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VOL. 129 | NO. 59 | Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Crunch Time

Grizzlies’ road to playoffs goes through five cities in eight days

By Don Wade

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The regular season is down to 12 games and the Grizzlies are a season-high 14 games over .500 at 42-28. They have a 10-game home winning streak.

Mike Conley and the Grizzlies embark on a five-game road trip that could prove to be a vital stretch in the run to the playoffs as the regular season is down to 12 games. 

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

As forward Zach Randolph said, “This is the best time to be peaking.”

But peaking or not, there is one last mountain to climb. Starting Wednesday night, March 26, at Utah, the Grizzlies play five road games over the next eight days.

And something Memphis point guard Mike Conley said a week ago remains true now, as it appears the Western Conference Playoffs race is going to end with nine teams in a space with seating for eight.

“You’re a hop, skip and a jump from the 6 seed, and a hop, skip and a jump from being out of the playoffs,” he said.

After the Grizzlies defeated Minnesota, 109-92, on Monday, March 24, at FedExForum, they were sitting in the seventh spot, 1.5 games behind Golden State for sixth and 2.5 games behind Portland for fifth. But they were a mere a half-game ahead of Phoenix (8) and Dallas (9).

The victory over Minnesota was notable, like a home win over Utah the previous week, because in between, the Grizzlies played at Miami (where they took a tough loss) and at home against Indiana (where they rebounded with a tough win).

“Each game is important to us,” Randolph said after posting his 41st double-double of the season (18 points, 13 rebounds) and the 399th of his career in the 82-71 victory over the Pacers. “We need all of them.”

Easier said than done. Those 71 points were a season-low for Indiana. Memphis coach Dave Joerger called it “the best performance we’ve had from start to finish for 48 minutes.”

He wasn’t as admiring of the Grizzlies’ victory over Minnesota, which was in its own way a different brand of compliment.

“We had some lapses,” Joerger said. “It wasn’t perfect. But we played defense and we pushed the basketball.

“I’m proud that we’re kind of growing right now, taking care of business,” the coach said, calling the team’s focus against Minnesota “an impressive professionalism by our guys.”

“Each game is important to us. We need all of them.”

–Zach Randolph

One they will have to maintain over the next week: playing at Utah Wednesday night, at Golden State Friday, at Portland Sunday, at Denver Monday and, finally, at Minnesota on Wednesday, April 2.

The Grizzlies have been solid on the road (19-14), but if there were to be a stumble, it would probably happen here.

“We need to be ready for a battle,” Conley said.

Their defense remains their best weapon. Even with an improved offense. The 27 made field goals by Indiana were the fewest allowed by the Grizzlies this season and tied for fewest made by Indiana on the year.

Minnesota, which scored 92 on the Grizzlies, came in averaging 106.5 points per game – fourth-best in the NBA. The Grizzlies held the Timberwolves to just 39 points in the first half, well under their NBA-leading first-half scoring average of 55.6 points per game.

“They’re a very good defensive team, and their numbers show that,” Timberwolves forward Kevin Love said after scoring just 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting.

“They’re going to hit you in the mouth,” Minnesota coach Rick Adelman added.

“Offensively, we’ll be up and down,” said center Marc Gasol, who continues to play through a knee injury that’s not going to completely heal before season’s end. “But defensively? We cannot have a bad night defensively.”

First chance to live up to that comes in an ESPN game against the Jazz.

“It’s a national TV game and our guys will be fired up to play,” Joerger said. “We’ve got to come out, put our defense on the floor and put our imprint on the game early.

“All these games are important and it’s going to be a fun trip. We have been pretty good on the road,” Joerger said. “Our focus is good and our chemistry is fantastic. The guys are getting along, sharing and helping each other and cheering for each other.”

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