HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — March Madness?
You want March Madness, try being the Hang Time Grizzlies this month. Try losing Rudy Gay for the rest of the season to a shoulder injury, playing a vicious late-season schedule and having the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns chasing you with their playoff lives on the line, too.
The pressure would be enough to drive a weaker team mad.
The Grizzlies, however, have bowed up to the challenge … their win over the Celtics in Boston last night being the latest example of the rock-solid resolve that has marked this season for Lionel Hollins and his team.
They are in the midst of trashing that myth that regular season games don’t mean anything in the NBA. That’s never been true. And it certainly doesn’t ring true for an outfit like the Grizzlies,who are hunting their first postseason berth since the 2005-06 season.
So what if all you get is an all-expenses-paid trip to San Antonio for a first-round playoff date against the league’s best team (in the standings)? This is one of those instances where the journey is just as important as the destination, where the fiber of each man — and the team as a whole — will be tested along the way.
The Race For No. 8 always separates the (playoff) contenders from the pretenders, and that’s never been more true than it is this season in the Western Conference.
We break down the West contenders for that eighth spot today and tomorrow, we’ll look at their Eastern Conference brethren:
Today’s Leader: Memphis, 6-4 in their last 10 games
The Skinny: Winners of three straight games and four of their last five games, the Grizzlies are doing whatever it takes to hold on to that eighth spot. The win over the Celtics was huge. But it won’t seem nearly as significant if they stumble down the stretch. Of the Grizzlies remaining 10 games, five are against playoff teams. They play the Bulls and Spurs in their next two, face New Orleans twice and finish the regular season against Portland. Toss in two games against the Clippers and it’s clear that this team will have to win its way into the postseason — as opposed to coasting in like you can in the Eastern Conference.
Gaining Ground: Houston, 7-3 in their last 10 games
The Skinny: The Rockets are a very real threat to the Grizzlies’ hold on that eighth spot. Winners of five straight after last night’s win over Golden State (thanks to a little “Magic” from Chuck Hayes), the Rockets have a few things going for them during this stretch run of the season, most notably the inspired play of point guard Kyle Lowry. Much like the Grizzlies, the Rockets face a rugged road in these final 10 games of the regular season. They face six playoff teams (Miami, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Atlanta, New Orleans and Dallas), with half of those games on the road. So they can’t afford a skid of any kind if they want to stay in this race.
Still In The Mix: Phoenix, 4-6 in their last 10 games
The skinny: That triple-overtime loss to the Lakers was an absolute back-breaker for the Suns, who have the luxury of playing five of their next six games at home. If they can find a way to heat up there, they have a chance to get back into the middle of the mix and make the Grizzlies and Rockets sweat. The prospect of Steve Nash missing out on the playoffs at this stage of his career pains us deeply. But anything can happen with 12 games to play. It’s just too bad for the Suns that they play New Orleans, San Antonio and Dallas twice each (as well as one-gamers against Oklahoma City and Chicago) in these final weeks of the season.
Stick a Fork In ‘Em: Utah, 4-6 in their last 10 games
The skinny: Losing Jerry Sloan was one thing. But losing Deron Williams on top of that it seems was a bit more than the Jazz could stand. They have been on a consistent decline since Williams was moved at the Feb. 24 trade deadline. They’re 5-10 since then and losers of three straight (Oklahoma City, Houston and Memphis) and five straight on the road. Still, they are just four games behind the Grizzlies for the eighth spot. The problem is the other eight, as in the number of games in their final 10 against current playoff teams. They face New Orleans twice, the Los Angeles Lakers twice, Dallas, Portland, Denver and San Antonio before the regular season ends. Based on what we’ve seen from the Jazz of late, it doesn’t look good.