What have the Grizzlies done lately?
The Grizzlies are in a dog fight with the Mavericks for the 8th seed in the current playoff picture. This game will determine, actually, who has a playoff spot coming out of this Wednesday. To the extent that one of these games are ever high stakes, this game is as high stakes as it gets.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the Grizzlies are also scorching hot. In the month of January, the Grizzlies went 12-3, and had the best point differential of any team in the league. Last month: the Grizzlies were the best team in the NBA, and then, coming into this month, the Mavericks have to beat them.
The Grizzlies' transformation was fueled by, first, Memphis' signing of D-League wunderkind James Johnson (who fueled this must read piece on his impact), and second, Memphis' acquisition of 3-and-D master Courtney Lee in a trade with Boston. Since acquiring both pieces, Memphis' defense has finally performed like it did last season.
Much more frighteningly, however: its offense has been ferocious. A Memphis team that can actually score is a truly shocking and amazing proposition, and yet, here we are.
The most recent development in Memphis, though, is the ankle injury to Mike Conley that will likely keep him out against Dallas, which should be huge for the Mavericks. If Lee and Johnson were the sparks that set the Grizzlies ablaze, Conley was their engine - a fiery, massive, many-cylinder affair that keeps this team going, and going, and going.
Conley has been the real head of this Memphis team since Marc Gasol went out with his knee injury, which let Conley come into his own as the All-Star caliber player that he is. His injury, which is fairly minor, is a very lucky break for this Mavericks team that certainly couldn't handle him on defense if required to.
What's the biggest matchup to watch?
The obvious answer is going to be how Zach Randolph handles Dirk and vice versa. Randolph always has huge games against the Mavericks - unsurprisingly, given that Randolph is an elite post scorer and Dirk is not an elite post defender - but Dirk often has big games against Randolph as well.
If Memphis decides to assign Marc Gasol on Dirk defensively, then the Grizzlies will be pulling their best rim protector and reigning Defensive Player of the Year outside of the paint, which could massively open up the court for Dallas.
Lowkey, though, the performances of Nick Calathes and Jose Calderon will be interesting to watch. The Mavs had the rights to Calathes while he was in Europe over the last few years, until they traded the rights to him to the Grizzlies this offseason so that they could sign Gal Mekel.
Calathes, however, just scored 22 points two nights ago when he started against the Bucks, which equals 1/3 of the total points that Mekel has scored all year.
Going up against Calathes should mean that Jose can have a big game, and it will give us a chance to see where Calderon really stands on defense as well as what Dallas really gave up in order to sign Mekel.
Which Grizzlies player might be due for a big game?
Tonight could very realistically be a huge night for Marc Gasol. The Spaniard has always run a surprisingly volume of the Grizzlies' plays himself, from the elbow. Gasol is a shockingly good passer, with assist rates that rival that of a score-first point guard. Passing aside though, Gasol can be a scoring force. He's a legit, incredibly strong seven footer with a killer hook shot, some unconventional footwork, and the ability to finish through contact that he's especially good at creating.
The Mavs just don't have anyone to defend Gasol. Randolph is the better post scorer, and he's naturally pretty limited to the paint, and so the more obvious natural mark for Dalembert and the Mavericks' other rim protectors. But with the Mavericks' sole big-man defender left to cover Z-Bo, and without Conley to run the show, it'll be up to Memphis' resident Spaniard to do most of the heavy lifting, and he's known to deliver fairly well in those situations.
What do the Mavericks need to do to be successful against Memphis?
This will seem a little counter intuitive at first, but the Mavs will need to defend. Natural logic may initially lead to the conclusion that Dallas is quite well-disposed to take on the Grizzlies: at their best, Memphis is the second best defense in the NBA, but the Mavericks are also an elite offense, built to crack Memphis' defense. The inclination would be, then, that the Mavericks just need to score, score, and SCORE.
That, as it turns out, is not the case. As a general rule - Memphis' defense is probably better than your offense, unless you're the Thunder, Spurs, or Heat. Relying on offense against the Grizzlies just doesn't work.
The truth of the matter is that Mavericks will score points, and do it better than most, but they'll score only on Memphis' terms. Memphis isn't a great offensive team, especially without Mike Conley, and the Spurs exposed that particular weakness in the Western Conference Finals last season: regardless of how well the Grizzlies defend you, if you can shut down their best offensive players, you can win.
That makes some sense, too. Memphis has what seems like infinite defensive resources at their disposal, but they only have a select few offensive weapons (though more, now, with the additions of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee). If you can take away their few reliable offensive weapons in Conley, Gasol, Randolph, and shooters, they have nothing else to fall back on.
Conley is already out of the equation, so the key is going to be whether or not the Mavs can key in and stop Gasol and Randolph from controlling the game offensively. If they can do that, they'll have a very winnable game on their hands, but that is a tall order indeed.