The 2016 NBA season has been marked by a small cluster of teams at the top, a few especially bad teams at the bottom, and a broad, mushy middle that has not decided what it wants to be.
That mushy middle was epitomized by the Memphis Grizzlies’ 94-88 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday night in FedEx Forum.
This game was significant in an immediate context: Utah entered the game with a four-game losing streak and an acute need to stay in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. The Houston Rockets aren’t lighting up the world by any stretch, but they’re grabbing occasional wins to tread water. The Jazz, on the other hand, were sinking, so they needed to halt their skid against a depleted opponent.
The Grizzlies are without Marc Gasol, and their aging core will remain a limitation through the rest of the season. The Jazz needed to parlay their youthfulness into a road victory. The immediate stakes of this game were noticeable.
Yet, for all the value this game contained solely within the Western Conference playoff push, it will best be remembered in much broader terms.
It’s true that the Grizzlies will approach 50 wins this season, and that the Jazz will have to work very hard just to win 40. These teams don’t exist on the same plane, but when seen from a more distant “eye in the sky” vantage point, they are part of the vast and relatively undistinguished middle class, the thick cross-section of NBA teams not imposing enough to be seen as contenders, but not horrible enough to be considered a bottom-rung team.
Friday night’s game affirmed why these teams — despite their win differentials — are both stuck between NBA polarities.
The Jazz and Grizzlies took turns being excellent and lousy on Friday. It was rather remarkable to absorb the bipolar nature of the game as a whole, and of its two halves. You’ll have to look closely to find another game from the entire 2016 regular season in which the beginnings and ends of all four quarters marked such noticeable and profound shifts in the competitive balance between two teams.
The Jazz easily took the first quarter, 28-19, with the Grizzlies scoring just two points in a span of 5:45. As soon as the second quarter began, however, Memphis instantly asserted itself. The Grizzlies rattled the Jazz, holding Utah to just 11 points in the quarter, only two in a stretch of five minutes. Memphis scored 30 in the period and took a 49-39 lead to the locker room for the intermission.
In the third quarter, anything and everything you thought you knew about the evolution of this contest was discarded. The Jazz re-created the first quarter by thumping the Grizzlies, 33-18, in this next 12-minute segment. Once again, the team which got blitzed in a quarter scored just two points in nearly five minutes: Memphis went four minutes and 50 seconds without scoring more than two points.
Were these teams going to continue to pass the baton to each other in terms of suffering major scoring droughts, or was Utah going to be able to sustain in the fourth quarter what it had established in the third?
Sure enough, it was too much to ask the Jazz to maintain a high standard. The first half’s about-face from the first quarter to the second quarter was replicated in the second half’s 180-degree turn from the third stanza to the fourth. Utah went scoreless in a four-minute segment and (later) a separate two-minute segment. The Jazz, on the heels of their 33-point third quarter, posted only 16 in the fourth. Memphis, drubbed right after halftime, found a finishing kick in a 27-point fourth quarter, good enough for a six-point victory.
The Jazz, by quarters, went 28-11-33-16. The Grizzlies unfurled a 19-30-18-27 scoreline. The Grizzlies, being nearly 10 games better than the Jazz in the standings, naturally won the game. Utah, chronically bad on the road this season, is still stuck with a single-digit win total away from Salt Lake City (9). Yet, while Utah’s road struggles and Memphis’s resourcefulness both rate as legitimate news items from this contest, the biggest takeaway is that the Jazz and Grizzlies can’t be their best selves for an extended period of time.
This is why the Grizzlies — which have not beaten a team with a winning record since January 14 (31-30 Detroit) — are hard to view as a legitimate Western Conference contender. This is also why the Jazz’s playoff chase is taking on water with under six full weeks left in the regular season.
Most of all, this is a reflection of an NBA in which the vast majority of teams, plunked firmly between extremes of excellence or ineptitude, can’t get off their dime and reveal their best selves on a continuous basis.