It really is impressive how staggeringly bad things have gone for the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA’s Orlando bubble.
There are multiple key contributors missing, with many more underperforming compared to where they were before the season was suspended back in March. There are times where Head Coach Taylor Jenkins looks the part of the youngest coach in the restart, struggling to manage inefficient play (hi Dillon Brooks) with accountability for such poor showings. Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers have Damian Lillard scoring 60+ points and getting timely bounces/fouls in their favor and the Phoenix Suns have had several teams sitting their best players for their games while the Grizzlies have not enjoyed such an advantage yet.
Such is life...you control what you can control. And what Memphis can control - communication, execution, effort/energy - have not been managed well enough to this point. Because of that, the Grizzlies have lost the ability to dictate their fate with regard to the 8 seed. In fact, if Memphis loses Thursday and San Antonio or Phoenix wins? The Grizzlies will completely tumble out of the postseason entirely.
It’s been a miserable trip to Disney World. Yet there are still positives to take from the negative overall experience. One of the biggest ones was on full display in the Grizzlies loss to the full strength (for no “good” reason - and no, possibly having the 14th pick instead of the 17th isn’t a good reason) Boston Celtics 122-107 on Tuesday evening.
Ja Morant: 26 points on 13 shots (1-4 from three), 13 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 3 turnovers, -8 +/- in 42 minutes of play
What a smile. Sadly there wasn’t a ton to be happy about for Morant regarding the team’s performance against Boston. They struggled to compete for a full 48 minutes...but for the 42 that Ja was on the floor? He played his ass off. The Grizzlies would’ve been lost without Morant’s playmaking and aggression attacking the rim (his 15 free throw attempts are the most of his rookie campaign). There are still issues defensively, but he isn’t supposed to be the defensive stopper. He’s the straw that stirs the offensive drink - and he did one of his best jobs yet doing just that against a Celtics team that was at full speed ahead for this one.
Maybe Memphis misses the playoffs. But at least the bubble has confirmed that the Grizzlies have two stars in the organization in Ja and Jaren Jackson Jr. Those are two pretty solid cornerstones to build around.
Jonas Valanciunas: 14 points on 10 shots (4-6 from the free throw line), 10 rebounds, 2 steals, -22 +/- in 25 minutes played
Valanciunas was held scoreless for the first time since January of 2018 in Sunday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors. Coach Jenkins was very aware of that - he said he hoped the Celtics didn’t copy that game plan prior to the game. Thankfully Jonas avoided a similar fate in this one, posting yet another double-double. But Boston did have some success stopping Valanciunas from being dominant in the paint - between Daniel Theis, Robert Williams III, and Enes Kanter (I know, I was surprised too) they did a solid job keeping Jonas uncomfortable with the eventual double team and aggressive defensive play.
Jonas needs to dominate in order for the Grizzlies to have a chance given their current limitations. He didn’t - and the result shouldn’t surprise us. But again, at least he did improve upon a poor outing the previous game.
- Grayson Allen snaps back to reality. 12 point on 14 shots, 2-9 from three? If this were Dillon Brooks we would be furious. Allen has earned some bubble credit for a poor performance, but this isn’t enough for a reserve unit that needs his scoring pop. He rebounded well, however (5 boards) and despite his defensive limitations he continues to play hard. GRADE: C
- Anthony Tolliver barely showed up. No points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 13 minutes played. Jaren Jackson Jr. is irreplaceable, but replicating him as a team effort starts with more from this starting position than this contribution. Perhaps a shake-up is needed for Thursday...Grayson or De’Anthony at the 2 with Anderson at the 4 would make a lot of sense. GRADE: F
- Brandon Clarke is a reserve. Don’t move him out of that spot. 15 points, 6 rebounds, an assist and a block...that production helps keep deficits or leads reasonable, and when the rest of the bench is built the way it is supposed to be - when healthy - perhaps leads can eve be built upon. If Tolliver comes out of the starting lineup, it shouldn’t be Clarke replacing him. His niche is as the sixth man big - for now. GRADE: B
There were other low grades (Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton? D. Dillon Brooks? F.) Yet given the quality of competition, and the way things have gone for Memphis in the bubble, a little positive thinking goes a long way. Ja Morant looked like the future Tuesday. The question remains, who will be part of it with him and Jaren moving forward? The pursuit of that answer remains the most important thing for this season and beyond - play-in or no play-in.