MEMPHIS — The Grizzlies started hot, went cold and still haven’t found a stroke from behind the arc against Denver, but found a groove in the third quarter and pulled away in a 100-92 win against the Nuggets, all to stay alive at the end of the playoff rope. Here are three observations from the game.
1. Not much rest for the weary, no 3-ball for the weary either.
There are now six games left in the regular season — with Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas heaped in a big, giant tie-breaking pile, all scrumming for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
This one was a must, considering the next two are at San Antonio on Sunday, then Miami at FedExForum on Wednesday. After another at home against Philadelphia and a trip to the Lakers, the last two could literally be must-wins — at Phoenix before a season-ender at home against the Mavericks.
A five-game road trip started with the Grizzlies (45-31) pushing for the fifth spot and ended with a tired group clinging to eight. Getting home was big for a team that swept its home games in March. Thursday’s day off also helped, said coach Dave Joerger.
"We were just running in the mud," said Joerger. "We just looked like a really, really tired team. Obviously we’ll go very, very light (Saturday) just to keep a ball in our hand. I expect the Spurs will come fully loaded Sunday."
Memphis went to the Western Conference Finals a season ago without the long ball. That may have to be the case again.
Memphis is 18th in the league in 3-point percentage (.353), but since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies entered Friday as second-best in the NBA at 45.4 percent.
It didn’t beat the Nuggets thanks to 3-pointers. The Grizzlies were 0-for-7 before Courtney Lee hit their first with 6:11 left in the third quarter. They didn’t finish any better, a less-than-sparkling 2-for-11.
Grit-and-grind it is. But it didn’t hurt that Quincy Miller missed a dunk with his Nuggets (33-43) ahead by nine early in the third quarter. Memphis followed with a 19-6 run.
"They’re fighting. They’re scrapping," said Denver coach Brian Shaw. "They want to try to solidify a spot in the playoffs. Our offense kind of did us in."
2. Who was that first quarter team and where did they go?
The Grizzlies came out of the gates blazing, 18 points midway through the first quarter. They built an 11-point lead. All the early production came from the frontcourt.
Marc Gasol and Tayshaun Prince had 10 each in the quarter. The second was a different story on both ends, outscored 29-19. The first-quarter team returned in the third quarter, defensively allowing 18 points and forcing seven turnovers.
A lot of it purposely had to do with a more aggressive Mike Conley, too.
"I told Mike to go out and be aggressive," said Lee, who had 10 points.
He did. When Conley hit the Grizzlies second 3 of the game, it gave his team an 89-76 lead with 4:43 to play.
Conley scored 10 of his 21 points in the quarter and went 6-for-6 from the line.
"That always helps when Mike’s aggressive," said Gasol. "It opens up a lot of things. He’s the guy with the ball first."
Memphis scored 26 points in the third and 31 in the fourth, leading by as many as 14.
All five starters finished in double figures. Gasol scored 24. Zach Randolph had 20 and 15 rebounds.
Prince scored 12 points before leaving in the second quarter with a sprained left ankle.
It took the starters to overcome Denver guard Randy Foye’s 21 points and Kenneth Faried’s 17 points and 12 boards.
3. Can there be a healthy balance between the new and the old?
The plan was for the defensive-first Grizzlies to run a bit more this season under Joerger. But with so many injuries hampering the 2013 portion of the season, it was hard to get anything going.
Where are things now?
All in between, says Conley.
"We’re a team that seems to just form to the game," said Conley. "Our identity isn’t just labeled as defense anymore, or a fast-paced team or inside-out. We’re a team that takes what you give us, basically."
Things have been good from the bench, another off-season hope, a long stretch of 50-percent shooting games. That hasn’t been the case of late. Friday, the bench scored 13 points. Ty Lawson scored 16 points off Denver’s bench alone before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
Either way, things have worked well overall since the calendar turned, especially at home. Memphis swept its six March home games — by an average of 14.3 points against Cleveland, Charlotte, Portland, Utah, Indiana and Minnesota, wins by at least 10 points.
If there are playoffs, it will be a playoff road. San Antonio, Los Angeles and Phoenix will be a good test run in the next 10 days, but only if the Grizzlies pass the majority of the tests.
Gasol doesn’t feel the pressure.
"I really dislike the word pressure," he said. "I think it’s more a sense of urgency of playing good basketball, to our level, the way we need to play. Pressure is something that nobody can really put on you. It’s all mental. It’s all you. I really don’t believe in pressure."