They all seem like must-win games for the Memphis Grizzlies. Their matchup Friday night in particular, though, appears to be one they can’t afford to lose.
With their fight for a playoff spot as tight as could be, the Grizzlies return from a weary road trip having won 10 straight at home and face a sub-.500 Denver Nuggets team which rarely wins on the road.
Taking advantage may be crucial considering two imposing opponents loom ahead, not to mention Memphis, Dallas and Phoenix enter Friday within a half-game of each other for the Western Conference’s final two playoff spots. The Grizzlies (44-31) visit league-best San Antonio on Sunday, then host defending champion Miami on Wednesday.
The two days off between those tests will surely be a relief to a team which is coming off a trek that included five games in eight days. Three were losses and two were wins by a combined six points, including a 94-92 victory in Denver on Monday.
Zach Randolph and Mike Conley combined for 39 points that night, but the trip’s finale Wednesday showed the wear and tear on both as they totaled 11 points on 4-of-23 shooting in a 102-88 defeat to Minnesota.
"A lot of time zones. A lot of traveling. A lot of battles," said Conley, who failed to score in double figures for the first time in four weeks.
The Grizzlies have allowed 100 points only once during a 10-game win streak at FedEx Forum – their longest since a franchise-record run of 13 last season – but surrendered 100 for the third time in four games Wednesday. Opponents shot 51.0 percent in that span, and the Timberwolves’ 53.1 percent was the best any team has done against Memphis since the All-Star break.
"We were just kind of running in mud the whole night," said coach Dave Joerger, who called the game a must-win before tipoff. "You’re going to have games like that, where you’re very heavy-legged. We’ve been playing with a playoff focus. Each game has meant so much since like Christmas. You’re starting to see the effects of it now."
That particularly seemed true of Randolph, who had four points after scoring at least 20 in each of the first four games of the trip.
"We’ve just got to forget about it," he said. "We know this ain’t us. We know we can play better."
Randolph has played much better against Denver (33-24), averaging 21.7 points and 10.0 rebounds as the Grizzlies have won two of three meetings.
The Nuggets lost 120-99 on Dec. 28 in their last trip to Memphis and enter this one with a 3-12 road record since the beginning of February. They’ve yielded an average of 111.1 points in that span, and during the current four-game road losing streak, opponents have shot 46.9 percent from 3-point range.
Denver hit 15 of 27 from that distance Wednesday in a 137-107 rout of New Orleans, snapping a four-game losing streak. While Aaron Brooks hit six 3s and had 24 points, Kenneth Faried was the star of the game with a career-high 34 points and 13 rebounds.
Faried is averaging 20.5 points and 10.3 boards in his last 15 games, clearly not giving up on the season despite Denver missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
"I don’t check out, I don’t know what check out means," Faried said. "… Before the game we were talking and (coach Brian Shaw) said, ‘Hey, we have eight games left fellas, let’s go out here and play hard and give the fans something to cheer about.’"