With the NBA playoffs around the corner, games are filtering into two categories: playoff warm-ups and dreg fests. On a March night at the Pepsi Center, a pair of teams likely to meet in the playoffs happened upon each other and found out something exciting, and alarming.
Memphis and Denver match up in very intense, very good ways for both sides. A game of runs was ultimately punctuated by a devastating fourth quarter lockdown by the Nuggets, who grit and grinded the GritGrind Grizzlies to an 87-80 win.
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Leading up to the game Friday night, both teams had talked about one thing. Turnovers. The Nuggets use them to spark their up-and-down blistering pace, the hallmark of George Karl teams, and the Grizzlies use them to wreak havoc on the opponent and create easy buckets, something they struggle with.
The Grizzlies used a third-quarter chokehold, holding the Nuggets to just 10 points, to take a 14-9 turnover advantage into the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets got loose.
"It's when you make turnovers," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said after the game as the Nuggets forced five fourth quarter turnovers to spark the fast break. "You can have 20 turnovers in the first half but you make 2 or 3 in the fourth quarter at the end, it's probably going to cost you the game."
But the tone from both coaches and locker rooms post-game was not struggle or overconfidence. It was the realization that these two teams match up remarkably well, and it's going to come down to those runs, to those little moments and swings, should these two teams meet in the first round as they currently are scheduled to.
The matchups were bizarre. Denver's customary move to small-ball featuring four wings and either Kosta Koufos (18 points, 16 rebounds) or Kenneth Faried sent the Grizzlies into the zone and resulted in odd cross-matches like Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari guarding Marc Gasol. Zach Randolph was checking Andre Miller on switches.
Meanwhile, Memphis' relentless interior assault kept the Nuggets in foul trouble and nearly cost Denver the game. Denver's speed vs. Memphis brute strength. Deflections, dives, scrums, tie-ups, it was a fast-paced but ugly affair, like some sort of match in the Thunderdome from Mad Max.
"We didn't really have anybody playing at a high level skill-wise," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "It was a game you won with toughness and heart and guts and glory.
"I told our guys at the start of the third [quarter], 'This is good for us, guys. To find out what we have to do and if we can do it.'"
They did it, but the matchup showed that these two teams can go head to head, in the altitude, "in the mud" as Zach Randolph said Friday where the Grizzlies like to play. It's going to come down to runs, and who makes plays.
That's the playoffs.
The Grizzlies (44-20) remain in third place in the Western Conference, tied with the Clippers and a half-game in front of the Nuggets (45-22). While anything can happen, and the Nuggets, winners of 11-straight have all the momentum, there's a very real chance these two teams with contrasting styles meet in the postseason.
We got a little taste of it Friday night, and with the playoffs about a little over a month away, we may get the full meal very soon. And then it only gets better.