Monday, April 18, 2005

Play On

Well, they did it. Not in the way you or I, or certainly Mike Fratello, would have liked, but they did it nonetheless. The Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the second straight year--in all likelihood, they will take on the Phoenix Suns in the first round. All things considered, I suppose that's probably one of the better first round matchups they could have envisioned--although Phoenix doesn't have the best record in the NBA for nothing.

Like everyone who follows the Grizzlies, I am gravely concerned about the way this team is finishing its season. The four-game road trip just completed can only be termed a complete failure. A total nightmare. A chamber of horrors. Huge losses to Dallas, Houston, Denver, and San Antonio set the Grizzlies up for a pressure-filled last couple of games at home, except that the T'Wolves went ahead and killed the drama by losing to Seattle yesterday. Good. Something had to happen to relieve the pressure, because the Grizzlies were choking.

From the December 17th win over New Jersey until the end of February, the Grizzlies went 22-10 this season. Last year, from January through March, the Grizzlies went 32-9. During the "dog days" of the NBA season, this team's hustle and depth (even with this year's injury problems) come to the forefront. For the last two years, the Grizzlies have been playing with maximum hustle, effort, and drive throughout the entire season. That's great in January, February, and early March. The problem comes late in the season. In the last month of this season, the only teams with a record above .500 the Grizzlies have beaten are Minnesota and Miami, and Miami was without Shaq. The other 8 teams above .500--the Grizzlies are 0-8 in those games. You may recall that last season the Grizzlies limped into the playoffs having lost four straight and six of their last seven regular season games.

It seems to me that the Grizzlies simply run out of gas. This is a regular season team. This team is constructed now to outwork and outhustle teams in the regular season, ensuring a playoff spot. However, when playoff time rolls around, the team has expended all of its energy. It's as if the Grizzlies play the entire season in 6th gear, while many other playoff teams play their seasons in 5th until April rolls around--then they hit that extra gear, and blow by the Grizzlies. You've noticed that the Grizzlies aren't taking it to the hole at all lately--part of that is the fact they've played against quality frontcourt players, but part of it is a lack of energy compared with the opposition. It's far less tiring to take jump shots.

Defense is also an indicator of energy level, especially for the Grizzlies, who are often undersized down low, and who are usually facing teams with better athletes than they have. In those cases, energy is critical. For the entire season, the Grizzlies have allowed an average of 90.9 points per game. In their last 10 games against playoff-bound teams, they've allowed an average of 97.2 points per game. They're 2-8 over that stretch. The Grizzlies lack of talent compared to the best of the NBA can be masked with effort in January and February, but in April, when the other teams turn it up, the Grizzlies can't hang.

In addition to that, because of the injury problems the Grizzlies have faced, guys like Shane Battier, Brian Cardinal, and Earl Watson have played more minutes than usual, and that has led to them picking up nagging injuries and wearing down. The team worked miracles winning big games throughout the regular season, and they deserve to be commended for that, but that formula will not continue into April.

In the playoffs, with teams working as hard or harder than the Grizzlies, the talent gap becomes all too clear. This group has gone as far as they can go.

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