5 Things to Watch During Memphis Grizzlies' Final Games

Tom FirmeAnalyst IIMarch 10, 2014

5 Things to Watch During Memphis Grizzlies' Final Games

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    As the Memphis Grizzlies entered a tie for eighth place in the Western Conference, their race with the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks for the final spot becomes one of the NBA's most intriguing. Despite being one of the hottest teams in the league, the Grizzlies must stay hot to make the playoffs.

    Per usual, defense is the most remarkable aspect. The Grizzlies have defended much better since Marc Gasol returned from his MCL sprain. Tony Allen's presence coming off the bench changes the complexion of the defensive capabilities outside the starting five.

    However, a few other factors are more significant in the stretch run. 

    With players coming off injuries and Beno Udrih entering the fold, the rotation becomes complex. Issues arise regarding which backup big men to play in different spots. Whether developing Nick Calathes is more important than using Udrih's outside shooting through the end of the regular season comes into play.

    Gasol becomes the most important player to watch as the year winds down, especially as his offense comes together.

    The schedule features a few twists. Memphis faces a few tough games. The season ends with games against the Suns and Mavericks, which opens the possibility of either game deciding which team falls out of the race.

    Follow along for the full breakdown of each item.

    Statistics are current through March 9 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.

Rotation

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    As the Grizzlies head into a tougher part of the schedule, which will be explained in greater depth later, one would expect Dave Joerger will tighten the rotation. Memphis has played nine or more players double-digit minutes in 14 of the past 15 games.

    A few weeks ago, Joerger vowed to bring the rotation to eight or nine players.

    However, that set won't be restricted to a specific set of players.

    Joerger told The Commercial Appeal (subscription required), "It can be match-up driven."

    He added that in the case of Jon Leuer, who has found himself in significant minutes again, gives the Grizz a different offensive look.

    Leuer's perimeter shooting stretches the floor better than Ed Davis, who shoots 64.4 percent at the rim, compared with 38.8 percent outside that range, as seen in his NBA.com shot chart.

    A couple other questions loom regarding the bench. Nick Calathes has continued to play often since returning to the bench, averaging 18.1 minutes per the last 10 games.

    But recently acquired Beno Udrih may demand more time. The 10-year veteran has yet to play more than 10 minutes since arriving in the first week of March. But Udrih, a 35.6 career three-point shooter, could be invaluable as an outside threat.

    Meanwhile, Calathes hits 31.9 percent from downtown and takes 20.7 percent of his shots from that distance.

    Also, one must look at how the minute loads of Tony Allen, Mike Miller and James Johnson will be balanced. Allen is averaging 22.7 minutes per game since he began coming off the bench in February. Johnson, who is struggling through an ankle sprain, has averaged 13.6 minutes per game since Feb. 18.

    Miller is playing 19.3 minutes per game since Allen returned on Feb. 21.

    How the playing time among these key backcourt players will depend on matchups and situations. Particular situations will call for Miller's or Johnson's respective shooting abilities, while others will demand Allen's defense.

Three-Point Shooting

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    If the Grizzlies make the playoffs, three-point shooting would be an issue against either of the likely first-round opponents.

    The Grizz are 16th in the NBA at 35.9 percent, which puts them at the league average for the first time since 2008-09. They have five players shooting better than 36 percent from the field. As mentioned in the prior slide, two of them, Leuer and Udrih, might not have certain spots in the rotation.

    The Spurs, which currently occupy the West's top spot, lead the league at 39.2 percent from beyond the arc. They have seven players shooting better than 35 percent from long range.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder may be 14th in that category at 35.9 percent (one 10-thousandth ahead of Memphis). But they have a few weapons on the outside. Kevin Durant is hitting 39.2 percent from long range. Derek Fisher has made 40.4 percent. Caron Butler is shooting 35.8 percent for the season. 

    Thabo Sefolosha, who has shot 35.8 percent from three-point range in six years for Oklahoma City, is expected to return for the playoffs after missing four to six weeks with a calf strain, according to The Oklahoman. Sefolosha is 33.8 percent for the year, but shot 39.4 percent in February.

    Long-range shooting was never a weapon for the interior-bound Grizz. By far they take the fewest threes. They've made 40 percent or better on 10 or more three-point attempts in 18 games. 

    Struggles down the stretch from downtown could portend trouble in the postseason. Memphis wouldn't want a repeat of last year's conference finals, when the Grizzlies lost the three-point battle while they made more than five in one game and Quincy Pondexter hit 12 of their 22 threes.

Marc Gasol's Progression

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    Marc Gasol's return has been stronger defensively than offensively. After allowing 103 points per 100 possessions before his injury, Gasol allowed 97 in January and 102 in February and has given up 100 this month. His blocks rate is a stellar 3.7 percent since returning.

    Gasol struggled on offense for an extended period. He made 44 percent from the field in the first 19 games after stepping back to the court. He produced 99 points per 100 possessions in that time.

    Lately, the Spaniard is improving. He's shooting 52.3 percent from the field while producing 113 points in the last seven games. Gasol is becoming more engaged, with a usage rate of 23.6 percent in the recent stretch compared with 20.3 percent beforehand.

    The Memphis Flyer's Kevin Lipe noted that Gasol is "no longer passing up dunks and drives that he passed up a month ago. As his confidence in his knee returns, so are his post moves and his offensive aggressiveness."

    Also, he's made 80 percent at the line in the last 13 games, compared with 70.5 percent in the first 13 games after coming back.

    Having Gasol healthy is a boon for the Grizzlies' stretch run and a possible playoff run. An assertive Gasol gives the Grizz four solid scoring options in the starting lineup. After placing just behind Zach Randolph for the team lead in scoring in last year's playoffs at 17.2 points per game, Gasol's output should be big for Memphis.

     

Schedule Twists

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    The Grizzlies face a couple challenges within 18 games. 

    Seven of those games pit them against elite opponents—the top six teams in the Western Conference and the top two in the East. They play the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers on March 21 and 22, respectively, in what will be one of Memphis' most difficult back-to-backs of the season.

    In early April, the Grizz will play the San Antonio Spurs and the Heat in consecutive games, but with two days of rest in between.

    These seven games could prove critical for Memphis as it aims to join the right side of the playoff picture. They're 7-11 against teams with the NBA's eight best records. Among their 38 games with offensive ratings below 104 per 100 possessions, 10 have come against those teams.

    While the Grizzlies have succeeded on the road, going 17-12, a handful of their last 12 games come in a five-game Western road trip. Two opponents, the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors are in the top six in the West, and two, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, are in tank mode.

    The Grizzlies have fared better in Western road trips in 2013-14 than previous seasons. They've swept both thus far. Last season, they won most games of two of four Western road swings. In 2011-12, they did so in only one of four.

Will the Grizzlies' Playoff Hopes Be Determined in the Final Week?

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    The Grizzlies entered the All-Star break within two games of the eighth spot in the West, but hasn't gained a foothold on a top-eight position since then.

    Memphis has remained hot, winning seven of 10 games since the break. 

    However, the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks haven't stumbled terribly. The Suns are 6-5 since the break and Dallas is 6-4. Indeed, the Mavericks lost three straight before staving off a comeback by the Trail Blazers on Friday.

    The Mavericks catch breaks in their stretch run. Seven of their next 15 games are against losing teams. Three of their four games in an early April road trip are against losing teams.

    Also, they have an eight-game home stand from March 17 to April 1. Dallas, which is 21-10 at home, may use this to pad their playoff position and ease any strain on their aging roster. 

    The Suns can seize on a soft stretch as they play eight of 12 games against losing teams.

    If all three teams remain close, the final five days may decide which team drops from the playoff race. After the Suns and Mavericks face off on April 12, the Grizz visit Phoenix on April 14 and host Dallas two days later.

    Beating the Suns in Phoenix might not be easy, especially since they shoot 47.6 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from long range at home and will have Eric Bledsoe at full strength. But a home match against the Mavericks may be manageable, with Dallas coming off games against the Spurs and Suns.