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Mission Improbable: Best (and Worst) Case Playoff Scenarios for the Memphis Grizzlies

The Western Conference has the 1, 7, and 8 seeds set. The Portland Trail Blazers will enter the first round as a divisional champ but may not have home court. From there? Chaos. Where will Memphis fall? We look at some of the possibilities.

The road ahead of the Grizzlies is likely to be a hard one.
The road ahead of the Grizzlies is likely to be a hard one.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Conference never fails to disappoint this time of year.

The fact that the Golden State Warriors have been as dominant as they have been is truly impressive, considering the parity that exists just below them in the playoff standings. For the Memphis Grizzlies, who started the season as the top dog of the NBA at 15-2 through the month of November only to go 37-23 since then (and 13-11 after the All-Star Break), business is beginning to pick up as good ol' Jim Ross used to say. Houston has now passed them for control of the Southwest division and sliding to the six seed has become just as probable as winning the division and the two seed.

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Seed Team Wins Losses Games Back Games Left Last 10 Net Rating (Since All-Star)
1 Golden State Warriors-z 63 14 0 5 9 - 1 10.6
2 53 24 10 5 8 - 2 3.6
3 Memphis Grizzlies-x 52 25 11 5 5 - 5 -0.6
4 50 27 13 5 6 - 4 3.6
5 52 26 11.5 4 9 - 1 8.7
6 51 26 12 5 9 - 1 10.7
7 46 31 17 5 4 - 6 -4.0
8 42 35 21 5 5 - 5 0.9
-- 41 35 21.5 6 5 - 5 3.5
-- 39 38 24 5 5 - 5 -2.9

Z- Clinched Home Court Advantage

Y- Clinched Division

X- Clinched Playoff Berth

#1 seed guarantees home court until NBA Finals. Golden State has earned home court throughout playoffs. #2 seed guarantees home court for first two rounds. Divisional title guarantees top four seed (in name) regardless of record, but does not guarantee home court advantage.

So, if the standings stayed exactly as they are, Memphis would have home court in a series as the three seed against the San Antonio Spurs, which is not ideal because the Spurs are destroying people and have a .1 higher net rating since the All-Star Break than the dominant Golden State Warriors.

Thankfully (depending on how you look at it), it is unlikely that these seeds stay the same. The one seed is Golden State's; that is locked in. The seven seed will likely be the Dallas Mavericks, also known as "the team everyone wants to play in the first round," and the eight will almost certainly be either the Oklahoma City Westbrooks Thunder or the New Orleans Pelicans. Seeds 2-6 are a lot less stable, considering only two games separates those teams, each with at least four more games to play.

The final schedules for these squads jockeying for position are as follows:

HOUSTON MEMPHIS PORTLAND LA CLIPPERS SAN ANTONIO
@San Antonio New Orleans Minnesota @Oklahoma City
San Antonio @Utah @Golden State Memphis Houston
New Orleans @LA Clippers Utah Denver @Houston
@Charlotte @Golden State @Oklahoma City @Phoenix Phoenix
Utah Indiana @Dallas DONE @New Orleans

That chill that just went down your spine is the realization that Memphis may go from running the Southwest division much of the season to possibly THIRD in that division. That would mean at best a five seed, possibly even the six seed. So much for "Greater," right?

It isn't all doom and gloom, of course. With the news that Tony Allen will miss at least the next three games, it will not be easy and will require Memphis to play at a level they haven't in months. That higher stratosphere of basketball is in these Grizzlies, however, and this would be an optimal time to shine through the darkness that has been the past six weeks.

So, what can Grizzlies fans expect? There are a lot of different ways this can all play out; here we will discuss three of those possibilities. Lets start with what would be, regardless of record, the worst case scenario.

WORST CASE: SIX SEED AGAINST THE SPURS

Houston goes 3-2 over their last five games, splitting their two games with the Spurs. San Antonio goes 4-1, the loss to Houston their only blemish. Memphis goes 2-3, dropping a game in LA to the Clippers and two others, possibly in Utah and Golden State (even if they are resting guys). Clippers finish the season 2-2, Portland 3-2.

Here is what those final 2-6 standings would look like.

2. HOUSTON 56-26
3. SAN ANTONIO 55-27
4. PORTLAND 53-29
5. LA CLIPPERS 54-28
6. MEMPHIS 54-28

Disaster. Clippers get the conference record tiebreaker after splitting the season series with Memphis. No divisional championship, no home playoff series, sacrificed to the mighty San Antonio Spurs. Memphis loses the series in five games. Marc Gasol's possibility of leaving Memphis in Free Agency rises to a 50/50 proposition as he wonders to himself, "Can I win a championship here?" A rough Summer in the Bluff City.

How This Could Happen
  • If San Antonio continues their tear. They have scored the basketball at a remarkably efficient rate the past 10 games with an offensive efficiency of 111.7 and have defended just as well, with a defensive efficiency of 93.6 over that 9-1 stretch of games. Houston has also played well during this time period, posting an offensive efficiency rate of 108.2 over the past ten games, in which they went 8-2. A split of their upcoming games is realistic.
  • The Grizzlies always seem to take a step back after a step forward. The win over Oklahoma City inspired hope to run back to the two seed, and then the loss to the Washington Wizards the next night snapped folks back to reality. While the upcoming schedule does not appear to be that daunting, Memphis lost to both Utah and New Orleans the last time those teams played. In fact, the Grizzlies are 1-4 in their most recent games against their last five opponents for the season, with the only win coming on Halloween in Indiana against the Pacers, a team that just welcomed Paul George back to the lineup. 2-3 is sadly very realistic considering the poor offense they have played lately (100.8 efficiency rate on both offense and defense in their last ten games, making for a perfect 0 net rating).
Why This May Not Happen
  • The Los Angeles Clippers losing two of their last four games is not likely. They are 9-1 in their last ten games, with a net rating of 15 (116 offense, 101 defense) playing against three lottery teams with little to no reason to compete for anything other than more bingo balls for the draft at this point. Even if they lose to Memphis, dropping an additional game would be quite a feat.
  • The Memphis Grizzlies are also playing against more current lottery teams than playoff teams, and while two of those lottery teams are still in the playoff hunt (New Orleans and Indiana) Memphis should be favored in both of those games, mostly because they are at home. Factor in that Golden State will indeed likely be resting guys in that second to last game of the season? 2-3 could be low, even for a Grizzlies team playing net-zero ball as of late.

Done with being negative? Me too. Let's find the bright side à la Tayshaun Prince 2014, shall we?

BEST CASE: TWO SEED AND A DATE WITH DALLAS

The Grizzlies get it together over the course of their three game road trip out west, and after winning a nail-biter against the Pelicans Wednesday night, run through Utah, the Clippers, the Warriors and Indiana on their way to a phenomenal 5-0 finish to the regular season. Houston goes 3-2 over their last five, San Antonio goes 4-1, still splitting the series with the Rockets. Portland still goes 3-2, and the Clippers go 2-2 as they did in the previous scenario.

Here is how the West 2-6 seeds would look in this scenario:

2. MEMPHIS 57-25
3. HOUSTON 56-26
4. PORTLAND 53-29
5. SAN ANTONIO 55-27
6. LA CLIPPERS 54-28

Yes, this would be glorious. Not only would the Grizzlies get that match-up with the Mavericks that most everybody wants, they would also get the winner of the Houston-LA Clippers series in the second round and avoid both the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs until a possible Western Conference Finals appearance after either of those two teams has to endure each other in what would be almost certainly a playoff series for the ages. The Conference Finals would be a challenge, but once you get to the WCF's? Roll a ball out and see where it goes. This is the easiest probable road to the NBA Finals for the Bears of Beale Street.

How This Could Happen
  • This scenario has San Antonio's hot streak benefiting Memphis immensely. As SAS rises up the West, that rise can still be negated by great play by Memphis and even above-average play from Houston due to the ground the Spurs had to make up from earlier in the season. San Antonio could go 5-0 in their last games, and if Memphis goes 5-0 the Grizzlies cannot be caught and will win the division because of the fact two of San Antonio's remaining five are against Houston.
  • The Grizzlies have gone on four winning streaks of at least five games this season. They have shown the capacity to go on runs when they felt that their backs were against the wall, dating back to last season when they had to fight their tails off just to get in to the playoffs and then avoid the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Three more days off since the Wizards loss mean more opportunity for Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley to rest, and a trip out west can serve as a great opportunity to unite and compete on the road, away from potential distractions at home.
Why This May Not Happen
  • See the last "may not happen" section on the Clippers going 2-2. All it would take is one other win and the Clippers would lock up the five seed in this scenario due to the tiebreaker they hold for their conference record being so stellar. If the Clippers managed to go 4-0 (a possibility), they'd knock Houston down to the five seed and take over the three themselves in this situation. Spurs would be the six seed regardless in this particular spot, taking on whoever and then the winner of Dallas-Memphis in the semifinals if they were to advance (which they would likely will since Spurs.)
  • See the last "may not happen" section of the Grizzlies' struggles the last ten games, since the All-Star Break and against their upcoming opponents. You've watched this team. You know they're banged up. Are they going 5-0? Would you bet your salary on that? Probably not.

Optimism and pessimism have had their say. What is most likely at this point?


THE REAL DEAL- HELLO, PORTLAND

Memphis wins three of their last five games, emerging victorious in their final two home contests and dropping two of the three out West. Houston goes 4-1, losing only to San Antonio who goes 3-2 after resting once the division becomes out of reach (and they realize they will be the most heavily favored six seed to reach the Western Conference Finals in history). Portland still goes 3-2 (even if they went 5-0, that four seed isn't happening for them unless others drop games), and the Clippers go 4-0 as they sprint into the postseason after going against three lottery teams and the Grizzlies in LA.

That would result in this...

2. HOUSTON 57-25
3. LA CLIPPERS 56-26
4. PORTLAND 53-29
5. MEMPHIS 55-27
6. SAN ANTONIO 54-28

Not great, but not bad. You lose the two seed, but you don't lose home court in the first round, which is a true "good news/bad news" situation. (Remember, that four seed is guaranteed to Portland as a divisional winner but basically just in terms of the name "four seed." Lower seeds can have home court if they have a better record, as Memphis would in this situation. Portland is likely at this point to be a four seed without home court advantage.)

Plus, if match-ups are what you desire, it could be worse (as we have shown). Memphis has played Portland well this season, sweeping the season series and winning by an average of 8.5 points. In fact, Memphis was 2-1 against Portland in the 2013-2014 season and won the two games by double digits. The Grizzlies may have the Trail Blazers' number.

So having home court in this round plus the recent run of success would make the series Memphis' to lose theoretically. It is also a favorable match-up in that it would also allow for Memphis to avoid San Antonio in a possible second round series. Yes, the Warriors are obscenely good, but on paper and in recent history Golden State has been a better match-up for Memphis than San Antonio has, due to Golden State's reliance on three-point shooting and potential issues with defending the Gasols and Randolphs of the world consistently.

Not good. Not bad. Somewhere in the middle.

Why This WILL Happen
  • These win totals feel more realistic, all the way down to a punt of a loss for the Spurs once they say "forget it, the division is lost." Houston is playing well behind James Harden, the Clippers are playing well with Blake Griffin back and the Trail Blazers cruise into the playoffs at 3-2.
  • Memphis, considering how they have played, can also be expected to go 3-2 down this stretch. Home games are must-win at this point, and one out of three on the road should not be too much to ask given the dire situation these Grizzlies are in. The ice cold shooting has to get to at least luke-warm at some point just by following the law of averages. Even if Memphis finds a way to win four of their last five, the Clippers likely hold that tiebreaker unless that additional win is in LA. Then, Memphis finds themselves back in the three seed against...the Spurs. Maybe the five seed would be a better place to hang out?
___________________________________________________________________

It is humbling to see Memphis at the five or six seed. It is upsetting to understand that those scenarios are now just as likely (if not more) as their winning the Southwest Division and obtaining the two seed, as was the goal and belief for much of the season. Perspective is useful here; it is better to be fighting for home court in the playoffs than just fighting to get on the court in the playoffs. This Memphis Grizzlies team can compete with anyone in a seven game series when they are playing basketball at a high level, which they have shown they can do time and again.

The season will not end the way any member of Grizz Nation hoped. The bad news? The road to the NBA Finals likely just got tougher. The good news? It still can be obtained.

Realistically? Memphis will need all of the believing (and help) it can get these last five games and beyond.