MikeCheck: Grizzlies Remain Unsettled with Playoffs on Horizon

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Two takeaways from the Grizzlies’ 103-100 home loss to the Thunder last night and a look at this week’s Grind City NBA Index, where the Warriors and Cavaliers restore order atop their respective conferences.

TAKE ONE … Grizzlies Need Rest and Rhythm

It’s clear this isn’t an either-or scenario facing coach David Fizdale.

With three regular-season games remaining after Wednesday’s fascinating setback to the Thunder, the Grizzlies need both rest and rhythm with a week left before the start of the playoffs. Theoretically, with Memphis (42-37) now officially eliminated from contention for the No. 6 seed, it would ideal to get veterans Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Vince Carter some rest or recovery time before venturing into the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.

The problem is that there’s still too much meaningful work to be done on many levels. While the loss to OKC assured the Grizzlies of no better than a seventh-place finish in the West, they still need another win over the final three games to secure that spot and a first-round series with the Spurs. Wednesday’s game against OKC (45-33) started a four-game homestand to close out the regular season for the Grizzlies, who face the Knicks on Friday, Pistons on Sunday and Mavericks on Wednesday.

We still have to play basketball right now…We still need to build rhythm going into it.

Should Memphis lose all three and Portland runs the table in its remaining games against Minnesota, Utah, San Antonio and New Orleans, then the Trail Blazers would jump to No. 7 and drop the Grizzlies to the No. 8 and final playoff seed. Portland won the regular-season series against Memphis, 2-1. As unlikely as the scenario of falling into a first-round matchup with top-seeded Golden State seems, it’s still mathematically possible until the Grizzlies get another victory.

“We still have to play basketball right now,” Fizdale said of the Grizzlies, who have lost 11 of their last 17 games. “We still need to build rhythm going into it. We will rest guys, but I’m not taking it for granted yet that we’ve got the seventh seed. I still want the highest seed we can get. I don’t know how many minutes guys will play from here on out, but we will definitely continue to play our big guns while resting them periodically. We will alternate them and things like that.”

Effectively balancing rest and rhythm presents a daunting task for the Grizzlies, who used their 24th different starting lineup in the loss to OKC. Conley’s status for Friday’s game against New York remains in question after he sat out against the Thunder with a lacerated and swollen right eye, an injury he sustained when he bumped heads with Kawhi Leonard in Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Spurs.

Fizdale indicated there were no concussion protocol issues with Conley and that the team’s leader in scoring and assists will play in the upcoming games once the swelling subsided and clear vision returned. Gasol played his second consecutive game on a minutes’ restriction after he missed the previous five with a strained left foot. He shot 48.1 percent from the field overall, was 4-for-8 from 3-point range and averaged 17 points, six assists and 5.5 rebounds in 32 minutes through the two outings.

Allen has alternated rest for a sore knee and recovery from an eye injury over the past two weeks, and Fizdale said he hopes to get Randolph some downtime in the coming days after a stretch of increased minutes and overall production on the court over the past six games.

As it stands, the Grizzlies have had their veteran core of Conley, Gasol, Allen, Randolph and Carter all available for just one game since their March 18 home win against the Spurs. Gasol said his foot is “weak, but it’s pain-free” after two games and that he hopes to build strength the next few days.

That’s also a priority for his team as the playoffs loom.

“Obviously, there are other things that need to improve,” Gasol said. “But we feel confident because we’ve got to go into the playoffs with confidence and know what our strengths are, and our weaknesses. I think we have to try to hide (those weaknesses) a little better.”

TAKE TWO … Can’t Deny Relentless Russ

The long-standing view from here is Leonard has been the most complete, two-way dominant player in the league this season. He’s the lone All-Star and likely All-NBA performer on a Spurs team that just clinched its second consecutive 60-win season for the first time in franchise history.

Since the mid-February All-Star break, it’s been relatively easy to take an outside-the-box stance and make a nuanced argument to champion Leonard as the frontrunner for the league’s MVP honor.

The simple fact, however, is Russell Westbrook’s relentlessness has worn me down. There’s no use denying it – or him – any longer when it comes to this MVP debate. Give the man the trophy for captivating opponents, NBA fans, analytics experts and just about everyone in between during one of the most thrilling races for the award we’ve seen in decades.

On the cusp of breaking Oscar Robertson’s single-season record of 41 triple-doubles, Westbrook has become a crowd favorite on the road these past weeks. In Orlando, he had Magic fans chanting “MVP” as he rallied OKC to a victory. In Memphis last night, even the most hardcore Grit’N’Grind loyalists were on their feet in the final minutes as Westbrook needed just one rebound to break Robertson’s record.

Westbrook exited FedExForum on Wednesday night with many things – a Grizzlies’ opponent season-high 45 points, a victory to earn a crucial 3-1 regular-season series win, an assurance of no worse than the No. 6 seed, and even a couple of plates of famed Gus’s Fried Chicken.

But a 42nd triple-double on the season wasn’t among those stashes. And that felt like victory for many in the building. The Grizzlies hung on and didn’t allow Westbrook to make history here. That’ll probably happen during OKC’s next stop on its four-game trip when he shreds the Suns this weekend.

Take nothing away from Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden or Isaiah Thomas. All have done remarkable things for their teams. But Westbrook’s relentless run is undeniable at this point. When LeBron left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, the Cavs dipped into the lottery. When he left Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, Miami fell into the same place. To lesser extents, so did Orlando when Dwight Howard forced his way out, and so did Denver when Carmelo Anthony bailed.

That didn’t happen in OKC when Kevin Durant departed to Golden State. And unlike the transactions with LeBron, Anthony and Howard in recent years, OKC got absolutely nothing in return for losing Durant. But what the Thunder had left was the NBA’s modern-day Rocky.

Westbrook has morphed into the People’s Champ who put a team, a town and a league on his back and carried our attention with his relentlessness. And the most remarkable aspect about this ride is that he hasn’t taken a night off this season.

Try to deny Westbrook the MVP all you want.

He simply won’t allow it.

TAKE THREE … Grind City Power Index

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. A 13-game winning streak has allowed the Warriors to clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs just in time to get Kevin Durant back from a knee injury that kept him out a month. Last Week: 1

  3. San Antonio Spurs
  4. The NBA’s most consistent franchise has posted consecutive 60-win seasons for the first time in team history and is the first team since Jordan’s Bulls with four 60-win seasons in a decade. LW: 2

  5. Cleveland Cavaliers
  6. After annihilating the Celtics on Wednesday, LeBron James and Co. proved to everyone in the East rumors of the defending champ’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The Cavs are fine. LW: 5

  7. Houston Rockets
  8. Houston is locked into the No. 3 spot in the West, which means James Harden is in position to lose the MVP battle to Russell Westbrook but win the team war in a potential first-round series. LW: 3

  9. Boston Celtics
  10. Boston is still in position to bounce back with a shot to finish atop the East, but the team first must get past nagging injury issues affecting its two defenders in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. LW: 4

  11. Toronto Raptors
  12. After an embarrassing setback against Indiana, the Raptors recovered Wednesday in Detroit with their first road victory after trailing by as many as 20 points since 2010, according to Elias. LW: 9

  13. Utah Jazz
  14. Injuries have forced the Jazz to use 22 different starting lineups this season, and now they’re dealing with a critical shortage of healthy point guards with George Hill and Dante Exum ailing. LW: 8

  15. Oklahoma City Thunder
  16. Westbrook had his seven-game streak of triple-doubles snapped in Memphis, leaving him tied with Oscar Robertson for the NBA record at 41 entering the weekend with four games left. LW: 6

  17. Los Angeles Clippers
  18. Don’t look now, but the Clippers are heating up again and have closed to within a half-game of Utah for the No. 4 seed in the West and the right to host a potential first-round playoff clash. LW: 10

  19. Washington Wizards
  20. The resilient Wizards returned from a five-game road trip and ended a three-game skid by beating the Hornets. It was Washington’s 17th victory this season after trailing by double figures. LW: 7

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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