The NBA is a crazy league.
On the other hand, there are five teams with 50 or more wins apiece in the Western Conference, with nine teams 13 games or more above .500. Yet, there are only eight playoff spots in each conference, and right now, former Wisconsin Badgers forward Jon Leuer and his Memphis Grizzlies are fighting for a place in the NBA postseason.
Heading into Wednesday evening's game against the reigning NBA champions, the Miami Heat, the Grizzlies are 45-32. They trail the Phoenix Suns by one game for the eighth and final playoff spot in that Western Conference, but Leuer knows the urgency with only five games remaining.
"Right now, we're treating every game like a playoff game because it really is," Leuer said in a phone interview. "We're playing for our playoff lives the last 15 games of the season."
It's the second straight season in which Leuer has experienced this playoff atmosphere. Last season, he joined the Grizzlies after a whirlwind of change bouncing between three cities, as before the season he was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Houston Rockets, then released and claimed off of waivers by the Cleveland Cavaliers. After being traded to the Grizzlies, the team made it to the Western Conference finals, the first in Memphis history, before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.
In the offseason, he signed a three-year deal to stay in Memphis.
"It's a good city, good organization and a good group of guys on the team," he said.
There were some winds of change this season, however. Head coach Lionel Hollins wasn't brought back by the franchise, and assistant coach Dave Joerger took over the team. Leuer believes Joerger's done a great job in his first season as head coach, especially in dealing with injuries to stars like Marc Gasol, who missed 23 games in the first half of the year with a knee injury.
"He's done a good job of keeping us focused, and guys have stepped up when guys have been injured, and we've managed to put ourselves in the position to make the playoffs," Leuer said.
"Going through what we've been through this season, I think that's pretty successful to be in the playoff hunt right now."
Leuer had to be one of those to step up. He scored in double figures in nine of 14 games in December, including a season-high 23 points in a 110-91 victory over the Suns Dec. 3.
He's had the chance to learn from all-stars like Zach Randolph and Gasol in his year-plus in Memphis. He noted the influence Randolph's had on his offensive game (Leuer's currently averaging 6.4 points per game, a career high), but also Gasol's defensive prowess. Through both, he's seen the focused approach they take in their preparation.
"As good as they are and as long as they've been in this league, they're still treating every game and every possession like it really matters," Leuer said.
The Grizzlies had a rough stretch in December, going 5-9, but they proceeded to win 31 of 44 games from January through the end of March. The team has a rough five games ahead to close out the regular season, including facing the Eastern Conference-leading Heat at home in Memphis Wednesday, then closing the season at Phoenix and back home against the current No. 7 seed in the Dallas Mavericks. Regardless, Leuer believes this team can make the plays necessary to achieve another hot playoff run,
"I think everyone in our locker room is confident that we can do that, and once we get in the playoffs, it's a whole new season," Leuer said.
"I don't think we're scared of anybody."