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Playoff Seeding, Bad Losses, and Grizzly Circumstances

A yearly tradition: the “blame-the-month-of-March Grizzlies.”

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Two great wins against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday and the Dallas Mavericks on Friday seemed to get the Memphis Grizzlies through a rough patch and back into the race for the sixth seed. The Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of that slot right now and visitors to Memphis on Wednesday, did their part by losing to the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.

Of course, and quite frustratingly, the Grizzlies couldn’t handle their own business and beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the Lakers have fallen back into a draft lottery tie for second with the Phoenix Suns, so look what you’ve done — nobody’s a winner.

It was also a really frustrating loss in the micro sense, because the Grizzlies got killed by a power forward-exclusive front court of Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Thomas Robinson. Those studs combined for 42 points and 35 rebounds, with 14 on the offensive glass. Nance is a large adult child of mine and I’m also preferential to Randle, but like, really? This was not the game to lose and that was not the way to lose it.

The Grizzlies have had some bad losses over the last month, but the Lakers game reminded me specifically of the March 27th loss to the Sacramento Kings. The hallmark of that game, as I remember it, was Willie Cauley-Stein flying down the lane on rim-rolls and dunking everything with no one able to match his verticality. (Apparently he only scored 12 points in that game, but emotionally, it was 30.)

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

You know what that is? Marc Gasol has missed the last five games with a left foot strain, which hasn’t sounded like anything serious as much as just the team being cautious heading into the playoffs. And resting him, obviously, is fine. Me from last season is ecstatic about this development.

But without him, and without JaMychal Green over the last three games for similar reasons (left shoulder soreness), the Grizzlies’ lack of depth shows in the frontcourt. Brandan Wright was the only big man in the starting lineup against the Lakers, and Zach Randolph was the only big man coming off the bench.

Z-Bo can rebound for two but it’s tough in the minutes he’s playing, and the Grizzlies get killed without him. It’s almost unfair to call Wright a big man, because he weighs about the same as James Ennis and doesn’t at all fill the quota for an inside presence. He’s doing what he does very well, using his verticality to find dunks, but even thicker perimeter players can push him around. You’re also not getting much inside defense from either of the two.

Wayne Selden Jr. and Wade Baldwin IV were big-minute guys in what basically amounted to a 30-win lineup; there was a place where Deyonta Davis should’ve gotten in on that action, but in the end, the Lakers were no free win. Mike Conley had an off game, which is his prerogative as someone who mostly has great games. And, come on. It was an afternoon game, and afternoon games are madness.

This was not the game to lose, but if that’s the case, then those games earlier in the season leading here weren’t ones to lose, either. It’s unfair to count on Deyonta playing, and playing well, or Troy Daniels making seven threes off the bench to salvage your playoff positioning.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

My beef isn’t even with the five-game losing streak in early March, which sure sucked to live through, but just with the fact that the Grizzlies went out and lost another four in a row shortly after that. There should be a space for failure and for confronting the negatives that manifest over a season, but losing five, winning four, and then losing four again is truly disappointing.

Handling your business is a fat old sports cliché and the game-to-game is way more random than we allow it to be, but also, handle your business. Don’t lose to lottery teams so much. Finish the month with a better record than 6-9, and seeding wouldn’t be so much at odds with rest. And no, 6-9 was not nice.

Now, I feel very much caught between two impulses. It’s great that Gasol and JaMychal have this opportunity to rest, but it’s hard to hold the expectations for them to crush teams with garbage season records when they’re trotting out lineups of similar quality. And yet, I’d hate to see the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, because, who wouldn’t?

In a better, more consistent world (and I’m totally swerving the Chandler Parsons factor here because we don’t have good conversations about that), the Grizzlies could’ve been a fourth or fifth seed matched up with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers aren’t exactly trash, but in a sense, they totally are.

This is where we are. For sure, I’m exhausted by the group freak-outs after every loss, so it’s partly something to just get over. The Grizzlies are in the playoffs again, and doing that seven years in a row is a monumental feat. Certainly, this is no rebuild or tear-down — I have no idea where that comes from.

It’s still not too late to make the sixth seed, though as long as the Grizzlies continue to give their best players some rest, I wouldn’t count on much change in the standings. With what’s done being done, that trade-off is fine. These last few games of the regular season will probably find some way of being torturous and miserable because Grizzlies, but that comes later.

If we don’t like whatever happens next, it’s because of the hole that the Grizzlies have already dug for themselves, not because they couldn’t crawl out of it. All I’m hoping for is a little more consistency in the grind forward.

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