Grizzlies gear up for ‘rat race’ to secure No. 4 seed
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Mike Conley has one less task on his hands this weekend.
The Grizzlies’ point guard and catalyst won’t be as busy channel surfing these next couple of nights to keep up with other teams jockeying for position in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race. That’s because Conley will have a basketball in his hands instead of a remote control, which gives him the ability to direct the Grizzlies along their path to relative prominence.
Memphis (36-25) entered the weekend in a skinny jeans-tight race among three other teams battling for the coveted No. 4 spot in the Western Conference standings with a little more than a month left in the regular season. The Grizzlies, Jazz (37-24), Clippers (36-24) and Thunder (35-26) headed into Friday’s contests with just two games separating fourth-place Utah from seventh-place Oklahoma City.
In other words, there’s a good chance the middle of the West order could be completely flipped by the time Monday rolls around and the Grizzlies return home to play the league-worst Nets at FedExForum. But before then, Conley and Co. face a significant set of tests in Texas with a back-to-back that starts Friday in Dallas and swings through Houston on Saturday.
With 21 games remaining, the Grizzlies are pushing for a spot that would guarantee home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But they have one of the toughest closing schedules among the three other teams gunning for the same ground, considering 11 of their final 21 games are against teams with winning records. That slate still includes three matchups with the Spurs and another against Golden State in addition to Saturday’s showdown in Houston – three teams that are a combined 139-43.
“Every game going forward has playoff implications for us,” Conley said of the Grizzlies, who have won two in a row and six of their last nine games. “We come in with a mindset, no matter who we’re playing, that it’s going to mean more to us. So, this trip right here will be good for us to go against two teams that are really playing well, but to also not worry too much about next week or the week after that.”
|Record||Games Remaining||Home/Away||Remaining vs. .500+ teams|
Note: The chart reflects the Western Conference standings and remaining games for the teams in the race for the No. 4 playoff seed entering the weekend.
What makes the race for the No. 4 seed so intriguing is that each of the teams currently bunched together essentially maintains an inside lane and controls its own destiny. The Jazz went into the weekend holding a half-game lead over the Clippers for the primary spot. But Utah had the most remaining road games (12 of 21) and, like Memphis, had 11 left against teams with winning records.
Meanwhile, the Clippers have the most remaining home games, with 12 of their final 22 in Los Angeles. They also recently got perennial All-Star Chris Paul back from a six-week injury absence and own a group-best 6-3 record so far against the Jazz, Grizzlies and Thunder this season.
The Thunder, however, have the fewest remaining games against winning teams and also are 2-1 so far against both the Jazz and Grizzlies, and have split their four-game season series with the Clippers. If securing the No. 4 seed comes down to tiebreaker scenarios, the Thunder are best positioned to benefit. OKC also carries the distinction of having the best home record at 23-8, but is the only team among the four with a losing mark on the road.
What the Grizzlies have going in their favor is a bit of momentum, considering the Thunder, Clippers and Jazz were all carrying losses into the weekend. Memphis also has the best overall conference record among the four teams at 26-13. Still, in the West race, no lead is safe and there’s little margin for error – or a sustained losing streak of even a few games.
“No need to run from it – it is what it is,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said. “We’re fighting for home-court advantage, and every game is a playoff game right now, if you watch how these games are being played. The teams that you’re playing against are fighting for a spot and a seed in the playoffs, or they’re trying to ruin it for you. That’s what it’s going to be from here on out.”
For Conley, the priority is to help the Grizzlies play their way into position for the final home-court seed in the West instead of having to pray for other teams in pursuit to get knocked off the trail. Memphis could boost its chances considerably over the next two weeks, when it plays five of seven at home.
“You have to handle your own business first,” Conley said. “But it’s also that time of year when I think you start watching. The last 20 or so games, it’s just a rat race, and you know (the other three teams) are looking at it, too. They understand what’s at stake and who’s in the four, five, six and seventh seed. We’re all fighting for position, so it’s going to be a dogfight going down to the end. We know it.”
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