The Memphis Grizzlies started their post-All-Star break grind with their best record ever through 52 games, but coasting through the last 30 would be unacceptable. With a new ownership in control and already cutting payroll, the Grizzlies need to prove themselves now.
The Grizz are on pace for a franchise-record 53 wins. Considering Lionel Hollins and Tony Allen are in contract years and trade rumors have swirled around Zach Randolph, a hot stretch run represents the start of what this crew needs to do to impress Robert Pera's regime.
Hollins, Randolph and company are desperate to raise a championship trophy, proving a skeptical hierarchy wrong.
In order to do that, the Grizz must iron out a few details in these final 30 regular-season games to capture the necessary playoff standing to allow such a playoff run.
Follow along to see the steps required for a big Grizzlies second-half tear.
As always, the Grizzlies will pin their late-season success on their decadent defensive play. They’re second in the league with 100.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Forcing turnovers remains a great strength. They’re second in the NBA with a 15.7 percent opponent turnover rate. They’re also second in steals per game. Mike Conley and Tony Allen form the best turnover-forcing duo in the league, both standing in the top 10 in steals rate.
To some extent, the Grizzlies will ride their defensive grind down the stretch.
No aspect of the team is a greater indicator of its health than the defense. As long as they defend well, the Grizzlies can hold their ground.
Posting plenty of points hasn’t been a point of strength for the Grizzlies. They’re putting up 104.3 points per 100 possessions, 18th in the league. That figure has hardly improved since parting with Rudy Gay. Meanwhile, they’re shooting 44 percent from the field.
Hope remains for this scrappy squad. Gay’s departure has made it easier for Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Jerryd Bayless to facilitate the offense. Quincy Pondexter’s return gives the team one more three-point shooter, opening up an area that’s often neglected in the half court.
Conley has been hot lately, scoring more than 15 points in eight of the last 14 games. He led the team with 19 against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday.
Shooting a season-high 56.3 percent from the field and scoring 105 points against the Pistons started the Grizz in the right direction. However, turning those numbers against the Pistons is an easy task.
Still, setting a steady scoring stride down the stretch will ready the Grizz for playoff opponents that might not allow them as much slack.
The Grizzlies have a great deal of firepower up front, but they haven’t utilized it as much as they could.
Zach Randolph took over as the de facto scoring leader after the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay, but Randolph is only averaging 15.6 points per game. In February, he's averaging 15.4 points per game while taking just 13.4 shots per game.
Considering he took a little more than 16 per game in 2009-10 and 2010-11, he's certainly capable of shouldering a greater load.
Marc Gasol is the most efficient offensive player for the Grizzlies, producing 115 points per 100 possessions. Partly, that's because his passing has boosted his efficiency. A little more scoring action would be ideal. He's shooting a bit less than last season, 11.2 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, compared with 11.1 last season.
The Grizz need to work the ball to him in more scoring situations, particularly in pick-and-pop sets, in which he's most effective.
Part of the reason the Grizzlies are playing better than ever is that they’re holding their own on the road. After going 15-18 on the road in 2011-12 and 16-25 in 2010-11, the Grizz are 13-10 away from the friendly confines thus far.
Scoring hasn’t been as much of an issue away from home. They’re scoring 1.5 more points per game on the road than at home this season, compared to 7.5 fewer per game last season. Also, their 94.7 per game road scoring average is 3.5 than last year.
To finish strong, Memphis must show that its sterling standing outside Shelby County to this point isn't a fluke. Eighteen of their 30 games remaining are away from the FedEx Forum. That includes a stretch of seven in nine games spanning the first 16 days of March.
Fortunately, only seven of these 18 road games are against winning teams.
The Grizzlies started the string of post-All-Star break road games on the right foot by taking a 14-point win in Detroit. Maintaining the steady road play will make placing high in the conference easy.
Similar to catching most of their road games down the stretch against losing teams, the Grizzlies mostly face losing teams through the last 30. Seventeen of the remaining games pit the Grizz against sub-.500 squads.
Indeed, 11 of those 17 games will be on the road. But that's no problem since they're 6-2 against losing teams away from the FedEx Forum.
Memphis can surge ahead right now by making the best of its current binge of nine games out of 11 heading out of the break against losing teams.
The Portland Trail Blazers figure to be the only possible stumbling block in this set. Portland, which Memphis will face twice in a six-day span in early March, upended the Grizz in the "Grindhouse" 86-84 on Jan. 4. Damien Lillard, who had 11 points and eight assists, isn't slowing down. He's averaging 19.5 points per game for February.
Handling this upstart bunch and other inferior foes will make the closing stretch a cinch.