Then, the wheels came off. And OKC got the win 126-122.
As young teams often do, Memphis lost its way despite a hot shooting start. The Grizzlies scored roughly three points a minute for the first two and a half quarters of this contest. They were not able to withstand a 2nd half run by the host Thunder in OKC, however, and this streaking young Memphis team has more questions than answers about how this one slipped away.
Quick takeaways from this (mild) disaster.
The bench was...bad.
As a unit, the group of De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones, Solomon Hill, and Brandon Clarke struggled mightily in the 2nd half especially against the Thunder. Shooting there weren’t too many issues - 20-39 from the floor for your reserves is pretty good for any team, regardless of record, and it was driven by Brandon Clarke’s 27 points on 19 attempts. It was defensively where the problems arose. Dennis Schroder dominated the Grizzlies reserves, leading all teams in scoring off the bench at 31 points. Abel Nader (+9) was also very effective, taking advantage of Memphis mistakes and playing well against the “bigs” of the Grizzlies.
Melton, Jones, and Hill were especially bad. All three got beat consistently in individual matchups with the likes of Schroder and Nader. When that happens to the level it did in this game, leads are going to be hard to maintain.
Ja Morant is better than Chris Paul...until crunch time
One of the reasons OKC is a “surprise” contender in a weak 2nd half of the Western Conference playoff picture is Chris Paul. He of course is nowhere what he once was as a player, but he is as wily a veteran as ever and is a steadying presence for this Thunder team. He played Ja Morant for the rookie he is a time or two in this contest and ultimately was a key factor in OKC holding on to compete and win in this one.
Overall? Morant dominated the individual matchup with the future Hall of Famer. 22 points on 16 shots, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, +16 in +/-. Meanwhile Paul was a -20 with 18 points on 10 shots, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds. Until the final minutes of the final frame it looked and felt like a passing of the torch. Then CP3 took the rookie to school - an untimely foul here, two late turnovers after a pristine game there from Ja, and OKC stole a W from Memphis with Paul leading the way.
Despite the recent run of success for Memphis, the Grizzlies are still a young basketball team. They’re going to lose more than they win, they’re going to lose big leads, and they’re going to make mistakes against veterans down the stretch.
While Memphis is not tanking, winning is not the priority this year. Learning is.
From this collapse, they can take lessons and see what it means to play a complete 48 minute game. Head coach Taylor Jenkins can learn lessons rotation wise, not riding a poor performing bench for so long (and making sure Jaren Jackson Jr. is in the game at the end, fouls or no fouls, unless he was injured). Speaking of JJJ, Jaren Jackson Jr., limited to 16 minutes of play due in large part to the return of foul trouble, can refocus on that issue in his game. Ja can see what a future Hall of Famer, even in the twilight of his career, does come winning time and carry it with him moving forward.
Picking yourself up after a fall. There’s value in that, in a season like this.