MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The surging Memphis Grizzlies are about to face their toughest stretch of the season.
The team that had the NBA's best start this season heads into March winners of eight straight. Going into Thursday's games Memphis (38-18) was fourth in the West thanks in part to a friendly schedule.
The Grizzlies have played the fewest road games of any team in the conference — but that's about to change.
They visit Miami on Friday, the first of 17 games in 30 days, including 11 away from Memphis. March also features a Western swing with four games in five nights and five back-to-backs that will go a long way toward deciding not only if Memphis secures its third straight playoff berth but possibly a second consecutive start to the postseason at home.
One thing's certain. Coach Lionel Hollins plans no rest for his Grizzlies in March.
"We haven't gotten into the rocking chair mode yet," Hollins said. "I think our guys are still young enough. That doesn't mean when we start the game I won't sit them."
Hollins said the Grizzlies' mental toughness and depth will be tested with the team home for consecutive games only once in March. The bench will be key particularly in those back-to-backs on each of the final four weekends in the month.
"And the guys who have played a lot have to hold the line," Hollins said. "They just can't let go and expect for someone else do it. They've got to hold on and let the other guys fill in and help them out."
Hollins knows the schedule only for the next two games at Miami and at Orlando on Sunday. But he compares this month to the opening of this season when critics expected Memphis to struggle starting at the Clippers with games against the Heat, Knicks, Lakers and Houston. After losing to the Clippers, Memphis won 12 of its next 13 games for the team's best start ever.
"Every time you look at the schedule, you look at certain parts of it and say it's going to be tough," Hollins said. "Then you go play, and it's not what you thought it was going to be, or it wasn't as easy as you thought it was going to be."
The Grizzlies already have gone 9-3 since trading away top scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto on Jan. 30, a move criticized as a payroll dump weakening the team's chances for playoff success.
Now Memphis hits the road having won three straight on the road since the All-Star break, and the Grizzlies are coming off a 90-84 win over Dallas on Wednesday night where they overcame a 25-point first-half deficit and matched the largest comeback in franchise history in the process.
"This right here, set the tone," forward Zach Randolph said.
The Grizzlies' success has come through defense as usual under Hollins. They have held opponents to 86.6 points per game during the past eight games, and Randolph ranks second in the NBA with 11.7 rebounds per game. Guard Mike Conley is second with 2.26 steals per game, while the Grizzlies rank third in the league averaging 8.89 steals each game.
For a team that relishes playing the underdog role like the Grizzlies, they sound ready to embrace the upcoming month as just another challenge.
"We're enjoying the ride," Conley said. "We just come to play for tough games and when people think we can't win."