The Memphis Grizzlies face their toughest test since early in the season when they played Miami, at Oklahoma City, the Knicks and at Charlotte all in one week. Four games in five days on the road and against teams battling for playoff position would test any team.
The Grizzlies enter this stretch having won 12 of their last 13 games but the competition has been questioned. The one real tough test was at Miami. The Grizzlies played them as well as anyone has over the last month but came up short in the end. Now the team plays the 10th place, 3rd place, 5th place and 9th place teams in the tough Western Conference. There is no questioning the difficulty of these games. This stretch will show if the Grizzlies are imitations or the real McCoy.
This is when the Grizzlies find out if they are really a better team than they were before the trades. The front office insists they are. The team believes they are. Until they face the real challenge ahead of them skeptics will still have their doubts. To sweep this set of games would clearly put the Grizzlies on the map of teams to watch out for. To be swept would be demoralizing to say the least.
First up is Portland. The Blazers took a 17-point lead in the 2nd half against the Grizzlies before Memphis closed the holes in their defense to win by six points. That game was played without Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur forcing Ed Davis into his first start for the Grizzlies. Randolph is expected back for this game after practicing at full speed on Monday but how long he will go is still unsure. This game is going to be a tough start of the road trip. Portland is 20-10 at home despite having a losing record for the season overall.
Lionel Hollins had his jersey retired in Portland after playing for the Trailblazers for 4 and a half seasons. Zach Randolph played six seasons in Portland after being drafted by the Blazers 19th in the 2001 draft. Jerryd Bayless played two seasons in Portland as well. Marc Gasol and Victor Claver were teammates on the Spanish national team this past summer. Elliot Williams is a native Memphian who played for the Tigers in college. This game is emotional for many players.
Still the Portland game is just the appetizer for the main course on Wednesday night. The Los Angeles Clippers have won three straight games against the Grizzlies stretching back to game 7 of last year’s playoffs. The Grizzlies need a win against the Clippers to have a chance of splitting the season series and gaining a game on the Clippers in the standings. Even if the Grizzlies split the season series they would still lose any tiebreaker with the Clippers who have all but clinched the Pacific Division. Winning your division trumps any other tie-breaking procedure.
What the Grizzlies can’t afford is to lose to the Clippers and fall an additional game behind Los Angeles in the standings. The Clippers have been on a roll at home having won 5 of 7 games at the Staples Center with the only losses being to San Antonio and Oklahoma City. By defeating the Clippers the Grizzlies will prove they deserve to be mentioned with the elite in the league.
This stretch is important for the Clippers as well. They are in the midst of playing 5 home games out of 6 and know very well that the Grizzlies are just a game behind them in the standings heading into the Portland game. A win in Portland and over the Clippers would catapult the Grizzlies ahead of the Clippers in the standings with the last game in the series being played in Memphis.
Next the Grizzlies journey to the mile high altitude of Denver. The Nuggets have been nearly unbeatable this season at home. Their 28-3 mark in the Mile High City is second to Miami’s 29-3 home record in the league. Memphis will be the second straight tough test for the Nuggets after playing New York Wednesday night and then head on the road to Chicago and OKC after the game. A loss the Grizzlies, who are 1.5 games ahead of the Nuggets at this moment, could be tough in their hunt for home court advantage in the playoffs.
For Memphis, a win at Denver would serve notice that not only are the Grizzlies a tough team to play in the playoffs, but they can win at altitude making the home court advantage that much better. Denver will also be targeting this game for those reasons as well as the tough road trip ahead.
Memphis ends this brutal stretch with a game in Utah. Memphis has already won once in Utah this season but that doesn’t make it any easier. After playing the Clippers and Nuggets, the Grizzlies must guard against a let down in Utah. The Jazz will be well rested after not playing since Wednesday night at Oklahoma City. The Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture with the Lakers recent run and will be desperate to get a win against the Grizzlies.
More important than the outcomes could be the way the team plays. Will they continue to grit and grind? Will they fight to the end or concede games when the outcome appears hopeless. It seems rather surprising to note that the Grizzlies have come from 17 points or more behind to win games 10 times since the 2009-10 season, Hollins first full season as head coach. That is the most in the NBA over that time frame.
The Grizzlies are currently 17-11 on the road but people need to remember that the Grizzlies have never finished the season with a road record above .500. This season the Grizzlies are also one of only two teams not to suffer a three game road losing streak. The other team is Miami.
The Grizzlies have shown they have the determination to fight when other teams would concede. Now can they muster the heart, grit and grind to handle this part of the schedule. Will the new players step up when called? Will the veterans elevate their games to fill the loss of Rudy Gay?
At this point no one knows how this will end. All that is known is this is when it begins.