1. In West Chase, Grizzlies Slip From 'In' Crowd
SAN ANTONIO -- Memphis Grizzlies center Kosta Koufos emerged from the showers wrapped in some combination of towels and ice, and plopped down in front of his temporary locker at the AT&T Center. Immediately, his attention turned to the Grizzlies' neighbors at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race, asking nearby reporters for updates on Sunday evening's Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns games.
Such is the life for a team trying desperately to control its playoff destiny.
Kawhi Leonard torched the Grizzlies for 26 points on 13 shots on Sunday night, tying his career-high, as the Memphis Grizzlies couldn't keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs in a 112-92 loss. The defeat drops Memphis out of playoff position and into the ninth seed in the Western Conference, 1½ games behind Dallas and a game behind the Suns.
There's still time for Memphis to solidify its place in the postseason, but Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger is worried about fatigue getting the best of his team.
"We've been in playoff mode -- 'gotta get this next game' -- since Christmas, since we were 10-15," Joerger said before the game.
Since center Marc Gasol returned to the Grizzlies lineup on Jan. 14 following a knee injury suffered against these same Spurs, Memphis has won 31 of 40 games and put itself in the playoff conversation. Joerger, though, is seeing the effects of the uphill battle taking its toll on the Grizzlies.
"We're missing shots that we normally would make, we're missing free throws with guys who are 78 to 85 percent shooters. We've been struggling from the foul line," Joerger said. "Some of those things are rearing their head right now, fatigue-wise. And you say, 'Well geez, how can you do that?' Well, because every single game has been a real push for us since kind of putting ourselves behind in the [standings] in the Western Conference."
Playing a Spurs team that suffered a loss that ended franchise-record 19-game winning streak on Thursday night, the Grizzlies could ill-afford to get behind early and play catch-up on Sunday, but that's exactly what happened. San Antonio jumped out to a 12-4 lead early and was ahead by 16 at halftime, even with Spurs point guard Tony Parker leaving the game with back spasms in the first quarter.
"It's always tough playing against a team that's playing so well, especially the Spurs," Memphis point guard Mike Conley said after the game. "They have guys who will play five minutes one night and the next they'll play 25, 30. They got so much balance that it's tough to keep up with."
The Grizzlies cut the lead to 12 points late in the third quarter, adding some intrigue to what had been a reasonably dominant performance from the Spurs thus far. Leading by 13 points with 7:27 remaining in the game, the Spurs got five straight points from Leonard, capped off by a 3-pointer in the right corner, to get the lead back to 18 and prompt Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to empty his bench. True to recent form, Memphis hit just 11 of 17 free throw attempts (65 percent) against San Antonio.
With the Dallas Mavericks beating the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns taking down the Oklahoma City Thunder and a Wednesday matchup with the defending champion Miami Heat looming on Wednesday night, the pressure is on the Grizzlies to keep pace in the race for the final Western Conference playoff seeds. Assuming they can hang around, Memphis closes the season against Suns and Mavericks in a series of games that should decide the end of the West playoff roster.
"We've had to work really hard to get back to where we're at right now, to even be in position to be in the playoffs," Conley said. "At the end of the year everybody's legs are tired, you know, you're gonna hit that wall here and there.
"We just got to fight through it like every other team and be more focused mentally and not make excuses, go out there and play to win."
The Grizzlies have every opportunity from now until the end of the season to make the playoffs. They just have to hope there's enough fuel left in the tank.
Andrew McNeill's work appears regularly on 48 Minutes Of Hell, part of the TrueHoop Network
2. Around the Association
MVP: After a scoreless first quarter, Suns guard Goran Dragic ripped off 19 points in the second quarter and finished with 26 points and five assists against a broken Thunder defense that allowed the Suns to shoot 58 percent for the game.
X factor: Oklahoma City started the game with Andre Roberson at shooting guard and went to Derek Fisher in the second half, but their perimeter defense showed significant flaws against Phoenix, which along with Dragic got 24 points from Gerald Green off the bench and 18 more from Eric Bledsoe.
That was ... better than Jordan: Kevin Durant drove down the lane in the final seconds of the third quarter for a two-handed smash, a bucket that allowed him to score 25 or more for the 41th game in a row. That helped him surpass Michael Jordan's 40-game streak.
MVP: A doff of the cap to J.R. Smith for setting the Knicks' record for 3-pointers made (10) and the NBA record for most attempts (22), but LeBron James was just an unstoppable force. If you ever doubted his pure strength, watch the play during which he bulled through Tim Hardaway Jr. like he was a clingy bit of seaweed.
LVP: He has had a superlative rookie campaign, but Tim Hardaway Jr. has really struggled versus the Heat. There's no one on the floor that he can credibly guard, and Sunday he bricked all seven of his shots.
Defining moment: In the final minute, Carmelo Anthony launched a series of awful, forced attempts, then compounded matters by lagging in transition, leading to an and-1 for LeBron, part of a 7-0 run that made it 73-64 to end the third quarter.
MVP: Monta Ellis led the Mavs in Sunday's narrow victory. The Mavs starting shooting guard finished with a team-high 23 points along with four assists and four rebounds. Ellis scored 14 of his 23 points in the second half.
X factor: Where would the Kings have been without DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay? Gay flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 32 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Cousins, meanwhile, scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Kings. Unfortunately for Sacramento, their stats weren't enough.
That was ... another nail-biter: In terms of wins and losses this season, the Kings aren't anywhere in the Mavs' league. However, they've played Dallas tough in three of their four meetings this season. The last three contests between these two teams have been decided by four points or less.
MVP: Despite missing a chunk of the game with a bruised right thumb, Paul Millsap finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, and generally set the aggressive tone that allowed Atlanta to jump out to an early lead and cruise late.
LVP: The Pacers' starting lineup. All of them. Frank Vogel said as much when he sat the entire group down less than six minutes into the first quarter with Indiana trailing 17-3. As a group, they finished 15-of-48 from the field for the game.
That was ... rock bottom: It has to be, right? It's hard to imagine it getting much worse for the Pacers than trailing by 32 and getting booed off the court at the end of the first half, with Roy Hibbert getting benched for the entire second half.
MVP: With Dwight Howard still out, Omer Asik clogged the middle, contested shots, dominated the boards and held court in the paint. He's making the most of his minutes (43 on Sunday) with Howard resting his ankle. Asik finished with 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 23 rebounds and three blocks.
X factor: Rookie Isaiah Canaan is getting minutes with Aaron Brooks traded and while Beverley is out hurt. Sunday was his best game as an NBA player. He kept the Rockets in the game with 15 points and was 4-for-7 from behind the arc. Brooks did his best to make the Rockets regret the trade scoring 24 points, but Canaan had an impressive game.
That was ... an amazing ending: Harden hits a three from the top of the key to tie with 7 seconds left in regulation. The Nuggets only scored three points in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter. The Rockets outscored the Nuggets 16-3 to close the fourth and then won the overtime 13-8.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard hit 12 of 13 shots en route to tying his career-high with 26 points. Leonard also handed out five assists and took turns defending Memphis' James Johnson and Mike Conley.
X factor: With Tony Parker leaving the game with back spasms, the playmaking onus fell on Manu Ginobili, who scored 26 points of his own and handle plenty of the point guard duties for the Spurs.
Defining moment: After the Grizzlies worked their way back into the game late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, Leonard scored five straight points, including a corner 3-pointer, to get San Antonio's lead back to 18 points and seal the game.
MVP: While it took him 25 shots to get there, LaMarcus Aldridge was nonetheless a force. He finished with a game-highs of 25 points and 18 rebounds (eight of which came on the offensive glass, matching a season high).
Turning point:: After a lackadaisical second quarter that saw a few Trail Blazers fans booing the home team, Portland perked up in the third. There the Blazers outscored the Pelicans 29-14, closing the period on a 20-6 run. .
That was ... a playoff-clinching, 50th win: Both making the postseason and guaranteeing at least 50 wins are significant milestones for the young Trail Blazers, who last season finished 33-49.
MVP: Steph Curry's line (31 points and 16 assists) looks plenty impressive even before you realize that he did it in three quarters after controlling the game entirely and pushing Golden State out to a safe margin.
X factor: Admittedly, it's a cop-out to call Golden State's X factor their 3-point shooting, but the Warriors were an absurd 17-for-33 (51.5 percent), while Utah shot just 4-for-13. Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 12-for-20 from behind the arc.
Turning point: Early in the third quarter, Utah got within 10 after a jumper by Derrick Favors. But Andre Iguodala single-handedly went on a seven-point run before a Curry jump shot pushed Golden State's lead to 77-58. The Jazz would never again get within 17.
MVP: Chris Paul. While the Clippers are definitely multiple tiers above the Lakers, the All-Star guard did a fantastic job on both ends. CP3 lead the offensive attack with 23 points and six assists, while limiting the offensive execution of the Lakers' backcourt.
X factor: One of the biggest candidates for the NBA's Most Improved Player of the Year, DeAndre Jordan fully utilized his super-human athleticism in the Clippers' victory. While his double-double performance (11 points, 12 boards) may be at center stage, Jordan continued to showcase his fantastic defensive abilities with four blocks.
That was ... domination: The Clippers sealed their victory when they killed off the Lakers' biggest asset: perimeter offense. The Lakers currently stand as a top-five perimeter team but the Clippers kept the Lake Show to an extremely pedestrian 22 percent from beyond the arc.
3. Sunday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: LeBron had four turnovers as New York grabbed a 16-3 lead. Then he shook off the early Sunday start time and led Miami to a 102-91 win over the many swishes of J.R. Smith and his Knicks. Combined with Indy's loss to Atlanta, the Heat are in charge in the East.
4. Sunday's Worst
Indiana Pacers: The 107-88 loss to the Hawks is the latest blow to their East top-seed ambitions. Since beating Miami on March 26 to take a three-game lead in the chase for the East's top seed, the Pacers have lost four of five to fall one game behind the Heat. The Pacers' 23 points were a franchise low for a first half. The previous low was 27 against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 10, 2004.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Our fate is almost now in Atlanta's hands. It's tough. ... My fate is in somebody else's hands."
-- Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, after his team fell a full two games behind the Hawks for the East's final playoff spot.
8. This Dragic Moment
9. Stat Check
J.R. Smith made 10 of 22 3-point attempts in the Knicks' loss at Miami on Sunday. That's the most 3-point attempts in any game in NBA history. The old record of 21 was set by Damon Stoudamire with Portland on April 15, 2005. Smith also set the league record for 3-point attempts in one half (14 in the second half); four players, including Smith himself on three separate occasions, had shared the old mark of 13.
Over his last three games, Smith has made 24 of 50 3-point attempts. The total of 24 threes breaks the previous NBA record of 23 threes over three games, shared by George McCloud in the ¬1995-96 season and Mike Miller in 2006-07; the total of 50 3-point attempts over three games equals the NBA record established by McCloud in 1995-96.
Sunday's game was the tenth of Smith's NBA career in which he made at least eight 3-pointers, breaking the NBA record that he had shared with Ray Allen for the most games of that type. It was also the fifth time in his NBA career that Smith has made at least nine threes in a game, breaking the league record that he had previously shared with Kobe Bryant in that regard. And it was the third game in Smith's NBA career in which he has produced a double-digit total of 3-pointers; he's the only player in league annals who has done that more than once.
10. Top 3 Plays