I was working on something else for today, until I read Chris Herrington's Pick and Pop for this week, and scrapped what I was doing to expound upon some of the things Chris said in his piece. It's behind the CA paywall, so caveat emptor, but it's (as always) well worth a read.
The relevant quote:
Beyond that, we’re reaching a limit on analysis with this team. Strategy? Health? Individual performance? General correction relative to the league? All factors, but the biggest one is the least tangible, especially from the outside looking in: Mentality, focus, energy. The gestalt of a team. Why is this lacking so much right now, close to the moment when it’s needed most? I couldn’t pretend to tell you.
That, right there—that 67-word block quote—is the most succinct summary of where the Grizzlies are at headed in to the playoffs that I've read.
It's been really difficult to talk about this team for the last two months. Outwardly, nothing is wrong with them. There aren't any major injuries save Tony Allen's ailing hamstring, which needs to be rested for the postseason. Courtney Lee is (very) slowly starting to return to his role as a scorer after a couple months of wandering in the wilderness after the Jeff Green trade.
And speaking of that trade, after a long period of struggle with the starting unit that saw him voluntarily go to the bench, Green—starting in the place of the injured Tony Allen—has been effective as of late, like he's finally starting to get into a rhythm on the team. He's getting to the rim, playing (mostly) more efficiently, and starting to figure out where he needs to be on the floor most of the time.
So what gives? What is/was causing Marc Gasol so much mental anguish that he tore his jersey during a game? How is it possible that the Grizzlies played a full 48-minute game agsint Washington in which Zach Randolph attempted 5 field goals? Why are the Grizzlies so frequently shifting between "serious playoff threat" and "gentlemens' sweep bait"1 without any sort of indicator of what does and doesn't matter to them?
I'm reminded of Game 6 against the Thunder in last year's playoffs. In case you've forgotten that one, the Grizzlies came out after four straight overtime games and got drilled by the Thunder, 104-84, and never even looked like they were interested in playing the game. In the postgame pressers, everyone offered the usual "just not our night" platitudes (this was before anyone was scared Zach Randolph would be suspended for punching Steven Adams in the face). But in the locker room, the mood was different: searching, questioning, confused. Tayshaun Prince (yes, him again) said something to the effect of, "We've been doing this all year: sometimes we just don't show up for games. I have no idea why this happens."
Prince is gone, but the tendency he described isn't just still present—it's the dominating feature of the Grizzlies' play since the All-Star break (and a little before) and is threatening to become the narrative of the whole season. "The team that could've competed for a championship if they'd bothered to play hard" is a story that nobody wants to write.
So given that—and given the complete inscrutability of this tendency, and the impossibility of predicting which Griz team will show up for any given game—I'm hesitant to make this rundown of the team's remaining games. I don't have any idea which of the five remaining games the Grizzlies will actually show up for and care about. I have a pretty good hunch that it won't be all five of them. But every hunch I've had about this team so far this season has been confounded by their inability to consistently play motivated basketball, so what do I know?
Nothing. I know nothing. No one around this team who isn't in the locker room does, and I'd be willing to wager that a lot of the people who are don't know, either. We have no idea.
The Games Remaining
➭ 4/8 vs Pelicans. Tonight's matchup against New Orleans is now a lot more important for the visiting team than it is for the Grizzlies, assuming the Griz are now positioning themselves for a Portland series and not trying to grab the 2 seed.
It seems that given the divisional record implications of this one—division record being the first tiebreaker for seeding among teams that finish with the same overall record—the Grizzlies need to win this game if they don't want to risk falling past the 5 seed. But the Pelicans are and have always been a tough out for the Grizzlies, and there's no sign that that won't be the case again tonight.
Will they play hard and beat the Pelicans—who beat the Warriors last night at home and now have a tenuous grasp on the West's 8 seed—the way they did in November, or will it be a replay of the Grizzlies' January or March losses?
I have an emoticon for this: ¯\(ツ)/¯
➭ 4/10 at Jazz The Jazz have been one of the tougher teams in the West down the stretch of the season, playing the role of the 2009-10 Grizzlies: out of the running for the playoffs, but still playing for next year and beating teams they haven't been able to beat in the past. They've beaten the Grizzlies twice at FedExForum, but the previous Griz road trip to Salt Lake City ended with a win. To me, this one comes down to how much the Griz are looking past the game to prepare for the next night's game at the LA Clippers. If they want to win this game, they will.
➭ 4/11 at Clippers The Clippers have caught fire heading into the playoffs and are a legitimate threat to move all the way up to the 3rd seed. They've got the easiest schedule of West top seeds the rest of the way, and their offense has been running at an insane clip (no pun intended) as of late. DeAndre Jordan has turned into the ludicrous defender Griz fans were always a little scared he could be, and promises to make life tough forthe Grizzlies' inside-out game. Even if they want to win this one, the Clippers might be playing too well right now. I like the Grizzlies' chances in a playoff series against them, but not in a road SEGABABA right before the playoffs. I've got this one penciled in as an L.
➭ 4/13 at Warriors Who knows. The Warriors demolished the Grizzlies in Memphis a couple weeks ago, but since then they've lost to the Spurs and Pelicans, so maybe they're not as invincible as they seem. I still think the Grizzlies match up well with Golden State—but they have to be able to press their advantage, not play stupid and iso Zach Randolph on Andrew Bogut every offensive possession. That clearly didn't work the last time these two teams played, and it won't work on the 13th, either.
➭ 4/15 vs Pacers This one is the wildcard: as tight as the West is, the Grizzlies' seed may be determined by whether they can win against Indiana or not, or they may already be locked in to a spot. If they are, look for lots of resting to happen. If the Grizzlies have to beat the Pacers to avoid playing San Antonio in the first round, this had better be the best regular-season game the Grizzlies have played at home all year long.
This has been a very frustrating season to be writing about this team. There's only so much to say, honestly: it's almost completely impossible to predict how the Grizzlies will perform in any given game, because they simply cannot play with any sort of consistency. It's maddening to watch this team drop games at home, and even the good wins—like last week's victory over an injury-riddled Oklahoma City Team—have caveats, and even when they don't, it's impossible to read them as having any predictive value with regard to how the team will perform in the future.
We just don't ever know which Grizzlies team we're getting until they step on the court, and they can't seem to figure out how to control that, either. It's been a wild ride, and I am thankful that the playoffs are almost here so that every game will be equally meaningful and questions of effort and engagement will (hopefully) become less important. But I'm haunted by that Tayshaun quote after Game 6 last year. I don't think these guys have a handle on it, either, and if that's the case, it will bite them in the postseason, one way or another.
We'll just have to wait and see which team shows up.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a gentleman's sweep is when a team wins a playoff series 4-1 instead of 4-0. The Spurs are really good at handing those out.↩