The Memphis Grizzlies needed a spark late and Mike Conley provided it.
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Conley scored nine of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter and the Grizzlies came alive defensively, hanging on to beat the Charlotte Bobcats 85-80 on Friday night and avoiding a humiliating loss to the worst team in the league.
The win assures the Grizzlies no worse than the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs with a shot to still move up to fourth.
The Grizzlies overcame an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit and a career-high-tying 32-point effort from Gerald Henderson of the Bobcats, who extended the franchise record with their 19th straight loss.
Conley admits it was ”much tougher” than expected.
”We knew they were playing for pride and we’ve been in that situation on the opposite end and we knew we were going to get their best effort,” Conley said.
For the Bobcats (7-55), the misery continues.
On the 25-year anniversary of Michael Jordan scoring a NBA playoff-record 63 points against the Boston Celtics, the team Jordan now owns took a step closer toward cementing a dubious spot in league history. If the Bobcats lose their final four games they will finish with the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
”Everyone knows what we’re playing for,” Henderson said. ”We don’t want to set that record. There was a little more sense of urgency in our play tonight.”
Conley credited the win to the team’s defense in the fourth quarter that forced seven turnovers.
Henderson’s 3-pointer got the Bobcats within three points with 20 seconds left, but he turned the ball over in the lane with 10.8 seconds left on the next possession. Conley was immediately fouled and hit two free throws the seal the victory.
”We gave it away,” Henderson said. ”We had some possessions where they just took the ball from us. That led to some fast break dunks. You know, against a team like that, you have to execute on offense and you can’t give them easy buckets coming down the stretch.”
Said Conley: ”Defensively we put a lot of pressure on them and made them take tough shots down the stretch.”
Zach Randolph added 14 points for Memphis (38-25).
It was a frustrating night for Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, who expected a little more from his team against a Bobcats team that has been beaten on average by nearly 14 points per game this season.
”I finally found a group that both had chemistry out on the court and played with a little bit of energy and a little bit of enthusiasm and wanted to just be out there and play,” Hollins said.
The Grizzlies outscored the Bobcats 28-15 in the fourth quarter, primarily in pick and rolls in the offensive set and run-outs.
”We didn’t even try to throw the ball in the post,” Hollins said. ”We just attacked them in the pick and roll, pick and roll, and we were able to get layups and dump offs. That was the key to the game. We did a much better job defensively as well in the fourth quarter of stopping their guys from scoring.”
The took a 17-4 lead behind 11 points by Henderson, leaving fans to wonder if the losing streak might finally come to an end. But the lead was short-lived as Marc Gasol scored six straight points and the Grizzlies led 39-37 at halftime.
Charlotte took a 65-57 lead into the fourth quarter, but it didn’t take long for the Grizzlies to erase that deficit.
Conley began driving to the hole and soon the game was tied at 71.
Ex-Bobcat Dante Cunningham had uncontested fastbreak dunks on consecutive possessions. Marreese Speights added another dunk off a feed from Conley with 5:25 left. Conley, who had seven assists, then hit another driving layup to push the lead to eight.
The pesky Bobcats cut the lead to three points on two occasions, but couldn’t get any closer.
”This was one we needed,” Conley said. ”This was a big win for us. We locked up the fifth spot and now we have a shot at the fourth seed, so we needed this win.”
Despite the loss, Bobcats coach Paul Silas was proud of how hard this team fought.
”This is the experience we need,” Silas said. ”We really are not an experienced team but any team that we play we have to believe we can be as tough as them and we were tonight. We didn’t back down. We didn’t give up. We just kept going at it.”
Notes: Memphis’ Rudy Gay and Charlotte’s Bimack Biyombo had to be separated after coming face-to-face in the game’s final 45 seconds. Both were given technical fouls. … The teams combined for 40 turnovers. … Henderson has scored 20 or more points in four of his last seven games. … Conley is averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds over his last three starts.