What an amazing start to the 2014-2015 NBA season for the Memphis Grizzlies. Dave Joerger wins his third Western Conference Coach of the Month, the Grizzlies' offense is more efficient than its ever been in the "Grit and Grind" era, and Marc Gasol is having an MVP-caliber season so far. October and November really were the best of times, possibly of all time.
However, if you have felt a chill go down your spine over the past couple of days as you've torn off or turned over that November calendar page, you're not alone. It isn't the start of meteorological winter, or a draft of wind coming through; it's the realization that with the end of 2014 comes the most challenging stretch of games for the Grizzlies so far.
That isn't to say that the teams Memphis beat in November were all schmucks. The Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, and Los Angeles Clippers are all considered to be among the elite of not just the Western Conference, but the entire NBA, and the Grizzlies beat all three by an average score of 112.6 to 94.3. Surely that has to mean something, right?
Absolutely. The truth of the matter is, however, that the December slate of games is just tougher. Memphis' November opponents' combined records through December 1st were 120-133, good for a 47.4% winning percentage. Defeating the Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant-less Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, and Detroit Pistons does not exactly amount to a successful trip through murderer's row. By contrast, December's opponents are...well, better.
The Grizzlies' December foes had a 138-100 record before the December 2nd slate of games began. That is a 57.9% winning percentage, over a 12-percentage-point jump over November, despite the includion of the winless (as of December 1st) Philadelphia 76ers among the teams Memphis will see during the month. Remove them, and that winning percentage shoots to 62.4%.
The 76ers ,and games against the Utah Jazz and Charlotte Hornets, are the only gifts for the Grizzlies this holiday season; the rest of the schedule features teams with winning records who are currently in the playoffs in their respective conferences. That cool feeling we were talking about earlier is the more-than-likely cool down the Grizzlies will experience during the month of December. The good times were darn good, but with winter coming, how can the Grizzlies survive the harsh cold of the NBA's elite and get out of the month still near the top of the west? What record should be the goal for the Grizzlies heading into 2015?
1. Win All Games Involving Far From .500 Teams
If the Memphis Grizzlies are who we think they are, to paraphrase former NFL coach Dennis Green, this should not be a problem in December. Of those three games, against the Jazz (the 22nd after playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, on a dreaded second game of a back to back), Hornets (the 12th), and 76ers (the 13th, another second game of a back-to-back after the Hornets), two of them are at home: Utah and Charlotte. With one of the best (if not the best) home court advantages in the NBA right now, and a trip to hapless Philly on the docket, Marc Gasol and company should be able to win these games with energy to spare.
It doesn't always work that way (Lakers games and the Hornets game at the beginning of the season in Charlotte come to mind), and the back-to-backs scare you, but these Grizzlies understand that, with the schedule ahead, no foul-ups are allowed.
RECORD AFTER GOAL ONE: 3-0
2. Go 3-1 Against Potential Eastern Conference Playoff Teams
For December, this includes Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on the 21st as mentioned above, his former team the Miami Heat twice (the 7th and 27th), and Pau Gasol's rejuvenated Chicago Bulls (the 19th). The Grizzlies play the Heat after playing Houston at home (another home and away back-to-back the 26th and 27th), and the Cavaliers on the road, while they welcome Chicago and Miami (again) to the friendly confines of FedEx Forum. The trip to Cleveland will be a challenge; James and crew will have 25 games under their collective belt by then, and their chemistry will likely have improved. The Bulls are no slouch either, with Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler setting the world on fire. The Heat will likely be the weakest team the Grizzlies face, but with Toronto-Raptor-esque Chris Bosh leading the charge, those games aren't cake walks either.
Assuming Memphis takes both games from Miami (a big assumption), finds a way to win against the Bulls at home, and drops the game to The King in Cleveland, that puts you at 3-1. 4-0 sounds better, but between those 4 games, there will likely be a game lost somewhere. Getting out of this stretch above 2-2 is a victory.
RECORD AFTER GOAL TWO: 6-1
3. Win 2 of 4 Games Against Western Conference Contenders Not Named the Spurs
The Grizzlies see the Houston Rockets twice in December, Wednesday in Houston and December 26th in Memphis in the first game of a back-to-back with Miami. They also play the Golden State Warriors (the 16th, first game of a home-and-road back-to-back with the Spurs) and Dallas at home on the 9th. Playing 3 of these 4 games at home is nice, to say the least; home cooking, a good nights' rest, and the energy of the Grindhouse will all be needed to try to slow down the NBA's 1st (Dallas) and 7th (Golden State) best offenses, and while Houston is struggling offensively (21st before December 2nd's games), they should be healthier for the encounter at the Forum on Boxing Day. Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas seem to always be a tough matchup for the Grizzlies, so that could very well be a loss, plus the odds of beating James Harden and Houston 3 straight times to start the season seem to be slim.
Give Memphis the win against the Warriors at FedEx Forum in a game they will undoubtedly be fired up for (for seeding and competitive reasons), and that puts you at 2-2. We'd still hold the tie breaker over Houston at 2-1, with 3 more chances at Dallas, and 2 more at Steph Curry and the Warriors, including another one at home later in the season.
RECORD AFTER GOAL THREE: 8-3
4. Get 2 out of 3 from San Antonio
The final three games of the month come against a familiar foe: the San Antonio Spurs.
Wait...THREE GAMES AGAINST THE SPURS? OUT OF FOUR ON THE SEASON? ALL IN ONE MONTH?
Yes, the San Antonio Spurs come to Memphis twice this month, once on December 5th, and again December 30th, with a game in San Antonio on the 17th in between, the night after playing Golden State at home. The Spurs, after a slow 2-3 start, have won 11 of their last 12, including 8 straight heading into their game with the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night. It's been done in traditionally Spurs-ian ways; the past 4 games, San Antonio have seen 4 different players lead them in scoring (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard), and are clicking on all cylinders as if they are not quite yet ready to relinquish the Southwest Division to Memphis, Dallas, or Houston, who are all within 3 games of each other for the lead.
The two games at home are the obvious candidates for wins, especially considering that Memphis will be coming off a (according to this prediction) big win at home against the Warriors the night before when they play on the 17th in San Antonio. If the Grizzlies can indeed get 2 out of 3 from the Spurs, it will be huge in terms of potential head-to-head tie breakers, as well as from a mental standpoint for themselves personally. Ever since the 2011 playoffs, Memphis fans have hoped the Grizzlies would dethrone the Spurs from their division-winning pedestal. Perhaps this is indeed the year!
If it is, we will look back to December and point at these games as the reasons why.
RECORD AFTER GOAL FOUR- 10-4
So, 10-4 is the goal, and it is a lofty one at that. It puts winning at home (7 out of 9 possible games) and being better than .500 in their 4 back-to-back sets (5-3) at a premium. Is it possible the Grizzlies slip against one of the lower ranked teams, lose to an Eastern Conference contender, drop 2 or 3 to the western elite, or get swept by the Spurs? Sure. We've seen all of those scenarios play out before multiple times. But this Grizzlies team has the look of a conqueror so far this season, ready for the battles that await them. They are executing on both ends of the court at an extremely high level, and Head Coach Dave Joerger and his deep roster are meshing well so far.
As long as they stay healthy, it is more possible than it has ever been in the era of the Grit and the Grind. It will be a long December, but a 10-4 run through this month would be even more impressive than the 15-2 October/November that Memphis enjoyed. With a 10-4 December record, the Grizzlies would still likely be at the top of the West and the NBA overall at 25-6, singing "Auld Lang Syne" and toasting to a remarkable end to 2014 for the Bears of Beale Street and hopefully much more to come in the years ahead.
So bring on the frigid schedule that comes with the last month of 2014 for the Memphis Grizzlies. In order to get to the heat of June, you must endure the cold of the NBA winter.