After the Memphis Grizzlies won the most important game of their 2019-2020 campaign, Memphis wing Dillon Brooks called the presence of Jonas Valanciunas “humongous”...and he wasn’t just talking about his 6’11” 265 pound stature.
The likely Rookie of the Year Ja Morant credited conversations with Anthony Tolliver by the pool on the NBA’s Disney campus as valuable learning experiences for a young player with “his vet”.
Valanciunas credited Morant with earning “big man” status after snagging 13 rebounds for the victorious Grizzlies, who saved their season by defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 119-106 behind dual triple-doubles from Ja and Jonas, which happened for the first time in Grizzlies history.
And Memphis Head Coach Taylor Jenkins acknowledged that it seems his team waited until their final seeding game, with their backs against the wall in what essentially amounted to a win or go home scenario for them, to finally play a complete game.
It is fitting then, given how this season has played out for the Grizzlies, that while it was Morant, Brooks, and Valanciunas that led the way for Memphis it was a true team effort that got the bears of Beale Street to dodge the basketball god of death for another day. 31 assists for a team that had offensive issues ever since the NBA restart began is a true measure of that.
Make no mistake, though - this was a win secured first and foremost through the play of the three lead Grizzlies at this stage of the Bubble.
The much maligned Dillon Brooks played arguably the best game of not just the seeding games, but his entire career. He has scored 31 or so points several times before, but it was the way Dillon did it - efficiently - that is a bit more rare. On the NBA’s Orlando campus Dillon had shot inconsistently up to the Bucks game. Overall he was shooting 40.3% - a percentage point below his career average, but only a little bit worse than his season average. Still, the role Brooks was being asked to fill due to the injuries Memphis has sustained in the Bubble did not allow for much patience for a player who is usually streaky, and not usually asked to be a 2nd or 3rd option on a nightly basis.
On Thursday against Milwaukee? Dillon lived up to his offensive potential and got hot at the right time. It wasn’t accidental - Brooks attacked in the paint, looking for floaters and more high percentage opportunities. He had a much more appropriate shot chart, with less mid-range jumpers (although he loves them) and a better array of threes and shots in the paint.
It always helps when there are 12 green circles and only six red X’s on the shot chart. But it’s the type of shot Dillon chooses to take, as one of the few players on the Grizzlies that can create his own offense, that carries the most weight. Memphis needs him to score, but to do so in the right way. When Dillon shoots 45% or better from the floor, the Grizzlies are 22-4. When he shoots worse than that? 12-35.
Dillon wasn’t the only perimeter player that made an impact. Ja Morant did as well...but not in the way he normally does. Morant, as part of his second career triple-double, snagged 13 boards to go along with an above-average assist posting (10 assists) and a below-average scoring night (12 points on 17 shots). In the postgame media availability Thursday, Morant said that he recognized the need for the team’s guards and forwards to step up on the glass for the Grizzlies. Against Milwaukee, he took it upon himself to be part of the solution.
Morant’s willingness to put effort in to areas of the floor that aren’t usually asked of star rookie point guards is a model for the style of play that Coach Jenkins calls the “Grizzlies Standard.” It is about being unselfish, and Ja - through his passing and glass cleaning - walked the coach-talk walk. Morant also defended well in this game - better than he has at other points in the Grizzlies’ stay in Orlando. That will need to stick around as the Grizzlies enter the unique play-in situation against the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard is the best point guard in the NBA right now, and the likely Bubble MVP. Ja will have his hands full...but he won’t have to do it alone with Dillon Brooks and the schemes of Coach Jenkins along for the ride as well.
Jonas Valanciunas, of course, will be part of the Grizzlies equation this weekend against Portland as well. The second Grizzlies player to post a triple-double against the Bucks (26 points, 19 rebounds, and 12 assists is a bit more impressive than Ja’s though), Jonas showed the capacity to do something that often isn’t easy for veteran players - learn and adapt. In games against the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, Valanciunas did not have anywhere near the same impact. In fact, the Raptors help Jonas scoreless for the first time in an NBA game in over two years. Opposing teams are acknowledging that without Jaren Jackson Jr., the big man from Lithuania now more than ever is the security blanket for a Grizzlies offense that can get stuck in the mud at times. Because of that, they’re collapsing on Jonas and forcing the ball out of his hands.
Which is fine, as long as Valanciunas is able to complete passes and teammates are able to make shots. That’s exactly what happened against Milwaukee.
Valanciunas and Brooks in particular played well in the two-man game, feeding off of one another and getting open looks fairly consistently for the two of them.
Jonas’ first three assists were to Dillon, and this first bucket of the game was a good example of the impact Valanciunas has. Brook Lopez collapses off of a previously set pick by Jonas in drop coverage, allowing for Dillon to have room to operate with a floater. If you’re picking your poison, given how both guys have played in the Bubble, you’d probably live with a Dillon shot attempt before a Jonas look at the rim. But when Brooks is aggressive in the paint and playing with the space that picks and screens from Valanciunas creates, he gets in to a better rhythm and has an improved chance at setting his feet and feeling his shot from range later on in games.
Beyond these three players? It’s timely made threes from Anthony Tolliver and Grayson Allen (four such shots in the Bucks win). It’s Kyle Anderson filling in more effectively for the missing Tyus Jones (6 assists to go along with 10 points). It’s Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton, who didn’t play spectacularly against the Bucks but have done things both in and out of the Bubble to make things happen for winning basketball.
It’s the willingness to compete, even in the face of pretty impressive adversity due to the losses of Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones. A 1-6 record that led them to the need to win to stay alive in the postseason hunt didn’t weaken their chemistry. Their character wasn’t molded in these moments - it was revealed.
And it was a beautiful sight.
Ja Morant hugging Gorgui Dieng after he made the shot that gave Ja his triple double is the purest thing I have ever seen pic.twitter.com/x0xh1fsXWi— Made in Memphis (@MadeinMemphis1) August 13, 2020
For even in their individual press availability sessions, Morant, Valanciunas, and Brooks were more than happy to talk up their teammates. The squad was thrilled, according to Coach Jenkins, to give the game ball to Jonas after the performance of his life - one that his team needed to keep their fading postseason hopes alive. And Valanciunas said that he would be keeping that ball to show his kids that “Daddy did it” with regard to his triple-double.
For the Memphis Grizzlies, in one “short” season (not really short when we’re playing NBA basketball in August, but pandemics and such), have established a family atmosphere within their locker room. The idea of working and living well together in this unique set of circumstances was prioritized by Coach Jenkins heading in to the Orlando seeding games. While they didn’t go according to plan, the team’s performance was enough to get them to the highest stakes game for Memphis in three years. Invaluable experience awaits one of the NBA’s youngest, most promising teams.
And come what may, they’ll attack it just as they have the previous 73 games on their schedule, for better or worse.