Playing playoff 'spoiler' as season ends not No. 1 goal for lottery-bound teams

Squads outside of postseason focus more on own future, Draft than ruining others' plans

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Here’s to the Memphis Grizzlies, who may just be — in this miserable season of theirs — one of those exceptions that proves the rule.

The Grizzlies had lost 23 of 24 games prior to facing Minnesota at Target Center Monday night. They were 0-for-17 on the road in 2018, with no reason to expect that to change in Minneapolis, where the Timberwolves were 15-3 in the same span. Memphis scores the fewest points in the league, ranks near the bottom in assorted shooting, rebounding and assists categories, and stacks up opponents at the foul line as if they’re running a TSA checkpoint at O’Hare airport.

And yet, playing against their own self-interest as one of the NBA’s lottery teams, the Grizzlies stunned the Wolves on Monday. They handed them their consensus “worst loss” of the season, a 101-93 defeat. It came nine days after Memphis similarly beat the playoff-hopeful Denver Nuggets 101-94 to end the Grizzlies’ 19-game losing streak.

Those games gave us, ever so briefly, a glimpse of a good old-fashioned “spoiler,” the likes of which we probably won’t often see anymore.

Admit it: The idea that a team headed for the lottery would play “spoiler” – i.e. playing hard enough to beat an opponent clawing for the postseason or maneuvering for a better seeding — seems a tad quaint these days.

It’s hard. Every day I’m watching the scores and I’m like, ‘Aw, man, c’mon, give us some help.’ Then we turn around, we end up playing them and they … It’s just difficult.”

Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson

Teams near the bottom of the standings are far less interested in 2018 in moral victories or instilling some noble sense of competition and winning – as if pluckiness in March or April would survive a long offseason of player movement, roster overhauls and other changes. Rather, they (or at least their management teams) are eager to close out an already difficult season by salting away as many lottery chances down the stretch as they can snag.

The ol’ game of scoreboard watching ain’t what it used to be. “The Process” trumps the pride. There’s no bugler in the distance, because no cavalry is coming.

“It’s hard. Every day I’m watching the scores and I’m like, ‘Aw, man, c’mon, give us some help,’ ” Minnesota’s Taj Gibson said earlier this month. “Then we turn around, we end up playing them and they … It’s just difficult.”

The slate of games on April 9 would seem like a spoiler’s paradise: Sacramento at San Antonio, Cleveland at New York, Orlando at Milwaukee, Memphis back at Minnesota. Based on what just transpired at Target Center, a bunch of also-rans could seriously tinker with the playoff bracket.

Except they’re not incentivized to do so, to use current jargon.

So, Gibson said: “You just have to go out there and worry about yourself. You can’t depend on anybody to try to win games for you.”

Traditionally this would have been a ripe season for spoilers, given how tightly grouped the final four or five playoff slots are in each conference. Factor in the Nuggets and the LA Clippers in the West and there are “upset” opportunities nearly every night for lottery-bound teams.

After beating Minnesota, the Grizzlies said lots of good things about playing the right way and working hard. But none of them seemed to express any zeal for jamming a stick in the Wolves’ gears.

“It’s always good to win, it kind of confirms and reassures guys,” Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said.

Said coach J.B. Bickerstaff: “We don’t sulk, we don’t moan, we don’t whine. We show up and we work, and they bought into that and they have been willing to do it.”

My philosophy goes, ‘Take care of your own team. If a guy needs a rest, give him a rest.’ People who need that other opponent to lose or something may be upset, but you can’t worry about that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr

Bickerstaff, an ex-Timberwolves assistant and former University of Minnesota standout, might have wanted to avoid embarrassment in bringing his odd-lot crew into town. But he also has friends among the Wolves and certainly wasn’t looking to purposely extend their 14-year playoff drought.

Besides, eight of Minnesota’s losses have been to Brooklyn, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix (twice) and Memphis (twice). What the Grizzlies did to them might be less about spoiling a playoff aspirant’s trajectory than that team misfiring on its own.

Some NBA folks don’t see a big change, because they see teams that play hard and always prefer to win as universals in this league.

“Coaches and players are going out there and competing at the very highest level,” Boston’s Brad Stevens said recently in Chicago. “You see that with the Bulls team — they’re playing hard, they’re playing together. … You have to be great on that given night. I’ve been part of a 25-win team before and I know how badly you want to go out there and put your best foot forward.”

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, however, said that teams at the top of the standings can and rightly do put their agendas ahead of sheer, late-regular-season competition.

“The more interesting one for me,” Kerr said, “is when teams are locked in for the playoffs and may need some rest at the end of the year. We may be playing a team that factors into the playoffs [so] what do we do? My philosophy goes, ‘Take care of your own team. If a guy needs a rest, give him a rest.’

“People who need that other opponent to lose or something may be upset, but you can’t worry about that.”

Then comes human nature, which can make it appear that some lottery team has unfairly roared to life against your favorite team … but not against your rivals.

“It always seems like they play you harder than the last team they just played,” Gibson said, smiling. “You’re like, ‘C’mon man!’ But that’s part of the NBA. You never know. Somebody can get hot that night, or that team has some reason to be feeling good, and can give you hell. You have to withstand the force and keep playing hard.

“But you can’t depend on anybody.”

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.


NBA Logo

Want every headline right at your fingertips? Sign up to receive NBA emails!

By clicking "Submit", you agree to the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. You agree that your personal information will be used to send you messages about NBA related products and services, and share your personal information with NBA partners and affiliates so that they can also contact you about products and services that might be of interest to you.