Apr 23, 2012; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies small forward Rudy Gay (22) shoots the ball over Cleveland Cavaliers small forward Omri Casspi (36) during the second half at the FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 109-101. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE
Memphis won its fifth straight to pull within a half game of the Clippers for fourth place in the Western Conference and keep its hope alive for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Grizz have won five straight and 15 of 19, but they've been less than impressive against some weak competition lately.
A couple of weeks ago in Grantland, Bill Simmons dubbed the Memphis Grizzlies "The Team Absolutely No One Wants to Play in the West" and the name seems to have stuck. One can see the reasoning: Team Grit and Grind plays a scrappy style of basketball, forces a ton of turnovers, defends all over the floor and just generally wreaks havoc on the court. Not to mention that after defeating the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs in last season's playoffs, it has a giant-killer reputation. Then there's the fact that Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph are both healthy at the same time for the first time in the better part of two seasons.
Indeed the Grizzlies have won 15 of their last 19 games to move from being a fringe playoff team in the West to challenging for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage. So they do seem like a scary playoff opponent in many ways.
The only problem is, they haven't exactly looked like world beaters lately.
The Grizzlies happen to have probably the softest closing schedule in the NBA. The Grizz are in the midst of playing their final seven games against six teams under .500 and the completely-in-disarray Magic. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard are among the players Memphis is NOT playing against in the final weeks of the season as all of those potential opponents have been shut down for the season with injuries.
Heading into Monday night's meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Grizzlies were on a four-game winning streak -- with the wins coming against the Timberwolves, Hornets, Bobcats and Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies trailed in the fourth against the Wolves. They trailed most of the game against the hapless Bobcats before winning by five, tied for Charlotte's closest game in April. They had a 14-point fourth quarter lead against Portland but allowed the Blazers to climb within two, with the ball and a chance to tie in the final seconds. This is "The Team Absolutely No One Wants to Play in the West"?
Against the Cavaliers, a team that had won just five times in 24 games, the Grizzlies once again did just barely enough to win. The Cavs kept it close throughout, and the game was still tied at 98 with 3:21 remaining. The Grizzlies then went on an 11-1 run to win the game, but the best thing you can say about Memphis down the stretch was that its free throw defense was outstanding. Cleveland's prize rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson between them missed five of six free throws in a period of about 75 seconds, which gave the Grizzlies the equivalent of key defensive stops and essentially won the game.
One huge difference between the current Memphis team and the one that terrorized the Spurs and Thunder a year ago in the postseason is that Randolph is clearly not the same player. Randolph was Memphis' go-to scorer in tight games last year, the one guy they could turn to for a crucial bucket with the game on the line. You need a guy like that in the playoffs and Memphis rode him to great success last May. But since returning from knee surgery, Randolph has been a shell of the player that was third team All-NBA last year. He's averaging just over 11 points per game in the 22 games since returning from injury. Monday night he scored three points and grabbed five rebounds. This is a player who averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game last season.
With Randolph struggling Monday, the Grizzlies got a balanced attack. Every starter scored at least 12 points, with Marreese Speights and Marc Gasol leading the way with 17 each. O.J. Mayo came off the bench to score 14. For the Cavs, Irving scored a game-high 25 and Antawn Jamison added 17.
The win moves the Grizzlies within a half game of the Clippers for fourth place in the Western Conference. However, as the Clippers hold the season series tie-breaker, it won't be enough to catch L.A., they'll have to pass them. One more win for the Clippers (who play in Atlanta Tuesday night and conclude in New York Wednesday night) or a Memphis loss in their finale against Orlando on Thursday will clinch fourth for the Clippers. The extra spot is worth playing for: there's still a slim chance that the Clippers could pass the Lakers for third, but in all likelihood the Clippers and Grizzlies will meet in the four-five matchup in the first round of the playoffs, with the four seed receiving home court advantage.
The loss drops Cleveland to 21-43 overall. They have games remaining at home against the Wizards and on the road in Chicago.
For all of Monday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.