by Kevin Lipe
Now that the Grizzlies have broken their two-game mini-skid by beating the Miami Heat 103-87 last night1, it seemed like a good time to check in on the Grizzlies’ December schedule and talk a little bit about the expectations being placed on the team so far.
Here is the Grizzlies’ schedule for the month of December, including the three games already played.
Eyes bleeding yet? In 14 games, the Grizzlies are playing the Spurs three times (one in San Antonio), the Rockets twice (once in Houston), the Heat twice (once in Miami), the Mavericks, the Warriors, the Bulls, the Cavaliers in Cleveland, and then also the
HornBobNetCats, 76ers, and Jazz.
Also in the mix are four back-to-backs, three of which feature the second game (the SEGABABA, for those of you who are still perplexed by the acronym I steadfastly refuse to quit using) on the road. Fortunately, one of those road SEGABABA’s is against the 76ers, who are one of the worst teams anybody’s ever seen, but there’s always the opportunity for the Tony Wroten Revenge Game to happen or something else crazy like that. They have won a game, after all.
The other three SEGABABAs are all more dangerous. In reverse order, a road game against the Heat two nights after Christmas is a great opportunity for the Grizzlies to show up in Miami giving zero craps about anything other than enjoying the weather and going home. A home game against the Jazz shouldn’t be an issue, really, but the Jazz are a young team with good players and Gordon Hayward always seems to do something ridiculous against
Tony Allen the Grizzlies that makes these games closer than anyone would like for them to be.
The world’s worst back-to-back is the one that happens on the 16th and 17th. The Grizzlies play one of the other best teams in the West, the Golden State Warriors, and then immediately get on a plane and fly to San Antonio to take on the Spurs on the road. The only thing that would make that a harder set of two games is if the Warriors game were out on the West Coast, but fortunately the Basketball Scheduling Wizards showed a little restraint. The Grizzlies have had the Warriors’ number for the last few seasons, sure, but this Warriors team has elevated its play this season. The Grizzlies haven’t ever played a Warriors team that’s this good. (Of course, given the Grizzlies’ start to this season, you could say the same about the Warriors: they’ve never played a Grizzlies team that’s this good.)
By the same token, a road game against the Spurs is tough sledding no matter when it happens, but less than 24 hours after a game against one of the top 3 teams in the NBA is decidedly tougher. The Grizzlies will have to fall back on the things they learned during Friday night’s loss to the Spurs to try to execute a game plan that might actually result in their winning a game from the team that’s been their Kryptonite since the 2011 playoffs.
Sprinkled in with the back-to-backs are games against the offensively excellent Mavericks, the Bulls featuring a resurgent Pau Gasol (remember that guy?), and another home game against the Rockets, none of which will be easy, and two of which have playoff seeding implications already. You have to love getting those division games out of the way early: it’s good when games that matter are spread evenly across a season.
When the Grizzlies started the season on a huge win streak, and then they barely lost to the Bucks and then dropped that game to the Raptors because of Grizzebola™, it was easy to say “Yeah, but…” about those losses. Then, when the Grizzlies 11-game win streak against the West to open the season came to an end in Houston against the Rockets, it was easy to say “Yeah, but they just didn’t show up” or any number of other excuses. When they lost to the Spurs on Friday night, there were fewer excuses: they played a tough game against a very good opponent and just came up short.
What I’m saying is this: Almost every single game the Grizzlies are playing in the month of December is against a very difficult opponent and/or on the second game of a back-to-back. It would be foolish to expect the Grizzlies to go 12-2 or 11-3 this month (and anything better than 12-2 is already off the table) no matter how good the Grizzlies have been playing; really 10-4 is probably a little much, too.
That doesn’t mean the Grizzlies aren’t still a legitimate title contender or one of the best teams in the Western Conference. What it does mean is that the Grizzlies are playing a lot of good teams all in a row, and given the grind of the NBA schedule—the limited rest, the travel time, the home games and road games, especially around the holidays (lest we forget these guys have families, a lot of them)—it’s not going to be a cause for alarm when the Griz go 9-5, or 8-6, or, honestly, even 7-7 this month. There is time in the season to make up the slack for whatever they lose during the month of December.
I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time so far this year comparing this year’s Griz team to the 2012-13 Western Conference Finals team. If you’ll remember, that Grizzlies team started the year off 12-2 and then played .500 ball (or sometimes slightly worse) all the way through December and January, as Rudy Gay first missed some games due to the passing of his grandmother and then the Rudy Gay Trade Rumor Vortex started to swirl ever tighter. They did not play well until after Gay was traded to Toronto (along with Hamed Haddadi #neverforget) and once they got it together, they won 56 games and made it to the Conference Finals.
That’s not to say I’d be thrilled if the Grizzlies can only muster a .500 record in December and January. I expect more than that from this team; it’s a better team. But. As long as they can keep their heads above water in December, I think they’ll be fine. I’m not sure that all Griz fans are thinking the same way, though. Of course folks want them to win every game. That’s not what I’m talking about—I’m more trying to say “Consider strength of schedule” when it’s the day after Christmas and the Grizzlies haven’t won 9 games in a row.
This December schedule—as we’ve already seen through the Houston and San Antonio games, and last night’s win over the Heat that seemed closer than it should have been at a few points—is a murderer’s row. Assuming the Grizzlies can take care of business and win more games than they lose this month, they’re going to be just fine—and ready to take on just about anything.
Gotta be honest here: I haven’t watched most of the Griz/Heat game yet. I had to DVR it. I know, I know, I have failed you, the basketball masses, but I had other things that took priority over basketball last night. ↩