The 76ers (17-61; 5th-Atlantic Division, 14th-Eastern Conference) run into one of the NBA's most desperate teams, taking on the Memphis Grizzlies (46-32; 4th-Southwest Division, 9th-Western Conference). Memphis - with four games left on its schedule - heads into tonight's match-up just one game out of the eighth and final playoff-eligible spot in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies - which reached the conference finals last year - have dropped four of their past seven games, but are coming off a resilient win over the Miami Heat on Wednesday for their 12th straight home victory at FedEx Forum.
Like the Grizz, the Sixers were also in action on Wednesday, opening their three-game road trip with a 125-114 loss to the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. Each team the Sixers are facing on this trek has either already solidified a playoff berth, or remains in the hunt for one. Tomorrow night, the Sixers close out their tour against the surging Charlotte Bobcats, winners of a season-best five straight games.
Memphis defeated the 76ers, 103-77, in a March 15th meeting at Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers' point total that night marked a season-low, as they managed to convert just 37 percent of their field goal attempts against one of the NBA's stingiest defensive units. The Grizzlies are looking to sweep their season series with the Sixers for just the second time ever.
Although the 76ers came up short in their two previews games, the team managed to hold its own against recent opponents that are in position for post-season play. Last Saturday, in a 105-101 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, currently the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers trailed by as many as 21 points, before charging all the way back to cut the deficit to one point with 65 seconds to play. On Wednesday at the Toronto Raptors, which are poised to clinch the Atlantic Division title this year, the Sixers were down 12 points with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Still, they made it a two-possession game with five minutes to go. Neither comeback bid ended up resulting in a win, but Brett Brown was able to identify encouraging developments from both performances.
"I'm proud of them," said Brown on Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre. "They're getting better. They're starting to understand playing with each other. I think we play hard more than we don't. I thought they played together well, and defended well."
As for the notion that Brown's Sixers are getting better, several trends support his claim. First, the Sixers have won twice within the past two weeks. While, on the surface, that feat might not seem all that significant, the modest success is noteworthy for a team that had endured 26 defeats in a row. Additionally, the Sixers have shown improvements in three-point field goal production, free-throw shooting, and and reducing turnovers.
That the Sixers are playing hard at this juncture of the season should come as no surprise. The team is youthful, its longshot prospects are getting minutes in volumes they may never receive again, and the head coach continues to put his group through intense workouts.
"If you came into the gym and looked at it, we would have had this practice in November. We didn't change a thing," Brett Brown said after Tuesday's near-90 minute session at the Sixers' training facility. "I'm so purposefully conscious of not giving an inch. I don't want to give an inch. In fact, I want to go the other way. Our season is coming to an end, everybody gets where we're at. There's no complacency, no sense of entitlement because we've had a win or two. We want to end strong, we want together, we want to end improving."
"In an inverted way, I'm going to miss coaching some of these guys, despite all of the headaches that we've had. I trust their work ethic. I don't care what the record says."
The Memphis Grizzlies have minimal margin for error as they arrive at a dramatic, late stage of their season. While the Grizzlies have the chance to finish with back-to-back 50-win seasons for the first time in franchise history, they also could find themselves out of the playoffs for the first time in four years. Early inconsistencies that coincided with a coaching change, and injuries to key players are two factors that have forced Memphis to play catch-up over the final three-and-a-half months of the schedule. Since reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol returned from an MCL sprain that sidelined him for 23 games, the Grizzlies have gone 29-13, and turned around a losing record.
This weekend is of dire importance to the Grizzlies, considering the games scheduled thereafter. Accounting for tonight's meeting with the 76ers, and Sunday's trip to the Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis' next two opponents are a combined 72 games under .500. Match-ups such as these would seem to favor a playoff-hungry team that's facing must-win situations.
On Monday, though, the Grizzlies will enter what will likely be a make-or-break stretch, visiting the Phoenix Suns, before concluding the regular season at home on Wednesday against the Dallas Mavericks. Memphis trails both teams by a game for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference; the Grizzlies and Suns have each played 78 games, while the Grizzlies have two games in hand on the Mavericks.
"We want to continue to polish what we've got going, trying to race into the playoffs. We need to focus on us, and coming out and getting good stops, playing hard for 48 minutes," said Tony Allen on Wednesday, following Memphis' 107-102 win over the Miami Heat. Allen, an all-NBA first-team defensive selection last season, continued, "We're going to take one game at a time, build on what we're trying to do, and just understand that every game is a sense of urgency."
This season, the Grizzlies are 3-0 against Phoenix, but are 0-3 versus Dallas.