The Memphis Grizzlies are readying to rally for what they hope will be a fourth straight playoff appearance. Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley look to hit the post All-Star break stretch with renewed health and their trademark lockdown defense.
Since early January, the Grizzlies have climbed the Western Conference standings to hang just outside the top eight.
The Grizz can take advantage of on an easy schedule. A large chunk of their games pit them against losing teams and weaker Eastern Conference opponents.
While the Grizz have endured several injuries, they should use their depth to avoid further incidents.
The defensive outlook is good with the team rediscovering its grind since Gasol returned.
Fans may become excited for possible end-of-season honors for Memphis players, but they shouldn't get too worked up. Injuries will prevent Allen and Gasol from grabbing defensive honors. Conley isn't high enough on voters' radars to reach an All-NBA team.
Follow along for more predictions regarding the Grizzlies' stretch run.
Statistics are current through Feb. 16 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.
The Grizzlies are among the hottest teams in the NBA, going 14-4 since Jan. 10. While they stand one place away from the top eight in the Western Conference, their rise isn't over.
Memphis, which is one-and-a-half games away from the last playoff spot and two from the No. 6 seed, can jump two spots.
The schedule tilts in their favor. They play 13 games against Eastern Conference opponents. Generally, the Grizz have taken advantage of the weaker conference, going 12-5 against these teams.
While a road-heavy stretch run usually hurts a team, the Grizz will welcome theirs since they have fared better outside Shelby County. Memphis, which plays 17 of its remaining 30 games away from FedEx Forum, is 14-14 at home and 15-9 on the road.
They commit 1.5 fewer turnovers per game and their rebounding advantage is one rebound higher on average. Also, they allow 5.6 fewer points per game on the road.
Memphis' road slate provides breaks. Its three trips of three games or more each feature mostly losing teams.
Overall, their remaining contests include 17 against sub-.500 foes.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks play eight games against East teams and half their post All-Star break games on the road.
Also, the Mavs will falter once players regress to their current capabilities. Monta Ellis is hitting 46.1 percent from the field. While that's half a percentage point better than his career mark, he's finished with a field-goal clip higher than 45 percent three times.
Shawn Marion is scoring 10.6 points per game on 46.5 percent from the field, but is seeing his production tail off as he made 39.4 percent in the last nine games. Brandan Wright is scoring 9.6 points per game on 67.8 percent from the field off the bench, but that's 9.1 percent higher than his career mark.
The Grizz will stay hotter than the Phoenix Suns, even though Phoenix plays an equally soft stretch run. Goran Dragic has become more dangerous with Eric Bledsoe out, but others are not. Channing Frye is hitting 39.8 percent in the past eight games.
Gerald Green is producing three fewer points per 100 possessions and his true shooting percentage is 2.5 percent lower since replacing Bledsoe in the lineup.
The Grizzlies turned it around defensively after Marc Gasol returned. Since he's returned, the Grizz have allowed more than 90 points in three of 16 games. According to NBA.com, they're allowing 10 fewer per 100 possessions since he stepped back to the court than in the 36 games prior.
While many Memphis players struggled before, seven now allow 104 or fewer points per 100 possessions.
With such accelerated improvement, Memphis can make up the 1.9 points between them and the Toronto Raptors for No. 5 in defensive rating.
Tony Allen's return will help the defensive attack. The three-time All-Defensive Team honoree attacks ball-handlers like no other and puts pressure on leading scorers. His four percent steals rate was among league leaders before he landed on the injured list.
Memphis' "grit 'n grind" defense has been resurrected, and, by season's end, will earn a ranking characteristic of the performances of recent years.
The Grizz will also finish with 50 wins. Not only do they have a favorable schedule and a positive health outlook, but are outperforming their Pythagorean expectation. According to basketball-reference.com, they're expected to have a 26-26 record, but are three games ahead of that measurement.
This is the product of their success in close games, winning 12 of 17 contests decided by five or fewer points.
Peter Edmiston of The Commercial Appeal (subscription required) noted how James Johnson, who leads the league in the clutch impact metric player impact Estimate at 47.9 percent, has "shown the ability to get to the basket at will and force teams into awkward situations through drawing contact while disrupting them on the defensive end through perimeter shot blocking."
The Grizz have finished on a rampage the past few years. Last year, they went 23-8 after the All-Star break. In 2011-12, they rallied with a 22-10 record after the break. They won nine of their last 13 in 2010-11.
Memphis players have had at least peripheral considerations every year for awards and other honors after the previous three seasons. With the Grizz improving every year, former Memphis coach Lionel Hollins was a dark horse in Coach of the Year discussions.
Gasol won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Zach Randolph made the All-NBA Third Team in 2010-11. Allen surfaced on the All-Defensive Team three straight years.
This time, Memphis will come up empty. Partly, that's due to injuries. Allen might have been in the running for another defensive honor, but 20 games is probably too many to miss while staying in the race. Gasol's lengthier absence will likely keep him from retaining his defensive crown.
Besides, several players on other teams have been too good to ignore. Paul George's 94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions are unbelievable for a wing defender. Roy Hibbert leads the league with 94.3 allowed. He's been a highlight reel rim protector.
Conley is turning into an elite lead guard, but will be left off the All-NBA teams. His ability to score efficiently (55.4 percent true shooting percentage) while handling the ball a ton (24.4 percent) and turning it over at a low rate (10.5 percent) is no small wonder. But Stephen Curry, John Wall and Damien Lillard, who compile more cumulative statistics, will garner more attention.
Memphis coach Dave Joerger may receive credit for navigating a difficult journey if the Grizz make the playoffs, but won't enter Coach of the Year arguments. Greg Popovich has the San Antonio Spurs near the top of the West while role players are gaining prominence.
Tom Thibodeau is leading the Chicago Bulls to a top-four seed, despite losing Derrick Rose to injury and Luol Deng in a trade. Jeff Hornacek has surprised NBA observers by making the Suns a playoff team.
James Johnson may have done well scoring off the bench with 8.5 points per game, but is nowhere near Jamal Crawford, who is averaging 18.6 points per game, including 17.9 per game as a reserve.
This may seem modest, but consider they'll miss Quincy Pondexter the rest of the season. Besides Pondexter, they should lose less than 30 player games due to injury.
That would be a minor accomplishment for a team that has missed key players at various points in the year. Gasol missed 23 games due to an MCL sprain. Tony Allen has 20 missed games with a wrist sprain. Conley is sitting with a sprained ankle.
The Grizzlies' situation will likely change after the All-Stair break. According to The Commercial Appeal (subscription required), Conley and Allen will return with a clean bill of health. Allen had told The Commercial Appeal (subscription required) that he wanted to return at 100 percent.
Ron Tillery of The Commercial Appeal tweeted that Gasol's MRI after banging knees with Jameer Nelson on Thursday showed no structural damage.
All three of the aforementioned starters have capable backups who can spell them, reducing the likelihood of injury. Nick Calathes, who has done a fine job in place of Conley averaging 14.7 points per game as a starter, may merit minutes after he returns to the bench. Kosta Koufos started in place of Gasol and plays 14.3 minutes per game as a reserve.
Allen will likely split time almost evenly with his replacement, Courtney Lee, upon return. Lee is producing 120 points per 100 possessions and playing decent defense, allowing 106. Since Allen doesn't score as much as Lee, he may not demand the 26.6 minutes per game he saw before going down.
Likewise, Zach Randolph, who at 32, is anything but springy, has backups who can ensure he doesn't break down. Jon Leuer and Ed Davis both shoot effectively and can fill in without a loss of scoring.