Welcome back, college hoops fans. Now that sports' greatest amateur gambling exercise is finally over, you can turn your attention back to REAL basketball, where the hometown Grizzlies are on the verge of securing a third straight playoff bid. In case you've put the NBA on your sports back-burner lately, here are a few things to look for locally as the regular season winds to a close:
The Match-Up: A week or so ago on Beyond the Arc, my Grizzlies blog, I all but promised that the Grizzlies would finish 5th in the Western Conference and match up with the sure-to-be-4th-seed Dallas Mavericks. At the time, with the Grizzlies only a game and a half behind the current 5th-seed Los Angeles Clippers and holding a dramatically easier schedule the rest of the way, the Griz moving up seemed probable. And when the Griz beat the Clippers to shave a full game off their deficit, it looked like a done deal.
But it seems I underrated just how erratic this year's Griz squad can be, failing to foresee losses last week to Seattle and New Orleans. So what seemed to be the least likely but most attractive of potential match-ups -- homecourt advantage against the 3rd-seed Denver Nuggets -- is looking more possible by the day. It's the only one of the four possible playoff scenarios (the others are on the road against the Nuggets, Spurs, or Mavericks) in which the Grizzlies would seem to have a reasonable chance at winning the series. So these last few weeks, don't just follow the Grizzlies: Root for the Clippers and against the Nuggets.
The Hardware: In the franchise's brief time in Memphis, the Grizzlies have already picked up Rookie of the Year (Pau Gasol), Coach of the Year (Hubie Brown), and Executive of the Year (Jerry West) awards. Well, there's a good chance you can check another honor -- 6th Man of the Year -- off the list this spring. Though Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse (a more high-profile player on a more high-profile team) and New Orleans' Speedy Claxton will get votes, the Grizzlies' Mike Miller deserves to be the runaway winner as the NBA's finest sub. No other bench player averages more points than Miller's 13.8 per game, and no one else has come off the bench to notch a triple-double. Factor in that Miller has been the second-leading scorer (and probably second-best overall player) on a playoff team while playing a true bench role (he averages fewer minutes per game than the two players -- Eddie Jones and Shane Battier -- he backs up), and Miller should be a shoe-in.
The Leap: Back in October, Pau Gasol was still a young, productive player with star potential. Seventy-three games later, Gasol is a legitimate star, one of the 20 or so best basketball players on the planet. Gasol is one of only two players currently leading his team in points, rebounding, and assists. The other is Boston's Paul Pierce, with Minnesota's Kevin Garnett close. And both of those guys will be watching the playoffs from their living rooms. Throw in 50 percent shooting, two blocks per game, and a noticeable uptick in physical play, on-court leadership, and clutch performance, and Gasol suddenly seems like a player you could build a legit contender around, the way the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers have built contenders around power forwards Dirk Nowitski and Jermaine O'Neal, respectively, in recent years. The supporting cast isn't there yet, but Gasol's personal final-stretch and playoff performance could be quite meaningful in terms of guessing how far he still has to leap.