The Memphis Grizzlies are now headed into the stretch run with significant hurdles before them. Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and company have done a fine job putting themselves in position to compete in the Western Conference playoff race.
Now, they have to show that they can stay strong in a race in which 3.5 games separate the No. 3 and No. 9 teams.
The Grizzlies have a couple of notable challenges this month. First, they must successfully reintegrate Zach Randolph into the lineup after a long absence due to injury. Second, they'll play 10 of the 15 March games on the road, where they've struggled this season.
The Grizzlies, currently seventh in the Western Conference at 20-15, could either strengthen their position to claim a good playoff spot or drop out of the playoff race, depending on how March goes.
Following are six things that the Grizzlies must be able to do to ensure that they enter the home stretch with a head of steam.
That the Grizzlies set themselves up for success by winning all of their games at home is important. Since they aren't that good on the road, the Grizzlies need to make the most of their home-court dominance.
The Grizzlies have been great at the FedEx Forum, going 14-5 at home, including 7-2 in February.
Their home schedule this month is light.
On March 13, the Grizzlies will play the Los Angeles Lakers in their only home game against a team with a .500 record. That's the start of a three-game, six-day home stand, in which they'll also play the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards.
Thus, this isn't too much to demand.
To bring a modest demand upon the Grizzlies, they should win half their road games this month. One shouldn't ask too much of a team that's 6-10 on the road and shoots 3.1 percent worse on the road.
The Grizzlies' 10 road games include only four games against teams with winning records, which softens the difficulty a bit. The Grizzlies are 1-7 against teams that currently have a winning record.
Still, the road schedule features a couple of particularly significant challenges. First, they'll play three sets of games on back-to-back nights this month. One of those, a two-day stay in Los Angeles to play the Lakers and Clippers, will be on the back half of their West Coast road trip.
The West Coast road trip is an important hurdle to jump. The Grizzlies couldn't manage to remain strong during their West Coast trip in January. After beating the Golden State Warriors, they lost three straight to the Portland Trail Blazers, Clippers and Phoenix Suns.
Gasol did poorly on the trip, averaging 14.5 points in the four games and shooting 43.8 percent.
As a team, the Grizzlies were horrendous offensively, averaging 87.5 points per game and shooting 39 percent.
Gasol and the Grizzlies will have to do much better this time when they travel west in the third full week of March to face the Sacramento Kings, Blazers, Lakers and Clippers. To fail on that trip would set a sad tone for the home stretch. The western trip is the start of seven road games in eight heading into the beginning of April.
To slide in that stretch might mean falling out of the Top Eight in the conference, depending on where they stand at that point.
To win five of 10 games on the road in March, along with a five-game sweep at home, would put the Grizzlies in perfect position come April. Further, those five wins should include one or two in the western road trip and two overall against winning teams.
If the Grizzlies want to appear to be a real playoff team, they need to beat good teams on the road.
The Grizzlies need to seize the chance for rest when it comes along this month. Three times this month they'll have back-to-back off days. Also, they have a three-day break to start the first full week of March.
These are important moments to make sure that everyone is fresh and on the same page. Lionel Hollins could take some time during these breaks to gather the team and discuss strategy during the home stretch. He could focus the team on important defensive matchups in tough road games against the like of the Lakers and Clippers.
More importantly, the rest periods can be used to integrate Zach Randolph into the offense. The three-game break could be used to practice Randolph in contact drills with the rest of the team. Others could include transitioning the team back to the double post offense that it had run when Randolph was healthy.
Above all, the Grizzlies need to use these periods of rest to relax and recharge. This shortened season features many tough stretches with numerous back-to-back games.
They won't get the opportunity for this much rest in April. Memphis will see four fewer days of rest in April, including one two-day break.
The upcoming times of respite are crucial for gearing up for the playoff race.
Zach Randolph needs to successfully reintegrate into the lineup in order for the Grizzlies to come out of March alive.
Randolph, the best all-around player on the team, should return some time in the first half of the month after missing more than two months due to a partial MCL tear. He's missed more time than expected, and has yet to participate in contact drills.
Lionel Hollins and Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace have been unclear about when Randolph will return. Hollins told The Commercial Appeal that Randolph would miss the two games this weekend.
Meanwhile, Wallace said the Grizzlies didn't want to push Randolph into starting back before he's ready.
Once Randolph is back, he'll need to show rhythm within the offense. He'll have to be able to roll off screens effectively and make cuts quickly. If he can't do these things, his tremendous chemistry with Marc Gasol wouldn't be worth much. The Grizzlies wouldn't be able to show the mirrored looks they had with Gasol and Randolph with Randolph lagging.
A clunky look in the post would throw off the offense and hurt the ability for an only adequately scoring team to hang with the opponent's scoring.
A poor return by Randolph would hurt the Grizzlies' chances of reaching the playoffs.
O.J. Mayo has been a hot name on the trade wire.
The Grizzlies have discussed an array of trade scenarios with other teams involving Mayo. Most recently, talks with the New Jersey Nets would have brought Anthony Morrow or Jordan Farmar to the Grizzlies (via NY Post).
Many believe the Grizzlies will trade Mayo before the deadline passes on March 15. Notably, Steve Aschburner of NBA.com told WSCR-AM 670 Chicago that he believes Mayo is the most likely player to be traded.
However, despite all the rumors that have come to pass, Mayo hasn't been traded.
Hopefully, he won't be traded. Mayo is the best player off the bench for the Grizzlies. He leads Grizzlies bench players in scoring (11.8 points per game), steals (1.1 per game) and assists (two per game). His scoring punch off the bench is invaluable.
Mayo is the only Grizzlies bench player who they can count on to jump up and score in double figures.
As far as backup guards are concerned, the Grizzlies don't have much other scoring of which to speak. Sam Young has hardly played this season due to injury. Josh Selby is too raw to be expected to instantly become a significant scorer. Jeremy Pargo scored in double figures twice in December, but the Grizzlies can't expect him to be significant part of the rotation.
Besides, the Grizzlies rely too much on chemistry to trade Mayo. Besides being a good scorer, he's a valuable piece of the defensive system. He, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Rudy Gay work well together on defense.
Also, he's often sees time on the floor late in close games. Lionel Hollins might not be able to trust his replacement to take up those clutch minutes.
Mayo would make the Grizzlies more of a threat down the stretch and in the playoffs with his scoring and defense. Thus, trading him could cause the Grizzlies to fall off track.
Once Zach Randolph returns to the lineup, Lionel Hollins will have a dilemma concerning his frontcourt backups. Marreese Speights has been the starter in place of Randolph, but he might not deserve the most frontcourt minutes off the bench when Randolph returns.
Speights has been good at times, but he struggles when playing fewer minutes.
He averaged 5.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game while only playing 19.6 minutes per game in a 10-game stretch in late January and early February. Also, he shoots only 31.6 percent from the field when playing less than 20 minutes and 38.9 percent when playing 20 to 29 minutes.
Meanwhile, Dante Cunningham shoots 44.6 percent when playing less than 20 minutes and 55.7 percent when playing 20 to 29 minutes.
That indicates that it might be better to have Cunningham come off the bench first, although defensive matchups would have to be taken into consideration. Speights may fare better against big men who stay at home in the low post. Cunningham would be better against more athletic big men.
Also, Hollins would have to consider if he'll still play Marc Gasol 38.1 minutes per game off the bench once he has three backup frontcourt players (Speights, Cunningham and Hamed Haddadi) again.
Next, Hollins will have to decide how often he'll go with the small lineup of Gasol, Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen and Mike Conley. The use of that lineup might change with Randolph back.
How backup minutes will be shared with Randolph back in the lineup will be interesting to see.