The dark circles under coach Dave Joerger’s eyes were there for everyone to see. They were revealing in the same way that the flat jumper from Mike Conley and the rare single-digit scoring night from Zach Randolph were revealing.
The Memphis Grizzlies have spent the last three and a half months scratching and clawing their way back into the playoff picture. They’ve endured injuries, trades and a change in offensive philosophy while they searched for the identity that took them to the Western Conference finals last season.
It’s taken a lot out of them.
The Grizzlies are tired. With seven games left in the regular season and locked in a three-way fight with the Mavericks and Suns for the last two playoff spots in the rugged West, they don’t have time to be tired.
“We’ve been playing with a playoff focus. Each game has meant so much since like Christmas,” Joerger said after the Grizzlies ended an underwhelming five-game road trip with a 102-88 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night. “You’re starting to see the effects of it now.”
The Grizzlies (44-31) face Denver at home on Friday before a daunting trip to San Antonio on Sunday and a home date with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat next week. They have the same record as Phoenix and Dallas but are sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot thanks to a tie-breaker they hold over the Suns.
“A lot of time zones. A lot of traveling. A lot of battles,” Conley said after going 3 for 15 in the loss to the Wolves.
It’s been like that since mid-December for the Grizzlies, who started the season a gasp-inducing 10-15 after Joerger took over for the departed Lionel Hollins. Conley, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen all missed chunks of time with injuries, Memphis made a trade to bring in Courtney Lee from Boston and Joerger had the team revert from a more up-tempo style of play back to the grit-n-grind that has been the team’s hallmark.
Joerger steadily grew in the job, Gasol, Conley and Allen got healthy and rookie Nick Calathes overcame some early struggles to emerge as the steady backup point guard the team needed. They won 11 of 12 in January and 13 of 17 as February bled into March to surge back into the playoff picture.
“It felt like we were like 20 games out of the playoffs at one time, even though I know we weren’t,” Conley said. “We were back there and we had to really work to even get to this position. We’ve used a lot of energy to get here and we’re just trying to race to that finish line, I guess.”
Memphis started the five-game road trip with designs on making a run at the No. 5 seed after watching Portland and Golden State go through their own funks. But they squeaked out wins over lottery teams in Utah and Denver and lost to the Warriors, Trail Blazers and Timberwolves to fall back down the ladder.
The loss to the Wolves, who were 36-37 and appeared to be giving up on the season, was particularly galling. The defensively challenged Wolves held Randolph to just four points and backup center Ronny Turiaf’s energy stood out against a normally punishing Grizzlies front line that just couldn’t get those heavy legs moving.
“You try to push through it,” Randolph said. “Feel like we were just running in mud. You’ve got to put this one behind us. We’ve just got to forget about it. We know this ain’t us. We know we can play better.”
The rest of the league does, too. Ask any of the teams near the top of the Western Conference standings about the one team below them that worries them, and the answer is always Memphis. Their defense-first, smash-mouth style of play is perfectly suited for the playoffs. They reached the conference semifinals two years ago before making the conference finals last year.
“They’ve done it the last two years,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “A lot of these teams don’t want to see them coming. … They know what they’re doing and they’ve upset people in the playoffs because of that.”
First things first, of course. The Grizzlies have to get in.
“I think going home, when you can get to your facilities and use all the things you’re used to using. The cold tubs, all the things that can help the body,” Conley said. “I think just getting home will do wonders for us.”
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