There are less than thirty games left in the regular season, and it's becoming obvious that Memphis probably won't reach the first seed in the Western Conference. With the Portland Trailblazers and Houston Rockets on their tail, Memphis could fall back to third or forth, but as of right now, the Grizzlies are still gripping the second seed. Memphis is 6.5 games back of Golden State for first, and since the playoffs are nearing, it's time to start taking a look at who Memphis could be facing in the first round. Who would be the best match up for the Beale Street Bears?
Possibility #1: Memphis vs. San Antonio Spurs
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Currently, the Spurs are sitting in the seventh seed. If the playoffs started today, they would be Memphis' matchup. Fortunately (and unfortunately) for the Grizzlies, the Spurs appear to be gaining momentum, and are only a half game back of the sixth seed. I don't expect the Spurs to stay in seventh, but Memphis needs to avoid the fourth seed, as the Spurs could easily end up in fifth.
The Spurs have had the Grizzlies' number over the past few years, but this year's games have provided a bit of hopefulness for Grizzlies fans, as Memphis leads the series 2-1. The Spurs have had the knack for shutting down Zach Randolph ever since the 2011 playoffs, but Zach did rack up 21 point sand 21 rebounds in the triple overtime thriller last December, and he did not play the most recent game between these two teams, which Memphis won. However, the Spurs haven't been at full strength in any of the matchups, so the next divisional showdown at the end of March should shed a bit more light on whether Memphis has made any progress against this Spurs team which appears to be shaping up into playoff form, both health-wise and play-wise.
Memphis' new ability to spread the floor more helps make more room for Randolph to work. In the 2013 Western Conference Finals, one of Memphis' main problems was their inability to hit shots from the outside. Courtney Lee and Jeff Green could swing the tide for Memphis if they could consistently knock down open threes, thus giving Randolph and Gasol more room to work.
Possibility #2: Memphis vs. Dallas Mavericks
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At the beginning of this season, I didn't want Memphis to end up facing a new-face Dallas team. But Dallas' move for Rajon Rondo has proved detrimental to the Mavericks: they're 5-5 in their last ten games and appear to have taken a step backwards from their championship hopes. Rondo is struggling to fit in and help this Mavericks team. The last time these two met was in Dallas, where Memphis came in undermanned and still cruised by the Mavs 109-90.
Memphis leads the season series 2-1, and this appears to be a favorable matchup for the Grizz as Memphis can punish Dallas in the post and has appeared to have the upper hand in the series so far. Mike Conley vs. Rajon Rondo is intriguing, and it'd be interesting to see how Memphis could slow down the Mavericks' offense, as Dallas is tied for fourth in offensive efficiency. "Playoff Rondo" is definitely a threat, and Dirk Nowitzki will always perform in the playoffs, but I have confidence that Memphis' defense would overpower the Mavs, and Zach Randolph would dominate over Tyson Chandler like he did the last time these two met.
Possibility #3: Memphis vs. L.A. Clippers
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The L.A. Clippers have been trudging through without their All-Star, Blake Griffin. The Grizzlies faced them twice in one week at the end of February, going 1-1. The Grizzlies won the first contest back at the beginning of the season, and they won the second one by a hair. The Clippers came into FedExForum and stomped Memphis just a couple weeks ago.
Many feel the Clippers are not as good as they've been in years past. However, as Blake Griffin is just returning from injury, the Clippers seem to be finding some chemistry as other players are having to step up. Currently, they're sitting at the fifth spot, leading Dallas by a half game. This would prove a favorable matchup instead of San Antonio or the OKC Thunder, but the Grizzlies would still have a fight on their hands as All-Star Blake Griffin only adds to a Clippers team whose role players have seemingly found more of a groove.
Marc Gasol had 30 in the first showdown, and Chris Paul has been solid in all three showings. Mike Conley had one double digit outing (in the Grizzlies' win at LA 90-87) while only posting single-digit efforts in the other two matches. (A healthy) Mike Conley has to be consistent and contain Chris Paul to some extent if Memphis does have to face L.A. in the first round.
Possibility #4: Memphis vs. OKC Thunder
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The Grizzlies and Thunder have already played three times this season; their remaining showdown is in April. These two teams know each other extremely well by now, and there's no doubt that there's bad blood from last postseason's 7-game brawl. The Thunder took the Grizzlies out of the playoffs in Game 7 at OKC; however, the Grizzlies were missing Zach Randolph, Tony Allen was dealing with an eye injury, and Mike Conley was practically walking on one leg. The year before, the Grizzlies knocked off the Westbrook-less Thunder 4-1 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
This season, the Grizzlies are sitting in a position to have home court advantage while the Thunder are struggling to make the playoffs due to a barrage of injuries this season. But have no doubt, when this team gets healthy, come playoff time they could be a scary matchup for Memphis. The last game between these two was a Thunder blowout over Memphis. Russell Westbrook is playing at an MVP level right now, and the return of Kevin Durant just adds more of that MVP talent. Tony Allen has shut down Durant before, but it could be tough for Memphis to contain Westbrook if he continues to play the way he has.
This would be an entertaining matchup, but it doesn't seem to greatly favor Memphis. The Thunder's athleticism and speed could cause a good deal of problems for the Grizz. At the trade deadline, the Thunder traded the unproductive Kendrick Perkins for Enis Kanter, a player who has provided useful minutes so far and adds more of a post threat to this OKC team. Conley would certainly need to show up big in this series against Westbrook, both offensively and defensively. Marc Gasol would also need to be dominant over Serge Ibaka. Tony Allen's defense would again be put to the test against Kevin Durant, who he was able to stifle for much of last year's series.
Possibility #5: Memphis vs. New Orleans Pelicans
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Although most believe OKC will reach the playoffs and grab the 8th or 7th seed, it's not fair to leave the Pelicans out of the conversation as they're currently sitting just behind the eighth spot in the West. They're half a game back from OKC, but they have the tie breaker in the season series. This could very well come down to the last few games of the season, much like Memphis' playoff fate did last season. The Grizzlies were one loss away from facing the Spurs in the first round at #8, but a win over Dallas at the very end of the season secured the seventh spot.
The Grizzlies have had their share of troubles against this New Orleans team. The Pelicans possess several troublesome post threats, including Anthony Davis, who is averaging over 24 PPG and 2.8 blocks. These two teams have already seen each other three times this season; the Pelicans lead the series 2-1. The Pelicans meet the Grizzlies at FedExForum again in April, and I wouldn't be surprised if that game is very critical in the Pelicans' playoff hopes. Though I believe the Grizzlies could overpower New Orleans with veteran experience and performance in crunch time, the Pelicans would provide a physical and tough playoff series if they do make the postseason.
The West is stacked with talent, and any playoff matchup for Memphis will be challenging. The most likely matchups for the first round include the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs. Without a doubt, Memphis needs to avoid the Spurs and hope to face the Clips or Mavericks. In addition, the Grizzlies need to continue to focus on their seeding, and they need to be mindful of who they end up facing. The wrong matchup could prove fatal to Memphis' championship hopes, and the right match up could fuel their aspirations toward their ultimate goal.