Reeling with injuries, stumbling in the standings, Memphis is hanging on for dear life…
Seeds two through six in the Western Conference resemble the way your drain gets when—after months and months of several roommates showering, one of whom might have dreadlocks, another who sheds like a Labrador retriever and yet a third whose corporeal grime inexplicably washes off in chunks—there’s a clog so irreparable it requires a bottle or two of Drano ®. In other words, nobody knows what’s going to happen, because there are still a zillion scenarios left. If you want a thorough but non-exhaustive explanation of the Western Conference playoff race at the moment, read this, because right now we’re zooming in on the Memphis Grizzlies.
Just a few months ago, the Grizzlies were on a torrid streak—shredding apart nearly every foe they faced, winning basketball games in radically different ways whether with their trademark grinding defense or with their new-look offense, trailing the Golden State Warriors by only a handful of games and looking like they’d easily lock up the two seed in the postseason and waltz to two rounds of home-court advantage. Well, as they say, things change. Apparently things change dramatically, because the situation is dire. Not only have the Grizzlies lost their hot streak—they’re 5-5 in their last 10 games—and not only have they stumbled down the standings and consequently could lose home-court advantage, but these two facts, dismaying as they may be, are totally meaningless and secondary to their injury report: In Saturday’s loss to the Clippers, a game in which the Grizzlies were already sitting Mike Conley and Tony Allen because of injuries, Marc Gasol left with an ankle sprain after only 10 minutes on the court.
It’s officially time to panic. As Doc Rivers said after the game, any matchup in the Western Conference is undesirable. Lacking home-court advantage makes a series even more difficult. So does hobbling into the postseason. And so, of course, does not having your two best players.
At this point, neither the injury to Gasol nor to Conley has been deemed season-ending. What Memphis might do is sit both players, essentially forfeiting the fight for a higher seed, for the remainder of the regular season in an attempt to regain full health at the start of the playoffs. If the postseason started today, as you’ll see on the link above, Memphis would play the Portland Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies would have home-court advantage over the Blazers despite being the No. 5 seed (because of record), although there’s still a danger of falling to No. 6 and losing that home-court advantage in the first round.
Of all the possible matchups for Memphis—the Clippers, Spurs, Rockets or Blazers—Portland might be the most desirable, as both San Antonio and Los Angeles are in the company of Golden State for the best records since late February, and Houston isn’t too far behind. But still, if you had asked the Grizzlies three months ago if they’d be happy with one or potentially zero matchups without home-court advantage, I think they’d have looked at you and said, “Bro, we’re the two seed, and we don’t plan on giving it up.”
Memphis should play it safe, and that’s what it seems like they’re going to do. Even with Conley and Gasol (and maybe even Allen) on the bench, their final two games—against a Golden State team already sealed in its position and an Indiana Pacers still fighting for its life—are still winnable games. In the end, of course, given the choice between an all-out fight in the last two games in the regular season and thus risking seeding interest, or playing it conservative and potentially getting healthy for the playoffs, I’m sure Memphis would take the latter option every time.
They might not have that luxury, however. Gasol, Conley and Allen must heal. There’s no guarantee this will happen before the playoffs, and even if it does, it’s more than likely that one or more of these guys will come back less than 100 percent. Injury is a gray area—it’s never so easy as a black-and-white “healthy or not healthy,” never so easy as we fans like to think it is. On top of this, there’s also the fear of re-injury.
Look, I don’t want to spell doomsday for the Memphis Grizzlies. I think they’re one of the most exciting franchises in the league. I think Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are two stellar, creative, unique players in today’s basketball atmosphere. And I think the team’s whole guiding principle of tough defense is a compelling foil to the high-powered offenses we see ruling the day, but with the news of the last 72 hours, it’s difficult to put on a happy face.