevented the Grizzlies from establishing much consistency or continuity. Memphis has used 23 different starting lineups, including three the past six games.

“For us, it’s not as much about rest as it is we’ve really got guys that are banged up,” Fizdale said of juggling between pushing for an improved playoff seed and giving players time off to recover. “Some of the other guys also need a game or two (off) at some point before we end this thing, and I’m going to make sure they get it.”

Basically, Fizdale was reciting from the Popovich manual of playoff preservation.

For the past month, the Spurs have rotated rest for veteran players dealing with minor ailments and have consistently won games. San Antonio has won seven of its past eight, including victories over the Jazz, Thunder and Cavaliers, while scheduling time off for Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, David Lee and Manu Ginobili in recent games.

“You’ve got to do whatever is best for you and the team to be ready for the playoffs,” Spurs center Pau Gasol told the San Antonio Express-News this week. “Whether it’s playing more or playing less, it’s up to the coaching staff to make that assessment. You prepare for the bigger dance.”

Take a look at the Grizz-Mo highlights from the Grizzlies win over the Oklahoma City Thunder during their last visit at FedExForum.

However, don’t expect the Grizzlies to completely let up just yet. There’s still plenty at stake – including a shot at history – these next couple of games, especially when they return home Wednesday. The attention of the entire basketball world will be focused on FedExForum, with Thunder MVP candidate Russell Westbrook needing just two triple-doubles to break Oscar Robertson’s single-season record.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Bucks, Westbrook’s 40 triple-doubles are one shy of Robertson’s mark set in the 1961-62 season. Wednesday is a potential record-breaking night for Westbrook as well as a prime opportunity for Memphis to essentially pull into a dead heat with OKC in the standings with a week left to decide the regular-season finish.

“We’re a resilient team,” Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said of bouncing back from an embarrassing loss and facing the next challenge. “We got a little bit outside of ourselves and we kind of mentally broke down. That’s the frustrating part. All that matters is that we get back to playing our best basketball.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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