By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies might as well just come out and say it: Give us the MVP.
The vibe emanating from both camps as they prepare for tonight’s Grindhouse showdown that will decide the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference is that both teams would just as soon stay away from the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and take their chances against probable league MVP Kevin Durant and the somewhat shaky-looking Thunder (or still possibly the hard-charging Los Angeles Clippers).
Records before and after the All-Star break
OKC SA Memphis Dallas
Before 43-12 39-15 30-23 32-23
After 15-11 24-4 19-9 17-9
With multiple story lines swirling, the Mavs and Grizzlies, both 49-32, will make this regular-season finale count (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser settles for the No. 8 seed and a first-round playoff series against the Spurs. The winner takes the No. 7 seed and will head to either Oklahoma City or L.A., depending which team takes the No. 2 seed after tonight’s games.
Dallas won the first three meetings against Memphis. The first two came before Christmas when Memphis was a defensive mess. The third, at Memphis in early February, the Grizzlies played without point guard Mike Conley.
Memphis is trying to secure a second consecutive 50-win season. Dallas has been talking up 50 wins as a team goal for weeks, trying to get back to the mark it hit for 11 consecutive seasons, but not since the championship year of 2010-11 (they were 36-31 during the 2011-12 lockout season, falling below the .610 winning percentage of 50 wins, and 41-41 last season to snap a 12-year playoff streak).
After struggling early in the season at home, the Grizzlies are riding a season-best 13-game win there. The Mavs have won their last six road games, their longest such streak this season.
As for the preferred playoff matchup, neither the Spurs nor the Thunder will be a walk in the park. San Antonio ranks fifth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive efficiency. OKC ranks seventh in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. Only the Thunder have looked out of sync since the All-Star break, struggling at times defensively and with cohesiveness because of missing pieces due to injuries.
The Mavs and Grizzlies both stumbled to 0-4 against the Spurs. Worse, Dallas has lost nine straight to San Antonio and Memphis has dropped 14 of 16.
Dallas’ four losses came by an average margin of 11.5 points; Memphis by 11.3. At least the Grizzlies can claim they were without big man Marc Gasol for essentially two of those games. Gasol injured his knee in the 102-86 loss on Nov. 22, playing just nine minutes. The injury that kept him out of the 110-108 overtime loss on Jan. 7, a game defensive bulldog Tony Allen also missed. However, fully loaded on April 6, Memphis got trounced in San Antonio, 112-92.
For offensive-minded Dallas, San Antonio simply presents an awful matchup. The Spurs’ excellent close-out defense limits the Mavs’ 3-point attempts while their precision offense dissects Dallas’ porous defense. In the four meetings, the Spurs have attempted 31 more 3s and outscored the Mavs from beyond the arc by 54 points. In their final meeting on April 10, Tony Parker didn’t play and Patty Mills did the honors, lighting up Dallas for six 3-pointers and 26 points.
Spurs vs. Mavs Spurs vs. Grizzlies
Dec. 26: W 116-107 Oct. 30: W 101-94
Jan. 8: W 112-90 Nov. 22: W 102-86
March 2: W 112-106 Jan. 7: W 110-108 (OT)
April 10: W 109-100 April 16: W 112-92
If San Antonio has a rooting interest in tonight’s game as they wrap up the regular season at the Lakers, it has to be for the Mavs to pack to their bags for South Texas. Memphis puts up more defensive roadblocks and dishes out far more physical punishment that the Spurs and Tim Duncan, creeping up on his 38th birthday in nine days, would prefer to avoid.
Against Dallas, ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, the worst among the 16 playoff teams, Duncan averaged 18.5 ppg on 51.1 percent shooting and 12.5 rebounds. Against Memphis, even with Gasol missing time, Duncan averaged 12.0 ppg on 45.0 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds.
Memphis, which can have a hard time scoring — only the Pacers and Hawks rank lower in offensive efficiency among playoff teams — didn’t fare any better against the Thunder, losing all four games to the team they beat in five games in last year’s conference semifinals. Of course, OKC played that series without Russell Westbrook, as they did twice against Memphis this season. But Memphis can make similar claims with Gasol. As with any regular-season series, who’s in and out of the lineup can alter relevance.
Dallas gained a measure of confidence against OKC over the last month, beating it twice, routing the Thunder at their place on March 16 and outlasting them in a wild OT game at home nine days later. In the two games, Dallas made 28 3-pointers, four more than it managed in four games against San Antonio. Of course, the Thunder was missing Westbrook, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins in the first Dallas win and Sefolosha and Perkins in the second.
Thunder vs. Mavs Thunder vs. Grizzlies
Nov. 6: W 107-93 Dec. 11: W 116-100
March 16: L 109-86 Jan. 14: W 90-87
March 25: L 128-119 (OT) Feb. 3: W 86-77
— Feb. 28: W 113-107
Finally, after tonight, the playoff pairings will be set and all these numbers can be tossed out the window.