The Western Conference is full of flashy superstars, including MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant, Houston's James Harden and Dwight Howard, Lob City at the Staples Center and the Golden State Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The high-scoring, up-tempo conference features nine of the NBA's 11 top records, 11 of the 13 most efficient offenses and the top eight scoring offenses in the NBA.
But nestled away in the Birthplace of Rock and Roll features a Memphis Grizzlies team that is winning on grit-and-grind, defensive prowess and team basketball. That philosophy clashes tonight with the Chicago Bulls on Comcast SportsNet, beginning at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live, hosted by Mark Schanowski and Will Perdue.
There's really no wiggle room in the Western Conference. On Feb. 10 the Memphis Grizzlies were 27-23, good for ninth place. Marc Gasol had returned from injury, Mike Conley was playing well but David Joerger's group was still on the outside looking in, a full three games out of the final playoff spot.
Since then the Grizzlies have gone 7-3, improving to 34-26 behind the efforts of their core players. Yet, still, the Grizzlies enter Friday's action one game out of the playoffs — the Mavericks have gone 5-5 and sit at 36-26 in the No. 8 seed — and will need to continue their improved play to have a shot at playing in the second season; for comparison's sake, Memphis would be third in the Eastern Conference, one-half game in front of the Bulls and Raptors.
Part of the improved outlook of the Grizzlies, the West's fifth seed last year, has been Gasol. The former Defensive Player of the Year missed 23 games between November and January with a sprained knee, and including the game he got injured (he played just 10 minutes) the Grizzlies went 10-14. With a healthy Gasol in the lineup, they're 24-12. And since Gasol returned from the injury in early January, he's averaging 12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but he's been exactly what the Grizzlies need; they're 17-7 since he returned and have a real shot at getting back to the playoffs.
Friday night will feature two of the best passing big men in the game. Joakim Noah has averaged a remarkable 6.4 assists in February, while Gasol has counted with 3.9 helpers per game of his own. Noah's 4.8 assists per game this year are tops among centers, while Gasol's 3.7 assists per game are next. These two will go up against each other this evening, and it should make for a stellar battle against two of the best well-roudned centers in the game.
All the action is happening tonight on Comcast SportsNet. Make sure to stay with us after the game for Bulls Postgame Live, where Will and Mark will provide analysis, highlights and player reaction from Tom Thibodeu and the players from the locker room. Also, stay interactive throughout the evening with everything happening on social media with Bulls Pulse, using #BullsTalk to join the conversation.