The Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers are separated by a mere half game in the standings. All that's on the line is home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in which they would be pitted against each other in a thrilling rematch of last year's opening round. Here are two players that will play a huge role in which squad helps his team take that home court advantage.
The Memphis Grizzlies have won 12 of 16 and are only a half game behind the Clippers for the fourth seed in the West since dealing away Rudy Gay at the trade deadline. But an abdominal injury to Marc Gasol, Memphis' best all around player, threatens to derail the team at an extremely pivotal time.
Gasol, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and vital facilitator and creator in the Memphis offense could potentially miss the rest of the regular season due to the fickle nature of his injury. But the Gay trade did more than just free up offensive movement and open up shots for the rest of the team, it also brought Ed Davis into the fold. While Davis is nowhere near the defender or passer or overall player that Gasol is, he does bring athleticism, shot-blocking, and finishing ability in the paint.
He's not a perfect replacement for Gasol (no such person exists thanks to Marc's unique blend of mass, power, skill, and touch), but he has proven throughout his young career to be a starting-caliber player.
In his first start for Memphis, Davis had 11 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. Coupled with the return of Darell Arthur, the loss of Gasol won't be felt too badly, at least for the rest of this month. April is another story, as Memphis faces nothing but tough games. The West's top seed in San Antonio. A tough Portland team still holding out for the playoffs. The Lakers, Houston, the Clippers, and Utah and Dallas squads still fighting for a playoff spot (and to shave their beards).
Eric Bledsoe (and rebirth of the bench unit)
While the team struggled to a 7-7 record when Eric Bledsoe filled in for the injured Chris Paul, the larger problem for the Clippers was that there was no one who could even adequately replace Bledsoe's production with the second unit. Trying to run Grant Hill at point was a disaster and the team lost several seemingly winnable games because the bench unit fell through.
The Clips haven't been able to get into any sort of rhythm this month, alternating between wins and losses and falling from the third seed in the west to the fourth seed, with Memphis right on their heels. Obviously, the injury to Paul derailed a lot of the momentum from that 17-game win streak in January, but what shouldn't be overlooked is Bledsoe's calf injury.
Bledsoe's been hampered by his left calf since the end of February (perhaps even earlier) and it was visibly affecting him to such a degree that the team shelved him for five games. He returned Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets and looked much more like the "Mini Lebron" we all saw earlier this season.
The Clippers best five-man defensive unit features Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, and Ronny Turiaf--a unit that also happens to be one of the best in the NBA. With the return of Bledsoe and Turiaf, this unit is now once again healthy. As long as Paul's most recent injury concern isn't anything serious (and doesn't force Bledsoe back into a starting role), look for the Clippers to make a push into the playoffs on the backs of their bench unit. Seven of the team's final 12 contests are tough games, but if healthy, I see no reason why the Clips can't regain their swagger and win 10 of them.