Last night’s win over the Clippers might have been the most satisfying win of the season. It launched the Grizzlies into third in the Western Conference, and as an added bonus, they managed to beat the team who took them down in last year’s thoroughly contentious first-round playoff series.
The thing is, the Grizzlies kind of needed that win.
Not to secure a playoff spot, or even for their quest to move into third place, but for the sake of legitimacy. The Grizzlies have been on fire lately, going 14-1 in their last 15 games. But had they lost the game, the entire run would have lost credibility. At that point, they would have had losses against the Clippers and the Heat, which would have led everyone to make the point that the Grizzlies have thrived on weak competition during the streak (which is actually true), and struggled when faced with playing an elite team. Instead, the Grizz pulled out the victory, and now, the rest of the league needs to take notice.
When the Gay trade went down, many made the point that the Grizzlies weren’t squandering a potential title team because they didn’t have the personnel to win a title anyway. At the time, it was hard to disagree. After starting out as one of the hottest teams in the league, the Grizz had cooled off considerably, playing .500 ball for about two months. It was perfectly reasonable to just think that the Grizzlies hot streak was an anomaly, and that they wouldn’t be able to hang with juggernauts like the Spurs and Thunder in the postseason.
But after this current run, it seems more likely that the really could contend with teams like that. The Grizzlies defense has looked as tough as ever, and the offense hasn’t faltered at all since the Gay trade. If anything, it’s been more efficient, as the endless string of missed jumpers from Rudy hasn’t been missed a whole lot. Meanwhile, Mike Conley has improved his offensive production considerably since the trade. Without the necessity of deferring to Rudy on so many possessions, Conley has been more willing to shoot the ball, and he’s blossomed as a result. His assist numbers have improved to. Conley was always the quarterback of the offense, but at times, he found himself sharing that duty with Gay. Now, everything is in his control and the team looks better for it.
Getting easy wins against weak opponents is a good way to build team confidence, and move up in the playoff standings, but it can only get you so much respect. After beating the Clippers on the road, the streak feels a lot more legitimate. Maybe they just hit a soft spot of their schedule at the right time, but it felt like they had legitimately improved as a team, and last night’s victory over the Clippers confirmed that. The Grizzlies look as good as they ever have in the past, and people who don’t think think could give the Thunder and Spurs a serious run for their money are fooling themselves.