The Memphis Grizzlies may be one of the hottest teams in the league in the second half, but they still could face a challenge in the playoffs. The Grizzlies have won 12 of 13 games since Feb. 8. While their hot streak will assure a first-round home-court advantage, it won't make them more likely to roar onward to the NBA Finals.
The Grizzlies, which are a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers, will stay ahead of the red-hot Denver Nuggets to hang onto an top-four spot. The Nuggets, which trail the Grizz by half a game, play 10 of their 18 remaining games against winning teams, including five at home.
Memphis plays a similar proportion, 12 of their remaining 21 against winning teams, with six taking place at the FedEx Forum.
Anyway, the Nuggets have three more losses than the Grizzlies with five fewer games to play. If both teams were to maintain their current winning percentages through the end of the season, the Grizzlies would have two more wins than the Nuggets.
Finishing ahead of Denver wouldn't end Memphis' worries. The Nuggets represent one matchup that the Grizz should avert. Here's a look at why this and two others would cause Lionel Hollins migraines.
Which team do the Grizzlies most want to avoid in the playoffs?
Denver Nuggets in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup
The Nuggets might be even hotter than the Grizzlies. George Karl's squad has won 20 of the last 24 games since Jan. 24. They're 25-7 in the calendar year, averaging 109.9 points per game.
Also, the Nuggets have controlled the season series against the Grizz, winning two of three. Before going cold in a loss at Memphis on Dec. 29, the Nuggets scored a 99-94 win at home while forcing Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to turn it over a combined nine times.
On Nov. 19, Denver slowed Memphis' scorching start with a 97-92 win in the "Grindhouse."
A Nuggets win against the Grizz in Denver on Mar. 15 gives them the head-to-head tiebreaker if the two teams were to finish the season locked in fourth place at the end of the regular season.
Denver kept a cold grip on Gasol and Conley in the first three contests. Gasol shot 38.4 percent in those three games, while Conley shot 33.3 percent.
A series between the Grizzlies and Nuggets in which Memphis' two key facilitators can't hit shots or avoid committing turnovers would be a losing affair for the Grizz. While the Grizzlies can work around one or two cold shooters, they can't create offense when these two are completely unable to make the offense flow.
Also, the Nuggets' bold scoring may cause the Grizzlies fits. The Nuggets are third in offensive rating, averaging 105.8 points per 100 possessions. They also run at the second fastest pace in the league, with 95 possessions per 48 minutes, hold the No. 4 spot in field-goal percentage at 47.8 percent and are the next best offensive rebounding team behind Memphis.
Being able to play this fast while shooting extraordinarily well and cleaning up many misses can frustrate the "grit 'n' grind." The Grizzlies may be No. 5 in defensive rebounding percentage at 74.7 percent, but they might be ousted by such a strong offensive rebounding team.
Kenneth Faried and Kousta Koufus are seventh and 12th respectively in offensive rebounding percentage.
Mike Conley could battle Ty Lawson to dictate the pace of the game, but he may not be able to slow things down if he struggles to direct the offense.
Los Angeles Clippers in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup
If the Nuggets were to keep up their rally and surge to the No. 3 spot in the West, the Grizzlies and Clippers would find themselves grappling in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 pairing for the second straight year.
Neither team would fall so cold that they'd lose their lead on the Golden State Warriors, which are 8.5 games behind Memphis and 9.5 behind L.A.
Another first-round series against the Clippers could see the Grizz experiencing some of the same problems as they did in last year's showdown.
In the seven-game set, the Grizzlies averaged 14.4 turnovers per game, coughing it up 16 times or more three times. The Clippers, which are the only team that stands ahead of the Grizzlies in opponent turnover rate and steals per game, could once again force Memphis to play sloppy.
Also, the Clips have even more perimeter shooting than last year. Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes give them a boost in this area, while Eric Bledsoe can occasionally pop a three.
San Antonio Spurs in a second-round series
The Grizzlies can always count the 2011 first-round upset of the Spurs to their credit, but the Spurs have generally had Memphis' number in the regular season. The Spurs have won six straight regular-season games against the Grizz in the last two seasons.
More than anything else, San Antonio's balanced scoring would trouble the Grizz. Seven men in black average nine points or more per game. Before his injury, Tony Parker was as hot as ever, averaging 21 points per game and shooting 53.3 percent from the field.
The Spurs would threaten a Grizz squad that doesn't defend the three ball well. San Antonio stands No. 4 in three-point field-goal shooting, hitting 38.2 from long range. Danny Green is sixth in the league in three-point percentage, shooting 43.5 percent from downtown.
The Grizzlies don't pin opponents down well beyond the arc, allowing the fifth-most three-pointers made. They stand only 13th in three-point field-goal percentage allowed at 35.5 percent.
Conclusion: Grabbing third place is a must for Memphis
The common thread among these three matchups to avoid is that they would have the Grizzlies finish fourth or fifth in the conference.
Hence, the Grizzlies need to hurdle the Clippers and finish third in order to avoid these sticky first- and second- round scenarios.
This is manageable for Memphis. They can grab an advantage on L.A. by winning the last two meetings. By maintaining their hot second-half run, the Grizz will ensure their hold onto the No. 3 spot.
Hollins reminded The Commercial Appeal that the Grizzlies do their best in the latter part of the season. By affirming that identity, they'll circumvent a few unhappy playoff scenarios.