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Grizzlies find the West a grind

Mike Conley and the Grizzlies saw their offensive efficiency slip in March. Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Courtney Lee may as well have been recording a public service announcement for the NBA's League Pass television subscription service.

Asked before Thursday's practice how frequently he checks the Western Conference standings as the Memphis Grizzlies desperately try to secure the No. 2 playoff seed, the Grizzlies guard admits he's signed up to receive text alerts of close games in the final minutes.

That means Lee's phone has been busy buzzing lately.

On Wednesday night, he got an alert just as James Harden was on the way to scoring a career-high 51 points in a win over Sacramento that kept Houston lockstep with Memphis in the standings. And there was probably another alert Thursday night, when the Rockets rallied on the road to beat Dallas and move a half-game ahead of Memphis for the Southwest Division lead and into second place in the West.

"You've got to watch," Lee said. "Everything's close. Everybody's paying attention. Even NBA players have to pay for League Pass.

"And they're charging like $50 for these last couple of weeks."

After a three-day break on the heels of their most demoralizing stretch of the season, the Grizzlies return to the fray for their own contribution to must-watch TV in Friday's nationally televised game against Oklahoma City. Monday's home win over Sacramento snapped a three-game losing streak in which the Grizzlies were blown out by Cleveland, Golden State and San Antonio.

Since peaking at 41-14 after their first two games following the All-Star break, the Grizzlies have gone just 10-10. As a result, a No. 2 seed in the West that seemed like a lock is now up for grabs. So is the Southwest Division title, with the Rockets (52-24), Grizzlies (51-24) and Spurs (49-26) still in contention with less than two full weeks left in the regular season.

"I don't think it's the toughest division in our league; it's the toughest division in all major leagues," Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. "Year in and year out, it's ridiculous. So for our guys to get rewarded for their hard work, it would be positive.

"It's what's important to you. You hear about San Antonio, right? They don't care about a division title. They don't care about seeding. Well, we're not them."

While it's all about the end game for the Spurs, who are going for their second straight championship and sixth in the past 16 years, the Grizzlies are still focused on the intermediate steps toward success. Winning an NBA championship remains the top goal for Memphis, but hanging the franchise's first division banner in the rafters of the 10-year-old FedEx Forum along the way is a major priority.

There's evidence to support Joerger's claim that the Southwest is the most competitive division in sports.

With each team boasting a winning record, the Grizzlies, Rockets, Spurs, Mavericks and Pelicans entered April with a collective .630 winning percentage, which is on pace to be the highest in NBA history under the current format. Houston, Memphis and San Antonio have clinched playoff berths. Meanwhile, Dallas (46-30) is in position for the seventh seed and New Orleans (39-34) sits just 1.5 games behind the Thunder for the eighth and final postseason spot in the West.

The last time every team from an NBA division made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season, when the Pistons, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls and Bucks advanced. That's never happened in the NFL or Major League Baseball, although it's occurred in two different divisions in the NHL over the past five seasons.

The Grizzlies have spent the past three days trying to regroup physically and mentally from a stretch of 22 games in 38 days. Progress came in the form of forward Zach Randolph returning to the practice court Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's workout to treat a hyperextended right elbow. Tony Allen did not practice and is likely to miss a third straight game as he recovers from a strained hamstring.

Randolph is expected to play Friday against OKC and try to regain his rhythm after a drastic dip in production. One of only eight players in the league averaging at least 16 points and 10 rebounds this season, Randolph had just three double-doubles in March. Since finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a March 23 win in New York, he's averaging just 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 43.4 percent over the past four games.

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have seen a similar drop-off in their performance since the All-Star break. Conley's scoring has declined in each of the past four months, and Gasol has shot below 50 percent in each of his past four games. It's resulted in the Grizzlies' offense plunging to 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency.

Gasol said the past few days were essential for both rest and to restore habits.

"It's not like we're playing perfect basketball right now, so we (needed) to be in the gym, be in practice, be around each other more and execute stuff," Gasol said. "Whether you like it or not, or accept it or not, every game has something to teach you. We've got to get the timing of our passing, the timing of the screens, the defensive rotations, all of that good stuff going."

There also needs to be a heightened level of urgency amid the opportunity. More than anything, Joerger emphasized the need for the Grizzlies to have an attitude adjustment over the final seven games. This time a month ago, there were disturbing signs of fatigue and frustration that triggered internal conflicts.

"We went from feeling really good about ourselves to not feeling really good," Joerger said. "We went through some adversity. What we went through two and three weeks ago is a lot worse than losing to San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland. Two, three weeks ago, we were struggling with everything."

Yet the Grizzlies still emerged with both their divisional and long-term playoff goals within reach. Joerger said his players must understand that Memphis is no longer viewed by opponents as the plucky team that sneaks up on anyone. Psychologically, it's been a weird transition from the underdogs to front-runners.

"It's definitely different," Randolph said. "We're adjusting."

There's not much more time to get acclimated. Still, the Grizzlies believe that if they can overtake the Rockets and hold off the Spurs to survive the Southwest, they'll be positioned for a chance to win it all.

"I don't know if we've responded real well to teams coming after us, being in that position," Joerger said. "Generally, we've always been the team playing with a chip on the shoulder and always trying to prove something. That's more of our DNA. It's harder to shift the other way.

"It takes some understanding on our guys' parts that they've grown up and they're not the young guys coming up anymore. They're considered a very good team by other teams, which is a high level of respect."