April 15, 2012

As the Memphis Grizzlies battle for homecourt advantage in the first round of the upcoming playoffs, one of their Southwest Division rivals, the New Orleans Hornets, hopes to play the role of spoiler over the next few days. Starting with Sundays matchup in the Crescent City, the Hornets and Grizzlies will meet twice over a four-day span. The clubs wrap up their four-game season series on Wednesday at Memphis FedEx Forum.

New Orleans is also attempting to break through for its first victory over Memphis this season, after losing 108-99 on Jan. 14, as well as 93-87 on Jan. 18. Those defeats to the Grizzlies were just two examples of the staggering number of tight losses the Hornets have sustained this season. In fact, of their first 42 defeats in 2011-12, 24 were by a margin of nine points or fewer. In games decided by three points or fewer, the Hornets were just 3-9 through April 12.

There arent many similarities between the current Hornets lineup and the one that took the floor in the January matchups against the Grizzlies. In fact, of the five New Orleans players who started at Memphis on Jan. 14, one is no longer with the team (DaJuan Summers), while two others are sidelined due to injury (Jarrett Jack, Emeka Okafor). The other first-stringers in that game were center Chris Kaman and shooting guard Marco Belinelli.

Although they came off the bench in that Jan. 14 tilt, Jason Smith and Greivis Vasquez showed some of the reasons behind why theyve eventually moved into starting roles, scoring 15 and 14 points, respectively.

In the Jan. 18 game, New Orleans trailed 87-77 with four minutes left in regulation, but stormed back into the contest with an 8-0 run. However, Memphis O.J. Mayo drained a key 20-footer to give the visitors a four-point lead with 1:07 left. The Grizzlies held on by going 4-for-4 on free throws in the final 24 seconds.

Intriguing matchup: Point guard, Greivis Vasquez vs. Mike Conley
Vasquez gets another shot at playing against his former team, having been a member of the Grizzlies as an NBA rookie last season. Vasquez also will face the point guard he backed up in 2010-11. At 6-foot-6, Vasquez has a clear size advantage on the 6-1 Conley, but the Grizzly will try to use his quickness to penetrate against New Orleans.


After upsetting San Antonio as a No. 8 seed in last springs Western Conference playoffs, Memphis entered 2011-12 with high expectations. Those hopes appeared to be dealt a major blow on Jan. 1, when 2011 All-Star power forward Zach Randolph was sidelined with a knee injury. Instead of faltering without their potent big man, Memphis has instead improved upon their winning percentage from a year ago, when they finished 46-36. In Randolphs absence, small forward Rudy Gay took on a larger scoring load and became the clubs No. 1 option. Meanwhile, center Marc Gasol made the All-Star team for the first time in his career, at least temporarily claiming bragging rights from his older brother, Pau Gasol, of the Lakers. With Randolph now back in the mix, the Grizzlies have one of the premier frontcourts in the NBA and are a team no one wants to face in the postseason. Memphis is currently vying with the Los Angeles Clippers for fourth place in the West. The team that claims the No. 4 seed will also earn homecourt advantage in the first round, an edge the Grizzlies have never enjoyed in franchise history.

What's new
Memphis only move prior to the March 15 trade deadline was to deal backup forward Sam Young to the Philadelphia 76ers. Young had been a valuable performer on previous Grizzlies clubs, but with the team adding depth at the wing positions, his role had diminished. Memphis also made headlines on March 20, when they signed former All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas, who has experienced a tumultuous past few seasons. After being suspended from the NBA for a series of dubious decisions off the court, Arenas was waived by the Orlando Magic prior to this season, one of the first players to be cut via the leagues new amnesty provision. Early in his Grizzlies tenure, the star-crossed Arenas has provided a nice spark, averaging about six points off the bench. Backup point guard had been a concern all season for Memphis.

Grizzlies star
Prior to this season, Randolph was clearly Memphis most important player, but with the crafty southpaw having missed 30-plus games, its a close call between Gay and Gasol. Gasol is probably the most consistent Memphis player, an anchor in the paint who provides scoring and rebounding on a nightly basis. At 7-foot-1, 265 pounds, the native of Spain has the size to overwhelm opponents, but is also an above-average shooter and passer, making him a truly irreplaceable asset for the Grizzlies.

Grizzly on the rise
Like the Hornets Jason Smith, Marreese Speights spent the early part of his career receiving backup minutes in Philadelphia behind Elton Brand. Randolphs injury paved the way for Speights to move into the starting lineup, where hes been in 45 of his first 50 appearances this season. Randolph will eventually move back into the first string down the road when he returns to 100 percent health, but Speights scoring and rebounding have given Memphis the luxury of bringing Randolph off the bench.

On the sideline
Lionel Hollins is the only head coach in Grizzlies franchise history to lead the team to a playoff-series victory (in fact, Memphis was 0-12 combined in playoff games prior to his arrival). The steady former NBA point guard went 40-42 in his first full season at the helm two seasons ago, before improving to 46-36 last season.

Did you know?
The Hornets and Grizzlies have been active trading partners over the past year. Two New Orleans players Greivis Vasquez and Xavier Henry came to the Crescent City in separate trades with Memphis in December and January. Grizzlies second-year forward Quincy Pondexter spent last season with the Hornets, before being dealt in exchange for Vasquez.

Players the Grizzlies want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Grizzlies need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through April 12)
Best option for team that ranks 16th in foul shooting.
Injuries have made him a less-frequent penetrator into lane.
Shooting career-high 85.0 in fifth NBA season.
Name Career three-point percentage (through April 12)
Is 4-for-5 on treys vs. New Orleans this season.
Lefty is son of Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump.
Shooting career-low 31.9 in sixth NBA season.

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