As the Grizzlies took their leave from FedExForum, having won their last home game before the NBA All-Star break, forward James Johnson looked toward the next night’s game at Orlando. He made clear that the Grizzlies were not thinking of Disney World or any other fantasyland, but were committed to the work immediately in front of them.
“We can’t check out and go on vacation early,” Johnson said.
The Grizzlies kept their collective noses to the grit-and-grindstone and defeated the Magic, 86-81, on Wednesday, Feb. 12. It left them with a 29-23 record, and 1.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
Depending on the outcome of the MRI on Marc Gasol’s reinjured knee, Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies are in position for a good finish to the season after the All-Star break.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“Huge win for us,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “There’s a big difference in the West between being four games over .500 or being six games over .500.”
Unfortunately, center Marc Gasol also left the game in the second half after re-injuring his left knee. Earlier this season, he missed 23 games with an MCL sprain and the Grizzlies limped to a 10-13 record without him during that span.
Gasol was to have an MRI during the All-Star break and the results have much to say about what might be possible for the Grizzlies the remainder of the season. But assuming Gasol has suffered no more than a minor setback, which we’ll define as two weeks on the shelf and missing only six games, the Grizzlies are very much alive for the playoffs. There is even more than one team they might be able to catch.
While the Warriors, at 31-22, are closest to the Grizzlies, Phoenix is only percentage points ahead of them in the seventh spot at 30-21. Even Dallas, in sixth-place at 32-22, only has a two-game lead on Memphis. Although because the Mavericks hold the tiebreaker over the Grizzlies, it is effectively a three-game advantage.
“It’s too early” for watching the scoreboard, Gasol said after the Wizards game. “I know a lot of people do and I know we’re not in a playoff spot yet, but I’m not watching those guys.”
While everyone holds their breath over the results of Gasol’s MRI and the timetable for his return, point guard Mike Conley is expected back after the All-Star break after missing seven games with an ankle sprain. Rookie Nick Calathes did surprisingly well as a fill-in starter as the Grizzlies went 4-3.
But while Calathes put up some good numbers next to his name, including averaging right at 15 points in his seven starts, there is a broader, negative, impact when Conley is not on the floor. Conley’s ability to drive and finish, dish and to hit pull-up jumpers and threes keeps defense honest, changes spacing, and creates multiple scoring opportunities for Gasol, power forward Zach Randolph, shooting guard Courtney Lee and everyone else.
Forward Tayshaun Prince, while lauding the job Calathes has done overall, said Conley’s ability to consistently get into the paint at high speed with the equal threat of scoring or making plays for others gives the offense a whole other dimension, adding, “Obviously, that’s the thing Nick can’t do.”
Before Gasol aggravated his knee in Orlando, the Grizzlies’ next significant problem appeared to be a good one: finding time for everyone as Conley and, presumably guard Tony Allen (sprained wrist), return to action. Calathes would just slide into a back-up point guard role, but after that …
“Coach is gonna be in a dilemma as far as what he’s going to do,” Prince said. “The thing is we got an eight-, nine-guy rotation, sometimes 10. When those guys come back, you’re looking at 11, 12. It’s a tough scenario.”
Not that Prince is complaining. If the team ever gets fully healthy, he sees the Grizzlies relying on a core of players and everyone else having to prove they are worth their minutes night by night.
“Marc and Zach and Mike are gonna get their full load minutes-wise and Courtney too, brings great energy and makes shots. But everybody else is pretty much the wildcards. If you make some shots, you’ll get some more minutes.”
Of course, right now, 100 percent health or anything close to it seems to again be a distant dream.
“We’ve been playing at a deficit the whole season,” Joerger said even before Gasol re-injured his knee. “I feel like we’ve been playing from behind. There’s certainly been lots of drama, but our guys have fought and fought.”
And starting next week, the fight resumes. The Grizzlies have survived 52 of the NBA’s regular-season 48-minute rounds. Now, we find out how many more punches they can take over the last 30.